Every year on Thanksgiving, a few well-meaning friends wish me a “happy turkey day.” And while I’m happy to receive their thoughtful messages, hearing the term “turkey day” is like a little knife twist in my food-loving soul.
How about “pumpkin pie day?” Or “eat-6-pounds-of-carbs-and-pass-out-on-the-living-room-floor day?” Even “get-into-a-drunken-fight-with-your-Trump-loving-uncle day” would make more sense, because, let’s be honest: turkey kind of sucks.
It might not be the worst part of the Thanksgiving meal, but it’s far from the best, coming in ahead of that fluffy lime Jell-O salad I’ve always been too afraid to try, and behind the dozen or so side dishes that turn my plate into an indecipherable mishmash of various types of carbs and cheese. Then again, I’ve never tried that Jello-O salad, so turkey actually might be the worst part of the meal.
Sure, turkey looks pretty; a huge, golden brown bird makes an aesthetically pleasing centerpiece. But unless your turkey is in the hands of a true artist, it’s going to be sad and dry and disappointing in everything but looks.
I have friends who swear that their aunt or their sister or whoever makes a delicious turkey, but I’m convinced there’s always an unspoken subtext: it’s delicious for turkey. There’s a reason we basically only eat turkey during the holidays.
I’ll take an above average piece of chicken or quail or – I don’t know – pigeon or whatever above your aunt’s turkey any day. Unless your aunt happens to be a true genius in the kitchen.
Luckily for me, my Thanksgiving turkey is in the hands of a culinary genius. Zack Sklar – chef/owner of Bernie’s Lunch and Supper in Chicago and various restaurants in the Detroit-Metro area – has been cooking my family dinner since he was still a 20-year-old student at the Culinary Institute of America, and his turkey has gotten better every year (though I’d still argue it’s amazing for turkey). His latest method of cooking it: sous vide, which keeps the otherwise dry bird almost impossibly moist.
But what if you don’t feel like buying new kitchen equipment or sounding like a pretentious food snob when you try explaining to everyone the complicated process involved in this French cooking method? Well, there are other ways to vastly improve your turkey.
I talked to Sklar to find out how to make a great, traditional oven-roasted turkey. Here are four major things you’re probably doing wrong, and how to fix them:
The problem: Buying a frozen turkey
Because turkey is naturally inclined to be dry, it can’t afford to lose a drop of moisture, but when it’s frozen, it loses quite a bit.
The solution: Buy a fresh, all-natural, organic bird.
Buying a high-quality piece of meat is half the battle.
The problem: Buying a huge bird
“People historically love these big turkeys you carve table side, and they’re 24 pounds, and there is a wow factor,” Sklar says. “The problem is that usually those larger birds are pumped with steroids or hormones to make them bigger. And when you cook something that is 22 pounds, by the time the inside is done, the outside is overcooked.”
The solution: go smaller
Sklar recommends choosing a turkey that’s in the 10-to-14-pound range.
The problem: Seasoning the skin
Turkey skin is extremely fatty. So when you rub salt, pepper and any other spices on the skin, you wind up with delicious skin, but the turkey itself will have no flavor, because the salt and spices will never penetrate that fatty layer of skin.
The solution: brine
According to Sklar, brining is the key to making a great turkey. Brining does two things: It adds moisture through osmosis, and – if you brine it for 24 hours – the flavor will actually penetrate the skin and spread throughout the entire turkey. Sklar notes that if you don’t have room in your fridge, and you live in a colder climate, you can just brine the meat in a bucket in the garage.
Similarly, after brining, Sklar recommends putting any butter, herbs, citrus or spices underneath the skin instead of on top, or else the flavor will never penetrate into the meat.
And, he notes, “basting is a complete waste of time — you’re basting with natural juices, which are water-based, so it’s going to roll right off of the skin and do nothing.”
The problem: Cooking the turkey whole
According to Sklar, one of the biggest mistakes people make is cooking the turkey whole. Because dark meat has more connective tissues, it takes longer to break down, so if you cook the turkey whole, by time the legs and thighs are done, the breasts are overcooked and dry.
The solution: Carve your turkey before you cook it.
If you really know what you’re doing, you can use kitchen shears, but carving a turkey raw is way more difficult than doing it after it’s cooked, so Sklar recommends having your butcher cut your turkey into eight separate pieces.
Sear the outside in a convection at 450 degrees, then turn oven down to 275 degrees and cook all the way through until the meat is cooked internally. Cook the breast until it’s 145 to 155 degrees, then take it out of the oven. Meanwhile, leave the dark meat in the oven until it reaches 155 to 165 degrees.
After cooking, let the meat rest until it’s close to room temperature in order to let the juices redistribute.