One of the greatest challenges of the Thanksgiving feast is being able to present a magnificent eye appealing bird that has palate appeal as well. How does one prepare the star of the day in a way that allows both the white and dark meats to be juicy and succulent? I’ve sat down at numerous Thanksgiving tables through the years only to be disappointed by overdone legs and thighs and dry untasty slices of breast meat. For all of the great fanfare that goes into the holiest culinary day of the year there simply must be a way in which the bird can be prepared so that it invokes deserving oohs and aahs during both presentation and the dining experience.
Thanksgiving gives rise to thoughts of the Norman Rockwell depiction of the glorious bird being presented on a huge platter bedecked with all of the trimmings at the family dining table on the March 6, 1943 cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Presentation, without a doubt, is important… one eats first with the eyes; therefore the dining experience begins with the visual. The challenge is to satisfy that aspect as well as provide a bird whose meat, both white and dark, is succulent, juicy and flavorful.
The dilemma here is that the legs and thighs of the bird have a different cooking time than the white meat of the breast. I’ve read articles, recipes and near dissertations on how the turkey must be cooked in order to address this challenge. There are those who say breast first into the oven to solve this problem… and there are those who say cook it in a bag! Others will tell you to roast it in a hot oven… then you hear cook it long, low and slow! It’s no wonder the televised morning news programs have a “Turkey 911!” segment every year on Thanksgiving Day… with the same questions fielded year after year… after year!
That beautiful bird has consistently been both an eye and a palate pleaser through the years at our table. The presentation visually stirs the taste buds and both white and dark meat are done to perfection, filled with juicy flavor. Our secret? We cut the bird up, separating the breast from the legs and thighs, so the internal temp of both meats can be monitored during cooking so the legs and thighs can be removed from the oven or the smoker at the precise time they are done, the breast continuing to cook until it too reaches its point of perfection.
This year we smoked our turkey cut this way following 10 hours in a brine. Oak was our wood of choice for the smoking process, during which time we regulated the smoker temp at a constant 300 degrees on its thermometer, adding small pieces of oak to the firebox as necessary to maintain constant heat. The legs and thighs were removed from the smoking chamber when their internal temp reached 145 degrees, one and one half hours. The breast smoked an addition thirty minutes for a total time of two hours with an internal temp of 150 degrees. Note that during the resting time the meat will continue to cook, the internal temperature rising an additional 10 degrees while tented. The time it takes to roast or smoke your bird will depend upon its weight. Our bird weighed 18 pounds. A smaller turkey will take less time and, conversely, a larger bird will take longer.
Brining is an integral part of the process as well, for it is the brine which imparts flavor and increases the juiciness of the meat.
In a large stockpot combine:
1 gallon orange juice
2 C rice wine vinegar
2 C apple cider vinegar
2 C tequila
1 C golden brown sugar
1/4 C fresh ginger, unpeeled and thinly sliced
1 bunch green onions, chopped, green leaves included
2 bunches cilantro, chopped
12 whole star anise
2 cinnamon sticks, crushed
2 T red pepper flakes
1 T whole cloves
2 T whole black peppercorns
1 T coriander seeds
1 T allspice berries
Bring to a boil and add:
1 C kosher salt
Stir to dissolve and reduce the heat to a low simmer for 45 minutes. Let cool.
Chef’s note: This is best done the day before you add the turkey.
Rinse the turkey thoroughly and pat dry:
Separate the legs,thighs and wings from the breast. Reserve the giblets for later use in the gravy or dressing. The wings, neck and backbone will be used to make a rich stock to be used as a base for the gravy and the dressing.
Place turkey in a non-reactive pot. If the fit is snug, that’s OK! Cover bird completely with brine, place lid on pot and refrigerate. Don’t overbrine as too lengthy a time in the brine will cause too much salt to be absorbed. Our 18-lb bird was brined for 10 hours.
Chef’s Note: A large cooler works well for the brining process as a large bird tends to occupy a lot of space in a home refrigerator already full of items for Thanksgiving dinner. We place the turkey in a heavy contractor bag, pour the cooled brine over the bird then knot the bag as tightly around it as possible to ensure total immersion in the brining liquid. Fill the cooler with ice… and your fridge is free for other things!
Remove the turkey from the brine, pat dry and rub sparingly with extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.
Proceed with oven roasting or smoking:
Position turkey pieces with the breast being closest to the firebox. Insert temperature probe into the meaty portion of one thigh or leg, being careful to keep the tip of the probe away from the bone.
Close the lid of the smoker and monitor both the temperature of the smoking chamber and the internal temp of the dark meat. When legs and thighs are done transfer them to a sheet pan and cover with foil to rest. Continue smoking the breast until it too is cooked to the appropriate internal temperature.
Transfer it to the sheet pan, tent with foil and allow to rest. The resting period should be a minimum of 20 minutes, during which time the juices will reabsorb deep into the meat, causing it to be succulent and juicy when carved for service.
One of the great things about preparing the turkey this way is that the lobes of the breast can be easily removed as a whole from the carcass since the wishbone is removed when the bird is initially cut into pieces. This allows ease of slicing, all pieces being uniform in thickness for a magnificent presentation on a large platter surrounded with the bounty of the autumn harvest… Bon Appetit!
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