Thanksgiving can be really stressful. Especially when you are hosting, there is so much to do. You’ve got to clean the house, prep the food, decorate, set the table, cook the food and then clean up. Whew! I’m exhausted just thinking about it! When I was growing up, we always did a mid-day meal at Thanksgiving. But that meant my mom had to get up at the crack of dawn to stick the turkey in the oven. I come from a huge extended family so that often meant we had a turkey large enough for about twenty people. That sucker took all DAY to cook. And of course, cooking any poultry all day can lead to parts of it (usually the breast) getting all dried out. And this is why people think they don’t like turkey.
Chef J and I hosted everyone one year when we were living in Atlanta. He was working for a large catering company and he offered to simply cook the turkey at work and bring it home. Oh. My. God. He had smoked and brined the breasts separately from the dark meat. And, the kicker, he had slow braised the legs and thighs in duck fat, essentially making a turkey confit. It was sinful (well, technically gluttony IS one of the seven deadly sins). There was much happy grunting at the table that year.
After that, I started researching brining and we’ve done it every year that we’ve hosted since. Brining your turkey insures that you will have moist tender bird. And it’s not that hard, it just involves a bit of planning. There’s a LOT of science behind why brining makes your turkey so moist and tender but the gist is that, in addition to flavoring your bird, the salt also affects some of the proteins in the muscle in such a way that the natural moisture of the bird isn’t released during cooking. I honestly tried to write the actual sciency reasons but then I just confused myself so badly that I had to move on. Suffice it to say that, if you brine your bird, you will definitely be the winner of your turkey dinner.
A basic brine involves salt, sugar and water. You can add any combination of aromatic vegetables, herbs, citrus, or juices (I even used tea one year). I’ve tried countless combinations over the years and have ended up with a pretty simply combination that doesn’t involve anything funky and won’t leave you with any overpowering flavors (I’ve gone too far with the citrus before).
Also, as you have seen in several of my previous posts, I’m a big proponent of spatchcocking poultry. That whole getting up at dawn to make lunch? Gone with spatchcocking. You cut your cooking time in half by going this route. Of course you won’t have that Rockwellian moment of coming to the table with the perfect roasted bird for Papa to carve in front of everyone. But let’s get real, when you’ve got a big crowd, you are probably going with a buffet anyway. When you spatchcock, you insure that the bird will be evenly cooked (without being overcooked) and beautifully golden and crispy all over. We usually artfully arrange our carved bird on a pretty platter with lots of fresh herbs. You don’t see the ugly old carcass just hanging out there.
Hopefully doing your bird this way will take some of the stress off the table so you can spend more time doing all the other stuff you have to do to make this Thanksgiving the best one ever. Read carefully as this process starts the day BEFORE Thanksgiving!
Brined Roasted Spatchcocked Turkey
For the Brine:
- 1 C coarse kosher salt
- 1/2 C brown sugar
- 3 stems fresh rosemary
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
- 1 apple, cut into large chunks
- 1 T whole peppercorns
- 2 bay leaves
- 32 oz low sodium vegetable stock
- lots of water and ice
For the Turkey:
- 14 lb turkey, thawed (I usually buy it on Saturday or Sunday and it should be ready to brine by Wednesday)
- 1 stick butter, room temperature (to make this kosher, skip the butter altogether)
- 1/2 C mayonnaise (preferably Dukes and NEVER EVER low fat or fat free)
- Fresh herbs (I used 2 stems rosemary, 4 stems oregano, and 3 stems sage. You can use as much or as little of each as you prefer)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced and mashed into a paste.
- 1 T coarse kosher salt
- 1 t black pepper
- 2 stalks celery, chopped into large chunks
- 2 large carrots, peeled and chopped into large chunks
- 1 large onion, chopped into large chunks
- 4 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 apple, cut into large chunks
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 glass of white wine (or two if you don’t want your turkey drinking alone)
For the gravy:
- 1/2 C fat from the roasting pan
- up to 4 T butter (if you don’t have a half cup of turkey fat)
- 1/3 C all purpose flour
- 2 C turkey or chicken stock*
- 1/2 C white wine
- 2 T chopped fresh sage
- salt and pepper
- 1 – 2 T butter, optional
The day before you roast your bird you will begin the brining process. Combine stock, salt and sugar in a large pot. Bring to a boil and cook until salt and sugar are totally dissolved. Add all other ingredients and turn off heat. Allow to steep and cool for about an hour.
While brine is cooling, you can go ahead and prep your turkey for its bath. Remove neck bone and giblets from the cavity of your turkey. Reserve giblets if desired (I typically do NOT have that desire). Using a pair of sharp kitchen shears, beginning at the tail of the turkey, cut along each side of the back bone of your turkey removing it. Reserve neck bone for making a stock*.
Put your turkey in a container large enough that it can be completely immersed. Some people use a five gallon bucket. I have an old cupcake carrier that fits perfectly in my refrigerator. Pour cooled brine over bird and fill with additional water and ice until it is completely submerged. Brine about 12-16 hours in the refrigerator, turning the bird a few times to make sure everything is evenly seasoned.
You are going to want to pull the turkey out of the fridge about an hour before you start prepping it. Discard brining liquid and set turkey on a baking sheet to hang out for a while. Dry it well with paper towels. Place turkey on your work surface and open it, breast side up, like a book. Place your hand on the breast bone and push down VERY firmly until you hear it crack. I’m not tall enough to get enough leverage on my kitchen counter so I sometimes have to move my cutting board to the dining room table.
Place chopped veggies and herb stems in the bottom of your roasting pan. Pour one glass of wine over veggies. If you have one, place your roasting pan rack on top of the veggies, otherwise just place your turkey, breast side up on top of the veggies. Flatten the turkey out by turning the wings in and tucking the tips under the bird. Pull the thighs outward to the ends of the legs are pointed slightly out and the bird is lying flat. Let it hang out (for about 30 minutes) while you make your basting mixture.
Place oven rack in lower third of the oven. Preheat oven to 450F.
To make your basting mixture, remove leaves from herbs, reserving stems to stick under your bird. Chop herbs finely and combine with softened butter, mayonnaise, garlic, salt and pepper. Combine really thoroughly.
Loosen skin of turkey a bit and rub butter mixture under the skin and all over the outside of the bird as well.
Transfer turkey to hot oven and roast for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and continue to cook for about an hour, checking temperature periodically (and rotating in oven – legs pointing to front of oven then pointing to back of oven) until internal temperature of thigh reads 165F. If the turkey starts getting too brown, tent loosely with foil. Depending on the size of your bird, total cooking time could range from 90 to 120 minutes. After that first 30 minutes, you should check the temp about every 20 minutes. Just don’t leave that oven door open for long!
When turkey is done, remove from oven and allow to rest at least 30 minutes before carving and serving. The resting time is the perfect time to cook all those casseroles and heat any breads you were planning to serve with dinner.You can also make a gravy during this time as described below.
*Generally, the pan drippings of a spatchcocked bird are going to be too salty to make a gravy. But if you are feeling really resourceful, you can use the neck and back bone you removed the day before to make a turkey stock or you can used purchased turkey stock or chicken stock. Just use a little of the fat from the bottom of your pan to start a roux and then use the turkey stock you made the day before to make your gravy.
Pour off the pan drippings into a large container, The fat will rise to the top. Pour about 1/2 C of that fat into the bottom of a heavy bottomed sauce pan (if not enough fat, make up the difference with butter). Stir in flour and whisk until smooth and medium brown, about 10-15 minutes. Gradually whisk in white wine and stir until alcohol smell is gone, about 1-2 minutes. Gradually whisk in turkey stock and whisk and stir until smooth. Stir in sage leaves and simmer until desired consistency about 10-15 minutes. Taste and then add salt and pepper as desired. To make it super velvety, stir in a knob or two of butter at the very end.
Carve turkey (click here for a good tutorial on how to do it) and serve with copius sides of cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes (sweet and white), green bean casserole, dinner rolls and various and sundrie other yumminess. Drown the lot in the delicious gravy you just made. Loosen your waistband and dig in. Then go take that nap.