~ Roasting Poultry and Making Gravy Too: My Own Techniques and Oration (the long and not short of it) ~
After thirty years of roasting almost every type of poultry, from 2-pound game hens to 24-pound monster-sized turkeys, I've faced and solved almost every glitch imaginable, carefully documenting them (so as not to let any of them occur twice). I won't lie to you, in the early years there were some tears, but about 5-6 years into my meticulous list of DON'T EVER DO THIS AGAIN, I started producing those moist, juicy birds with crispy, golden skin that everyone covets. Then, about 18 or so years ago, I switched to a different list. One that documented the size of each bird, the temperature(s) it was cooked at, and the exact time it took to cook it. To my surprise, a pattern emerged. The best birds, no matter what size, were all cooked using the same basic method, which worked perfectly for me in my kitchen -- and it was easy too!
So, if I'm so darn good at this, why am I so terrified to write this post? Because when I click "publish", I'll immediatley be associated with the multitudes of little- to well-known foodies in the world who profess to knowing the secrets to roasting the perfect bird. I'm not sure I like that. Roasting poultry is personal. If my grandmother (and yours) could do it under less than perfect conditions, who am I to make rules?
The most beautiful bird in the world:
Everything from pans to poundage affects the process and the end product. Yes, of course, it obviously helps to have a set of well-written guidelines, a knowlege of the process, and more importantly, a knowledge of its options. BUT, if you get fanatical and adopt a closed-minded "my way or the highway" approach to roasting poultry, you're not only taking all of the sport out of it, there is a good chance it will screw you up for life. In all seriousness: keep it simple!
The turkey which appears in all of the pictures in this post is not special or famous. It is a random 16-pound bird that was bought at a local grocery store over the weekend for the sole purpose of writing this post a week before Thanksgiving. It came to me thawed and sealed in plastic. That said, when possible, I always buy or order a fresh-killed turkey: I prefer fresh over perviously frozen.
My point is: you can have success with any turkey, so, don't feel 'lesser' if all you could find three days before the holiday was a 'block of ice', frozen-solid bird -- thaw it in the refrigerator for two days and carry on as if it walked through your door and you killed it yourself. Any bird roasted according to my guidelines, if I do say so myself, will emerge beautifully golden brown on all sides with perfectly-cooked, juicy meat. I now present my method(s) to you. You be the judge:
~ Step 1. To Portion. Deciding how large a bird to buy depends upon how many people you plan on serving, how you plan on serving it (pre-portioned and plated individually or family-style on a big platter), and, if you want leftovers. I plan on 8-ounces per person, 12-ounces if there will most likely be second helpings and 16-ounces or more if you want leftovers. In my house, I plan on a 16-pound bird serving 6-8 people with a few leftovers, but certainly not an overabundance. For more specific guidelines and a nifty chart, read my post ~ Portioning Poultry: The Chart/Guide that will Help ~, by clicking on the Related Article link below.
~ Step 2. To Thaw. As previously mentioned, I always try to avoid buying a frozen bird, but sometimes in the "off season", that just isn't possible. If you happen to buy a frozen bird, or have a frozen bird in your freezer, place the bird, in its wrapping in the refrigerator. Allow 3 1/2-4 hours of defrosting time per pound. Once thawed, use the bird as you would a fresh one, within two days of thawing it. Never refreeze poultry. Never ever.
~ Step 3. To Brine (or not to Brine). If you keep up with all the trendy food commentary, everyone and his monkey's uncle is promoting this process, which is fine, but it's not for me. My opinion is: it's just one more step, both time-consuming and messy, that over-complicates roasting poultry -- which of itself is simple and stressfree. Except for the instance of a wild turkey, I am not a proponent of brining. In the case of a wild turkey, which does not have a lot of meat on it, has a game-y-er taste than farm-raised poultry, and, tends to be dry from the get-go, I have yet to find any reason of major substance, be it texture or flavor, to brine any poultry.
A bit about brining: Brine is a basic mixture of salt, sugar and water (sometimes brown sugar or molasses are used, and, sometimes herbs, spices and fresh or dried fruits are added). It was used before the invention of refrigeration to preserve and prevent meat from spoiling. Nowadays, brining is not so much done to preserve food, but to tenderize and flavor it. Because of the increased salt content, it also cuts the home cook quite a bit of slack in terms of exact timing and temperature. Brined poultry is an acquired taste, one which I have not yet managed to acquire. In fact, I dislike the taste and texture of brined birds, and I don't need to be cut any slack. Simmer down and read on:
My oven-roasting method produces moist, naturally-flavored, evenly-cooked birds with crispy, edible, golden-brown, butter-flavored skin. I have no need to resort to the reincarnation of a semi-outdated, time-consuming cooking process. This being said: Will brining visually make your bird camera-ready, like it's had several injections of botox? Yep. Will brining impart a juicy texture to your meat? Positively. Will it give your turkey a salty, lunch-meaty, sometimes hamlike after taste? In my personal opinion, absolutely. I've gone through this brining experiment several times over the past three years, under the supervision of and prompting from well-versed experts (a couple of whom have sent me their recipes and prepackaged brining salt mixtures to try). Brining has never once lived up to my expectations or standards. Enough said.
~ Step 4. To Stuff (or not to Stuff), or, The Evils of Stuffing: Make this decision before you even begin to prep your bird for the oven. I'm here to talk you out of stuffing the bird, but if you insist upon doing it, prepare the stuffing recipe according to the recipe directions and have the stuffing mixture ready and at room temperature before removing the bird from the refrigerator. Stuffing that is too hot or too cold will cause serious timing problems at the end of the roasting process. Stuffing in general, causes problems. It appeared early on my DON'T EVER DO THIS AGAIN list, so I do not stuff the bird. To make a long story not any shorter:
Stuffing is evil. Stuffing itself isn't evil, but from a food-safety standpoint, stuffing the bird is. By the the time the center of the stuffing cooks to a safe-to-eat temperature of 165-170 degrees, you will have grossly overcooked your bird, resulting in very dry, almost tasteless meat. If you take your bird out of the oven when you are supposed to, when the meat reaches a temperature of about 160-165 degrees (then cover and rest it to allow carryover heat to cook it to a temperature of 170-175 degrees), your stuffing is more than likely: not sufficiently or fully-cooked. There is no "gray area" or "middle ground" here, just a bad prognosis. This is not said to start any arguments with grandmothers across the USA who successfully stuff their birds and do not poison their friends and family. These are just statements of food-safety fact.
After reading the above, if you are still intent on stuffing your bird: #1. Have stuffing at room temperature. #2. Pack stuffing very loosely, into both the neck and breast cavities. For less mess, be sure to stuff the neck cavity first. #3. Once again, do not compact the stuffing in either cavity, as stuffing expands as it cooks. Over-stuffing will result in a dense, inedible product.
~ Steps 5 & 6. Preparing to Roast & Roasting. I like to remove my bird from the refrigerator and let it "chill out" on the countertop or in the sink for about 30-60 minutes before: Using kitchen shears, carefully remove the plastic wrapping from the completely thawed or fresh bird. Be careful not to puncture the skin of the bird with the sharp tips of the shears. Remove the neck and packet of giblets from the breast and/or neck cavities and set them aside. Thoroughly rinse the bird under cold water, then, using some wadded up paper towels, pat the exterior and interior of the bird dry.
Place bird, breast up, on a large rack which has been placed in a large roasting pan to which 6 cups of chicken stock, along with the neck and giblets, has been added.
You can use an expensive roasting pan with a V-rack insert, or an inexpensive disposable aluminum pan with a flat cooling rack placed in the bottom of it. The choice is yours, but the bird must be elevated so it does not sit in and cook in its own juices. I'm showing you the inexpensive way to do it today, so you'll believe me when I tell you it works just fine. I add chicken stock to the pan, because I like to have plenty of gravy for dinner as well as leftovers. As the bird roasts and its fat and juices drip down, the stock will take on all the great flavors of the bird and its seasonings. Because I do not stuff my bird, I place a mixture of aromatics inside of the breast cavity. These are not meant to be eaten, but, as the bird roasts, they impart flavor and moisture to the bird and the drippings. My favorite combination is:
3-4 5"-6" stalks celery
1/2-1 yellow or sweet onion, coarsely chopped
1/2-1 tart apple, unpeeled, coarsely chopped
The amounts used will vary depending upon the size of the bird you are stuffing.
Place some thin slices of butter evenly over the surface of the bird. This may look like a lot of butter, but it is only about 3-4 tablespoons. Finish with a grinding of sea salt and peppercorn blend over all.
Some food authorities recommend painting/brushing the bird with vegetable oil instead of butter, because they worry about the butter burning. Here's my 2 cents:
#1. I use butter because I like the buttery taste of the crispy skin after the bird is roasted.
#2. The butter will not burn if you follow my cooking instructions.
During this time, take a 8"-12"-16" piece of aluminum foil and fold it to form a protective cover/shield for the breast of the bird:
Place the aluminum foil shield loosely over the top of the breast. Using your fingertips, pat, press and mold it to the shape of the breast.
Immediately return the bird to the oven (don't worry if the oven temperature isn't down to 350 degrees yet) and continue to roast as per the following guidelines:
Note: These are guidelines. They will get you close to the finish line, but when it is in sight, please use an instant-read meat thermometer!
20 minutes per pound for small birds up to 8 pounds
15 minutes per pound for medium birds 8-16 pounds
13 minutes per pound for large birds 16-20 pounds
11 minutes per pound for extra-large birds 20-22 pounds
10 minutes per pound for huge birds over 22 pounds
(Whatever weight, add 2 minutes per pound for birds that contain edible stuffing.*)
Begin timing the bird the moment it goes into the 450 degree oven. *Note: The 2 minute per pound addition does not apply to any aromatic stuffing mixture as it is not meant to be eaten.
The best test for doneness is an instant-read meat thermometer placed in the breast and then the leg-thigh portion. Remove the bird from the oven when the meat has reached an internal temperature between 160-165 degrees. I ideally like to remove mine when the meat is at 160 degrees. In the event you do not have an instant-read thermometer, an alternative test is: Using the tip of a sharp knife, pierce the skin near the thigh joint. If the juices run clear, the bird is cooked. NEVER rely upon: the evil convenient pop-up thermometer!
Remove from the oven and remove the foil breast shield. Remove the rack (with the turkey on it), or just the turkey, and tightly seal in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Allow turkey to rest for 45-60 minutes.
Note: This is the ideal time to bake your stuffing and all your oven-ready casseroles in the preheated 350 degree oven!
~ Step 7. Making the gravy. Pour all liquid from pan into a fat/lean separator. You will have 2-3-4 cups of drippings (depending on size of bird). Anything short of 4 cups, make up the difference with chicken stock to total 4 cups of fat-free liquid.
Note: If you do not own a fat/lean separator, this is an inexpensive gadget you seriously need to invest in. Mine is 1-quart in size and glass. Smaller, lesser expensive plastic ones work just as well.
In a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan, melt 6 tablespoons butter over medium-low heat. Whisk in 1/2 cup all-purpose flour along with 1 teaspoon poultry seasoning. Do not add any salt and pepper as your fat-free drippings are already seasoned. Whisk constantly, until the mixture (referred to as roux) is thickened and smooth. This process takes 1-2 minutes.
Whisk in all liquid (4 total cups) from the separator, discarding all fat. Adjust heat to medium-high and bring gravy to a gentle simmer. Continue to simmer, whisking constantly, until gravy has thickened to your liking and coats the back of a spoon, 2-3 minutes. The longer you simmer the gravy, the thicker it will get!
Note about making giblet gravy: At this point, I like to remove/pull as many shreds of meat from the neck as I can, finely dice/mince the soft liver and stir them into the gravy. As for the heart and the kidneys, because they are so tough and chewy, I discard them, but if you do decide to use them, grinding them in a food processor makes quick work of them. The option to make giblet gravy is entirely yours!
~ Step 8. Carving. From my 16-pound turkey, I received two perfectly cooked breast halves and lots of lovely leg-thigh meat (my personal favorite). This is easily enough to feed 6-8 people with a few leftovers. Carving a turkey is no different than charving a chicken. Click on the Related Article link below to lean ~ This Woman's Way to Roast the Perfect Chicken + My Stressfree "Carving for Dummies" Methodology ~ !
Gobble! Gobble! Gobble!
Thanksgiving is an American holiday that is all about being thankful for what you have been given and sharing it with others: family, friends, and yes, even strangers. It doesn't have to be complicated or fancy. Just try to relax and make whatever time you have in your kitchen count:
~ The Countdown to the Big Turkey Day Feast Begins (Melanie's Top 10 Tips to Not Let it Drive You Crazy) ~ can be found by clicking on the Related Article link below!
Roasting Poultry and Making Gravy Too: My Own Techniques and Oration (the long and not short of it): The 16-pound turkey used in this post will yield 6-8 hearty servings and 4 cups of gravy. Depending on the size of any type of bird or birds you roast, the number of servings will vary. As long as you add 4 cups of chicken stock to the pan, the amount of gravy will not vary.
Special Equipment List: kitchen shears; paper towels; large roasting pan w/V-rack insert, or, 2, 20" x 12" x 6" disposable aluminum roasting pans, doubled to form one sturdy pan; 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" cooling rack; cutting board; chef's knife; aluminum foil; instant-read meat thermometer; fat/lean separator; 3 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides; whisk
Cook's Note: Trussing and basting. In the event anyone is concerned about trussing the bird: I usually don't. The advantage to trussing is supposed to be a more appealing presentation, but I've had the string rip and tear the delicate, crispy skin when I've tried to loosen and remove it from the cooked bird. Experimentation has proven that birds cook evenly with or without trussing, so the option is yours. That said, when the legs are bound, the breast cavity is better suited to hold stuffing. I've had good results by using a short length of twine and tying the legs together with a simple knot. If you do decide to truss in any manner, be sure to use cotton twine specifically made for use in the kitchen. PS: Basting is for the birds. After the initial browning of the skin, basting is just a pointless waste of your time!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)