Turkey used to be a once a year treat for me. At Echo Valley Farm the team raised and processed their own and we’ve been enjoying Thanksgiving now for at least a month. But supplies are running low and unless there’s one bird left in the freezer, I’m afraid pork is going to have to be the new turkey.
When it comes to choosing turkeys bigger does not mean better and heritage brands are often smaller and tastier. In Pescadero, Early Bird Ranch is taking pre-orders for fresh and they have frozen birds too that are not injected with saline. I really like Early Bird Ranch, please check them out.
Most people are hip as to why a bird 18 pounds or more is not desirable: the breasts cook before the legs and taste like sawdust. How to avoid the sawdust syndrome? Brine the bird, spatchcock it, cook legs and breasts speparate (confit legs and roast breasts for example), or choose smaller birds – you can cook two instead of one if space allows.
Figure about 1 to 1-1/2 pounds of meat per person. That range is generous to extremly generous and accounts for leftovers. 10 people? 10 pounds. Most restaurants serve meat portions around 6 to 8 ounces, or a half pound – discluding every single restaurant in Texas.
But how impressive is that big ol’ bird settin’ in the middle of the table? Yes, I know. Trust me, I know.
If you gotta go big and a bird in one piece is desired, then brine. It’s easy and shops like Williams-Sonoma carry large brining bags and intersting brining spice blends. You will need a 5 gallon container or bag. For an 18 pound bird brine overnight with: 7 quarts ice water, 1-1/2 cups coarse salt (dissolve 1 quart water with salt first to dissolve, then mix with the remaining 6 quarts of water).
For a traditional brine use: 5-6 bay leaves, 2 tablespoons of juniper berries, 1 tablespoon peppercorn, 2 lemons halved, and 6 twigs of thyme. You can get creative with the spice blends depending on your theme: Indian, South Western, Asian, etc. Some people like to add sugar to the brine water. I do not.
When ready to cook, take bird out of brine, rinse off, pat dry, and allow to come up to room temperature before roasting.
Take it from one who has cooked large birds for the director of the Michelin Guide in Paris and do not cook the turkey at a high temperature. 325˚F is good. A trick I learned at Guy Savoy is to start the temperature low (around 200˚F) and raise it 15 degrees every 10 minutes until the desired temperature is reached. Why? Because the bird adjusts to the heat and there is less chance that the skin will break. The color comes out uniform. And the bird stays juicier.
Figure 15 minutes cooking time per pound for an unstuffed turkey until the thigh meat registers 165˚F on a meat thermometer. The temperature will rise another 5 degrees while resting.
Let the bird rest in a warm place so it can reabsorb the juices into the muscle. Always, always, always rest the meat – even when you think you’ve overcooked it.
Whew! That about does it. Most important is the quality of the bird. It’s the one thing there really is no adjustment for.