Cooking Thanksgiving turkey doesn't have to be a difficult undertaking. But everybody still makes a big deal about it. Every Thanksgiving, all the food magazines come up with new techniques for how to cook a perfect turkey. There's brining, flipping the bird upside down, cooking in a bag, injecting with a flavor solution, deep-frying, grilling, rubbing butter or oil under the skin, cooking on a beer can, wrapping in bacon, spatchcocking, Crockpot cooking and just plain, old-fashioned roasting.
Why so many methods? What's the big deal? Read on to discover everything you need to know for cooking Thanksgiving turkey perfectly every time.
Why is cooking Thanksgiving turkey so hard?
For starters, turkey is pretty lean. Fat is what adds moisture and flavor to meat, and turkey doesn't have a lot of it. So even if you don't overcook your turkey, it can still be dry and bland.
Secondly, the thing is just so darned big, cold and heavy. Handling a raw turkey is rife with opportunities to contaminate your kitchen. Open the packaging, and what happens? The bacteria-laden juices flow right out. Then there's all the unwieldy things you do to prep the turkey, whether it's washing it, rubbing butter under the skin, flipping it upside down or just stuffing the cavity.
Third, turkeys take up a ton of room in the refrigerator and the oven. It's hard to get other things in the fridge when you're defrosting, brining or even just storing a fresh turkey. The same goes for the oven.
Why do experts recommend brining a turkey?Brining, the process of soaking the turkey overnight in a salt water solution, is designed to make the turkey moist.
Think of your great Aunt Zelda's ankles. When they swell, they're retaining water, right? When you brine a turkey, you're trying to do the same thing: Get the turkey to retain moisture to make it more flavorful.
The benefit of a brined turkey is that it can withstand overcooking better than a regular turkey. Why? Because it has the extra moisture to keep it from drying out.
Brining seems like a lot of work. Is there a shortcut?It isn't hard, but it takes up a ton of space. You have to have a container big enough to hold the turkey and the brine, yet small enough to fit in the fridge. (Remember, a raw turkey has to be kept at 40 degrees or below.)
Fortunately there are two shortcuts. One, buy a kosher turkey. Kosher turkeys are already brined. It'll cost more, but save you time. The other is to buy a turkey that has already been injected with a salt-liquid solution, such as a Butterball.
Why do people cook Thanksgiving turkey upside down?
When you think about it, a turkey is the absolute wrong shape for roasting. You know how when you're making cookies you're supposed to make them the same shape and size, so they bake evenly? Well, roasting a turkey is like putting one giant, eight-inch tall cookie in the center of the cookie sheet and surrounding it with a bunch of regular-size cookies, then expecting them all to cook evenly in the same amount of time.
The shape of a turkey keeps the breast exposed to heat at all times, while the thighs and legs get less exposure to direct heat. Naturally, the breast cooks more quickly. Worse than that, the breast has less fat, which means it can't help but dry out, while the thighs and legs finish cooking.
Some people combat this problem by cooking their Thanksgiving turkey, breast side down. It's not a bad idea. But it's not an easy solution either. For one, you can't get that nice, brown turkey skin when you roast upside down, unless you turn it over during cooking. And turning a hot turkey is not easy.