The crown jewel of Thanksgiving dinner is the turkey — golden brown, crispy and mouth-watering. Here are some tips and tricks for making a perfect turkey every time.
The first tip: brine, which is water strongly saturated with salt. In an odd flip, salt normally desiccates — or, dries things out. However, the salt in a brine keeps moisture in, resulting in a delectably moist meat.
A basic brine consists of one gallon of water, with a cup each of salt and sugar. Then, add flavoring. I particularly like frozen orange juice and orange rind, with a touch of sage and thyme. If you’re looking to really show off this holiday season, cut thin slices of orange and use sprigs of sage to stack and slide under the turkey skin. As the turkey skin cooks, it becomes thinner and translucent, affoding a beautiful pop of color and sophistication to the meal.
Next is the crispy golden brown skin seen on myriad Thanksgiving advertisements. The trick here is convection, which provides more consistent heat circulating around the bird. I’ve been successful using a pellet smoker with apple wood pellets to complement the flavors of the orange and sage brine.
Another important trick is to baste the turkey with fats every 30 minutes. While using the drippings from the bottom of the pan works, I recommend experimenting with melted butter or bacon fat, too.
Finally, overcooking represents the biggest threat to the turkey stuffing. We cook our birds to kill salmonella bacteria lurking throughout the meat — it only takes two minutes at 140 degrees to kill this nasty bacteria. So why do we cook our birds to 165 degrees? It’s merely a safety factor, ensuring the meat near the bone reaches the 140 degree mark.
However, there’s a trade-off to cooking to 165 degrees: dryer meat and overcooked, mushy stuffing. At 160 degrees, the proteins in the meat begin to unravel, releasing their internal moisture and causing the dish to taste dried out. While I would never tell you to gamble with your family’s health, if you are confident of ensuring the meat near the bone and at the deepest point in the turkey reaches a minimum of 140 degrees, you will ensure getting a perfectly healthy meal with all the tenderness and moistness the heart desires.
As a cautionary note, salmonella bacteria multiply rapidly when living in temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees. To ensure everyone’s safety, never leave raw turkey out on the counter top, and keep it below 40 degrees in the refrigerator. Keep your brine temperatures low, too, and, most importantly, quickly refrigerate any leftovers. Remember, there are approximately 400 deaths every year in the U.S. from improperly cooked meals or poorly stored leftovers.
Keep everyone safe this holiday season, and happy eating.
Ross Derby graduated with two degrees from the Culinary Institute of America, with a focus on culinary arts and business management. Previously, he oversaw the opening of a 210-seat brewpub at the Orlando airport that did $23 million in sales. Currently, he co-owns and manages the Iron Tree Restaurant and is the brewmaster for Funky Town Brewery in Florissant.