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How to cook a perfect turkey

by Elana Horwich

November 21, 2013 | 11:42 am

Elana Horwich, far left, with her cooking students in her “Thanksgiving Turkey and Desserts” class. Photo courtesy of Elana Horwich

Elana Horwich, far left, with her cooking students in her “Thanksgiving Turkey and Desserts” class. Photo courtesy of Elana Horwich

It took a lot of stress and hard work to come up with this hassle-free turkey. Don’t think I didn’t personally slave just because I say it’s the easiest ever. It wasn’t easy to get here. Cookbooks were scoured, recipes were sent from friends, gravies were made and thrown out, my refrigerator was packed to the brim with cooked and uncooked turkey, butchers were consulted, and friends were summoned over to taste and critique. Finally, it has arrived.

Let’s start with what makes this bird so darn easy.

1. No brining. I call for a kosher turkey, which eliminates the need for brining. Kosher meat is salted and, in general, this creates automatically juicy poultry. Buying kosher, whether you’re Jewish or not, will save you time, stress and a mess. If a kosher turkey is not available, a brined bird will also work well.

2. No basting. The idea of having to open the oven at regular intervals to baste completely obliterates all desires in me to make a turkey. I don’t know why. I am sure it’s not such a big deal. It’s simply a psychological hurdle I don’t want to overcome. My food is good. I own a cooking school. People pay me to learn to make my food. I have never ever basted, and I’m not starting now. I don’t even own a baster. The End.

3. Quick cooking. We’re talking just under two hours for a small bird. And less than three for a larger one. Quicker doesn’t necessarily mean easier, I admit. If the turkey was in the oven for five hours and I didn’t have to touch it, I’d be equally as happy. But cooking the bird at a high temperature (450°F), as the culinary queen Ruth Reichl recommends in Gourmet, actually adds flavor by caramelizing the surface. And who’s complaining that our turkey will be done so soon!

4. No skin lifting and fancy flavorings. It’s not needed. I’ve tried. We’re sticking to olive oil, salt and pepper. The flavors will come from our pan juices … see below.

Now here are the tricks to make our easy turkey extra yummy.

A. We’re going to start roasting the turkey breast down so all the juices run into the white-meat breast. Then we turn it over to get a golden brown all over. That’s the only time you’ll have to touch the turkey as it cooks.

B. We’re going to stuff the turkey cavity with some roughly chopped and whole vegetables. This will “insulate” our turkey meat and keep it tender, but it will also contribute to a delicious flavor in the pan juices. This turkey will be served au jus, meaning with dollied-up pan juices and no floury thickening agents that would technically make it gravy. Also, we are not putting stuffing into this turkey. That would not make it The Easiest Turkey Ever. Please see my Nobel Prize-Winning Multi-Grain Stuffing Recipe. Separating the two will make your life easy. The following recipe serves 12 to 18 people.

Supplies you will need:

An instant read thermometer.
A roasting pan.
A roasting rack.
Kitchen twine.

PERFECT ROASTED TURKEY

1 (13- to 16-pound) kosher organic or brined turkey (remove and reserve the neck and bag of giblets)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 scant tablespoon salt
1 3/4 tablespoons freshly ground pepper

To stuff the turkey cavity:

Fresh thyme (half a bunch)
1 onion, cut in quarters, skin on
2 stalks celery
1 russet potato
1 to 2 carrots or parsnips
2 bay leaves
1 cup water or chicken broth

For the pan juices / gravy:

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 large shallots, finely chopped
4 stalks celery, finely chopped

Fresh thyme (half a bunch, tied together with kitchen twine)
3 1/2 cups chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground pepper

To make the turkey:

Preheat oven to 450 F and place rack in lower third of oven.

Remove the neck and the possible bag of gizzards that comes with your turkey. Save the neck for your pan juice gravy.

Rinse turkey and dry it well.

Use your hands to give it a light coating of olive oil. Rub in the salt and pepper.

Place it on the roasting rack in the roasting pan. Stuff the cavity with the fresh thyme, unpeeled onion, celery, potato, carrots or parsnips and bay leaves. You might want to cut some in half to get them to fit in. If you don’t have enough room, use less. If you have more room, put in more. This isn’t rocket science. We’re just creating a flavor base for the pan juices.

Make sure turkey is now breast-side down and add a cup of water or broth to the bottom of the pan. (Add more if it cooks away during roasting time.) Tie legs together with kitchen twine. If you don’t have any, skip it.

Place in oven and look at the clock. Calculate approximate cooking time. Please note, cooking times vary widely as not all ovens and turkeys are the same. I prefer to underestimate the cooking time so as not to overcook the bird. Ovens vary. Don’t worry — this isn’t hard. Start checking for doneness about 20 minutes before end of estimated cooking time.

For a 13-pound bird, about 1 hour and 50 minutes. 

For a 14-pound bird, about 2 hours.

For a 15-pound bird, about 2 hours and 10 minutes.

For a 16-pound bird, about 2 hours and 20 minutes.

After an hour of cooking, take bird out of oven and close oven door. Use clean oven mitts and flip the bird over so it is breast-side up. Put bird back in oven.

Using the instant-read thermometer, check temperature of turkey on both sides of the thighs. When temperature registers 160 F on both sides, take turkey out of oven. Place the rack over a cookie sheet or another roasting pan so you can catch and reserve the pan juices. Loosely cover the bird with a tent of aluminum foil. Let turkey rest for 30 minutes before carving.

* See note on carving.

To make the pan juices / gravy:

Gravy is a thickening of the pan juices. I don’t do this for so many reasons, starting with it’s less healthy and ending with it’s one more pain in my tuchis. And it’s less pure. We want the flavor to be as fresh as possible, so here you go. I recommend starting this as your turkey cooks to make your process more stress-free.

Place pan over medium-high heat and add olive oil. Add shallots, celery, thyme (tied with twine), 2 1/2 cups broth, salt and pepper, and the reserved turkey neck; let cook for about 7 minutes. 

Adjust heat to low and let cook down for about 40 minutes or until the vegetables are really soft and the broth is condensed.

When turkey is done, pour all the juices from the roasting pan into a glass container and place in freezer for a few minutes. You want the fat to separate. If there is a lot of fat, use a shallow spoon to scoop it out. You can also use a bunch of paper towels to soak it up. You do want some fat to remain! A thin layer is sufficient. Pour into saute pan.

Now take the pan you roasted the bird in and place it over two burners on your stove, on medium-high heat. Pour in remaining 1 cup of broth and scrape out all the yummy bits on the bottom. This is good stuff! Pour it into your saute pan and reduce heat to low.

Let the juices cook over low heat until you are ready to serve with your turkey. Remove the thyme and the turkey neck. You can mash the veggies with a wooden spoon, place the liquid and the veggies in a blender, strain out the vegetables or simply serve as is. I like to pour it directly on the platter of turkey, but you can also serve on the side.

* Note on carving:

Make sure you parade your gorgeous turkey around so everyone can see how fabulous you are. But then, go carve it in the kitchen. You need a big cutting board and a large, sharp knife. The meat closest to the bone is the juiciest, so we want to remove all the breast meat from one side in one fell swoop, and then cut it into pieces horizontally. Use a fork to balance and slice the breast off from the bone, lay it down, and cut across into slices. Easy.

For dark meat, ideally you want to cut the leg and thigh away from the rest of the turkey, but this isn’t always easy. So just hold the leg out and use your knife to carve off the meat into pieces.


Elana Horwich’s Meal and a Spiel blog is at jewishjournal.com.

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