Mud Hens chef shares his secrets for the perfect Thanksgiving turkey



Chef Tony House, of Hensville and NINE, shows how to roast a moist and tasty turkey in Toledo, Ohio, on Nov. 7.

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In March, when the Mud Hens invited media representatives to sample the new food items at Fifth Third Field for the 2017 season, there was an array of tempting treats to taste: bratwurst, nachos, deep-fried Twinkies, brisket with barbecue sauce, three-cheese macaroni and cheese, cake pops, and much more.

But Rookie of the Year went to the herb-crusted turkey breast from the Chef’s Table buffet for the BirdCage Bar and Grill. Truly, it was the MVP in an all-star lineup. Everyone went back for second helpings, and they left the event still talking about it.

It seemed only fitting, then, to invite Tony House, executive chef of NINE at Hensville, to show us how to prepare this terrific turkey for Thanksgiving.

To begin, get an 18 to 20-pound turkey (rather than just the breast that was served in the spring, since it will have more meat to feed a holiday crowd). “Fresh is better,” said Mr. House, but frozen is just fine. With the latter, “you won’t break the bank,” he said, since fresh turkeys can be much more expensive. If the bird’s legs are held in place with a metal clip, dislodge them to make it easier to work with.


Butter helps hold spices to the skin of the turkey.

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Next, prepare a compound butter, which is the key to infusing the turkey with flavor. This involves one simple step: blitzing fresh chives, salt, pepper, butter, and an orange — “peel, pith, and all,” said the chef — in a food processor. That’s it.

Carefully loosen the skin from the flesh with your hands, not just over the breast but along the thighs and drumsticks, too. “We know our turkey very well, at this point,” Mr. House joked. But “this is going to allow the butter to get all the way down” into the meat.

Then rub about two-thirds of the butter into the flesh and massage the rest of it onto the skin. “It does make all the difference in the world,” said Mr. House. The orange, in particular, is a critical ingredient providing acidity that contributes “a brightness” without being assertive.

Tuck the legs back into the clip and fold the wing tips underneath the turkey to help support it as it roasts and also to keep the points from over-cooking. Then prepare the roasting pan.


Carrots, onions, and celery go in the bottom of the roasting pan.

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Place carrots (“no need to peel them,” Mr. House said), onions, and celery into the pan to serve as a base to hold up the turkey so it’s not sitting in its own juices while it cooks, letting it crisp up nicely. Also, the vegetables add “aromatic flavor” to the meat, the chef said, and to the liquids, which can later be used for gravy if desired.

“What’s Thanksgiving without wine?” asked Mr. House, as he poured some white wine into the pan with the vegetables. “Be generous,” he said, and “be sure it is drinkable,” as this is flavoring your food. He recommended using pinot grigio, as “its butteriness goes well with the buttery turkey.”

Carefully place the turkey into the roasting pan; then it’s time to “create a crust,” he said. Combine fennel and celery seeds with dried rosemary, kosher salt, and pepper and sprinkle the spices over the buttered skin and into the cavity.

A tent of foil “big enough to cover the entire turkey” needs to be made, said the chef, and crimped to the edges of the pan to seal it. This will help to keep the meat moist while preventing the skin from browning too quickly.


Chef House carefully tents the turkey before putting it into the oven.

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Roast the turkey for four hours at 375F, then remove the foil and rotate the turkey for even cooking. Cook it for another 30 minutes, during which time the skin will turn a beautiful, burnished brown, “like a crackling,” said Mr. House. Use a thermometer to make sure the meat is cooked to 165F, inserting it into the thickest parts near the breast and the thigh, “close to the bone,” he said, “without hitting the bone.”

The chef didn’t truss the turkey, even though he acknowledged that it can make for a nice presentation when serving, because it can get tied too tightly and restrict air circulation, leading to moisture loss. “Nobody wants a dry bird,” he said.

There’s no need for basting, either, as the butter rubbed under and onto the skin provides fat for the turkey to keep it moist. “It’s self-basting, essentially,” said Mr. House. And brining the bird would be unnecessary here, causing it to absorb moisture and flavor ahead of roasting and preventing the meat from taking on taste from the herbs, vegetables, wine, and butter.

Between the compound butter and the herb crust, you’ve got “flavor inside, flavor outside — it’s a perfect marriage,” said Mr. House. Each ingredient makes a contribution: “Little bits and pieces go together and make the whole picture,” he said.

Mr. House said that the 18 to 20-pound turkey would offer about 10 to 12 servings, along with the rest of the meal.

And what do the chef and other staff members of NINE and Hensville serve with the turkey?

“We’re Polish,” Mr. House said, so “definitely kielbasa’s got to be a part of it.”

He also likes to offer Brussels sprouts that have been pan fried in bacon fat (an essential ingredient that he feels should be in every kitchen).

Megan Ealy, kitchen manager at the facility, voted enthusiastically for macaroni and cheese. “That’s the best at our house,” she said, followed closely by sweet potatoes. Rosa Ealy, supervisor at NINE and the Chef’s Table buffet, agreed: “Yams, definitely” and “a nice green bean casserole.” And Brian Lovell, the sous chef and kitchen manager, played no favorites. “Everything, really,” he said. “Carrots, salad, biscuits.” And his family is “big on mashed potatoes.” His colleagues unanimously agreed.

As for leftovers, Mr. House and Mr. Lovell are fans of the classic turkey sandwich, with “mayonnaise on white bread,” said the former. “Cheap white bread,” he clarified, which offers a retro appeal.

That is, of course, if there are any leftovers. Because your loved ones will cheer when you serve Mr. House’s herb-crusted turkey at your Thanksgiving feast. It’s a guaranteed home run.

Herb-crusted Roast Turkey


1 pound butter, at room temperature

1 tablespoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons fresh chives

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Half of an orange (skin, pith, juice, flesh, and all)


1 18 to 20-pound turkey, fresh or frozen (completely thawed, if frozen)

Several carrots

Several onions, quartered

Several celery stalks

1 bottle pinot grigio (Mr. House used Black Box)


Fennel seed

Dried rosemary

Celery seed

Kosher salt

Ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Make the compound butter: Add all of the ingredients to a food processor and blend together.

Prepare the turkey: Place the turkey onto a clean cutting board or other work surface. If the turkey’s legs are held in place with a metal clip, dislodge them.

Carefully use your hands to loosen the skin from the flesh of the turkey, including along the thighs and legs; it’s alright if there are small tears in the skin.

Spread about two-thirds of the compound butter onto the turkey meat, using one hand to place portions of butter underneath the skin and the other to carefully spread and massage the butter from above the skin. Spread the remaining butter onto the outside of the turkey.

Tuck the legs back into the metal clip. Fold the wing tips back and underneath the turkey.

Place the carrots, onions, and celery on the bottom of a large roasting pan. Pour wine into the roasting pan to come about halfway up the vegetables. Place the turkey into the roasting pan, resting on the vegetables.

Sprinkle the turkey lightly with each of the crust ingredients, to taste. Use one hand to distribute the spices, and the other hand to gently pat it on the turkey and inside the cavity.

Make a tent with aluminum foil (use two sheets or more, if necessary) to cover the turkey completely, crimping it where it meets the edges of the roasting pan. Be sure the foil doesn’t touch the turkey, or the skin will brown too quickly in that spot.

Place the roasting pan in the oven and roast the turkey for four hours. Then remove the foil, rotate the pan front-to-back, and roast for 30 more minutes until the turkey is a deep golden brown and reaches an internal temperature of 165F (tested near the breast and in the thigh area, close to the bone without touching it).

Remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest 30 minutes before carving and serving.

Note: The compound butter can be made several days ahead and refrigerated; let it rest at room temperature before use, so it’s nice and soft for spreading. Strain the turkey drippings to use for making gravy, if desired.

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Source: Tony House, NINE at Hensville

Pan-fried Brussels Sprouts

2 to 3 tablespoons bacon fat

1 pound brussels sprouts, cut in half

Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the bacon fat in a skillet over medium to low heat. Add the Brussels sprouts, placing them cut side down.

Cover the skillet and cook slowly until tender and caramelized, about 10 minutes.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Source: Adapted from Tony House, NINE at Hensville

Contact Mary Bilyeu at, and follow her at

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