It's turkey time.
Forget the Super Bowl. Sorry, Fourth of July. Nice try, Easter. The biggest eating day of the year is coming, and though we're still a few days away from Thanksgiving, it's time to start thinking about how you're going to prepare the centerpiece of the meal.
I stopped hating to cook turkeys when I started making them for Friendsgiving, when there was a little less pressure than on the Big Day to get it right. I've dry-brined and wet-brined turkeys; I've roasted them with nothing more than butter under the skin and salt and pepper on the outside. Although I haven't yet smoked my own turkey, I've fried one, and after cringing as I threw out all that oil, I've decided that a regular ol' oven is just fine by me.
I still think the hardest part of the whole turkey-cooking process is thawing a frozen bird. Turkeys weigh upward of 15 pounds, and they are almost always sold frozen solid. That means it takes two to four days to thaw in a refrigerator. You can also thaw a turkey using cold water in the sink, but that requires far too much hands-on work and wasted water for my liking.
If you’re using the fridge method, you should put the turkey in there this weekend or no later than Monday. My refrigerator is small, so I thaw turkeys in a cooler packed with water and ice bags three days before I plan to roast the bird.
It’s worth noting that the USDA says you can use a microwave to thaw a turkey, but if you're really in a pinch later this week, you can cook a frozen turkey without thawing. The baking time will be at least 50 percent more than if you’d thawed it, so think 4 to 6 hours instead of 2 or 3, based on weight. At some point during the baking process, you'll have to remove the plastic bag of giblets and the plastic hook that are usually inside the bird.
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I've never been a fan of cooking stuffing inside the turkey for two reasons. First, from a food safety perspective, it's incredibly difficult to bring the stuffing to the right temperature to ward off harmful bacteria. Second, from a cooking perspective, it makes cooking a turkey twice as hard. When you don't have to worry about the stuffing, you can focus on getting the meat cooked just right with a crispy skin.
If you plan to brine your turkey, you’ll want to factor in an extra day so that the turkey can sit in the salt water overnight or at least four hours before you roast it. You don’t want the turkey in the brine for more than 12 hours, so plan accordingly.
For a dry-brine, however, you can rub the turkey in a salt-sugar mixture about 24 to 36 hours before it's time to cook. It's slightly less messy than a wet-brine, and every chef I've ever talked to agrees that no matter how you brine, it's worth the effort for a moist and flavorful turkey.
The only other hard rule about a dry-brine is to use kosher salt. Table salt is too fine and will permeate the meat too heavily, too quickly.
Finally, don't forget to save the carcass to make stock. I still hear some cooks claim that you can't make a turkey stock (or gravy) from a brined turkey, but that's just gobbledygook to me.
I’ve never understood exactly why brining works so well on roast turkey, but it really does make it more moist and flavorful. What I do understand, and what stays with me, is the reaction I get from guests when I serve this bird. Hands-down, it’s the best turkey they’ve ever eaten. It’s turkey magic. This roast also looks spectacular and is always the centerpiece of my Thanksgiving table. I serve it with easy sides like scalloped potatoes or balsamic-roasted vegetables. The bones also make terrific soup. Resting meat of any size, but especially large roasts, is arguably the most important step. During its rest, the meat’s juices will redistribute themselves and make the meat juicy and flavorful. It will also be easier to carve. The roast will cool down a little, but not enough to notice.
— Claire Tansey
3 cups packed brown sugar
1 1/2 cups kosher salt
1 (13- to 15-pound) fresh turkey
1 bunch fresh thyme, parsley or sage, or a combination
3 tablespoons canola oil
Combine brown sugar with kosher salt in a medium bowl. Place the turkey in a large plastic bag (I use a grocery bag, checking first that it has no holes) and place the bag in a roasting pan.
Pack the sugar mixture all over the breast, legs and wings of the turkey, pressing firmly so as much of the mix sticks as possible. Carefully close up the bag, just for neatness, then pop it into the fridge for 24 to 36 hours.
About 4 hours before you want to sit down for supper, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Take the turkey out of the bag and rinse it under cold running water, gently rubbing it until every last speck of the brining mixture comes off. Don’t forget to rinse out the inside, too.
Place the turkey on a rack in a roasting pan and dry it with paper towels. Place the herbs in the cavity and tie the legs together with twine. Bend and tuck the wingtips under the back. Brush the turkey all over with the canola oil.
Roast 3 to 3 1/2 hours or until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 175 degrees. Transfer the turkey to a carving board and tent loosely with foil. Let rest at least 30 minutes and as much as an hour before carving.
— From "Uncomplicated: Taking the Stress Out of Home Cooking" by Claire Tansey (Penguin Canada, $24.95)