Rick Rodgers is something of a traditionalist when it comes to cooking turkeys. Not that he hasn’t tried every method under the sun.
“I’ve cooked turkeys any way that’s possible, except for standing on my head,” said the New Jersey-based cookbook author.
No two chefs have exactly the same favorite methods for roasting turkeys. So, we asked Rodgers and two local chefs for their secrets and tips to oven roast Tom Turkey into a bird of paradise.
Rodgers, the author of “Thanksgiving 101,” once worked for Perdue Farms and traveled all over the country teaching turkey roasting. And after all of the de-boning, deep-frying, smoking and roasting his advice is simple: Cover your breasts.
Rodgers covers the breast meat when he puts his turkey in the oven. It’s the reverse of what most cooks do.
“The mistake they make is to cover the turkey when it’s getting brown – at which point the breast is sawdust.”
His method keeps the white meat moist and breaks down the gristle in the dark meat. White meat is fully cooked at 165 degrees while dark meat needs 175-180, he said.
“It’s not safety, it’s taste,” Rodgers said of the extra heat. He tests the temperature in the thigh.
Rodgers removes the foil covering the breast for the last hour of roasting so the skin browns. He bastes the turkey every hour with pan juices, adding more when necessary.
Ultimately, Rodgers’ number one turkey goal is juiciness. But he uses a little sleight of hand to make it happen. “I bring out the turkey, show everyone how beautiful it is. But I don’t carve it at the table,” he said.
Rodgers takes the turkey back into the kitchen, carves it and places the meat on platters. He then ladles hot turkey stock over the whole thing. “Everyone goes, ‘Oh my God. That’s the juiciest turkey I’ve ever seen’.”
As traditional as Rodgers is, William Mueller is just as nouveau. The chef/owner of Tacoma’s Babblin’ Babs Bistro is more likely to stuff cheese or sausage under the skin of his turkeys than he is to roast one whole.
“I don’t do traditional. Last year, I did a planked turkey on the barbecue,” Mueller said.
Mueller is a big fan of parting out turkeys before cooking.
“People don’t like to break down the turkey. But how many people take the turkey to the table and present it anymore?” Mueller said.
On the rare occasion when Mueller does roast a whole turkey, he rubs a butter and herb mixture under the skin for flavor and he adds olive oil on top of the skin.
Mueller blasts the turkey for the first 20-30 minutes in the oven at 500 degrees. “That will sear it to seal the juices in,” he said. Without opening the door, he then turns the heat down to 250 degrees for the remainder of the cooking time. “If your skin gets too dark or crusty, tent it to keep the moisture in,” he said.
Turkey roasting is something that Sharen Herring does on a weekly basis at her restaurant, The Sidewalk Cafe in Olympia. She uses different methods for small and large turkeys and de-boned breasts.
For a smaller turkey (12-18 pounds) she rubs a brown paper bag with butter and places the turkey in it while roasting.
“It’s self-basting and it comes out the most beautiful color,” Herring said. She places lemon slices and herbs (usually rosemary and sage) under the skin before putting it in the oven.
For larger birds (25 pounds) Herring covers the turkey in foil and takes it off at the end for browning.
At her restaurant, Herring marinates turkey breasts overnight with olive oil and lemon. She then places a two-inch layer of carrot, onion and celery mirapoix in a pan and tops that with a rack, parchment paper and the turkey. She roasts the breasts at 350 degrees until golden brown. She then adds water, covers the meat with foil and turns down the temperature until fully cooked.
Rodgers, Herring and Mueller offer their sometimes differing takes on turkey cooking philosophy. We’ve also added a few tips for buying, cooking and serving turkey.
“The key word is ‘fresh.’ Never frozen,” Rodgers said. He buys organic birds from natural food stores. “The frozen birds are injected with something you don’t want,” he said.
Herring and Mueller use only frozen birds, which are far more economical. Mueller will buy two smaller turkeys and break them down rather than one large turkey.
In early November at Safeway on Tacoma’s Proctor Street, frozen turkeys were selling from 99 cents to $1.49 a pound. Across the street at Metropolitan Market fresh turkeys were selling for $2.89 a pound.
READING TURKEY LABELS
Fresh: Turkeys marked “fresh” have never been stored below 26 degrees. They need no thawing and are ready to cook. Pick them up only one or two days before cooking to ensure food safety.
Frozen: Frozen turkeys are stored at 0 degrees or below. You can buy them weeks in advance, but they need several days of thawing in the refrigerator before cooking. The general guideline is one day of thawing for every 4 pounds.
Natural: These turkeys have not been injected with artificial moistening or flavoring agents. As a result, they may be drier and blander than other turkeys. These turkeys are perfect for brining.
Basted/self-basting: These turkeys have been injected with moistening or flavoring agents. The label will usually list the ingredients that were injected into the turkey. If you plan to brine, don’t buy one of these.
Free-range: When alive, these turkeys were allowed to roam outside their coop.
Organic: This label ensures that the turkeys are free of antibiotics and, when alive, were fed grain that did not contain chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
Kosher: These turkeys have been brined in water and salt, and processed in accordance with kosher law.
IN TURKEY WE TRUSS
Rodgers said trussing is key. “If you don’t, the drumsticks will do whatever they want. But, the more important reason is that you need the bird to have compact shape so it roasts evenly.”
Mueller uses rosemary branches to truss his turkeys.
Herring said she always trusses – except when she isn’t going for the traditional Thanksgiving look. “I’ll cut the thighs off and cook them separately because they cook longer.”
Herring cooks breast meat in the 160-165 degree range and 175 degrees for legs. The USDA recommends a minimum of 165 degrees.
Most birds come with a hock lock – a metal or oven-safe plastic device that holds the end of the drumsticks together. Don’t remove it. And you may need to insert the ends of the drumsticks into it.
Herring roasts her turkeys without stuffing because she said the bird cooks more evenly.
Rodgers, meanwhile, always roasts with stuffing in the bird. “There’s no comparison. It has that soft, pudding-y turkey flavor if it’s roasted in the bird.”
Mueller will stuff his turkeys for flavor. He uses clove-studded onions, oranges and lemon. “You don’t eat it but it perfumes the meat.”
Whether you stuff or not, be sure the stuffing reaches a safe temperature – 165 degrees.
HIGH HEAT METHOD
This turkey roasting method was championed by cookbook author Barbara Kafka and is also known as the Safeway Method. By roasting a turkey in a very hot oven (500 degrees instead of the standard 325) cooking time can be reduced to two hours.
Rogers is not a fan. It’s not practical, he said. “Your oven has to be spotlessly clean when it goes in and it’s going to be filthy when you take it out. You better have a plan B when your smoke alarm goes off.
Besides the initial heat blast, Mueller gives his turkeys, he doesn’t use the method.
If you try it, make sure your roasting pan is rated for 500 degrees. Many are not.
Rodgers doesn’t use them because he can’t trust that paper grocery bags are chemical-free. And he’s not a fan of plastic. “They turn your turkey into turkey stew. There’s nothing roasted about that turkey.”
Herring uses paper bags for smaller turkeys.
CARVING THE BIRD
Let the roasted bird rest, covered with foil on a cutting board for 15 minutes after removing it from the oven. Use a carving fork to steady the turkey, but take care to avoid stabbing the bird, causing juices to run out.
Make a shallow incision along the entire length of the breast bone. With the tip of the knife, cut and scrape down one side of the rib cage, pulling gently on the breast to free it.
Follow the bone down until you reach the wing joint. Cut through this joint to keep the wing attached to the breast.
Continue cutting down along the carcass until the breast comes free.
Lay the breast skin-side up on the cutting board with the wing toward your guide hand. Steady the wing with your guide hand and make a slanting cut to remove the wing.
Place your guide fingers on the cut surface and make another biased cut to get an even slice.
Slice the entire breast in this fashion.
Repeat steps to remove and slice the other breast.
Lay the bird on its back with the legs facing you.
Using a very sharp carving knife, cut through the skin between the thigh and the carcass. Pull back on the leg to expose the joint. Cut through the joint and remove the leg/thigh.
Cut straight down through the knee joint to separate the leg and thigh. Lay the thigh skin-side down and cut out the bone.
Hold the drumstick vertically and cut straight down against the bone to remove the meat.
Repeat steps to remove the other leg.
Cut the dark meat into serving pieces and place on a platter.
GETTING THE CORRECT KITCHEN TOOLS
A lot of shopping, a little preparation, and you’ll be ready to take on that turkey.
Here’s what you need:
• Roasting pan large enough for your bird
• Adjustable, nonstick roasting rack
• Instant-read turkey thermometer
• Oven thermometer
• Oven mitts
• Transparent bulb baster (a large spoon works in a pinch)
• Fat separator
• Kitchen twine
• Carving set
• Large cutting board or platter
DECIDING HOW MUCH TURKEY TO BUY
The general rule of thumb is 1 pound per person. But since Thanksgiving is all about the leftovers, we suggest about 1 1/2 pounds of turkey per person.
PERFECT ROAST TURKEY WITH BEST-EVER GRAVY
Yield: Serves about 18
18-pound fresh turkey (or completely defrosted turkey)
12 cups of your favorite stuffing
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 quarts homemade turkey stock (or store-bought chicken stock)
Melted, unsalted butter, as needed
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup bourbon, port or dry sherry (optional)
Position oven rack in the lowest position in the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Reserve the turkey neck and giblets to use in the gravy or stock.
Rinse the turkey inside and out with cold water. Pat the skin dry. Turn the turkey on its breast. Loosely fill the neck cavity with stuffing. Using a thin wooden or metal skewer, pin the neck skin to the back. Fold the turkey wings akimbo behind the back or tie to the body with kitchen string.
Loosely fill the body cavity with stuffing. Place any remaining stuffing in a lightly buttered casserole dish, cover and refrigerate to bake as a side dish.
Place the drumsticks in the hock lock or tie together with kitchen string.
Place the turkey, breast-side up, on a rack in the roasting pan. Rub all over with softened butter. Season with salt and pepper. Tightly cover the breast area with aluminum foil. Pour 2 cups of homemade turkey stock or 2 cups store-bought chicken stock in the bottom of the pan.
Roast the turkey, basting every 30 minutes with the juices on the bottom of the pan (lift up the foil to reach the breast area), until a meat thermometer inserted in the meaty part of the thigh (but not touching the bone) reads 165 degrees and the stuffing is at least 165 degrees.
If the drippings evaporate, add stock to moisten them, about 1-1/2 cups at a time. Remove the foil during the last hour to allow the breast skin to brown.
Transfer the turkey to a large serving platter and let it stand for at least 20 minutes before carving. Increase the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Drizzle 1/2 cup turkey stock over the stuffing in the casserole dish, cover, and bake until heated through, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, pour the fat and drippings from the roasting pan into a heat-proof glass bowl or large measuring cup. Let stand 5 minutes, then skim off and reserve the clear yellow fat that has risen to the top. Measure 3/4 cup of fat, adding melted butter if you don’t have enough fat to reach 3/4 cup. Add enough turkey stock to the skimmed drippings to make a total of 8 cups of liquid.
Place the roasting pan on 2 stove burners turned to low heat and add the 3/4 cup turkey fat. Whisk in the flour, scraping the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, and cook until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the turkey stock and the optional bourbon, port or sherry. Cook, whisking often, until the gravy has thickened and no trace of raw flour taste remains, about 5 minutes.
Transfer the gravy to a warmed gravy boat. Carve the turkey and serve the gravy and the stuffing alongside.
1 turkey (14 pounds)
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
Country sausage and corn bread stuffing (recipe below), or a favorite stuffing recipe
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Remove giblets and neck from turkey; reserve for making giblet gravy. Rinse turkey inside and out with cold running water, and drain well; pat dry with paper towels.
Loosely spoon some stuffing into neck cavity. Fold neck skin over stuffing; fasten neck skin to turkey back with one or two skewers.
Loosely spoon remaining corn bread stuffing into body cavity. (Bake any leftover stuffing in small covered casserole dish during last 30 minutes of roasting time; if preferred, bake all stuffing that way.) Fold skin over cavity opening; skewer closed, if necessary. Tie legs and tail together with string; push drumsticks under band of skin, or use stuffing clamp. Secure wings to body with strings, if desired.
Place turkey, breast side up, on rack in large roasting pan (17 by 11-1/2 inches). Sprinkle salt and pepper on outside of turkey. Cover with loose tent of foil.
Roast about 3 hours, 45 minutes. Start checking for doneness during last hour of roasting. Place stuffing (in casserole dish) in oven after turkey has roasted 3 hours. Bake until heated through, about 30 minutes.
To brown turkey, remove foil during last hour of roasting; baste occasionally with pan drippings. Turkey is done when temperature on meat thermometer inserted in thickest part of thigh, next to body, reaches 165 degrees and juices run clear when thickest part of thigh is pierced with tip of knife.
Transfer turkey to large platter; keep warm. Let stand at least 15 minutes to set juices for easier carving.
Serve turkey with stuffing.
COUNTRY SAUSAGE AND CORN BREAD STUFFING
1 pound pork sausage meat
4 tablespoons butter or margarine
3 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
1 large onion (12 ounces), coarsely chopped
1 red pepper, coarsely chopped
14 1/2-ounce can chicken broth or 1 3/4 cups homemade chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
3/4 cup water
14-ounce package corn bread stuffing mix
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Heat 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until very hot. Add sausage meat and cook, breaking up sausage with side of spoon, until browned, about 10 minutes. With slotted spoon, transfer sausage to large bowl. Discard all but 2 tablespoons sausage drippings.
Add butter or margarine, celery, onion and red pepper to skillet. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are golden brown and tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in chicken broth, black pepper and water. Heat to boiling, stirring until browned bits are loosened from bottom of skillet.
Add vegetable mixture, corn bread stuffing mix and parsley to sausage in bowl; stir to combine well. Use to stuff turkey; or, to serve in baking dish, spoon stuffing into greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Cover with foil.