Saturday, November 22, 2014

How to Cook a Delicious Turkey

Some say it can’t be done. I suspect this opinion comes from a lifetime of Thanksgivings punctuated by kiln-fired Butterballs, hardened at temperatures suited to forging swords. This post will propose an alternative.

Browned and crisped, but still juicy. Magic.

I. If you want good turkey, get a good turkey.

Please, for everyone’s sake, forgo the factory farm and buy something that was raised nicely. While the term “free range” is overused and generally optimistic, it at least ensures that your bird was able to walk around. This makes a difference.

Organic feed is unimportant, but good quality feed matters. You may have to research your farms. In the Northeast, Bo Bo Poultry does a great job raising chickens and turkeys humanely, with good feed and plenty of time to mature, without pandering to all the buzzwords that can make a bird unaffordable. They have several small and medium-sized farms in New York and Pennsylvania, and typically slaughter on the day of sale. The Amish farms have an excellent reputation as well. 

Breed is important. Modern breeds have been engineered to mature quickly on very little feed. They’re economical, but have little flavor. Heritage breeds are the opposite. They cost much more, have smaller breasts, and better, more intense flavor.

My favorite are hybrids that fill the middleground almost perfectly: significantly better flavor, with a minor price premium. Bo Bo raises excellent hybrids.

If the farm or packaging makes no mention of the breed, assume the worse, regardless of price.

The type of processing matters also. Always prefer an air-dried bird. Avoid anything with fine print that mentions added water (Butterball, etc.). Kosher birds and most higher-end birds are air-dried.

II. This is cooking, not ritual sacrifice.

Forget everything you’ve been told about turkey cooking temperatures. The USDA has been recommending, almost forever, cooking birds to 165° Fahrenheit. If you do this, you will destroy any bird. End of story. Remove the pop-up doneness indicator. Throw it away. Violently. You’d do just as well to rely on the smoke alarm.

The USDA makes its recommendation in the name of food safety, but there is no science to support it. Most of the bacteria we’re concerned with are on the bird’s surface and will be killed long before the meat is overcooked, if we follow sound practices.

The ideal temperature will vary a bit with personal preference. We suggest 150°F / 65°C for the dark meat, and 145°F / 63°C for the white meat. With turkey cooked to these temperatures, your world will be rocked by explosions of tenderness and succulence. Promise.

III. Safety

You still have to be careful, especially if serving anyone immune-compromised (very young, very old, HIV-positive, pregnant). Poultry occasionally harbors salmonella, e-coli, lysteria, and campylobacter.

Be ruthless about washing hands and avoiding cross-contamination.

Don't let anyone near your cooking area if they haven't been lectured on food safety.

Don't cook stuffing inside the bird. With stuffing in there, you cannot guarantee that the inner cavity will reach temperatures that will kill everything adequately. 

IV. This is technical.

USDA sabotage is only one cause of bad turkey. Another is that cooking good turkey is hard. The technical challenges, while rarely acknowledged, loom large. 

Notice that the ideal temperatures for white and dark meat are 5°F apart. If you roast a bird by conventional means, you will not achieve this. In fact, because of the shape and proportions of a bird, you will get something closer to the opposite: hotter white meat than dark meat. This is bad. 

The supreme goal of cooking any bird is to properly cook the dark meat without overcooking the light meat. This can be done by disassembling the bird and cooking the parts separately—easy and foolproof, but not what people generally like to see at the table. You can also do it with a no-holds-barred deployment of technology. I’m not going to torture you by suggesting this. Another way is to use traditional methods with some intelligent twists. 

Roasting, traditionally and technically, means turning meat on a spit in front of a fire. It cooks by bursts of radiant heat, as the drippings fall into a pan that sits near the coals. Marshmallows toasted on a stick are akin to a real roast. What we do in our ovens is actually baking. We bake because most of us don't have fire pits and rotating spits, and probably wouldn't know how to control them if we did.

Nevertheless, there are some practices from traditional roasting that can benefit us when cooking in the oven*. The first is barding, which is covering meat with strips of fat, to prevent the surface from cooking too quickly and drying out. Smart chefs learned that by selectively barding the white meat, they can slow its cooking. This allows a bird to be cooked whole with all the parts ending up the right temperature.

Selective barding is central to our approach. Bacon works well for this. So does foil. For a large bird, which takes a relatively long time to cook, we use both: a layer of bacon with a triple layer of foil over the top.  (You could also dispense with the foil by using a double layer of bacon, or dispense with the bacon by using 5 or 6 layers of foil. If you use bacon, it can be saved, used in an appetizer, or fed to your indentured helpers).

The idea is to insulate the surface from the conductive and radiant heat of the oven—for a portion of the cook time. Then the barding comes off just long enough for the breast area to brown. 

Another part of our approach is to poach the bird before roasting it. Poaching simply means to cook something while immersed in hot liquid. It’s different from boiling in that it uses lower temperatures, and typically a flavorful cooking medium (like stock) that can later be incorporated into a broth or sauce.

16 lb bird in a 20 quart stockpot of court bouillon. Thermometer probe on left. 

By providing a 100% humid cooking environment, poaching eliminates evaporative moisture loss (so the bird stays juicier) and evaporative heat loss (so it cooks more quickly and efficiently).** Poaching also cooks via the interior cavity more quickly than oven cooking, since hot liquids allow more efficient convection than hot air. 

After 75 minutes of poaching, a 16lb turkey is around 3/4 cooked. We use the oven just to bring it to final temperature, and to brown the surface.

This lets us use a really hot oven. 500°F / 260°C. For the first 20 minutes, the white meat is barded. For the remaining 20 to 30 minutes, it comes off so the breasts may brown. 

Our method is based in part on James Peterson’s brilliant adaptations of barding to the home oven, and chef George Perrier’s poaching methods. 

Here’s the Underbelly recipe, which has evolved over about ten thanksgivings.

A note on not scalding yourself: please pay very close attention to the instructions for removing the bird from the poaching pot. This maneuver is tricky and dangerous. Have an extra set of hands at the ready.

A note on brining: You may notice that I haven’t mentioned it. One reason is that for brine to thoroughly penetrate the meat of a large bird, you need around 72 hours, and to do it safely, this has to be conducted well below 40°F. I don’t have a walk-in refrigerator, and don’t know how else to keep a 5-gallon bucket chilled. In addition, brining adds water. This offers some insurance against dried-out meat from overcooking, but it also dilutes the flavor of the juices. The best quality meat and poultry is prepared in ways that reduce water content (dry-aged beef, air-dried poultry, etc..). I don’t like undoing this good work, just to protect against overcooking. Better to just not overcook. There are some exceptions this anti-brine position, including sous-vide fish. I’ll prepare a post on this topic in the future.

*Trussing is a practice that many chefs have carried over from traditional roasting. It served to keep the bird from flopping around while turning on the spit, which causes erratic browning. Unlike barding, it serves no practical purpose in oven roasting and is actually counterproductive: by binding the legs close to the body, it increases cooking time for the dark meat—the opposite of what we want. Some chefs, even great ones,  insist on trussing; I have yet to hear a rational explanation, and can in fact easily demonstrate the detrimental effects. My guess is that chefs like the way a trussed bird looks (Julia Child wrote that an untrussed bird looks “wanton,” which in the 1950s was perhaps frowned upon).

**If you cook sous-vide, or have been following my articles on the topic,  you may recognize these benefits. Sous-vide cooking is really just a highly-controlled form of poaching. Unfortunately, because of a turkey’s size and its requirement for more than one final temperature, cooking a whole bird sous-vide is impractical. If you're open to cooking a bird in parts, SV will allow you to cook it more perfectly and consistently than any other method.