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Taming Your Turkey: A Thanksgiving Guide

My head is swimming with turkeys. Every magazine I open, every talk show…it’s all about the big T-day.  If turkey has become the all-American symbol for sustenance and gratitude, family times and comfort, then serving up a good turkey sure piles on the pressure!  Dried out, crusty white meat covered in gloppy, viscous gravy is not what warm and fuzzy Thanksgiving imagery is made of.    So much time and planning is spent on what often ends up being a meal you’d rather forget.  Don’t despair (or make reservations)!  Here’s a little Turkey 101, or more specifically Kosher Turkey 101 to ensure the kind of Thanksgiving you’re hoping to remember.   So grab a cup of tea, sit back and read on.

The Challenge

Thanksgiving guides are replete with Do’s and Don’ts, fancy equipment and paraphernalia, and charts (I love charts!) all dedicated to the noble task of producing a)an attractive bird with b)crispy skin and most importantly c)tender moist meat that is flavorful and juicy.  That is the goal, and not always an easily achievable one, as preparing a good turkey poses many challenges: First, it can have a bland flavor, often requiring a boost.  Second, there’s the technical issue that the white meat cooks faster than the dark meat, often resulting in a bird that is either dried out or raw. And finally, turkey roasts for a long time, so you’d better time it right — in time for dinner.

Planning Ahead (…Thanksgiving is in a week, so that means NOW!)

  • Get outfitted.  Don’t waste precious time trying to find the right equipment that will make your cooking go more smoothly on the day of (and running out to the market on Thanksgiving Day is never a good use of time or energy).  Here are a few items to consider using/purchasing/borrowing:
  • Heavy-duty roasting pan. While it’s true that a disposable roasting pan provides an easy clean-up, the benefits of a good heavy-duty roasting pan include better and more even conduction of heat as well as a terrifically easy way to deglaze the wonderful pan juices to make gravy (since the pan can go right on the fire).
  • U- or V-shaped roasting rack. This promotes an even circulation of heat around the meat and prevents the turkey from getting soggy after sitting in the pan juices.
  • Carving set. A good sharp carving knife will yield thin turkey slices (without shredding it to pieces) with ease.  A 2-pronged carving fork will hold that baby in place without slippage during carving.
  • Meat Thermometer. Cooking a turkey is not rocket science…but it is science.  Remove the guesswork by properly gauging temperature.  Your bird will give you a big, juicy “thank you”!  
  • Twine.  A sturdy cotton twine is useful to tie the legs together before roasting. Don’t forget to remove the string before serving.
  • Baster (optional).  A good baster enables you to quickly draw large quantities of liquid from the bottom of the roasting pan and release them on top of the bird before too much heat escapes from the oven; plus, it gives you a longer reach than a spoon, so you won’t burn yourself.
  • Fat Separator (Optional).  When making gravy, you’ll need to separate the fat from the pan juices. You can do this with a ladle, but this specially designed cup makes the process quick and easy with a low spout that allows you to pour off the liquid, leaving the fat behind.
  • Make a menu and cooking plan. It pays to be a little organized and spend 10 minutes now to save hours later.   First, make your menu and shopping lists.  Then spend another 5 minutes to organize the cooking tasks, starting from the day of Thanksgiving and then working backwards, breaking down and assigning tasks that can be done 1, 2, or more days in advance (….since most people can’t quit their jobs to prepare for a 3-hour meal).    If using a frozen bird, allow ample time for defrosting in the schedule (see below).

Preparing the bird

  • How big is big enough? As a general rule, purchase a turkey that is approximately 1 pound per person.  If leftovers are desired, then 1½ pounds per person (for example, a 12-14 lb. will feed 8).
  • Defrosting. If using a frozen bird, allow about 24 hours per 4-5 lbs. defrosting in your refrigerator (the USDA tells you not to leave it out on the counter to defrost), which means you’ll need 3-5 days depending on the size of the bird.  A cold water bath is a quicker method, but ice or new cold water must be added/replaced to maintain the cold temperature.
  • Cleaning the bird. The turkey should be washed inside and out, taking care to remove the neck/giblets from inside the cavity (and reserved for later use).  A sharp knife or tweezers is helpful in removing any leftover pinfeathers or quills.  Wash and pat dry with paper toweling.

Roasting with Flavor

There are many ways to boost moisture and flavor when roasting a turkey, but not all of them are necessarily applicable when roasting a kosher turkey.  Brining is a very popular method that uses a saltwater solution to ensure a full distribution of flavor…but the koshering process takes care of that for us, so we’re one step ahead.  Slathering butter all over the turkey skin (or underneath) is a great way of boosting moisture…but that’s not kosher.  Moving right along…

Some people inject their turkeys with some kind of fat, be it butter (not in our case), or olive oil.  I’m content with a good old spice or herb rub, which if applied in advance can act like a marinade.  In addition, I recommend stuffing the cavity not with stuffing (more on that in a minute), but rather with aromatics (like onion, herbs, lemon, etc.) that will help infuse flavor through circulation from the cavity while cooking.  You can try some or all of these methods and decide which suits you…or your turkey.

Stuffing and Trussing

There is nothing quite as good as stuffing made inside the bird, all soaked up with the turkey juices and fatty deliciousness. But the verdict has been out for some time now that stuffing cooked in the bird can present food safety issues as the stuffing is often not done when the meat is.  Additionally, the stuffing can throw off how evenly the meat is cooked, as it can restrict proper air circulation in the bird during the cooking process.    Bottom line recommendation: stuff your turkey with aromatics and make your stuffing separately, but do add in extra stock/rendered turkey fat to make up for the turkey juices it would have absorbed inside.

Once your bird is prepared, place on a rack in your roasting pan.  It is a good idea to tie the turkey’s legs together with kitchen twine, both for a nice neat appearance and also to keep inside whatever was intended to stay that way.

Roasting temperatures and times

Says the old adage “there are many ways to skin a cat”…or in this case – to roast a turkey.  To avoid having dried out white meat, many favor starting the cooking breast side down and then flipping it in the last hour or so to brown the breast.  If you have a very large Turkey, this may be somewhat impractical as it is cumbersome to accomplish.  In this case, tent foil over the turkey to protect the breast from the heat.  Then uncover for the last 30-60 minutes to brown and crisp the skin.  Some brown their skin at the start with a blast of high heat (say 450-500°) for about 30 minutes, and then lower the oven temperature to 325-350° for a slow and tender roasting.  Either way you choose, don’t be afraid to tent foil if the skin is browning to fast.  The turkey is done, according to the USDA, when it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degree Fahrenheit – take temperature in the thigh or under the wing.  Don’t forget: once the turkey is out of the oven, the internal temperature will continue to rise an additional 10-15 degrees when resting (so people who like a very juicy turkey might remove it a few degrees lower).

Size of Turkey: Roast Time: Temperature:
If your turkey weighs 12 to 14 pounds,
roast it for:
2 1/4 to 2 1/2 hours
2 1/2 to 2 3/4 hours
2 3/4 to 3 hours
3 to 3 3/4 hours
425°F
400°F
350°F
325°F
If your turkey weighs 15 to 16 pounds,
roast it for:
3 to 3 1/4 hours
3 1/4 to 3 1/2 hours
3 1/2 to 3 3/4 hours
3 3/4 to 4 hours
425°F
400°F
350°F
325°F
If your turkey weighs 18 to 20 pounds,
roast it for:
3 1/2 to 3 3/4 hours
3 3/4 to 4 hours
4 to 4 1/4 hours
4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
425°F
400°F
350°F
325°F
If your turkey weighs 21 to 22 pounds,
roast it for:
4 to 4 1/4 hours
4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
4 1/2 to 4 3/4
4 3/4 to 5 hours
425°F
400°F
350°F
325°F
If your turkey weighs 24 pounds,
roast it for:
4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
4 1/2 to 4 3/4 hours
4 3/4 to 5 hours
5 to 5 1/4 hours
425°F
400°F
350°F
325°F

To Baste or Not to Baste?

This has become quite a dispute, as traditional recipes always called for basting, a simple step of opening the oven to squirt the pan juices over the turkey.  The goal of basting is to help the browning and improve moisture.  Many argue that it is not necessary to baste a turkey that has been brined or injected with fat, especially since opening the oven door lowers the temperature and requires the bird to roast longer.   Since you probably aren’t doing these things anyway, basting can be helpful in replacing moisture to the skin, perhaps every 45 minutes throughout cooking.

Resting

Even if you’ve cooked your turkey to perfection, it would be a shame to needlessly dry out your turkey by carving before the bird has ample time to rest.  Give at least 20 minutes resting time to allow juices to settle back and reabsorb into the meat (turkey will stay hot while resting for up to 40 minutes, tented with foil).  Carving immediately will let the juices out…and they won’t come back!  In the meantime, you can make your gravy.

Gravy…The Finishing Touch

I never grew up eating thick turkey gravy.  My mother served the turkey with the delicious pan juices on the side. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.  But if your thanksgiving dreams are those made of thick, luscious gravy that blankets your turkey, read on.  Let’s break down basic pan gravy into steps:

  1. Pour off the pan juices into a measuring cup or fat separator.  Allow the juices to settle and spoon fat off the top (reserving fat)
  2. Pour the juices back into the pan and place the roasting pan over the burners on medium heat.  Add wine or stock (or both) and scrape up browned bits, dissolving them into the liquid.
  3. Thicken it.  Sprinkling flour or cornstarch will make lumpy, bumpy gravy.  How do you thicken without lumps? A roux is the most common method (although not the only one!): cook a little flour with an equal amount of fat until a paste forms and begins to brown.  Then pour in the wine/stock mixture and whisk until the roux dissolves and thickens the gravy.
  4. Season to taste with salt, pepper or other seasonings.

Once you know the basic steps, you can change the flavorings and get creative.

Armed with all this knowledge, it’s time to carve your turkey and serve it up with confidence and joy, knowing that we live in a country that actually has a holiday dedicated to the purpose of expressing gratitude for that which we have.  You have much to be grateful for, among them that your turkey is finally done and done well.

Herb-Roasted Turkey with Cider Gravy

Serves 8-10

12-14 lb. whole turkey

3 tbsp. fresh chopped sage, plus 2 sprigs for cavity

2 tbsp. fresh chopped thyme, plus 2 springs for cavity

2 tsp. dried crumbled rosemary

¼ cup minced parsley

1 ½ tsp. black pepper

¾ tsp. allspice

1/3 cup olive oil

2 apples, quartered

2 small onions, quartered

½ fennel bulb, cut in chunks

1 ½ cups apple cider

Cider Gravy

4 cups chicken or turkey stock

2 cups apple cider

1 shallot, minced

1/3 cup reserved turkey fat

1/3 cup flour

2 tbsp. apple liqueur

1 tsp. fresh minced thyme

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the Turkey:

Preheat oven to 350°.

Remove neck from cavity and reserve.  Rinse turkey inside and out.  Pat dry with paper towels.  Combine 3 tbsp. sage, 2 tbsp. thyme, rosemary, parsley, pepper, allspice and olive oil in a small bowl.  Mix to blend.  Rub herb paste all over turkey.  Stuff cavity with apples, onions, fennel and herb sprigs.  Tie legs together with twine.  Transfer to V- or U- rack in roasting pan, breast-side down.  Pour ½ cup apple cider into the bottom of the pan, add reserved neck and place in the oven for 45 minutes.  Pour additional ½ cup apple cider over turkey, basting all over.

Roast for another 1 ½ hours, basting every 45 minutes (tent with foil if getting too brown).  Carefully turn turkey over so that breast side is up.  Baste with pan juices (add additional ½ cup cider if pan is getting dry).   Continue to roast, basting occasionally, until internal temperature reaches 165° (tent with foil if getting too brown).   Remove from oven.  Tilt turkey downward so that the juices from the cavity run out into the pan. Transfer rack with turkey to a cutting board and allow to rest until serving time.

For the Gravy:

DO AHEAD: this can be started while turkey is cooking. 🙂

Place stock and 2 cups cider in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer until mixture is reduced by almost half, about 20 minutes.

This next part has to wait for the turkey to be finished. 🙁

Pour pan juices into a measuring cup or fat separator (discard neck).  Allow to settle, then spoon off fat into a separate cup.  Place roasting pan over 2 burners on medium heat.  Add 1/3 cup reserved fat back into the pan, add shallot and sauté for about 3-4 minutes.  Sprinkle flour into the pan.  Whisk until roux is light brown, about 2 minutes. Pour reserved pan juices, reduced cider-stock mixture, and liqueur into the pan, scraping up browned bits and whisking to blend until mixture is smooth.  Add thyme, salt and pepper, and continue to simmer until gravy is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 8-10 minutes. Season to taste and serve alongside turkey.

No thanksgiving menu is complete without a good recipe for yams to serve with your turkey – this one is my family’s favorite.

Maple Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Serves 4-6.

½ cup pure maple syrup

¼ cup dark brown sugar

¼ tsp. cinnamon

1 tbsp. dark rum

½ tsp. vanilla

3 large yams, scrubbed (not peeled), and thinly sliced about ¼ inch thick into disks.

1/3 cup olive oil

Kosher salt to taste (about 2-3 tsp.)

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425°.  Prepare two baking sheets, lined with tin foil.  Arrange racks in the upper third of the oven (closest to the heating element).

In a small bowl, combine maple syrup, brown sugar, cinnamon, rum, and vanilla.  Whisk to blend. Set aside.

Place sliced sweet potatoes on the baking sheets and spread evenly in a single layer.  Drizzle olive oil over the potatoes, then season liberally with salt and pepper.  Toss to coat.  Drizzle maple mixture over sweet potatoes and toss to coat. Spread out evenly again in a single layer and place in preheated oven.  Roast for about 20 minutes, tossing and turning to coat about every 6 or 7 minutes.  The sweet potatoes are done when they are tender, well glazed and slightly shriveled.  Remove from oven, transfer to a serving bowl and enjoy!

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!
-Naomi Ross and the Park East Kosher Family

By Naomi Ross

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