I remember the first Thanksgiving turkey I cooked. I dutifully did what I had been taught. I watched the store sale ads and found the best deal. I made sure the turkey came with a plastic pop up thermometer so I knew when it was done. I also stuffed the bird to make sure my stuffing was moist. I ended up with what I expected, a dry flavorless turkey. It was perfection, or so I thought.
To improve my turkey game, I played with so many tricks over the years. There was wet brining, injections, butter rubs, deep frying and all sorts of cooking variations. Nothing yielded great results.
Fast forward to present day, I now know that everything I had been taught and trying was wrong. In 2015, my friends at local charity feedSCV flew in New York Times bestselling author and MIT scientist J. Kenji Lopez Alt. One evening at the Institute for Culinary Education at College of the Canyons, this accomplished food author taught a large group of us how to make the perfect Thanksgiving turkey.
Out of this, I have assembled some science based methods I learned at this class. With the holidays upon us, I present some of the most earth shattering things I learned that evening in the hopes of helping you make the perfect turkey.
1. Only Dry Brine
For a time, I wet brined my turkey, submerging it in water, juice and herbs for days prior to cooking. But what this does is dilute the wonderful flavor of the meat. Instead, the answer is to dry brine the turkey. This process firms up the meat and helps the turkey retain moisture when it is cooked. Simply salt the bird liberally with kosher salt and allow it to sit in the fridge uncovered for 24 hours before cooking (cover it after 24 hours if you allow it to sit longer).
2. Cook to Temperature
Pop up thermometers are extremely inaccurate. If you don’t have a good digital instaread thermometer, buy one. It is my top kitchen tool and will prevent you from over and undercooking many things. I recommend the Thermapen MK4. It is not cheap, but so worth it.
Cook until the temperature in the deepest part of the breast is 150 and the thighs register 165. Yes, we’ve all been taught that 165 in the breast is the target. But as explained on SeriousEats.com, poultry safety is a function of time AND temperature. Salmonella die instantly at 165 whereas at 150 it takes just under 3 minutes. I can tell you from experience, the 15 degree temperature difference makes a big impact on moistness.
We’ve all become accustomed to the beautiful Norman Rockwellesque perfectly plated whole turkey. While you can skip this tip and use the other tips, don’t. The secret to evenly cooking your turkey is to spatchcock it. There are plenty of videos on-line showing you how. Simply put, you cut the spine out of the turkey and lay it flat. Your turkey will cook more evenly, be more juicy and the spine can be used to make gravy or soup.
Discount or promotional supermarket turkeys are generally the lowest quality. Spending more will give you a better bird. Fresh is always best, but going with a heritage breed bird direct from a farm is an amazing step up. As manager of our Saturday Old Town Newhall Farmers Market, I am thrilled to bring Harvest Gathering Farm to our market each week. Their seasonal heritage breed birds are raised locally and brought to our market fresh.
Heritage breed birds are slow growing. The ratio of white to dark meat is about 50/50. The taste of these is simply incredible. These also also raised in much nicer conditions. The turkeys from Harvest Gathering Farm are raised in a pasture, rotating them often so they are on green grass. They have plenty of room to roam and engage in natural behavior. They are allowed to forage and are supplemented with high quality feed free from corn, soy and GMOs. The meat is better for us, kinder to the animal and better for the environment. Of course, raising animals like this costs a lot more than those raised on a massive commercial feedlot. But like many other things, you get what you pay for.
To help you plan your perfect turkey dinner, I present the countdown of steps you need to follow to make the perfect turkey:
2 Months Before – Pre-order your heritage bird
(these often sell out very early).
1 Week Before – Pick up turkey.
4 Days Before – If your turkey is not fresh, defrost it in the fridge.
1 Day Before – Spatchcock your turkey and dry brine it.
2 Hours Before – A spatchcocked bird will cook much quicker. A 12-15 pound bird can take little more than an hour to cook. You will also want to allow about 30 minutes for the bird to rest after cooking. This is an estimate and there are many factors that change cooking time. Larger birds will take longer.
For all your holiday side dishes, be sure to elevate your cooking by shopping for ingredients at the Old Town Newhall Farmers Market. This holiday season, support our local farmers and food artisans. You will find produce that is higher quality and fresher than you can find elsewhere. Our family farms and food artisans plan for this time of year, bringing extra of items that are in demand.
The Saturday Old Town Newhall Farmers Market is a certified farmers market bringing Santa Clarita true farm direct produce and the finest food products available in Santa Clarita. It operates year round, every Saturday from 8:30am until 1:00pm. It is located in the parking lot of the Old Town Newhall Library at 24500 Main Street in Newhall. They can be found on Facebook, Instagram or at www.newhallfarmersmarket.com. Harvest Gathering Farm is one of many farms that sell year round at the market. They are based in Ventura County and raise beef, pork, chicken, lamb and turkeys.
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