Food

In search of the perfect recipe for Thanksgiving turkey

By Robert Robertson

Originally published in the November 2019 issue under the title “Flipping the Bird”

Always and without fail, every Thanksgiving in our family, the host is in charge of the turkey. It’s usually in the oven before everyone else arrives, after being baptized and basted in broth, waiting out the well-organized chaos of the kitchen. One aunt is tossing salad in lemon and olive oil; another is usually still taking dinner rolls out of the oven and popping them in a basket under a cotton towel. The kids dance a delicate tango: sneaking appetizers from the kitchen, without being noticed and told to set the table. There’s a ham, cooked and kept warm under foil. If we’re lucky, there’s stuffing. If someone is trying to lose weight, we don’t. Somewhere, there’s probably a pre-meal cheese plate, and someone has already opened a bottle of red to go with it.

The dessert table is crowded with pies, toffee bars and maybe an apple spice cake, or tiramisu. Even though my mom has an annual debate with herself over whether she’ll make one apple pie or two, she always ends up making two. They’re on the table under saran wrap. Someone—me—keeps ducking in to remind the cooks not to forget to make the gravy.

Half of my family doesn’t even like turkey; we have a ham hock sitting on the counter too, keeping warm under layers of foil. But the Thanksgiving potluck revolves around a 14-pound bird, sloshing with pan drippings in the oven. Like most American families, we make it anyway, year after year.

Most Thanksgiving veterans have a tried-and-true turkey recipe. My mother, for example, swears by a brown bag method, which lets the turkey self-bastle after a fashion, by trapping all that moisture inside the bag with the meat.

Occasionally, we’ve even done catered turkeys. Lockhart’s and Kenny’s Smokehouses both churn out such popular smoked turkeys, hams, and prime rib, that if you don’t reserve yours by early November, you’re out of luck. Last year, we were gifted a smoked turkey from Lockhart’s Smokehouse, infused to the bone with smoke and fire from the downtown Plano pit, and the smell blessed the whole kitchen for days.

Sometimes my uncle decides to deep fry it. Chef Omar Flores, of Whistle Britches, once told the Dallas Observer that he brines his turkey overnight in 40 quarts of brine and ice, before frying it in peanut oil—and that’s the only way he ever does turkey.

I believe I’ve seen one of my aunts roast it breast-side down, the inside brushed with salt, pepper and sage. The upside-down method lets the juices fall down toward the white meat, which usually dries out the fastest, and lifts the dark meat, which takes longer to cook, right up under the burners.

In the interest of better understanding this particular bird, I asked all the best cooks I knew what recipes they depended on, bought four chicken carcasses, and conducted an experiment with the most interesting—and reasonably doable—of the methods. It wasn’t a perfect experiment; chicken is obviously a kinder, more moist meat than turkey. But chicken fits in my apartment oven much more easily. Once thawed, a Saturday was spent with these chickens, one after the other, seasoned, prepped, roasted, and—post-experiment—turned into chicken salad.

Most recipes traditionally call for some combination of tin foil shields to prevent excessive browning and basting and turning. They keep the meat tender with dry brines or quarts of chicken broth, and stuff herbs and aromatics in the cavity. Some rub lemon-butter or even cheese under the skin. Instead of tin foil, Martha Stewart uses a cheesecloth soaked in white wine and butter as a shield.

Sometimes preparation can be a more complicated process. Julia Child advocates for butter, rubbed over every inch of the bird. Dark and light meats need to cook to different temperatures, but she solves that problem by taking the turkey apart and cooking it separately.

A recipe I found for “Perfect Turkey” swears by overnight brining and suggests that the most crucial step in the process is thawing the bird completely. And, of course, let it sit for about 20 minutes after cooking, to allow the juices to redistribute.

But when in doubt, the late, legendary Anthony Bourdain’s Thanksgiving turkey recipe is simple and to the point, three tablespoons of unsalted, melted butter brushed all over, and salt and pepper. Roast breast side up with water in the pan for about two hours. That’s it. Though he did also suggest preparing two turkeys, one for carving and eating, and one for decoration, “like a showgirl, with chop frills and elaborate fruit garnishes on a bed of old-school parsley or kale.”

My first chicken followed the Anthony Bourdain philosophy, brushed with butter until it gleamed, and seasoned incredibly simply, cooked breast-side up. Simplicity itself, the skin crackled up nicely. My second utilized Martha Stewart’s wine-and-butter-cheesecloth.

By lunchtime, I had two whole chickens, and my apartment smelled amazing. Bourdain’s method was so simple it bordered on basic, particularly when served alone, without the sideshow of roasted sweet potatoes and slatherings of gravy. It was also my first chicken, where I discovered that my oven runs a little hot. Martha Stewart’s turkey faired a little better, but while delightfully tender, it didn’t look very pretty. Under the cheesecloth, the skin didn’t crisp up, but stayed a little soft and pale.

After those, I graduated to more expert techniques, pitting my mom’s paper bag method against an internet one that mostly involved a lot of seasonings: rubbing lemon juice and salt inside the cavity, before stuffing it with a hunk of onion, parsley, a few baby carrots, and the leafy bits of two celery stalks. Both were treated to butter on the outside, salt, pepper, and a couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary. One was placed carefully in a brown bag, and tied off with a bit of kitchen twine.

The paper bag did not catch fire. In fact, it did its work well. Working off a recipe for brown bag chicken, this chicken turned out juicy and rich, and still golden brown on the outside. The paper bag trapped enough steam to keep it from drying out, but not enough to render the exterior soggy and disappointing.

The final bird, stuffed with aromatics, was placed straight into the roasting pan, only this one was turned breast-side down. But the most important step is midway through the roasting process: you’ve got to flip it over, and give the skin a chance to brown. This chicken was the last of the quartet. Next time I roast enough chicken to feed an army, and not just me and my dog, I might do the heavy lifting chicken first.
While flipping the carcass itself resulted in one burned finger and splatters of pan dripping all over my floor and apron, the trouble was worth it. It was the best of both worlds, and tasted like chicken soup since it has many of the same basic ingredients. The meat was tender, evenly roasted, and the skin crackled with every bite.

So in the end, with four chickens lined up side by side on my counter, I considering my conclusions. My dog considered the pan drippings on the floor. The most interesting part of the process was discovering so many recipes so many different people swore by with intense loyalty.

Some were very different. Others were nearly identical. All were loved with fierce loyalty.

When it comes to Thanksgiving, however, the most important ingredient would seem to be nostalgia. The turkey that is most familiar to you is invariably the one you crave. For example, when I told one of my coworkers about my progress toward turkey tenderness perfection, she shrugged. “I actually like dry turkey,” she admitted with the cadence of someone owning up to liking the Star Wars prequels. But, growing up, she explained, their turkey was always dry, just swimming in gravy. Now it’s what she thinks of, when she thinks of turkey.

I don’t know which recipe I tried could be considered the best, especially since the early birds certainly suffered due to a little bit of trial-and-error in setting the temperature dial on my oven. But the one I went back to later in the evening, when, miraculously, I was hungry again, was the paper bag chicken. It tasted the most like one of my mother’s, my best barometer for a chicken roasted right. If there’s a lesson here, it’s the obvious one: to each their own.

Now, if anyone wants some free chicken salad…

Alexandra Cronin
Alexandra Cronin has been the senior editor at Local Profile since 2016. She loves great coffee, good food and average wine.

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