Classic Post: The Ultimate Roast Turkey Recipe

Note: Writing holiday posts has always been a challenge, because for a number of years, even before starting The Best Food Blog Ever, I have always stayed true to the same recipes.  And while tradition once again trumps innovation for this holiday season, when I started to consider how many new followers on Twitter and new readers I’ve gained over three years, it just made sense to repost my entry for roast turkey because, hey, it’s going to be new for someone out there.  First published here in 2008, and you’ll probably see it come around again at this time next year, and the year after that.

I promised to post the Thanksgiving recipes in time for Christmas, so here’s the final, and probably the most critical, one.  As I’ve already mentioned, this roast turkey recipe is a blend of different preparations that I’ve used over the past few years.  I’ve taken the best aspects of every preparation that I’ve used, and this is the result.

When I first decided on a recurring holiday turkey recipe, I started out by using a liberal application of herbed butter under the skin of the bird, which does a better job of flavoring the meat than basting or cavity aromatics would.  If you think about it, basting merely flavors the skin, and no matter how often you ladle pan drippings over the roast, those drippings do nothing but run down the outside of the bird back into the pan.  Psychologically, it’s satisfying, but technically basting accomplishes nothing since the skin acts as a barrier.  The same is true for stuffing things into the turkey’s cavity – no matter what you put in there, the meat will still be shielded from the aromatics by the bone structure of the bird, so the effect is minimized.

Using an under-the-skin application of herbed butter achieves two goals – it flavors the skin from beneath, and it also imparts a wonderful flavor to the meat below.  So, that’s the approach that I used for years, until I discovered brining, and now I use a brine-and-butter approach.

Brining takes the notion of flavoring the meat one step further, by immersing the bird in a salt and sugar solution for approximately 1 hour per pound.  Take note, though, that you should never attempt to brine what is sold as a “self-basting” turkey – which has already been injected with a saline solution, and which will turn out inedibly salty if you elect to brine it further.  Additional flavors are added to the brine according to the results that you’re seeking – the brine carries these flavors deep into the meat of the turkey.  From a scientific standpoint, the brining solution breaks up the fibers of the meat, resulting in increased tenderness, and the retained moisture from a good, long brine will translate to juicier meat.  I highly recommend using a brining bag, but you could use any food-safe heavy duty plastic bag if you need to.

So, here is the holiday roast turkey recipe.  The butter mix comes from a past issue of one of my cooking magazines, which I can’t recall after so many years, and the brining solution is sourced from Saveur, with a few modifications.  Remember that you need to begin brining the turkey the night before you plan on roasting it, so if you want to make this for Christmas, you need to start on Christmas Eve.

The Ultimate Roast Turkey Recipe by The Best Food Blog Ever

1 turkey

For the Brine

1 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup chili powder
2 cups apple cider
1 head garlic, separated into cloves, peeled
2 apples, cored and chopped
6 cups apple cider (separate step)
4 quarts cold water

For the Butter

1 stick of unsalted butter, room temperature
Sea salt
Ground black pepper
Fresh thyme and sage, chopped

Start by making the brine.  In a food processor or blender, puree the garlic, the apples, and the 2 cups of apple cider, and set aside.  In the brining bag, set inside of a large stockpot, pour the salt, sugar, and chili powder, then add the 6 cups of apple cider and the 4 quarts of cold water, using your hand or a whisk to mix it all together so that the salt and sugar dissolve.  Add the apple/garlic puree and stir to mix again.

Prepare the turkey by first pulling out the utterly useless self timer plastic dart and throwing it away, being careful not to tear the skin as you do so.  Remove the giblet bag and reserve for stock (this can be frozen, whole, in a plastic bag in the freezer).  Carefully lower the entire turkey, breast first, into the brining solution, making sure the brine fills the cavity, and submerge as much as possible.  Seal the bag and place in a cold place – your refrigerator if you have room, or the garage or deck if the outside temperature is low enough.  You should anticipate brining the turkey for 1 hour per pound, thereabouts.

The next day, take your butter out of the refrigerator and let it soften.  Finely chop a few slices of bacon and fry them until crisp.  In a small bowl, mash the butter with the salt, pepper, bacon, thyme, and sage and set aside.  Set your oven to 350 degrees.

Pull the turkey out of the brine and set it in a roasting pan on a rack, making sure to drain the cavity.  Using paper towels, pat the turkey dry, then use your fingers to loosen the skin from the meat of the breast.  Take a spoon and spread the herbed butter under the skin of the turkey – you can use your fingers to push the butter off of the spoon through the skin, and smush it around until you’ve got an even coating of butter throughout.  Apply salt and pepper liberally to the surface of the skin.  If you’re using a probe thermometer, which I highly recommend, insert the probe now into the thickest part of the thigh without hitting bone.

Roast the turkey until the temperature of the dark meat reaches 165 degrees.  You may want to check the bird after about an hour or so, because the residual brown sugar from the brine will caramelize, causing the skin to become brown more quickly than you are accustomed.  If this happens, take the turkey out and tent it with foil before putting it back to finish cooking.  When you take the final temperature of the roast using a probe thermometer, it’s best to poke it in various discreet locations – all parts of the bird should register at least 160 degrees, which is done but not dry.

Remove the turkey from the oven and set it aside, tented with foil, for at least 30 minutes.  If you hazard cutting into any roast before it has had proper time to rest, you risk spilling valuable juices and ending up with dry meat.  The resting period allows the juices, which are pushed to the surface during cooking, to recede back deeper into the flesh.  Don’t worry about the turkey getting cold – depending on its size, the roast will retain heat for close to an hour or more, and your kitchen, if it’s anything like ours, will be plenty hot anyway from all of the other cooking that’s going on.

November 21, 2011   Comments

For Your Consideration, The Brussels Sprout

It seems that we’re on a constant quest to incorporate more vegetables into our diet.  It sounds easy enough to do – just buy more greens – but it had gotten to the point where I had to break free of the trifecta of salad, broccoli, and spinach.  One of our more recent discoveries was brussels sprouts.

This happened almost entirely by accident.  I had not planned on making brussels sprouts when I went to the supermarket that evening, but the produce guys had crafted a lovely presentation of the pale green orbs that beckoned customers visually as soon as they set foot in the store.  I had no idea what to do with them, but at $2 a pound I figured they were an easy risk to take.

Taking my haul back home, I decided that, as a novice preparer of brussels sprouts, there would only be two ways that I should tackle them – boiled, or roasted.  Since the cold weather was starting to move into our area, I decided to warm up the kitchen a bit by roasting them.

A quick search for ‘roasted brussels sprouts’ turned up a recipe from Ina Garten, found on The Food Network website as well as in her book, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.  It’s very straightforward, and it brings out the flavor of the vegetable in a way that only roasting can – concentrating it, compacting it, each sprout a little bundle of taste waiting to explode on your tongue.  The recipe is as good as I could ask for, having picked up brussels sprouts on a whim – all that’s needed is some salt, a grinding of pepper, and olive oil.

I set my oven to preheating, then I got out my Le Creuset – great for roasting since it is enameled cast iron and retains heat wonderfully – and poured a thin film of olive oil across its bottom, along with some salt and ground pepper.  I rinsed the brussels sprouts and took to trimming the hard, dried root off of each one (almost the same as trimming asparagus), and any brown or yellowing leaves.  As each was done, I flipped it into the cold pan, rolling it about with a rubber spatula to coat it with the seasoned oil.  When I was finished, I gave the whole affair a final dusting of salt and pepper and popped it into the oven.

Almost immediately, the kitchen filled with the wonderful smell of roasting brussels sprouts.  The recipe is quick, taking only about 30 minutes, which is exactly the amount of time you would need to give a holiday turkey a good rest after cooking.  If you’ve never had brussels sprouts, or your experience heretofore has been entirely negative, I would highly recommend trying your hand at roasting them.  It may be enough to change your mind and, like us, give you a new addition to your repertoire of vegetable dishes.

December 8, 2008   Comments

A Roast Chicken Recipe for a Cold Autumn Day

The brilliant colors of the turning leaves have given way to bare branches in just a matter of days, and everything around us is turning into ugly shades of gray and brown. Sunday morning greeted us with blustery winds and plummeting temperatures, the kind of cold that makes you glad it’s not cloudy, because anything that comes down out of the sky would likely take the form of snow.

On a day that so definitively announces the onset of fall weather, I needed a strong counter, something that warms the kitchen and the soul, something that provides a reassuring counterpoint to the bleakness of the coming cold season.

I decided to roast a chicken, hardcore. And by hardcore, I mean going beyond just a sprinkle of salt and pepper and treating the bird as if it were a Thanksgiving turkey. Doing it this way adds a nice dose of complexity to an otherwise humble chicken recipe.  It also makes it taste awesome.

Rather inadvertently, my vegetable garden has transformed itself into a nice perennial herb garden. While the basil may have died off a long while ago, I still have thriving patches of thyme, sage, and rosemary that have taken very well to the cooler weather. I slipped into the backyard and snipped a few sprigs of thyme and a few leaves of sage, and some rosemary to go with the roasted potatoes that would be served as an accompaniment. It was good to run back into the house and take off my jacket, returning to the kitchen with a fistful of herb clippings.

When it comes to roasting chickens and turkeys, I’m a big proponent of under-skin seasoning. If you think about it, most of the seasonings that you apply to the outside of a chicken or turkey will be melted off into the roasting pan as the fat in the skin renders. If you’re a baster, you’re accelerating this process each time you ladle more liquid over the skin, although admittedly you are basting the roast with the seasoned pan drippings.

Applying seasonings under the skin avoids this problem, and makes for much more flavorful meat. To do this, I mash softened butter with a mishmash of chopped herbs, sea salt, and black pepper. Using a gentle touch, you can loosen the skin from the chicken and use a spoon or fork to push clumps of the flavored butter underneath – use your fingers to massage the skin to ensure even distribution.

As for the outside of the chicken, I apply a thin coating of olive oil to the entire bird, front-back-top-bottom, and then a liberal application of salt and pepper. The oil helps to crisp the skin while the seasoned butter flavors the meat beneath it. As you may have suspected, I don’t baste – on one account, because I’m lazy, and on another, because I think it washes away the surface seasonings.

One thing to keep in mind about roasting anything is that there’s no reliable way of estimating weight/time/temperature – this is what screws most people up at Thanksgiving, because they consult some guide that tells them they should roast the bird for 15 minutes per pound or some other rule of thumb. Everyone’s oven is different, and the true temperature of an oven can vary widely from what the setting on the dial reads. Also, the weight of a roast is less important than its temperature as it goes into the oven – it may not be fully thawed, or have a chunk of ice in its cavity.

For all of these reasons, the only way I will ever roast chicken is by using a probe thermometer. The probe goes into the chicken, provides a constant read on the internal temperature, and allows me to pull the chicken out of the oven as soon as it reaches doneness, and not a minute longer. Chicken is free of any salmonella at 160 degrees, and as the roast rests, the internal temperature will climb a few degrees higher. By taking the chicken out of the oven when the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees, it guards against drying the meat out. By relying on the internal temperature of the chicken, you can have a little bit of leeway in terms of your oven temperature – if you have time, you can roast at 350 degrees, if you are in more of a rush, you can push that to 425 degrees or more.

A Roast Chicken Recipe for a Cold Autumn Day

1 chicken, rinsed well, patted dry, and allowed to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes

1/2 stick of unsalted butter, softened
3 Tbs assorted herbs, chopped (thereabouts)
1 Tsp salt (coarse, if you grind it yourself)
1 Tsp fresh ground pepper

1 onion, peeled and halved
4 cloves of garlic, peeled

Olive oil

Wine (red or white)
1 Tbs or so of additional chopped herbs
Chicken stock (canned is fine)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Mash together the butter, herbs, salt, and pepper until uniformly mixed.

Set the chicken on a rack in a roasting pan, and use your fingers to loosen the skin from the breast (be careful not to tear or otherwise poke a hole in the skin). Pull out and discard the pop-up timer because it is literally worthless to the cooking effort.

Using a spoon, scoop the herb butter and slide the spoon under the skin of the chicken, using your fingers to push the butter off of the spoon onto the meat. Massage the butter so that you achieve an even coating of butter underneath the loosened skin.

Using the same spoon, drizzle some olive oil over the chicken and use the spoon to smear it around to coat. You may elect to do this to the back of the bird as well, or you can skip it.

Apply a liberal coating of salt and pepper to the outside of the chicken. Insert the onion halves and garlic cloves into the cavity.

Insert the probe thermometer into the thickest part of the breast, parallel to the bone. Other recipes may have you take the temperature of the thigh, but by the time the thigh meat is done, it is likely that your white meat is dry. When in doubt, I’d rather put the dark meat back into the oven later. Place the roasting pan, with the chicken and probe in place, into the oven.

When the internal temperature of the breast meat has reached 165 degrees, take the roast chicken out of the oven and set it on the stovetop to rest, for at least fifteen minutes. At this time, you may pull the probe out of the chicken and spot-check temperatures in the thigh and throughout – all temperature readings should be at least 160 degrees. If you are preparing a pan sauce, move the chicken to a platter and remove the rack from the pan.

Drain all of the liquid from the pan into a measuring cup. If the liquid is mostly fat, you can discard it – if there are some non-fat pan drippings, you can add this back to the sauce later.

Set the pan over one or two stovetop burners set to high, until the contents begin to sizzle. Pour about a cup, cup and a half, of wine into the pan and scrape up all of the sticky bits with a wooden spoon – let that simmer for a minute or so. Add about a cup of chicken stock and stir to combine, then throw in the remaining chopped herbs. Turn the heat down and let that simmer for about five minutes.

Sprinkle about two tablespoons of flour over the sauce, and whisk, making sure to break up any lumps, until the sauce is thickened and smooth. Taste for salt (it probably won’t need any).

Carve both breast halves off of the chicken by slicing lengthwise down the bird, parallel to the breastbone – angle the knife slightly so that you can carve each half off in one piece – and set aside onto a serving platter. Check the thigh meat – if the juices are not running clear, put the legs and thighs back into the oven for another fifteen minutes while covering the white meat with foil. Otherwise, carve the dark meat and set onto the serving platter.

Serve the roasted chicken with the sauce in separate ramekins for dipping.

November 17, 2008   Comments

Slow Roasted Zucchini, Sea Salt, Olive Oil

Deb Puchalla, who is an editor for Martha Stewart Everyday Food, sent out a call on the Dinner Tonight blog for stories about zukes and cukes.  Here’s mine.

Since it’s the height of summer, there’s a lot of fresh, local produce to be had.  While we don’t get out to the farmers’ stands often enough, the local supermarket has a wonderful program where they sell locally sourced fruits and vegetables, highlighting exactly where the food that you’re buying is coming from.  A couple of weeks ago, there was a nice mound of zucchini that was so tempting, we bought a few without a real plan for what to do with them.
Here’s the thing about food – you can coax the best out of anything that you cook if you respect the season and respect the ingredient.  So, the best ways with various foods are often the simplest, and, in this case, you really can’t get any simpler than olive oil and sea salt.

I have a truffle shaver which has, for years, been one of my favorite gadgets in the kitchen.  Mind you, I’ve only ever shaved a single truffle on this contraption, but it works especially well with parmesan cheese, chocolate, and hard vegetables.  It’s got a blade attached to a screw, and you turn the screw to make the opening wider or narrower as you need it.  I hacked the ends off of the zucchini and, in a flash, had passed them over the truffle shaver, forming a neat pile of uniformly thin rounds on my cutting board.

Now, if the preparation is going to be simple, I suppose I’ll have to make the presentation a little snappier.  I took a big round pan and started layering the zucchini rounds in concentric circles, alternating directions with each full layer.  Between each layer I drizzled some good-quality olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt.  When I was done, I popped the whole thing into the oven and slow roasted the zucchini for about an hour, until the rounds were browned along the edges and top.

This approach concentrates the already-summer fresh flavor of the zucchini quite well.  The salt, as salt does with any food, enhances the subtle qualities of the vegetable, while roasting condenses and focuses the flavor.  Next time, though, I think I’ll cut the rounds thicker, or into matchsticks, since slicing them this thin sacrificed texture a little, resulting in soft rounds instead of crisps.

July 31, 2008   Comments