The Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey
I’ve heard it all, especially when it comes to cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. I have never been impressed by the high overhead of the very latest trends including deep fat frying and brining. I don't worry about ordering our turkey fresh, organic or free range and I am not interested in serving Tofurky. The issues and ideas involved are interesting but they don't make it to the top of my list of priorities at this time of year.
That does not, however, mean that I am immune to the controversy. I remember the great Thanksgiving debate as I was growing up. My aunt and my dad each had their own opinions as to which brand of frozen turkey was the best and whether or not it should be “self-basting.” My aunt was a brand name kind of lady and she wanted nothing but a self-basting Butterball. My dad was less particular and he was the one who cooked Thanksgiving dinner every year. He tried all of the brands, usually buying the one that was the best value and, while he was known for cooking a variety of wild game, he never ventured beyond the realm of frozen turkeys for our Thanksgiving dinner.
About a week before Thanksgiving he would bring home a frozen bird, the largest he could find. Then it would thaw in the refrigerator until Thanksgiving Eve. That evening we would gather in the kitchen to ready the turkey and do all of the chopping for my dad’s famous plain bread stuffing. We would cube the bread and toast it if needed. Then we chopped the onions and celery and gathered what we would need for the relish tray before taking a coffee break and discussing the plan for the next day's preparations.
Nudging it to Perfection
The next morning Dad would get up early and put together his plain bread stuffing. Then he filled the turkey and nestled it in the oven to roast. After that he watched it carefully, basting it every hour or so, nudging it to a perfect finish around noon.
I always woke on Thanksgiving morning to that iconic scent of turkey roasting in the kitchen. As my dad readied the rest of the meal we watched parades on TV until our guests began to arrive. Then much ceremony was made of making the gravy in our big cast iron skillet after my grandmother arrived with the Pumpkin Pies. It was a delight to the senses. Finally the turkey was taken from the oven, browned and crispy, ready to be carved with the beautiful carving set from my mother's silver flatware.
It was always perfect no matter how the turkey actually turned out. Sometimes the meat was juicy and sometimes a little dry. Sometimes it cooked on schedule and sometimes it was slow. Whatever the details the turkey was a beautiful centerpiece to our celebration, reminding us through all of our senses, that we had reason to be truly thankful. And Dad always found a turkey that was large enough to provide ample leftovers to keep reminding us into the week to come, in soups and sandwiches for school lunches. It really wasn’t the quality of the turkey or the method of cooking that mattered so much as the holiday and the drama and the guests, those parades and the warm conversation wafting in from the kitchen and surrounding me with tradition and fond memories and belonging.
The Next 28 Years
When I got married and moved away from home I continued to buy a frozen turkey for Thanksgiving and was prepared to get up early to roast the bird for a noon time meal but my new husband had different family traditions. In his family they had cooked the turkey in a oven roasting bag as long as he could remember. He did remember the first time when his dad was sure it would melt all over the turkey in an unappealing mess. All the same his mother persisted and triumphantly cooked the turkey in a fraction of the time required to roast it as my father did. My husband encouraged me to try it his way assuring me that the turkey would be juicier and quite delicious.
I complied with his wishes. Why not? The turkey turned out fine. It wasn't golden brown all over with crispy skin and a beautiful presentation but it still smelled wonderful and it still produced leftovers for those sandwiches I loved and it still framed the meal just fine. Fine enough, in fact, that I continued to cook our Thanksgiving turkey in an oven roasting bag for the next 28 years.
How Things Change
Then, last year, something happened. I got an extra turkey for free from the supermarket. This was not the first time I ever had an extra frozen turkey but it was the first time I totally ignored it for most of the following year. I just wasn't desperate for the freezer space until a few weeks ago when the guys went on a frozen pizza buying spree. Suddenly my freezer was awkwardly overcrowded so I decided it was time to figure out what to do with the bird.
It was a plain store brand turkey of about 16 pounds. There was nothing special about it. It had been frozen with a little temperature probe in it and had been sitting in my home freezer for a year. Something about it reminded me of those Thanksgivings long ago and I decided to forgo the oven roasting bag and roast it old school, much like Dad would have done.
After it thawed in the refrigerator, I prepared the turkey, placed it on a rack in a roasting pan and tucked it into the oven. Several hours passed as I went about my business until that wonderful smell of Thanksgiving began wafting through the house. Then I began to check once in a while to see if the probe had popped to tell me it was done.
Checking, I couldn't help but be impressed by how beautiful it was! What had I been doing all these years cooking a moist but anemic turkey? But the proof is in the pudding or, in the case of turkey, in the breast meat which is often dry. Finally it was done. I took pictures, then carved it and took a taste. The breast was wonderfully herb scented and moist. I've never had better.
I know that not every turkey will be like that. Like relatives and friends, some are tough or temperamental, some are laid back and forgiving, but that is more about the individual turkey than the brand or technique you employ, whether the turkey is fresh or frozen, brined or basted, cooked in a deep fryer or an oven bag. Still this turkey, a store brand frozen turkey thawed and simply roasted, was perhaps the best turkey I have ever cooked. It’s skin was crispy, its meat tender, juicy and flavorful.
So my advice this Thanksgiving is to keep it simple... and relax. All will be well. Serve the dishes your family cherishes and eat them with joy as you offer thanks for the special blessings you have gathered around your table.
Herb Roasted Turkey
1 whole turkey, fresh or thawed
1 fresh lemon or orange, halved
freshly ground black pepper
Several large sprigs of fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage, parsley)
1-2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, peeled and quartered
2-3 ribs of celery, roughly chopped
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Unwrap the turkey and empty the contents of both cavities, removing the neck, giblets and whatever else you find in there. Wash the turkey with cold water, if needed, and pat it dry with paper towels.
Rub one half of the lemon or orange over the turkey, inside and out. Season the cavity with salt and pepper. Squeeze the juice from the other half of the lemon or orange inside the turkey and tuck the rind inside the cavity, along with the onion, celery and several large sprigs of fresh herbs.
Settle the turkey on a rack in a large roasting pan. Rub the olive oil all over the skin of the turkey. Season with salt and pepper. My turkey came with a gizmo that allows you to easily tuck the legs into place. Without that you can tie the legs together with string, if you like. Then scatter more coarsley chopped herbs over the turkey and lay a few sprigs on top to crisp in the oven.
Place the turkey in the middle of the oven to roast for several hours, until the little plastic thermometer pops up or until a meat thermometer placed in the thickest portion of the thigh reads 180 degrees. For a 16 pound turkey this will take approximately 2 1/2 – 3 1/2 hours.
When the thermometer indicates it is time, remove the turkey from the oven. Tent it loosely with aluminum foil and allow it to rest for 15 to 20 minutes.
Serve and enjoy!