Thanksgiving Dinner: Roast Turkey

 

Today we’re going to focus on what most people consider to be the centerpiece of Thanksgiving: the turkey.  Now, there’s something you need to know about me: I don’t cook turkey well.  I’ve burnt it, I’ve had it take so long that we had to eat the rest of the dinner first, then the turkey for a first dessert before pie – basically, I’ve had more mishaps with turkey than I have had it go right.  So, why should you listen to me?  Well, because I have a secret for making the best turkey ever.

Don’t make a turkey.

Don’t make a turkey you say?  She’s crazy.  But honestly, who says there HAS to be turkey at Thanksgiving?  If you’re like me, you’re young and on your own, maybe you can’t fly/drive/get home or go to extended family for Thanksgiving, and you’re sitting down with your friends for the first time in your life to eat this delicious meal.  Ask your friends what their favorite food is at Thanksgiving.  The majority will say something besides turkey.  And if they say turkey, here is what you say to them:

Great!  You can bring the turkey.

Boom.  Done.  Off the hook.

Now you can devote your energy to making chicken, or like we did last year, lamb. (See Mark Bittman’s recipe for roasting a leg of lamb here)

Two legs of lamb waiting to be baked

 

What’s that I hear from the back of the room? Someone saying they’re the ones who like turkey?  Okay.  Well, you can then you can meet me at the end of this post and I’ll tell you what I’ve learned over the years about turkey roasting.  But honestly, have you tried roasting a large chicken instead?  Or even a leg of lamb? You will not be disappointed, in fact, when you realize how easy it is to make roast chicken or lamb, you will thank me for it.  Because you’ll have more time to drink those cocktails, chat with your friends, and actually eat dinner, instead of slaving away in the kitchen stressing whether or not that darn bird is cooked through or not.

So join me and mix it up – let’s make our own traditions.  Make chicken for Thanksgiving!

Roast Chicken

1 whole Roasting Chicken (about 3-5 lbs is average and will feed 4 people who love meat, and up to 8 people who like a bit of meat but tend to eat more of the sides – you may have to make two or more chickens if you have a larger group but you can bake them all together)
1 Tbsp dried thyme
1 Tbsp dried oregano
1 Tbsp salt
2 tsp ground pepper
2 Tbsp butter or olive oil
2 medium onions, cut into 8 pieces each
1 carrot, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 large potatoes (russet, yukon gold, or a bunch of little potatoes)
2 large tomatoes, or 3 plum tomatoes, or a box of grape/cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup chicken broth

Note: It’s important to prep all your vegetables and ingredients before you start this process in order to prevent cross-contamination of raw chicken on your butter dish, spice jars, cupboard handles, refrigerator door, etc.  This is called “mise-en-place” in the industry and it will make all your food prep more efficient in general, but specifically here it will make it safer.

1. Preheat your oven to 400F.  Prepare your roaster: place the rack in the roasting pan and set aside. If you don’t have a roaster, put a cooling rack on top of a deep dish cookie sheet.  You can also use a Römertopf (like the picture at the top of this post) or a dutch oven, though if you do only the top of your chicken will be browned and crisp.  Cover your sink faucet handle(s) with saran wrap (use rubber bands if you need to to make sure it stays on).

2. Wash your chicken and take out the giblets (usually the neck, heart, liver).  They’re usually in a paper or plastic bag in the cavity of the chicken.  Make sure you get ALL of them out (sometimes they’re in two bags).  Set them aside in a bowl.  Dry the chicken with paper towels and put on a meat-safe cutting board (I have a special plastic cutting board that I reserve only for raw meat).   Clean your hands and sink.  Don’t take the saran wrap off yet.

3. In a small cereal bowl, mi together the thyme, oregano, salt, and pepper.  If you want other herbs/spices feel free to add them in (if you have a special rub from your favorite barbecue joint, or have to have your chicken with rosemary, etc.).

4. Adjust the chicken so the chicken breasts are up.  Carefully with your hands, slide them between the chicken skin and the meat without ripping the skin.  Take a pinch of the herb mixture and slide it inbetween the skin and meat.  Repeat until the breasts are covered with the herb mixture.

5. Stuff the cavity of the chicken with the chopped onions and carrots.

5. Rub the outside of the chicken (breasts, legs, wings, and back) with butter or oil.  Set the chicken on your roaster/cookie rack.  Put the potatoes, tomatoes, chicken broth, white wine, and reserved giblets around the chicken (if there is too much liquid for the pan to hold, just put less liquid in – you’ll get enough liquid from the chicken).  Wash your hands and remove the plastic wrap on your faucet (be careful to do so by grabbing it from the underside of the plastic wrap).

6. Bake the chicken at 400F for fifteen minutes.  Baste the chicken by spooning (or if you have a baster, squirting) several tablespoons of the liquid from the bottom of the roasting pan onto the top of the chicken.  This will keep the chicken breast moist. Then turn down the oven to 350F and bake for another half hour.  Baste again after fifteen minutes and return to the oven.  A small chicken should be done after forty-five minutes – a meat thermometer in the inner thigh (don’t touch the bone!) will register 180F.  If you don’t have a thermometer, the chicken is done when you can freely wiggle one of the legs and it feels like you could just rip it off without resistance. Larger chickens will of course take more time.

7. Pull out the chicken and cover it with foil (this is called “tenting”).  Let it rest while you prepare the final dishes of the meal.  If you serve it within half an hour of tenting, it should still be hot.  If you’re early with the chicken, just put it in a 200F oven to keep it warm until you’re ready. Note: when carving the turkey, take out and discard the vegetables in the cavity.  Unless your thermometer stuck in the middle of them, without touching any of the meat or bones, says 120F or higher, they’re not safe to eat.

Serve hot with hot gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and all the other Thanksgiving trimmings – stay tuned for these recipes in the next week.

How to Carve a Turkey – this works for Chicken Too!

This is a great step-by-step video from cooking.com that shows you exactly how to carve your bird.  Since turkeys and chickens have practically the same anatomy, this will work for both types of birds.

 

Tips if I haven’t been able to convince you and you still want to make a turkey

  • Plan ahead.  Calculate out as best you can how much turkey you need to feed your guests and how much time your turkey will take.  This will depend on how heavy it is.  Melissa Clark from the New York Times has a very thorough primer on turkey over on Epicurious, scroll down to get a table of how big of a turkey to buy.  Rather have more turkey, and have it be done early, then have to delay dinner because the turkey’s still cooking, and then not have enough of it to go around.
  • Read up as much as you can – if you have Joy of Cooking, read its section on turkey roasting all the way through.  Knowledge is power, and you’ll need both to tackle the project.  If you don’t have Joy of Cooking, read Melissa Clark’s whole primer on Epicurious (see above) or create a free 2-week trial subscription to the Cook’s Illustrated website and follow their Thanksgiving Survival Guide instructions.
  • Don’t stuff your turkey (or chicken for that matter) with red onions – it will look like raw blood and it will confuse you when your thermometer insists the turkey is done.  Don’t stuff it with stuffing either – it’s just not safe.  Cook the stuffing separately.
  • Take out ALL the giblets.  Trust me on this one.  You have to take them all out.  If they’re in a plastic bag and the bag melts inside the turkey, you pretty much have to start all over, or just eat the plastic chemicals that have seeped into your bird.  Neither option is fun.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, don’t be afraid of the turkey.  It’s just a turkey.  It won’t bite. If you take your sense of adventure and humor with you into the kitchen, you’ll be fine.

If you’ve made it to the end of the post, you deserve a huge CONGRATULATIONS!  Now, go forth, bake birds, and be merry.

 

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