Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Roasting and Brining Turkey

We have all had a turkey on Thanksgiving that was more like dry, stiff cardboard than edible poultry. Here is a solution to roasting a turkey that will guarantee a flavorful, succulent bird and raving fans. The credit for the detailed preparation outlined below goes entirely to Brian Patterson, Hospitality Manager, at the American Medical Association in Washington, DC, and a long time member of the faculty at his alma mater, L'Academie de Cuisine French Culinary School. Having had the pleasure of attending classes at L'Academie for seven years, you can be assured Brian's classes (and dozens of classes by other terrific chefs) are a must for anyone desiring to improve their cooking skills. Brian's knife skills classes are outstanding and legendary. Knowledgeable and entertaining, he will improve your skills in the kitchen by quantum leaps. I recommend signing up immediately upon release of seasonal catalog, because classes fill up instantly. Register for online notices and peruse the catalog at www.lacademie.com. L'Academie conducts classes at their recreational school in Bethesda, Maryland and the professional school in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Roasting and Brining Turkey

If possible, buy a fresh turkey, one that has not been previously frozen. If you do use a frozen turkey, thaw it out in the refrigerator, not at room temperature. If you get your turkey one day or more before you are going to cook it, it is a good idea to remove the turkey from its package, rinse it, and rewrap in new plastic and place it in the refrigerator. Remember that turkey, like chicken is a host for salmonella, and all utensils and food preparation surfaces that come in contact with raw turkey should be thoroughly washed and, ideally, sanitized with a mixture of bleach and water.

Place the wrapped turkey in the sink before removing the wrapping, to avoid making a mess of your counter top. Remove the turkey from the package, remove the neck, giblets, and other goodies from both cavities (this may mean un-hooking the legs from a plastic retainer designed to hold the legs in place at the opening of the cavity. Rinse the bird thoroughly inside and out with cold running water to remove standing blood and juices and any slimy film that may be on the skin. Pat the bird dry with paper towels inside and out.

BRINING The skin and surface of a roasted turkey can be enhanced by brining. Brining also makes the meat more moist and flavorful. A brine is a mixture of salt, sugar, water, and pickling spices. The brine cures or partially cooks the outer 1/2 inch of the roast which preserves the roast prior to cooking, and it helps seal in flavor and moisture. You will need a large enough container to allow the turkey to be completely immersed in the brine. A five gallon plastic bucket from a hardware store is perfect and costs about $2. Brine the turkey up to 24 hours prior to cooking. Remove the turkey from the brine an hour prior to placing it in the oven, to allow the skin to air dry. A turkey that has been brined does not require further seasoning. Here is the formula for a brine :

1 Gallon Water
1/2 lb Salt
1/2 Cup Sugar
2 Tbls Pickling Spice
3 Garlic Cloves, Crushed
Combine all the ingredients, bring to a boil, cool and strain. Refrigerate until needed.

I avoid cooking stuffing in the cavity of the turkey, especially a large one, for the following reason: By the time the heat from the oven has worked its way through the turkey to start cooking the stuffing, the turkey is done, and stuffing is raw. So you either over-cook the turkey to finish the stuffing, or, if you serve a perfectly cooked turkey, you run the risk of serving stuffing that is not only undercooked, but that has also been in contact with raw turkey juices (blood) and standing in the cavity about 100 degrees for several hours. It is much safer, and more efficient to cook the stuffing separately. If you do stuff a turkey, NEVER stuff a raw turkey with warm stuffing, whether it is the night before or right before you are about to cook the bird. I like to stuff thyme, strictly to flavor the turkey, not to eat as a stuffing.

IF YOU HAVE NOT USED A BRINE season the turkey with plenty of salt and pepper inside the cavity. Once you have finished seasoning the cavity of the turkey, replace the legs in the plastic retainer, or tie the legs in place in such a way as to hold the cavity closed. Rub the turkey with oil such as olive oil (to enhance the golden color of the finished bird) and season with plenty of salt and pepper (use white pepper if you do not want the "freckles" of black pepper). IF YOU HAVE USED A BRINE, skip seasoning and slathering the outside of the turkey.

If you are more concerned about flavor than appearance, roast the turkey with the breast-side down most if not all of the overall cooking time. Most of the flavor and juices of a turkey are in the bones of the back, therefore, if the bones are on top, the flavorful juices will cascade down throughout the meat, making the breasts more moist. Place the turkey on a roasting tray that permits access to the juices that collect in the tray with a baster or a spoon. To begin, place the turkey--breast-side--into an oven pre-heated to 450 degrees. Once the breast side is golden brown, about 15-20 minutes, invert the turkey so the breast-side is facing down.

About 15 minutes after inverting the turkey, turn the heat down to 325 degrees. The initial heat sears the outside of the bird, sealing in the juices and giving a roasted flavor. I recommend leaving turkey breast-side down for the duration of the cooking.

In order to schedule the timing of other dishes and time to serve, plan on cooking turkey for about 7 minutes per pound. However, the most reliable method of knowing when the turkey is done is by using a very accurate meat thermometer. Baste the turkey every 30 minutes or so, however, in order to maintain a consistent temperature, avoid opening the oven frequently. I do not cover the turkey while it is roasting. Do not pierce the meat other than to take the internal temperature, as this drains the meat of valuable juices. The internal temperature of the turkey should be 170 degrees. Using a meat thermometer, take the temperature at the last place to be cooked, right in the elbow of the thigh, on the side facing the breast. In general, the juices should run clear. If the juices are cloudy or bloody, the turkey is not yet fully cooked. Once the turkey is cooked, it is very important to ALLOW IT TO REST, COVERED, IN A WARM PLACE FOR 1/4 - 1/3 OF THE OVERALL COOKING TIME. A large cooler is perfect not only to hold the turkey while it rests, but also to transport it once it is cooked. Allowing the turkey to rest permits the juices to re-distribute throughout the meat. This makes the meat more moist, and avoids creating puddles of juice on the carving board, leaving the juices in the meat where they belong.

Bon Appetit!

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