How To Roast A Perfectly Moist Turkey
A whole turkey, perfectly cooked, juicy in thigh and breast and richly caramelized all over is a thing of beauty, but it is, indeed a rare bird. Turkeys are large, they have a big hole inside them. They are thick in some places and thinner in others. They have appendages that dangle about and can burn.
The Rockwell picture of the happy family gazing at the perfect bird is just that - Rockwell picture, an idealized view of Americana. If you can let go of that picture, there are a couple of ways that you can cook your turkey that almost ensure the perfect bird. It just won't be a perfect whole bird. Open yourself up to the possibilities and let go of the iconic roast turkey. You and your guests will be glad that you did.
These techniques work especially well if you normally carve the turkey in the kitchen and plate it before bringing it to the dining table. Everyone knows what a classic Thanksgiving bird looks like but I'm sure they will be much happier to have carved moist turkey meat in exchange for a gorgeous looking dried out bird.
Option 1 - Spatchcocking
To spatchcock a turkey (or a chicken, for that matter), lay the turkey breast side down on a stable surface, and using heavy duty kitchen shears, cut along either side of the backbone, through the rib cage. This will take a little muscle. Once you have the backbone out, save it for soup or stock. Now, turn the turkey back over and press down hard on the breast bone. This will crack the bone, and you'll be able to press the turkey flat.
What good does this do? Now, your meat is a much more even thickness. The legs and thighs will now be nicely exposed to the heat, and the breast meat will be a little protected. Now all you have to do is lay him out in a roasting pan - I usually set him on a "raft" I create by laying carrots and celery stalks in the roasting pan. This keeps the bird off the bottom of the pan and helps build wonderful flavor for your gravy.
Roast your bird at about 375º F, until the breast meat registers about 155ºF and the thigh reads about 175-180º F. Don't worry; the temperature will continue to rise once the bird is out of the oven. The roasting time will be much less for a spatchcocked bird than for a whole bird. This is good, because your oven will be freed up for other items that need to be baked.
Start checking with an instant read thermometer at one hour for a 14 pound bird. Once the bird is done, take it out of the oven, remove it to a platter and cover with foil to rest for 20 minutes to half an hour while you make the gravy in the roasting pan.
Option 2 - Removing the Thighs and Drumsticks Before Roasting
Usually, the first cuts you make once the turkey comes out of the oven are the cuts to remove the thighs and drumsticks. Make these cuts before roasting, and roast the dark meat and white meat separately. Yes, in two different pans. (Again, the temperature will continue to rise while the turkey is resting).
You can build a vegetable raft, as above, or you can put a 1-2 inch layer of stuffing underneath the meat (if you don't want the drippings for gravy-making purposes). With the two pan method, you can remove the white meat from the oven at 155ºF and the dark meat at 175ºF. Once the meat is done, cover and let it rest while you continue to cook the stuffing to a safe internal temperature and a crisp, brown crust.
Option 3 - Classic roasting of Bird With Protective Layer
If you absolutely can't bring yourself to present anything other than a whole bird at your Thanksgiving table, help to protect the lean white meat by adding a layer of compound butter under the skin. While the turkey roasts, the butter will melt and keep the meat moist (not to mention add flavor to the pan for gravy) while the herbs will stay put, giving you a wonderful green layer of flavor between the caramelized skin and the white meat. It looks beautiful, and it is tasty, too. This is the compound butter you might try, but of course, you can use any combination of flavors that you would like.
- 1 and 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, slightly softened
- 1 small shallot, rough chopped
- 1 handful flat leaf parsley
- Leaves from 3 sprigs of fresh savory
- Leaves from 3 sprigs of fresh marjoram
- Kosher salt and white pepper, to taste
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 1/2 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning, or to taste
Spin everything in a food processor until all the ingredients are blended and the herbs are finely chopped. The butter should be a nice mostly-uniform bright green.
No matter how you choose to cook your bird, the number one reason people end up with dry turkey is that they wait until the white meat reaches 165ºF before taking it out of the oven. So, whether you spatchcock, cook the white and dark separately or roast whole, don't forget that the temperature of the meat can rise another 10 to 15 degrees once it comes out of the oven. Don't forget to compensate for carry over cooking, and you will be rewarded with a juicy turkey this Thanksgiving.