What’s Thanksgiving looking like at your home this year? Is the entire family descending? Are you throwing a “friendsgiving” for those who may not be near families?
Whatever the situation, having a gang at Thanksgiving means cooking a big turkey. Professional cooks agree on the best way to get the job done (and, after spending 10 years as the spokesperson for the National Turkey Federation in Washington, D.C., I agree too): Rather than roast a whole turkey, like the one in the Norman Rockwell painting, break it down into parts. It’s the best way to cook dark meat thoroughly and not overcook or dry out the white meat.
It’s a practical solution for other reasons too.
Cookbook author Carla Hall, former “Top Chef” fan favorite and star of “The Chew,” cuts up the turkey because she likes to brine it, which results in juicy, delicious meat.
“It’s much easier to brine and refrigerate cut-up parts than to cram a whole bird in the fridge,” she said. “Also, I can get creative and prepare parts with different seasoning, some spicy and some with herbs.”
In his article “Low-Stress Turkey for a Crowd,” Steve Dunn, an associate editor for Cook’s Illustrated, recommends getting two smaller turkeys and cutting them up.
“A 20-pounder can be challenging to maneuver in and out of the oven and nearly impossible to flip during roasting,” he writes.
Scarlett Farney, executive chef for Sodexo, uses this method too. (Full disclosure, she is my daughter.)
“I separate the dark into two thighs and two legs, and the breast into two pieces by breaking the breast at the center bone,” she said. “The wings are removed from the breast.”
You’ve never cut up a chicken, much less a turkey?
“If you are unsure how to do this, have your butcher assist you or simply purchase already split pieces,” Farney said. “Reserve the backbone and make a simple stock to make your gravy from.”
Instead of brining turkey, she has a simple rub as her go-to.
“I use the same rub whether I roast a whole bird or pieces,” she said.
For a 12- to 15-pound turkey, she would mix 2 cups of full-fat mayonnaise and 1/3 cup each garlic powder (not granulated), onion powder and Italian seasoning.
“This is simply to give an idea of ratio,” she said. “Make as much as you need. Discard extra after rubbing poultry. This rub always produces beautifully moist meat and crispy skin if you don’t overcook it.”
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (325 for convection).
“Have two sheet pans set with wire racks,” Farney said. “Liberally smear all pieces, all over, with the mayonnaise mix and salt and pepper. Start the dark meat 20 to 30 minutes sooner than the white meat.”
Check the breast and thigh temperature with a meat thermometer.
“Ultimately you want to get the thigh to 160 degrees and the breast to 155,” she said. “When you approach these temperatures, pull the bird parts out of the oven and loosely tent with foil for 20 to 30 minutes, and let the temperature carry over another 5 to 10 degrees. This is enough time to take the pan drippings and make a wonderful gravy.”
Plan ahead if you’re buying frozen turkeys. According to the Department of Agriculture website, a 4- to 12-pound turkey will take one to three days to defrost completely. If you’re having a large crowd, consider getting two smaller turkeys, around 11 to 12 pounds each, as they will defrost more quickly.
Place the frozen turkey, in its wrapping, in cold water. Change the water several times during the defrosting to keep the water from getting too cold. A 4- to 12-pound turkey will thaw in two to six hours.
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