Tips and Techniques: All Things Turkey

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Thanksgiving turkey can be intimidating. Even seasoned cooks struggle to produce a perfectly moist, crowd pleasing, mouth watering, nap inducing turkey. The good news is, we’re here to help.

Cooking Methods

We’ll discuss three ways of preparing the turkey:

  • Spatchcocking – our preferred method, which is to “butterfly” the bird by removing the backbone.
  • Cooking it whole – the Norman Rockwell classic whole bird.
  • Breaking down the bird all the way – cooking the individual pieces.

Spatchcock- This is the method we recommend over any other. By removing the backbone and cooking the bird flat, it allows the breasts and thighs/legs to cook at the most even rate. It also allows you to brown twice as much surface area. Browning adds flavor, and flavor is good. Here’s the run-down:

1- To take the backbone out, place the bird breast side down. Cut along both sides of the backbone with kitchen shears, from one opening of the cavity to the other. Save the backbone for making turkey stock or flavoring gravy.
2- Use a brine or injection before cooking. This will help keep the meat moist and flavorful. See the Brining, Injecting and Marinating section below for recommendations.
3- Use a rub to add flavor. Be sure to pull the skin away from the meat, but leave it attached. Season the meat under the skin for maximum flavor absorption. See the Rubs section below for recommendations.
4- Lay the bird flat on a foil lined sheet pan. Cooking it on a pan will allow you to keep all of the delicious juices, which you can later incorporate back into the meat, or use in gravy.
5- At 325ºF, a 15 lb turkey will take about 2-2.5 hours to cook. The smaller the bird, the less time. If you wish to smoke the bird, you can cook at a much lower temperature, say 225ºF. Just remember, the lower the temperature, the longer the cook time. Poultry takes on smoke quicker and easier than other meats, therefore cooking at 325ºF will impart plenty of smoky flavor. Cook the turkey until all of the meat has reached an internal temperature of 165ºF. This is your magic number. It is likely that the legs will cook a bit faster than the breasts. That is fine. However, do NOT cook the breasts past 165ºF. A thermometer will make or break your Thanksgiving turkey. We recommend using an instant read thermometer like the Maverick PT-100.
6- The thighs will separate from the rest of the body very easily. No hunting for the thigh joint, like with a whole cooked turkey. This meat should pull away from the bones with ease, as well. Look out for bones and tendons hiding in the leg meat. The breasts can either be sliced intact or removed from the breast bone, separated from wings, and sliced to serve. For the wings, remove the skin and pull that meat, like you did with the legs/thighs.
7- Until you’re ready to serve, store the pulled and sliced meat in a pan with the juices rendered while cooking.

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Whole Bird- This is the method you’re probably most familiar with. However, that doesn’t mean it’s the best method. When you cook the bird whole, it’s very common for the breasts to be a little dry. That’s because they tend to cook faster than the legs and thighs. In order to get the dark meat cooked through, you risk overcooking the light meat. If you decide to cook the turkey whole, here is the run-down.

1- Use a brine or injection before cooking. This will help to keep the meat moist and flavorful. See the Brining, Injecting and Marinating section below for recommendations.
2- Use a rub to add flavor. Be sure to pull the skin away from the meat, but leave it attached. Season the meat under the skin for maximum flavor absorption. See the Rubs section below for recommendations.
3- Place the bird on a roasting rack, such as this Non-stick Roasting Rackand place the rack on a low lipped pan, like a sheet pan. It’s important that the sides aren’t too high, or they will block the heat to the bottom of the bird.
4- Basting is optional. It can add some flavor, but it will also interrupt the cooking process, and take longer to cook. If your turkey is brined and seasoned, basting is unnecessary.
5- Cook the turkey until all of the meat has reached an internal temperature of 165ºF. This is your magic number. Do NOT cook it past 165ºF. A thermometer will make or break your Thanksgiving turkey. We recommend using an instant read thermometer like the Maverick PT-100. It’s going to take longer than the other methods. At 325ºF, a 15 lb turkey will take 3.5+ hours to cook.

Pieces- The main advantage to breaking your turkey down into pieces is that it allows each part to be cooked to its ideal temperature (165ºF). It can also cut down on your cook time.

1- Break the turkey down into eight pieces. First, cut out the backbone, as you would in the spatchcock method. Throw it in the stock pot. Then remove the wings. Cut the tips off and throw them in the stock pot too. Cut off each thigh at the ball joint where it meets the body. Bend the leg drum and thigh away from one another to better find the joint. Cut through the joint to separate the two. Last, remove the breasts by cutting down along the breastbone until the breast is free of the carcass.
2- The pieces can now be brined, injected or even marinated. This will help to keep the meat moist and flavorful. See the Brining, Injecting and Marinating section below for recommendations.
3- Use a rub to add flavor. Be sure to pull the skin away from the meat, but leave it attached. Season the meat under the skin for maximum flavor absorption. See the Rubs section below for recommendations.
4- As with the other cooking methods, and I can’t emphasize this enough, cook each part until the deepest part of the meat has reached an internal temperature of 165ºF. This is your magic number. Do NOT cook it past 165ºF. A thermometer will make or break your Thanksgiving turkey. We recommend using an instant read thermometer like the Maverick PT-100. At 325ºF, you can have all of your pieces cooked in 1.5-2 hours. Of course you’ll want to start the thighs and breasts earlier than the small pieces.

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Brining, Injecting and Marinating

These are three ways you can add flavor and insure moisture retention in your finished turkey. Brining and injecting are more ideal for whole bird and spatchcock cooking styles, due to their size. Any of these methods can be used when cooking individual pieces.

Brining- Brining is the process of submerging meat in a salt solution, often in combination with other flavoring agents (herbs, chile, aromatics), to give your meat its best shot at staying moist while cooking. Brining the whole bird/spatchcocked bird can take a couple of hours to overnight. Each different product will recommend brining times. There are powder based brines that require you to mix them with water such as Oakridge BBQ Game Changer. This balanced brine is not as salty as most brines and gives you that perfect infusion of both flavor and moisture. Mad Hunky’s Poultry Brine is a more savory choice. Accented with herbs, spices and honey, this brine will give your turkey the moisture it needs and the classic holiday turkey flavor you love. Another great powder based brine is The Briner Classic BrineThe name says it all. It’s classic, like the Mad Hunky’s, with a touch more sweetness. In addition to powder based brines we also have brine concentrates. That is, liquid based, and meant to be watered down for use. Sweetwater Spice makes a great product in this category. Their Lemon Thyme Turkey Bath brings a citrusy element to your brining process, much like a marinade would. You may be wondering what sort of container you might use to submerge a 15 pound bird. You’re looking for The Briner brining bucket. Its 22 quart capacity is enough to drown a good sized turkey, and it comes equipped with an adjustable plate to keep the meat fully submerged.

Marinating- A marinade uses an acid, such as citrus juice or vinegar, to penetrate the meat, delivering flavor and breaking down proteins to tenderize the meat. In regards to the turkey, we only recommend marinating if you intend to cook the pieces separately. A marinade isn’t ideal for a whole or spatchcocked bird, as the outer parts of the meat would be over marinated- chemically cooked, even- before the marinade could reach the center of the meat. However, marinades can be injected into larger pieces of meat, which we will discuss below. A marinade is ideal for flavoring and tenderizing individual pieces. We highly recommend Smoke on Wheels BBQ MarinadeIts buttery, savory flavor is fantastic on turkey.

Injecting- Injecting is a quick way to get flavor distributed throughout your meat. It can be used with any of the cooking/preparation methods discussed above. Simply use a marinade injector, such as the GrillPro Marinade Injector, to inject your desired marinade. We recommend John Henry’s Pecan Marinade Injection for this technique. It adds a wonderful nutty sweetness to the flavor profile.

Rubs- Rub should be applied to the meat (especially) under the skin, as well as on top of the skin. If you’re going for a more classic savory flavor profile, use a rub like John Henry’s Texas Chicken Tickler or Oakridge BBQ Santa MariaIf you’re looking for a sweeter rub, say to pair with John Henry’s Pecan Injection, look no further than John Henry’s Pecan Rub. Finally our staff favorite for holiday turkey year in and year out continues to be Plowboys BBQ Yardbird Rub. This rub continues to impress all who taste it with its balance of sweet and savory.

All of these products, and more, can be purchased online (just click on the product name above), or in our store at 818 W. Douglas Ave in Wichita, Kansas.

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