Turkey Tips by Sam Hayward

For some years I tried to persuade my family to try something different for Thanksgiving. Maine abounds in wild and farmed game of all kinds, and October and November are successive hunting seasons for moose and whitetail deer. Maine has even become a large producer of farmed venison of very high quality, mostly of the red deer species. Small farms raise fabulous game birds, including pheasants, chukkar partridges, squab pigeons, guinea fowl, and even 'wild' turkeys raised in scrubby pastures under free-range conditions. Could any of these not be a wonderful alternative to the over-bred factory-farmed turkeys that dominate our supermarkets, fattened on horrifying diets, and remarkable only for their pathetically bland taste, their dry, mealy breast meat, and their scrawny thighs?

At the end of the day, however, my family, like many others, prefers the typical Thanksgiving menu. But we are fortunate to live in a state with deep roots in small-scale and artisan food production, and superior raw materials for the feast are all around us. We usually prepare our Thanksgiving turkey in a way that reveals as much of its flavor and complexity as possible, even to the extent of treating the breast and thigh portions very differently.

1.) The best turkey will come from a local farm, so get to know your farmer. Turkeys that have access to the outdoors and get some exercise will probably have a firmer texture than a bird from a factory farm, but it will likely be happier, healthier, and will almost certainly have a more interesting flavor. To avoid the worst aspect of domesticated turkey, namely the mealiness of the breast meat, I prefer a small bird, usually between twelve and sixteen pounds. Yields of small birds will be a smaller percentage of the whole than is the case with larger turkeys, but for me, flavor and texture trump a refrigerator full of leftovers. If you want turkey sandwiches for days afterwards, roast two small birds instead of one big one.

2.) Separate the breast from legs, leaving them on their bones, and prepare them in ways that are most appropriate for those cuts. I prefer to roast the breast meat of a small turkey "just through", scrupulously avoiding overcooking. But the legs I usually cook to a higher internal temperature, until their juices run clear. At dinnertime, both leg and breast can be sliced and served together.

3.) Effective brining improves the texture of farmed turkey, especially in the breast meat. Brining has become a popular method of preparing turkeys, but many brine recipes are too light to produce the result they promise. After years of experimentation, my cooks at Fore Street have arrived at an effective brine that delivers and incredibly juicy bird but doesn't make it overly salty. To follow our method, combine 12 oz. kosher salt and 27 oz. of granulated sugar in a clean stockpot or crock. Add enough cold water to make five gallons of brine, and stir well to dissolve the sugar and salt. (Add any aromatics you wish, including sliced raw vegetables such as shallots, carrots, and fennel; or herbs and spices, including fresh frost-hardy herbs such as winter savory, sage, and thyme; spices such as crushed black pepper, juniper berries, sweet cicely seeds, and coriander seed.) Remove the giblets from the turkey breast cavity. Immerse the turkey breast and legs in the brine, weight them with a ceramic plate to keep them fully submerged, and cure the turkey in a very cool place or a refrigerator for about eight hours.

4.) Cook your stuffing separately from the bird. As unromantic as this may sound, precise roasting of the bird will be easier. And considering the number of illnesses caused annually by spooning hot stuffing into a cold bird prior to roasting, cooking a stuffing outside the turkey is probably more healthful as well.

5.) Plan your roasting time to allow the turkey a fifteen-minute rest, out of the oven but in a warm place, before you carve the bird. This will allow the turkey time to develop and mellow its flavors. It will also relax the meat and consolidate its fluids, so that its juices won't run out as much while slicing.


Features Turkey Tips

Turkey Tips