I hear it every year:
“How do you keep your turkey so juicy?”
For a long time I used to explain my cooking process until eyes glazed over and the smile-and-nod reflexes would kick in. So, now my response is, “I don’t cook the **** out of it.”
An overcooked turkey is a dry turkey–if you put it in a bag, or roast it upside down, or dance voodoo chants while it’s in the oven–it won’t matter if that turkey is in the oven for hours upon hours. One of the best ways to guarantee a moister turkey is roasting with a high heat method and keeping that bird in the oven just long enough to get the thigh temperature to 161 °. Sure, there’s always brining, and I have no beef with that process; in fact, I will brine turkeys when I’m smoking one. However, I think there’s a few drawbacks to brining turkey, and I prefer doing a more traditional roast. So, these are my tips on doing a traditionally roasted turkey that doesn’t turn to sawdust:
- Buy a digital meat thermometer, preferably one that has a long ovenproof probe that you can keep in the bird while it’s in the oven. Stick that probe deep in the thigh, as that’s where you’re going to test for readiness.
- High Heat Roasting: heat that oven at 500° (yes, really) and once you put your bird in the oven, close the door and set the timer for 30 minutes. At 30 minutes, turn the heat down to 400, and don’t be tempted to open the oven door. Keep it closed unless you’re seeing the breast getting too dark–go ahead and cover the breast with foil if that’s happening.
- Pull the bird from the oven when the thigh reaches 161°. Poultry is cooked at 165°; when you pull the bird out a few degrees early, the carryover cooking that happens while the turkey rests will bring it up to temperature.
- Let it rest! Loosely cover the bird with foil so it has a chance to finish cooking. Give at least 20 minutes to smaller birds (under 13 pounds), 30 minutes to the bigger ones. This gives the turkey a chance to finish cooking and for the juices in the meat to redistribute. Cutting it straight out of the oven releases too many juices and will dry out the meat.
- Don’t stuff it! Put a few things in it for seasoning such as half an onion, a few sprigs of herbs, a quarter of a lemon. But, a stuffed turkey means you have to make sure that stuffing also reaches 165°, and that can add more cooking time (which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid).
- I put butter under the skin of the breast; it’s a great way to add a little extra fat and flavor to the breast. Using a compound butter–butter blended with seasonings and herbs–is easy and can be done well ahead of time.
Compound butter is one of those nifty little condiments you can make and use to add tons of flavor with little effort. The big granddaddy of compound butters is Maître d’Hôtel butter; a little fresh herbs, some lemon, and a bit of salt and pepper make a butter worth serving on hot steaks in fancy joints. I’ve seen all kinds of compound butters popping up all over the place–from the basic lemon-herb to port-dried-cherry-bacon to chipotle-garlic. Let me show you how easy it is to make, and I’ll let you and your imagination go from there. Ready?
To start, have two sticks (1/2 cup) of butter, softened. Add your ingredients into a bowl:
With this batch, I’ve focused on the flavors I prefer with turkey–parsley, sage, thyme, marjoram, and savory. As a general ratio, expect to put about 1/4 cup of herbs to 1 stick of butter. Also in the bowl is the zest and juice of one lemon. I gave all of this a good beating using the paddle attachment in the KitchenAid mixer.
Plop all of that right in the middle of some parchment or waxed paper:
Fold the paper over and using your hands, push the butter into a log shape:
Roll the log in some plastic wrap and twist the ends to shape and press the butter into a firm cylinder:
Refrigerate or freeze butter (this can be frozen for up to several months, so make extra and save for another dish in the future) and slice as needed:
See those little slices? They’re perfect for sliding right under the skin of the breast, where they’ll melt and season the meat as it roasts. Wasn’t that easy?
Are you ready for Thanksgiving? How do you like to cook your turkey?