Thanksgiving Turkey for Beginners

Photo by Flickr user bucklavaWhat should a newbie know about preparing the perfect Thanksgiving turkey? Give the subject a cursory Google search and you'll be subjected to a tsunami of ideas and methods--brining! Grilling! Deep-frying! Roasting with cheesecloth! Stuffing with a chicken inside a duck!--each accompanied by the threat that if you don't do it this particular way, your turkey will turn out dry and ugly and everyone you're having over to dinner will hate you.

"When you start looking at recipes for turkeys, it's ridiculous," says Nathan McCall of the eponymous butcher shop in Los Feliz. "People over-complicate so much."

We turned to McCall for guidance, and as it turned out, we were in good hands: after years of working in restaurants, he prepared his own turkey at home for the first time last year. "I researched all over the place," he says. "I was going to go crazy, but in the end I just decided to roast it, straight up." Below, a beginner's guide to the most basic, foolproof method of turkey prep, side-by-side with McCall's more advanced roasting method of choice.

Step One: Order Like a Pro

At some point before Thanksgiving, you'll need to order your turkey from your local grocer or butcher, lest you wind up having to thaw a frozen Butterball for three days. When trying to decide how big your bird should be, use the rule of thumb "two pounds per person" for plenty of dinner and leftovers.

You'll also need to decide whether you want the white-meaty bird you grew up with or a heritage turkey, so-called because "it's the real deal. It's the OG turkey," McCall says. "Their bloodlines date back to the late 1800s. It's a much more narrow-breasted bird, the leg meat is going to be a little tougher, and there's more dark meat. It's gamier and more full-flavored."

Step Two: Prep Like a Player

To prep your turkey, begin by removing any metal clips and the plastic bag of giblets in the body cavity, then giving the bird a good rinse in cold water and patting it dry. (Dryness is critical to the coveted crispy skin, so don't be shy. Cozy up to it with a towel and go to town.)

Beginners can season their turkey liberally with salt and pepper; for the more advanced set, McCall recommends the three-day process of dry-brining he undertook last year. "I seasoned it three days ahead of time, and the day of I rubbed black truffle butter under the skin," he says. "I kept the skin dry for three days by putting mine in the top of my walk-in freezer"--which, he admits, is "kind of a cheat," as most of us aren't blessed with access to industrial refrigeration technology.

The term "stuffing" need not be taken literally, McCall notes; in fact, he says, "When I cooked my heritage last year, I didn't stuff it. If I did do my stuffing in the bird, ideally I'd take it out and finish it off in the oven to get those crispy edges." McCall advocates for a traditional stuffing with bread, egg, vegetables and fresh herbs--"Whether it's in the turkey or not, I just want classic stuffing," he says. "I keep it old school."

If you're following McCall's guidelines, you dry-brined your bird; if you're keeping it basic, at this point you should pour a melted stick of butter and a cup or so of white wine over your turkey as basting base, then stick an oven-safe meat thermometer in the thickest part of the turkey's breast. The pioneers would weep if they knew you used margarine (or, horror of horrors, olive oil), so don't even think about it.

Step Three: A Roast You Can Boast About

If you're going the beginner's route, stick your roasting pan in a 325-degree oven and plan on the roasting process taking about 15 minutes per pound, or 17 with stuffing. This is the plan, but oven temperatures do vary, so let the meat thermometer be your true guide: when it hits 165, you're done.

With his dry-brined heritage bird, on the other hand, McCall went with "high heat for a short period of time"--400 degrees for two hours or so, a formula adapted from Thomas Keller's classic chicken recipe.

As your turkey roasts, you can ensure you'll wind up with crispy skin by basting your beast every 30 minutes or so, sucking up the wine-butter-grease mixture in the pan and spraying it liberally over the turkey. McCall, however, notes that he did not baste with his method so that he could maintain a high oven heat. "When it comes to roasting poultry, I never baste--I just use dry, high heat for that crispy skin," he says.

Step Four: Gravy's Just a Fancy Word for Juices With Flour

When your best friend Mr. Meat Thermometer reads 165, remove the roasting pan from the oven and set the turkey on a platter to cool. Leave it intact while you turn your attention to the gravy, which could not be easier. "Take your pan drippings and get a roux going [by sprinkling in flour and whisking], then add in a good chicken broth or a quick stock made from your roasted turkey giblets," McCall says. "You'll have your butter and the fat from the bird, and with the stock and some black pepper you have a great Thanksgiving gravy.

"You could also throw some bacon in there," he adds. "Bacon's always a good idea."

Nathan McCall, bacon fanBy now your turkey will have had a chance to cool slightly, and you can go ahead and carve. McCall breaks from his adherence to tradition here: "I treat it like a chicken," he says. "Cut the wing and the leg off and cut those in half; then take the breast off and slice it restaurant-style. I've never understood the carving on the carcass--you can't get a good meat-to-skin ratio. If you take the whole breast off, you can slice so that each slice has that good crispy skin on it."

On that delicious final note, bon appetit, and happy Thanksgiving!

[Photo of turkey by Flickr user brenda]
[Photo of Nathan McCall by Living Outside the Pot]


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Professional word nerd, amateur francophile, home cook, carbohydrate enthusiast and person who is obnoxious about yoga.

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