I’ve cooked several lifetimes worth of turkeys. Being a food writer will do that to a person. Such vast experience has left me with no desire to cook one ever again. It has also left me with a remarkable ability to cook a turkey—blindfolded if necessary—and to do it well. Like, really well. People say things like, “Holy shit, this is the best turkey I’ve ever tasted,” and, “Why is this turkey so much better than every other turkey I’ve ever eaten?” and, “Molly, will you marry me?”
It seems wrong to keep this precious knowledge to myself, especially in November, when so many people are suffering, overwhelmed by what they mistakenly think is the Herculean task of cooking a turkey. That’s their first problem: they let the turkey get into their head. Like dealing with your drunken aunt’s insults at the dining table, cooking a turkey is primarily a mental game and you need to start from a position of confidence, with a take-no-prisoners attitude. Then, do as I do, and be the boss of that bird:
1. Salt the Shit Out of the Turkey
I know, you’ve heard all about this brining thing. If you want the hassle of creating gallons of brine and figuring out a place where your turkey can simultaneously be submerged in the brine and kept cold, knock yourself out. I stopped brining turkeys years ago. I just salt them. It’s easier, it makes a crazy delicious and moist bird, and you don’t risk overdoing it and ending up with something more sea sponge than poultry. On Monday, I work gobs of salt into every part of the turkey. I salt it inside and out. Instead of letting the turkey get under your skin, get salt under its skin. Then I plop it in a pan, cover it, and stick it back in the fridge. On Wednesday, I uncover it, pour off any liquid in the pan, and put it back in the fridge uncovered so the skin can dry out—all the better to crisp up! Early on Thursday I take it out to let off any chill, which helps it cook more evenly. Cooking a cold bird is the primary cause of The-Breast-Is-Dried-Out-But-The-Thighs-Are-Bloody syndrome. Food safety experts will tell you not to leave the turkey out for hours; you may want to listen to them or you may want a delicious turkey. The choice is yours!
2. Layer On Some Fat
Here’s another reason to let the turkey de-chill before cooking: an ice-cold bird is near impossible to slather with butter, and turkey rewards me with moist meat and crisp skin in exchange for said butter massage. If newspaper food sections and television cooking segments are to be believed, people around the country live in mortal fear of a dry turkey. I figure I’d mention this easy work-around.
I’ve also been known to lay slices of bacon or pancetta all over the breast to give it a bit of protection from the heat. This tactic also results in crackling turkey-flavored bacon for me to nosh on while finishing up the feast. You may choose to share it, but that’s fucking insane— Who’s watching football? Them! Who’s making this bird? You! So who gets the bacon? It’s simple math.
3. Put the Turkey Someplace Crazy Hot
For most of you, this is an oven. For me, it’s a grill. Wherever it is, make it hot. Really hot. The someplace hot may, if you’re a bit nuts, be a giant vat of oil because you’ve decided to deep-fry your turkey. Color me impressed.
Note: Grilling the turkey frees up valuable oven space for roasting brussels sprouts and re-heating all those crap dishes your guests insisted on bringing to “help.” If you’ve put the bacon slices on like I told you to, your yard and possibly even your neighborhood with be perfumed with the scent of cooking bacon and you’ll have something pithy to say if you’re gathered with people who insist everyone at the table say what they’re thankful for. I know I’m always thankful that “I’m grateful for a deck that smells of bacon” keeps me from saying, “I’m grateful for all the times I haven’t had to go around the table like it’s kindergarten saying what I’m grateful for.”
4. Cook the Turkey Until It Is Done
But how long do I cook the turkey, you’re asking. You’re pleading. You’re emailing and texting and tweeting me all Thursday morning. Such a question forces me to state the obvious: you cook it till it’s done. If you’re into gadgets, go buy a fancy digital thermometer. But while your fix-it friend is busy figuring out how to replace the batteries, you can just wiggle the leg. Does it feel loose? Like your son could pretty much rip it off and gnaw on it Henry VIII-style? The bird is done.
How big the turkey is, the temperature and size and altitude of your oven are all going to factor into the magical, mystical equation. Another important factor will be how often you and your nosey relatives open the oven door to check on its progress.
5. Give the Bird a Break
After all the salting, butter-massaging, roasting, and wiggling, your turkey is exhausted. The key to being a good boss is knowing when to push and when to let up. Let the bird hang out for awhile before you attack it. Give it at least half an hour. Yep. Just let it sit there and mellow under a cozy blanket of foil. The turkey will think all the fuss is over, relax, and let all its yummy juices settle back in place after their frantic attempts to escape the protein as it cooked. Plus, it will give you time to eat that bacon, pound back a Manhattan, and try to remember why all those damn people are in your house.