Chef Notes: Preparing the best Turkey

Chef Notes: Preparing the best Turkey

It’s that time of year, the annual pursuit of the perfect Thanksgiving menu, which includes the perfect turkey.  Everyone and their mother (literally) believes they have the perfect recipe but we can all attest to the fact that most people are full of crap. Honestly, the vast majority of turkeys I have been served are barely edible.  Let’s stop screwing this thing up.  It’s not difficult but it does take some planning and thought.  You can’t buy a bird the day before Thanksgiving, throw it in the oven, and expect it to be juicy and flavorful.

First, let’s talk supplies.  Obviously, you’re going to need a turkey.  I could do several columns on fresh vs frozen, kosher vs not kosher, free range vs imprisoned.  I’m going to let you research that yourself.  I’m skipping right to size.  Do not buy the biggest turkey you can find, even if you are feeding fifty people.  Never buy a bird that weighs more than sixteen pounds.  You cannot thoroughly cook a larger bird and keep it juicy.  You can always cook two turkeys if necessary.  I always brine or buy a kosher bird.  If your turkey is kosher please skip the brining step.  You’re going to need a small/medium sized cooler, turkey sized baking/oven bags, a roasting pan and rack, kitchen twine, an oven safe probe thermometer, and aluminum foil.  Also, pay no attention to the pop up timer.  Don’t remove it, it will create a hole for juices to escape.  The problem with those timers is that they are set in a material that melts, thus allowing the timer to pop up, when it reaches 185 degrees.  This is way too high.  Your turkey will be safe but very overdone.


Day 1:  rinse bird, empty cavity, place in a cooler, and cover with brining solution.  There are a million recipes on the internet for turkey brines.  The important thing is to be sure your salt and sugar are dissolved and that you are very generous with whatever herbs you choose.  I use a mixture of kosher salt, brown sugar, whole peppercorns, bay leaves, all spice berries, and fresh herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, parsley, and tarragon.  I also use stock (chicken, turkey, or vegetable) for about half of the liquid.  Put something on top of the turkey to keep it submerged, add ice, cover and put outside (unless you live in Miami) and brine for twenty-four hours.

Day 2:  Remove the turkey from the brine, rinse well, and apply a dry rub under the skin all over the turkey and in the cavity.  My dry rub is very similar to the ingredients of my brine.  I use a bunch of coarsely chopped fresh herbs, finely minced garlic, lemon zest, brown sugar, salt, pepper, and olive oil.  Be gentle working under the skin, you don’t want to tear it, It’s going to help keep your bird moist.  If you’re careful you can get your rub virtually everywhere.  Next truss your bird.  Don’t be intimidated, no one is grading you on this.  Just tie the legs, wings, and tail together so that your turkey is nice and tight.  Then slip into an oven bag, seal, and refrigerate for twenty-four hours.

Day 3:  remove the turkey from the bag, place is a large roasting pan on a rack, and refrigerate for twenty-four hours uncovered.  An important step, I do this with virtually every meat that I cook.  It intensifies the flavor of the meat and gets the outside dry so that a good sear, or in this case nice crisp skin, is guaranteed.

Day 4:  Remove the bird from the fridge, rub the skin with oil or melted butter, and let sit out while you’re preheating the oven to 500 degrees.  Place a probe thermometer in the deepest part of the thigh and set the alarm to 160. If you want to be extra careful, you can put a thermometer in both the thigh and the deepest part of the breast. Rather than placing stuffing in the turkey cook it separately as dressing. By the time the stuffing inside a turkey is cooked to 160 degrees your bird will be overdone and dry.  Cook at 500 for 30 minutes then lower the heat to 350 and continue to cook until the internal temperature is 160. Count on roughly 10 minutes per pound of turkey.  Remove from the oven, loosely tent with foil, and allow to rest for at least thirty minutes.  Your bird will carry-over cook.  The resting is extremely important.  If you carve the bird while it is still at oven temperature the juices will run out of it instead of being absorbed back into the meat.

I learned this method while working at Fine Cooking Magazine.  It does take a few days but it is so worth it.  The birds we tested were the best I’d had in my life.  Since then, the only other way I cook my turkey is deep fried.  But that’s another column.

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