Sunday, November 25, 2012

Flipping the Bird

I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving. Above's the 13-pounder I roasted for our gathering. Not bad for a whole roast turkey noob, right? This is just out of the oven--after resting a half hour, the skin was even more bronzed and beautiful.

In preparing to take on the all-important Thanksgiving roast turkey, I referenced a number of sources to take in ideas on how to keep the meat flavorful and not dry. I'm happy to report that what I pulled together turned out very well, with dark and white meat, both, flavorful and moist. So how'd I do it? Well, read on and I'll tell ya all about it. I'll try to be brief, and break things down so that the steps are more digestible (figuratively speaking...).

Salting (Dry Brining)
This is really important. There's all sorts of writing about how salting, brining (wet or dry), or otherwise marinating meats works, chemically, to improve moisture retention when cooking, so you don't end up with a hunk of cardboard to chew on. This piece on dry versus wet brining at Serious Eats is really good. Stick with dry brining; it takes up less space (a big deal! otherwise you need a huge refrigerator or a big cooler with lots of ice) and has better results when it comes to flavor. Bottom line is that you need to rub the surfaces of your turkey (or whatever meat you're cooking) with salt, especially if you work it under the skin, and let the salt it do its thing overnight or thereabouts.

Once the brining step is done, rinse off the salt on the outside of the skin and underneath the skin. If you don't, your bird will end up too salty. Use paper towels to dry the turkey and then let it air dry a while. Once it's dried off--

Season Under the Skin
The skin acts as a barrier between your seasoning and the meat. Same thing as with the salt. If you work under the skin, you'll be applying your seasoning directly to the meat. If you're using butter or oil (fats), rubbing them under the skin also helps keep the meat moist while flavoring it as well. Of course, the skin is itself a delicious part of the bird, and should be seasoned, too. So do both; rub your seasoned butter (Earth Balance in my case) both under and over the skin (but more under).

Trussed Up Like a...Turkey...
Tying up your roast, whether chicken or turkey, keeps the roast in a tight package, which helps keep outlying parts from cooking too quickly.

And now for that ever-vexing problem: how to cook the dark meat to doneness (around 170-175 F) without drying out the white meat (which is done at 165 F). This page gives a good overview of the safe temperature (USDA recommends 165 F for all parts of poultry) versus ideal temperature for doneness. I also relied on America's Test Kitchen's (ATK) guidance a lot in their The New Best Recipe, and this is where the title of this post comes from (of course the joke had to be made).

Flipping the Bird
While roast chicken and turkey recipes will commonly tell you to roast the birds breast side up (for browning of the skin), you actually want to roast them breast side down for at least part of the time, and finish breast side up to brown the skin. This keeps the white meat from cooking too quickly, as it cooks faster than does dark meat. I don't know about the science of this, but I'm guessing it's because the juices drip downward, keeping the bottom parts moister, as well as the bottom's being exposed to less circulating dry air.

[On a related note, if you don't use a roasting rack, the bird ends up sitting in the juices at the bottom of the pan, which keeps the bottom moist, but also results in flabby skin as this page discusses.]

So following ATK's approach, I started the bird breast side down for 45 minutes, then flipped it on one side for 15 minutes, then the other side for another 15 minutes, and finally roasting it breast side up for the final 45 minutes. I'm not sure the two side flips are really necessary. Maybe you could just do an hour breast side down and then the remaining time breast side up. Or maybe it helps get the dark meat (legs and wings on the sides) cooked through without drying out the breast.

It seems really risky flipping a giant roast, but the way ATK says to do it works well. Fold up a paper towel for each hand and just directly handle the bird. This gives you much better control than trying to use ladles, for example.

Insert Legs First
The back of the oven is hotter than the front of the oven because you let out hot air every time you open the oven to flip the bird, check the temperature, and/or baste. Pictured below is the wrong way to put your turkey in the oven. I only remembered the legs-first tip when in the last stage of roasting I was having trouble with the dark meat not cooking fast enough relative to the white meat. Once I reversed the orientation, everything went perfectly.

Remove Just Before It's Done
The interior of your roast will continue to heat up even after you pull it out of the oven. This is because heat will distribute from the hotter exterior to the cooler interior (as well as to the surrounding environment) as the roast rests. Thus, you should actually pull the turkey out of the oven when the thickest part of the breast registers 160 F on an instant-read thermometer, and the deepest part of the thigh registers 165-170 F. Speaking of thermometers...

Use an Instant-Read Thermometer
This is the most accurate way to keep track of the meat's progress. Pop-up thermometers won't tell you how many degrees you have to go. And whether instant-read or pop-up, you'll want to monitor the turkey carefully as it approaches the finish line--while avoiding opening the oven too frequently. As Alton Brown discusses, opening the door too frequently cools the oven temperature, requiring longer roasting time, leading to a drier result. (This is why he recommends not basting. But if you have to open the oven anyway, to flip the bird or check the temperature, you might as well, since it helps to flavor the skin and improve even browning.)

This is backwards.

Let It Rest
As mentioned above, the heat will continue to redistribute around the roast after its been removed from the oven. But on top of that, so will the juices. As the meat cools, the muscle fibers relax, allowing them to hold more fluid, leading to less juices lost when you cut the roast, and more evenly juicy bites. Tent the roast with foil while it rests to avoid too much heat loss to the environment.

And that's it! Those are my aggregated technique tips for how to roast a succulent turkey.

It's too late for Thanksgiving this year, but maybe you're having turkey for other winter gatherings. In any case, here's my recipe this time 'round:

Dry Brined Roast Turkey

1 turkey, 12-14 lbs (1 to 1 1/2 pounds per person), rinsed; giblets, nect, and tailpiece removed and reserved for gravy
1/4 cup coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1 TBS sugar
1 tsp pepper

herbed butter
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp dried parsley
1 TBS dried sage
1 TBS Herbes de Provence
1 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp paprika
(or whatever herbs you want to use)

3 medium onions, sliced or chopped coarsely
2 medium carrots, chopped coarsely
2 celery stalks, chopped coarsely
6 sprigs fresh thyme

Note: This recipe is not for a Kosher Bird, which is already brined. You only need to dry brine (salt rub) an unsalted frozen or fresh bird.
  1. Rinse the turkey under cold water and pat dry. Combine 1/4 cup salt, the sugar, and pepper in a bowl. Rub all over the turkey and inside the cavity (use food service gloves; the salt hurts after extended contact with your skin—or at least for me it does). Put turkey on a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered, at least 8 hours or overnight. Rinse well and pat dry.
  2. Mix the butter, parsley, sage, herbes de Provence, pepper, and paprika until combined. Reserve 4 tablespoons of the butter for your gravy, then rub the rest under and over the turkey skin on the breasts and legs (especially under the skin). Let the turkey stand 30 minutes at room temperature before roasting. The melted butter will thicken on contact with the cold turkey.
  3. Put the oven rack in the lowest position; preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Put two-thirds of the aromatics ingredients in the bottom of the roasting pan, and the remaining one-third in the turkey’s body cavity. Bring the legs together to tie a simple truss. Pour 1 cup of water over the vegetables in the pan. Put the turkey breast-side down on a roasting rack set over the vegetables in the roasting pan.
  4. Slide the turkey into the oven legs first (always). Roast 45 minutes. Remove pan from oven (close the oven door each time you do this) and baste turkey with juices at the bottom of the pan. With a folded up paper towel in each hand, flip the turkey on one side (thigh pointing up) and return to oven. Roast another 15 minutes. Remove pan, baste again, and flip turkey so the other thigh is pointing up. Return to oven and roast another 15 minutes. Remove turkey again, baste again, and flip turkey so the breast side is facing up. Return to oven and roast until breast registers 160-165 degrees Fahrenheit on an instant-read thermometer AND the thigh registers 170-175 degrees, 30-45 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest at least 20 minutes before carving.

Besides ATK, I also referenced these recipes in coming up with my approach.


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