Turkey is weird in that it is often treated as a problem to be solved. Probably because of the built-in expectation that you MUST COOK A TURKEY annually on the fourth Thursday of every November. And no one likes being told what to do.
Furthermore, if you're operating perhaps unenthusiastically out of a sense of duty, you might not be putting the kind of care and preparation into this large bird animal that it so manifestly deserves.
You see, I love love love turkey. I don't know why I don't cook it more. I guess we cook three turkeys a year at our house. It's sort of an undertaking, but considering how delicious it is when done properly and how MUCH good eating you can get out of it, I am baffled that whole turkeys are cooked so rarely in my home or any other.
Get your hands on the bird at least three days before you want to cook it. If it is a frozen bird, you want to get it at least five days before you cook it, so you can defrost it properly. I'm going to assume you start here with an unfrozen bird.
Rarity of turkey cooking may be due in part to supply. Supermarkets aren't necessarily going to stock them all year, and getting a good bird may be a little bit of a production.
If you're going to buy a turkey, here's what you can do.
You can try to find a specialty place that sells fresh poultry. Ideally some alive turkeys are around that you can have made available for cooking. In Chicago, we have various fresh-kill places that can get you a good bird in short order. If you don't live in a city, you might have to order one. Order at least a few weeks out for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
If you buy your turkey at the grocery store (they are a lot cheaper, so I get it), you want a "natural" turkey, meaning one that has been minimally processed. Definitely avoid one that is preseasoned in any way (including "kosher" turkeys, which are pre-salted). You're going to do that yourself. This part is important, and I can't really help you with prep if you get a pre-salted bird etc. The cooking part will still be relevant, I guess, but anything involving adding stuff to the bird, I can't vouch for it if the bird is pretreated.
Note: all turkeys are hormone-free, and all turkeys are essentially "free range." Those terms mean nothing. "Natural" birds probably have not been given antibiotics, which is a plus.
I like mid-range weights for my turkeys. Meat/bone ratio is about right with a 15lb bird. You want 1.5-2lbs/person, higher end of that if you want leftovers beyond soup. I don't like going over 18lbs absolute max on a given bird, no matter what. I'd rather cook two small birds than one enormo one. Also, enormo birds are typically bred for max meat production and not at all for flavor.
OK, so you have a bird, and it's three or four days before you want to eat it.
Here's what else you'll want to have on hand:
Butter, preferably unsalted
Midyett Premium Rub
(2) large food-grade plastic bags, big enough to fit the bird in easily
A couple of turkey cooking things (see below)
Room in your fridge for a turkey
Turkey cooking things:
You need at least a roasting pan, and I'd suggest you get a real one and not use one of the flimsy aluminum disposable guys, which may result in much sorrow in the form of burnt juices (a/k/a gravy dearth).
Also, maybe go ahead and get a turkey rack. It holds the turkey up off the pan. It improves circulation, cuts cooking time, and keeps the bottom of the turkey from sticking to the pan. They're <$20 any number of places. Just get the plain old V-shaped turkey rack, unless you're making a stupidly huge bird against my advice, in which case you may need a rack with adjustable sides.
Meat thermometer...a probe thermometer that can be read outside of the oven is ideal. Among instant-read thermometers (next best thing), the gold standard is the Thermapen. You can get knockoffs that probably aren't as good but may work fine. If you're using something else, I would check the calibration, which you can do either with ice water or boiling water (the latter involves a little math). Google "meat thermometer calibration" or something similar. You want an accurate thermometer.
Salting a bird and letting it sit for a few days is transformative. That's all there is to it. You skip this step, and I dunno maybe it'll be OK but it won't be nearly as good as it could have been.
Also, I highly recommend this approach over brining the bird in a big pot of salty water. Brining gets salt into the meat, but it also gets extra water in there, and it can produce a turkey that is kind of washed-out in terms of flavor and hammy in texture. It's not the worst thing in the world, but if you can do better, why not do better?
Here's what I do, and I do it three days before I'm going to cook the bird, ideally starting on a morning.
I take plenty of the aforementioned herbs, strip the leaves from the stems, and chop the leaves very finely. Then I put them in a bowl, and I add salt by eye. One good method is a tablespoon per 5lbs of turkey, but honestly I think I use more. You can't really screw this up unless you overdo or underdo it by a lot.
At this stage, I add about 1/3 as much Midyett Premium Rub as I've added in salt. There's more Rub coming later. I like a pretty traditional turkey flavor profile, though. You could go nuts with the Rub here and cut back on the other stuff if you like.
I like to mash the mixture together at this point. I use a mortar and pestle, but you can do it however you want. I wouldn't use a food processor, though. I think it brutalizes the leaves and makes them sad.
Remove the neck and giblets from the turkey cavity. Take out the dumb little plastic pop-up thermometer if there is one. Do NOT rinse the bird. Sprinkle the mixture pretty liberally on all surfaces of the bird and in the body cavity. Pat it on the outside.
Now you want to wrangle the bird into the big plastic bag you got. Tie it up. Then you want to wash up and wrangle THAT filled bag into another bag. You should have a pretty clean package at this point, and you can wipe off the outside of it with no worry of getting cleaning stuff on the bird itself.
Put the turkey breast-side down in the fridge.
The turkey will be in the fridge for three days. Turn it every 12hrs or so, so it spends some time on all four "sides" of the bird.
Here's what will happen:
Day 1 - The salt you applied will draw water from the bird, which you will see in the bag.
Day 2 - Max water is out of bird. Bird meat begins to pull in the fluid in the bag, which is water + salt + Rub + herbal oils.
Day 3 - Max fluid take-up is complete. Relatively little fluid left in the bag.
The morning of the third day, take out a couple sticks of unsalted butter to soften at room temperature. Take the bird out of the fridge. Brush off the bits of herb stuck to it. I don't worry about getting all of them. Put it back in the fridge uncovered and let it sit for an hour or so to dry out the skin a little bit.
Turn on the oven and preheat...to what temp? Oh, how about 425 deg F. You'll only cook at that temp for half an hour, supposedly to get you crispier skin, which I endorse. Some recipes suggest as high as 500 deg F for this stage, but I think that's a bit much. After that initial skin-blast, you'll turn down the oven to 350 deg F. Honestly, you could just stick to 350 deg F for the whole cook if you like.
Remove the bird from the fridge. Unwrap a stick of butter. Very gently raise the skin on the turkey breast up off the meat to create a pocket; the skin is still attached to the turkey, but it's like it has a little sack on it. Stick a blob of butter in there and work it into the pocket. You can't really overdo this part. Smear the rest of the bird with butter; you may need more than one stick.
At this point, I dust the bird with Midyett Premium Rub. I put it on pretty lightly. You've just infused the bird with salt and herbs and some Rub, so you don't need to provide a large amount of seasoning on the skin. But most of that flavor is in the bird meat now, not on the skin and dusting the skin will provide a nice, complimentary layer of flavor.
Once the turkey has been out of the fridge for about an hour total, you can put it in the oven.
After 30min, turn down the oven to 350 deg F if it's not there already.
Every 30min or so after this point, check to see if the fluid in the pan looks OK, if there is any. If it's drying up, feel free to add a little water or broth to the pan, no more than about 1/4" deep.
If you are cooking a smaller bird or using a convection oven, start paying attention to bird temp at the 90min mark. Conventional oven with >13lb bird, you can probably start checking at the 2hr mark.
When is it done? I want the bird to measure about 165 deg F at the deepest part of the thigh. If you want to go lower...that's up to you. I don't, and if the bird is a little above that, I'm fine with it. I have yet to dry out a properly prepared bird, and I like poultry on the more done side of things.
Make sure you avoid touching the thermometer's probe to the bone. Measure in a couple spots, but don't turn it into a pincushion or you'll lose too much fluid. If you think it's up to temp, pull the turkey. Tilt it neck-side up to allow juices in the cavity to flow into the roasting pan. Tent it with foil, and do not touch it for 30min.
After 30min, remove the bird and rack and put them on a cutting board or platter. Use the drippings in the pan to make gravy. Gravy is a whole other thing; maybe we'll fill that in later!
Now you have to carve the bird. You know what? I think carving is why people hardly ever make turkey. I think it intimidates them. Well, it's not so bad.
Cut off the legs at the main joint between the thigh and leg bone. Cut off the wings right at the body of the bird. Cut off both lobes of the breast with two cuts each: straight down from the top and in but slightly up on the sides, over the bird's ribs.
Slice the lobes of the breast across the lobe, into slices at least 1/2" thick. The meat will be cut across the grain and be easier to eat. Also, the slices will have a nice strip of skin with each one.
Pull off other dark meat to suit the size of your table. Serve with gravy and eat.
What you need to do to grill things...go!
Get this stuff:
So there's grilling and there's smoking. Grilling is cooking over a fire at moderate to high heat for a short time. Smoking (barbecuing) is cooking over smoke at low temperature for a long time. This here tutorial thingy is about grilling.
Now...if you have a gas grill...no judging. I use 'em when they are around. Just fire it up and grill the food. If you have multiple burners and can afford to leave one unlit, do that. You can move things over to that part of the grill to sit for a bit, if they get cooked enough and you need to catch up with other stuff or whatever. And also ignore the rest of this thing.
If you do not have a gas grill...are they gone? OK...good for you. Man, who wants to cook on one of those things? You might as well stay inside, right? Don't you feel bad for those people? Me too. Ugh caveman cook food wood fire, me big caveman. So anyway, let's move on with real grilling.
Fill a charcoal chimney with charcoal and get it going. Use hardwood (a/k/a "lump") charcoal, if at all possible. Briquettes are a total drag for smoking, but you can get away with them when grilling. Still, I don't recommend them. They don't burn as hot as lump, they don't smell or taste as good, and they produce a ton of ash.
Now...if you are cooking just a bit of food, or you're cooking just veggies for some reason, or even cooking real thin stuff like bulgogi or cutlets, you might only want a half-chimney of charcoal. And I don't clear out the grill if there's viable charcoal in the bottom (as opposed to just ash, which I do trash)--if you have a bunch of leftover charcoal in there, then a half-chimney might be the ticket for your cook.
I use some kind of pulpy paper (newspaper is ideal) crumpled up to light the chimney. Crumple the paper into balls, put it on a non-flammable surface like concrete or the bottom of your grill, light it on fire, and put the chimney with charcoal in it on top of the now-burning paper. You can use a crumpled-up paper bag, as well, but it might not catch as quickly (hint: light a candle, drip wax on the paper, and light the waxy paper with the candle--wax is an accelerant). You know what else works great? Peanut shells. Seriously great for lighting a fire.
Anyway, LIGHT IT, then let the chimney run until the top of it sees ash. You should have at least a bit of white ash on the top of the charcoal in there. Then dump the coals into the grill...
...ideally leaving about a quarter of the available space largely free of charcoal.
Why? So you will feel smart when you have a steak or piece of chicken or charred pepper that is done early and you want to keep it warm but not full-on cooking for another five minutes.
The charcoal you have in there? You ideally want it spread out evenly over the area you DID want covered. That can be hard to do pouring charcoal out of a chimney. Maybe move coals around with tongs to get it evenish. Once you grill a bunch, you get good at managing the hot and cool spots, and maybe this will not matter much.
If you have wood to add here...add it. Use only hardwood, and not too much. You're only going to get a short amount of time with the smoke. It's going to be an accent, not a primary element as in smoking. Let it burn a bit before putting anything on the grill.
For grilling, I would suggest opening the bottom damper on the grill completely. Get it hot. And you may or may not be using the grill cover. If I'm cooking sausage or hot dogs or burgers, I do those cooks with an open grill mostly (though I do smoke sausage at low temperature sometimes when barbecuing). Steaks, I'll use the lid, but usually when I do put the lid on over steaks, I close off all dampers completely.
A note on burning grease and fat: it's not a major flavor issue when grilling like it is with barbecue, mostly because the temperature of a grilling fire is so much hotter than a smoking fire. The grease burns off more quickly and completely. The food isn't lingering over the smoldering grease fire for many many minutes, soaking up the petroleum taste. If anything, a little beef grease just adds some grilly grillness on the flavor front--but only at grilling temps! You want to avoid burning grease completely on a low and slow cook.
Anyway, if your grill is hot, good job. You're ready to grill now.
What you need to smoke meat:
And now...here's how you set up your grill to smoke meat.
We're talking kettle grills and kamado-style smokers like the Big Green Egg and so forth. If you have something fancier like an offset smoker or whatever, good for you! But you can figure that out on your own!
Fill a charcoal chimney with charcoal and get it going. I'll assume you know how to use a charcoal chimney. Use hardwood charcoal, not briquettes. Briquettes are not pure wood. They have fillers like clay and other stuff in 'em. As a result, you're smoking your meat with whatever else is in the briquettes as well as whatever wood material is in there. Even if the fillers do not flavor the meat (they might), the non-wood stuff in there means they won't produce the same flavorful impact as hardwood charcoal. The filler also means briquettes ash a TON. Plus I don't think they last as long for low-temp cooks, maybe because they ash so much and kinda smother themselves or something, I don't know. I think they're a drag.
Fill the bottom of the smoker with unlit charcoal—”fill,” yeah…not FILL-fill. Just get a good one-chunk-thick layer of charcoal in there. Dump the chimney onto it once the chimney stuff is nice and hot.
Add 5-6 sizable chunks of hardwood to the fire—or less. I like a lot of early smoke myself, but you can overdo it, I guess. Spread the chunks out so they’re not clumped together.
What kind of wood? Hardwood of some kind. Hickory and oak are good for most everything, as are other nut woods like pecan. Cherry is good for cuts of beef. Apple is great for pork or chicken, just OK for beef (kind of light). I like mesquite, but it’s strong--I wouldn’t use it all alone if you can help it, and I wouldn't use it at all on anything but beef. A mix of wood will give you good, complex flavor.
The bottom damper on the grill should be maybe ½ way open and the top should be about the same. Just because that’s the middle and you can go up/down on either end from there.
Ideally you’ve got a thermometer on the lid of the grill. Shoot for 225°F or maybe 250°F tops. Overshooting is best to avoid—high temp wastes fuel and takes a long time to come down.
You’ll want to have some kind of two-level grill scene so you can put a drip pan between the fire and the meat. There is a variety of ways to do this—just depends on your grill deal. Maybe you have an offset smoker, and it’s a nonissue. But the drip pan should have a large surface, it should be pretty shallow (couple inches deep), it should not be right on the coals, and it should be maybe half full of water—room at the top for whatever grease falls into the pan.
The top grill goes above the drip pan—worst case, you can put the drip pan on the regular grill and balance a second grill on top of the drip pan. That would be wobbly, but I’ve done it and it works OK.
Just do not allow too much grease to get in the fire. It’s not like getting a little steak fat on the fire when grilling. A brisket, for example, puts out a lot of grease from the fatty point and the fat cap. If that grease gets into the fire to any great extent, you’ll end up with a hot-ass grease fire, greasy smoke, and meat that has this gross petrol taste. Even if other people don’t notice it, you will, and it will bum you out.
Once your drip pan is “secured” or at least there, with a grill above it...you're ready to put on the meat.
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Whenever we grill meat, I always suggest to use it and my wife generally agrees.
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