Cooking turkey intimidates a lot of people.
I used to be the same way, and then I went to culinary school, and got over my fears of the giant bird.
I got over my fears not only because I learned a lot of useful stuff when it comes to successfully roasting large fowl, but also because I realized that there are much more difficult things to cook than turkeys and I should just stop being scared and get on with my bad self and cook the birds, and cook them well.
Over the years, I have managed to create a method, cobbled together from various sources: chefs, cookbooks, magazines, and my own personal innovations, which result in flavorful, moist turkey meat every time.
But you don’t need to do it all the way I do.
I don’t care if you brine your bird, or salt it, or just take it out of the package, rinse it and roast it. I don’t care if you butter the skin, shove butter under the skin, inject it with butter or eschew butter altogether. I really don’t care if you baste it or ignore it. I don’t care if you cook it breast down or breast up or in a bag or under a tent of foil.
I even don’t care if you try to set your house on fire by deep frying it on your enclosed back porch.
What I do care most about turkey is this: that you not force the bird to die a second death by cooking it nigh onto oblivion.
So, in the name of happy tastebuds on Thanksgiving, I am asking that you please don’t overcook your bird. If you don’t overcook your turkey, you will be guaranteed to have tasty, juicy bird for dinner.
Now, I am not saying I want you to eat your turkey rare. I am not that freaky.
The fact is, fowl is one of the few meats I cannot stomach rare to raw.
I know that the USDA tells you to cook it until your internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F.
Salmonella is killed at 160 degrees F.
The problem is that if you take your bird out of the oven when it registers an internal temperature of 165 degrees, and then let it rest on the counter for twenty minutes before you carve it, which you are supposed to do in order to allow the juices to sink to the center of the meat, the temperature will continue to rise, about ten or fifteen more degrees. The turkey’s own heat will continue cooking the meat–this is called “carry over cooking,” and is manipulated by chefs and skillful home cooks to get meats that are cooked to perfection on the table without stress every time.
But if you follow the USDA’s advice, you will end up eating meat that is cooked to 175-180 degrees F., which is going to be dry and sawdusty and godawful.
So, here is the deal–take your turkey out when it registers between 150 and 155 on the thermometer. As it rests before you carve it, it will rise in temperature to 160-165–which will kill salmonella without killing the flavor and texture of the bird.
That is my Thanksgiving homily for 2007. Don’t overcook your bird.
Treat it with the respect and love due to a critter who has died so that you may eat and enjoy its flesh.
There is no need to make it die another death by excessive application of heat.
For a more detailed explanation on how I cook turkeys, here is a post from two years ago where I report on my experiences of cooking a heritage breed turkey. It also outlines my usual method for cooking any turkey, as well as giving advice on how to cook a leaner, less breast-heavy turkey.
For recipes for my favorite turkey dressing, look at Four Directions Dressing,
And for a great traditional southern Thanksgiving pie, here is my version of Sweet Potato Pie, spiked with Irish Cream liquor.
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