By Charlie Burke
It was with some trepidation that I approached the topic of roasting a turkey.I wondered if our readers needed yet another recipe for turkey in November when the cover of nearly every cooking magazine is adorned with a picture-perfect browned bird, while the editors struggle to convince us that, (at last!), the definitive recipe for the perfect Thanksgiving turkey is contained within.
I have Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines filed by month and dating back for more than twenty years, so last weekend I pulled out all the November issues dating back to the late 1970's. It was amusing to see all the differing approaches: wide variations of temperatures touted as ideal, turkeys roasted in various positions and subjected to all sorts of injections, rubs and subcutaneous additions. A current magazine even advises making an incision in each breast and filling them with herbed butter!
It soon became clear to me why there is so much mystique associated with what should be a simple process, and why so many cooks are intimidated by the prospect of cooking Thanksgiving dinner. The goal of this column then became clear - to provide a straightforward, safe and reliable recipe resulting in a correctly cooked turkey, moist and full of flavor
If you have read previous columns, you probably have noticed that I favor roasting at high heat, which I've done almost exclusively over the past ten years since becoming familiar with Barbara Kafka's classic cookbook: "Roasting, A Simple Art" (William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1995). She makes the case, confirmed by our experience, that a properly cooked turkey is moist and tender without injections or other machinations.
High heat roasting (500 degrees) intensifies flavors and considerably shortens cooking time so there is less time for the white meat to dry out while the dark meat reaches proper temperature. We have found that fresh local turkey cooks in a surprisingly short time and has superior taste, although commercial turkeys are quite consistent in quality. It is important that the oven be clean, because excess smoke will be caused by any residue in the oven.
Turkeys in the 12 - 16 pound range are ideal for this technique, while brining, the only extra step worth considering, helps ensure a moist result; kosher birds should not be brined because salt has already been added. Because the skin is impervious, spreading with oil or butter or basting are not necessary to keep the meat moist. Additionally, the turkey should be covered with a moist cloth and brought to room temperature before cooking at high temperature (3 - 5 hours for a 15 - 16 pound turkey).
Cooking the turkey without dressing gives the best results because of shorter cooking time and is safer. All poultry have salmonella risk, and dressing served below 180 degrees is the most common source of food poisoning from turkey. If you wish to cook the dressing in the turkey, bring it to room temperature before placing it into the turkey and make sure it reaches the proper temperature. It is best to cook it in a casserole adding some of the liquid from the roasting pan for flavor.
A thick-bottomed roasting pan with handles and an instant reading thermometer are good investments which can be used for roasting meats and vegetables throughout the year.
To serve 10 or more:
If brining, dissolve salt in water in a large stock pot. Add turkey and refrigerate overnight. Remove from brine, rinse and pat dry with paper towels. Proceed as below.
Place a small volume of oil in a heavy pot over medium heat. Add neck, gizzard and heart and cook, turning until browned. Add the remaining stock ingredients and bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 2 hours, skimming foam from time to time. Strain and set aside. This can be done well ahead of the rest of the meal.
Rinse inside and out, dry with paper towels and bring turkey to room temperature, keeping skin covered with a moist towel to prevent drying. Preheat oven to 500 degrees (450 degrees works nearly as well; cooking times will be slightly longer). Sprinkle turkey with ground pepper and salt and place into a roasting pan; we place it directly into the pan, but a rack can be used. Cook, rotating pan 180 degrees after 1 hour; add 1 -2 cups water or chicken stock to pan if drippings appear to be turning too dark.
Check temperature in the thickest part of the thigh at 1 3/4 hours. Remove from oven when temperature is 170 degrees, about 2 hour's total cooking time for unstuffed turkey. Add approximately 30 minutes if you have stuffed the turkey. Let turkey sit for 30 minutes, during which the temperature in the thigh should reach 180 degrees.
While turkey is resting, pour fat from roasting pan and place pan over medium - high heat. Pour stock into pan; boil, scraping up the browned fond from the pan. Boil until reduced nearly by half, check and add salt and pepper to taste. Keep hot and serve with turkey.
This high heat method reliably yields moist flavorful turkey and is remarkable for its simplicity. Brining is not essential, and plain chicken broth can be used for making the pan gravy instead of the giblet stock. Cooking times are short: 3 hours for a 20 pound unstuffed turkey, and an amazing 1 hour and 20 minutes for one of 12 pounds, according to Kafka.
Become familiar with high temperature roasting, and you will enjoy predictable results, simplify holiday cooking and have more time to enjoy this special time of the year with your family.
About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice president of the New Hampshire Farmer's Market Association (www.nhfma.org). His column & recipes appear weekly in The Heart of New England's newsletter... get a free subscription by sending a blank email to: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.TheHeartofNewEngland.com
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