Choose Taste Over Looks When Cooking Your Turkey

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As a person who sometimes eats “for the ‘gram,” I understand the desire to have an aggressively photogenic Thanksgiving spread. And, while I’m all for pretty fluting on pie crusts and perfectly placed marshmallows on sweet potato casserole, I must urge you to embrace an ugly—or at least deconstructed—turkey.

Look, I’m not saying a tasty whole, roasted turkey is an impossible achievement, but it’s not easy, especially if you don’t spend a ton of time during the rest of the year cooking large amounts of large poultry. I will say that—save for a smoked turkey my uncle made one year—I’ve only had two turkeys that made me go “holy heck this is delicious,” and they were not “traditionally” prepared.

As far as poultry goes, turkey is a thermodynamic nightmare. It’s big, bulky ball of meat with with two distinct regions that need to be cooked to very different temperatures. This is why you should forgo your Norman Rockwell-styled visions of a bronze Butterball and butcher your bird a bit. In fact, there are really only two ways I’ll prepare a turkey for the big day: spatchcocked and roasted, or broken down and sous vided.

The Ol’ Spatchcock

To call spatchcocking (or “butterflying”) a trend would be unjust, but it has definitely become trendy. We’ve been talking about it as a method for five years now, but it just recently seemed to have caught on with masses.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt from Serious Eats explains how and why you’d want to spatchcock a turkey in the above video, but it basically boils down to this. Dark meat—such as legs and thighs—needs to be cooked to at least 165℉ for all that connective tissue to break down, but breast meat dries out if it gets much over 150℉. Traditional roasting leaves the breast more exposed than the legs, which are shielded by the sides of the pan, which is the exact opposite of what you want.

Fixing this is simple—you simply need to flatten out your turkey. To do this, remove the back bone by cutting along either side of it, starting at the tail (set the bone aside for stock and/or gravy). Flip the turkey over, move the legs out to either side, and press down on the ridge of the breast bone to until you hear a few cracks and the bird flattens out. Tuck the wings under the breast, season as you like, and roast on a wire rack set inside a foil-lined baking sheet in a 450-degree oven until the dark meat registers at least 165℉ and the breast reads 150℉ at its thickest region.

Not only will your turkey cook much more evenly and quickly, but you’ll have more crispy skin, on account of more of that skin being exposed, and I am very much in this for the crispy skin.

The Newfangled Sous Vide

Photo by Claire Lower

Sous vide is, if you think about it, a perfect way to cook a turkey. Since we’re dealing with a bird that is very prone to drying out, sealing it up in an airtight bag with its own juices just makes sense. Also, since we know the exact temperatures we want to cook the various parts of a turkey, having precise temperature control is extremely helpful.

This soothing, ASMR-like video from ChefSteps can show you how to break the bird down, or you can just have your friendly neighborhood butcher do it for you. Once you have your bird broken into pieces, divide the light meat and dark meat up, and season them with whatever rub you favor. I like to rub my meat with 1 cup sugar, 1 cup salt, 1 teaspoon of garlic powder, and one teaspoon of paprika. Put the breasts in one bag and the legs and thighs in another, and add four sage leaves, a sprig of rosemary, a sprig or marjoram, a sprig of thyme, and a couple tablespoons of duck fat to each.

Seal them and place the white meat in a 167-degree bath for five hours and the breasts in a 150-degree bath for three. (To the legs first if you only have one circulator.) Once you’re ready to serve, pat the turkey parts down and crisp the skin up under the broiler, or sear them off in a pan. If you’ve pre-cooked your turkey and have been storing it in the fridge, reheat it in a 350-degree oven until warmed through.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about how to sous vide the wings, the correct answer is “don’t.” Unless you have a friend or family member who delights in gnawing on turkey wings, set those aside for stock. Wings make the best stock.



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