Like most of us, Austinite Gretchen Moran has a pretty great story about messing up a turkey.
A few years ago, she and her husband decided they wanted to fry a turkey. “We thought it would be a good idea to do a trial run, so we followed the instructions from my husband’s sister,” Moran says. By instinct and not instruction, they placed the turkey in the pot and then covered the boiling oil with a lid.
“We didn’t think that one through,” she says.
Forty-five minutes later, they pulled off the cover and found a completely blackened bird. “It was crisp through and through,” she says. “It took us a second to figure out what happened,” but after they realized how lucky they were that the incident hadn’t resulted in anything worse than a charred turkey, “we were laughing about it for days and days.”
Moran and her husband finally figured out the do’s and don’ts of frying a turkey (see box about safety tips for using this method), and they have successfully fried turkeys almost every year since.
Earlier this year, Moran submitted her story and photo to a GE Appliances #CookingFail Redemption contest and won a trip to Louisville, Ky., to cook with celebrity chef Jeffrey Saad, who showed her how to prepare a turkey in the oven that comes out as if it were fried.
Saad’s technique for getting a crispy skin and moist meat calls for brining the turkey in a mixture of salt, sugar, chili flakes and bay leaves and rubbing the skin with lots of seasoned butter.
Some brine recipes call for a smaller amount of salt in the water and a longer time in the brine, while others use a super salty solution over a shorter period of time.
This year, I used a dry brine technique that was a hybrid of recipes in Bon Appetit and the Los Angeles Times. The ingredients themselves are similar — salt, sugar, herbs, spices, citrus zest — but instead of soaking the turkey in the solution, I rubbed the exterior with the mixture and left it on (and put the bird back in the fridge) for about seven hours.
Next, I rinsed off the salt rub and patted the skin dry. After a short stint back in the fridge for the skin to dry out a little, I rubbed a seasoned butter mixture similar to Saad’s between the skin and the turkey meat.
Longtime Texas food writer Dotty Griffith, who recently revised her popular book “The Texas Holiday Cookbook” (Taylor Trade Publishing, $29.95) likes to stuff her turkeys with lots of fresh herbs, fruit and even jalapeños in the cavity and baste with vegetable oil and butter, but she’ll leaving the brining to someone else.
“I know that some people swear by it,” Griffith says, “but I’ve had plenty of wonderful turkeys that are not brined. It’s a time-consuming process” that can be tricky to do without compromising the safety of the food you’re serving.
“You’ve got to keep (the turkey in the brine) some place cool enough,” and if that’s not your fridge, then you’re working with coolers that might not be sanitized properly.
Griffith, who was the food editor at the Dallas Morning News for 16 years and a restaurant critic for another 10 years after that, says that thawing the turkey safely also can be tricky, but it’s easier if you keep the turkey wrapped in the original plastic it is sold in and place it on a roasting pan or tray.
A 12-to-14-pound turkey will take a few days to thaw in the fridge, but a 20-plus-pound bird can take four days or more in the refrigerator.
(If you find yourself with a frozen turkey on Thanksgiving eve, rather than leave it on the counter overnight to thaw, it’s safer to go ahead and bake a turkey from its frozen state at 325 degrees for four to six hours, or more if it’s a bigger bird. No promises on the texture of the meat, though.)
Griffith’s main message for holiday cooking is “Keep it simple.” “Get as much done ahead of time as you can,” she says, including mashed potatoes with cream cheese, which reheat well, and homemade gravy and cranberry sauce.
“Gravy trauma is a big stress on Thanksgiving for everyone,” she says. To avoid the pre-dinner, post-drippings scramble, buy a bunch of turkey necks when you buy the turkey, and use them to make gravy earlier in the week.
In Griffith’s family, gravy isn’t gravy without hard-boiled eggs, one of the many quirks that makes her dinner — and yours and your neighbor’s and every other person in America’s — special.
“That’s the thing about Thanksgiving; it’s about what you’re used to and what means something to you.”