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Read: Recipes

Turkey 101: Three ways to cook the bird

Pallas Erdrich

How many ways are there to cook a turkey? More than you might imagine.

ANDREW SCRIVANI - NEW YORK TIMES

ANDREW SCRIVANI - NEW YORK TIMES


In kitchens around the country, the big bird itself is the focal point of discussion. 

Like autumn's leaves, advice for cooking Thanksgiving's turkey is swirling all over the internet. Is there really a best way to roast this bird? Depends on what matters most to the cook.

Fastest? Simplest? Showiest? Here are three very different techniques that all yield terrific turkeys.

Fastest

Yes, you can cook a turkey relatively quickly. But first you need to cut it into parts. That's the approach taken by Joe Zahner, a St. Louis Park chef and senior manager at Sodexo, the Paris-based food-service management company. He demonstrates this in one of his cooking videos, which his son Dominic produces. In "Joe Knows: Turkey," Zahner explains how to cook a 14-pound turkey in less than an hour by cutting the turkey into pieces (legs, breast, wings, etc.), which he then roasts.

"These cuts cook in about the same amount of time," Zahner said. "If you follow the instructions for the stock and the gravy, you've got it all timed to be done at once. This is what chefs do when they're cooking a lot of turkeys for a restaurant's Thanksgiving."

On his video, Zahner also shows how to make a richly flavored stock with the back, neck and wing tips that can be roasted ahead of time. He turns the stock into a base for a lush gravy.

Chef Joe Zahner

Chef Joe Zahner

The upside to this method is tender, moist meat. The downside is there is no intact turkey to carve at the table. But who carves at the table anymore? Find Zahner's turkey technique, and more of his videos, at https://vimeo.com/191670671.

Joe's technique

Using a very sharp knife, cut up the turkey, separating breast, thigh, wings and legs. If you're making stock for gravy, cut off the wing tips to use and sprinkle them, along with neck and back with salt and pepper and roast until done in a 350-degree oven. Do this in advance of the turkey, if you want to get ahead of the meal.

For Thanksgiving dinner: Generously season all sides of the breast, legs and thighs and wings with dried thyme, salt and pepper and, before roasting, refrigerate for at least an hour (or 30 minutes at room temperature) to let the seasoning get into the meat before it is cooked. (You could make stock at this point by simmering the roasted wing tips, neck and back with onions, carrots, celery, parsley, bay leaves and thyme for about an hour.)

Place the meat on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast the meat until it reaches 165 degrees on a meat thermometer, about 1 hour. Remove all meat from the oven. Allow the turkey to sit at least 10 minutes before slicing. Easiest

This high-heat method, introduced by food writer Barbara Kafka, blasts the turkey in a very hot oven. This crisps the skin, and drives out excess fat and water so the meat stays juicy and moist. There's no basting, which tends to soften the skin and keep it from crisping; no messy, tricky turning the turkey from side to side or upside down (so the juices run off), and the meat doesn't overcook. It works well for smaller turkeys, 12 to 14 pounds.

The method requires a very heavy metal roasting pan. Thin enamel or disposable aluminum roasting pans aren't strong enough to take the heat, and the rendered fat and drippings burn on contact. It also requires a very clean oven or there will be a great deal of smoke. At 500 degrees, the turkey fat tends to spatter so, after about 30 minutes, I reduce the temperature to 400 degrees, which is still plenty hot, but less messy. A 12- to 14-pound turkey cooks in about 1 ½ hours and emerges tender, moist and golden-brown.

High-heat technique (adapted from "Roasting: A Simple Art," by Barbara Kafka)

Before you begin, be sure the oven is very clean. Open the windows as there's often some smoke. Lower the oven rack to the lowest position.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Rinse the turkey inside and out, and pat very dry. Sprinkle it inside and out with salt and pepper.

Put the turkey, breast side up, in a V-shaped roasting rack set in a roasting pan. Add 1 cup of water or stock to a roasting pan and put the turkey into the oven. After about 30 minutes, reduce the heat to 400 degrees. The turkey is cooked when a thermometer inserted into the thigh reaches 165 degrees, about 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours. Remove and allow to stand at least 20 minutes before carving.

Showiest

Using this traditional method, the turkey roasts slowly and is basted often. First, though, it's rubbed with a dry brine of salt and seasonings that permeate the meat to keep it moist and infuse it with flavor. This is easier and less messy than a wet brine. The turkey begins roasting with the breast upside down so the underside cooks before it's flipped and basted frequently, to a beautiful finish. A 12- to 14-pound turkey will take about 2 ½ hours to cook, but the results are worth the wait.

Traditional technique: Dry brine (and plan ahead)

About 3 to 4 days before roasting, rinse the turkey inside and out and pat dry. For a 12- to 14-pound turkey, mix together ¼ cup salt, a generous pinch of paprika, 1 teaspoon grated orange rind and 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme. Rub the seasoning all over the turkey. Place the turkey in a 2 ½-gallon sealable plastic bag, pressing out the air. Put it in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days. Remove the turkey from the bag, and set it in a pan or on a deep plate and refrigerate overnight, uncovered.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Baste the turkey with 2 tablespoons melted butter and set it breast-side down on a V-shaped roasting rack set in a roasting pan; place it in the oven. After 30 minutes of roasting, remove turkey from oven and, using oven mitts or towels to protect your hands, carefully flip the turkey so the breast is facing up.

Reduce the heat to 350 degrees. Return the turkey to the oven and roast, basting with the pan juices every 30 minutes or so, until a thermometer inserted into the thigh reads 170 degrees, about 2 ½ hours. Remove the turkey and allow to stand at least 30 minutes before carving.

General tips (regardless of method)

• Rinse the turkey thoroughly and pat dry before roasting. Better yet, set the rinsed, patted turkey on a deep platter or in a pan and refrigerate overnight. This draws out excess moisture so the skin roasts up crisp and crackly.

• Bring the turkey to room temperature before roasting to ensure that it cooks evenly.

• Always check for doneness by using a meat thermometer. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, but not touching the bone. It should read 165 degrees; the turkey will continue to cook after it's removed from the oven.

• Allow the meat to rest at least 30 minutes so that the juices redistribute throughout.