How To Cook A Turkey Without Fear

Do not fear the turkey! Tips for how to cook a turkey to make cooking easier, and things to avoid.

First, a bit of history. The turkey is in fact Mexican in origin--Native Americans domesticated them there long before any Spanish conquistador stepped foot on land. Once they did, the Spanish promptly shipped them back to Europe. Owing to some nomenclature confusion, many confused the Spanish Indies with the Indies proper, where they believed the fowl originated. The English thought that the bird came from the country of Turkey (perhaps Turkish merchants introduced it), and thus named it appropriately. The large fowl was raised domestically in England beginning in about 1520, as well as in Italy and France. The Pilgrims were reportedly quite surprised to find that wild turkeys existed in the New World. And were very glad to have them, even if they weren't actually present at the first Thanksgiving (there's an unresolved debate about the matter).

Benjamin Franklin, fearing that the 'bad moral character' of the bald eagle would reflect poorly on the young nation, attempted to have the turkey declared the national bird. Not as attractive as the eagle, and quite stupid, but apparently of superb moral character. It comes a close second, showing up on a regular schedule in the fall--what would Thanksgiving be without a large, golden turkey on the table. Unfortunately, the tradition places a good bit of stress on the inexperienced cook, especially those reckless enough to invite large numbers over for the holidays--there are seemingly so many things that can go wrong.

The most important thing to have handy is your common sense. Rinse the turkey well, do not wash with soap. Use a stuffing if you like, but don't try to get creative until you're more experienced--use a recipe. (I've been to one disastrous occassion where popcorn kernals were inserted into the cavity, in the expectation that they would pop, creating a popcorn stuffing. They did not. One friend tried a crayfish stuffing, successfully creating a turkey that tasted just like crayfish and file powder. Follow a recipe. Preferably a very traditional one. No one likes holidays messed with, least of all you if you create a disaster.)



So, the most prevalent problem that exists with cooking a turkey is having dry breast meat. This is due to the fact that the turkey breast is done first, and so overcooks while the legs are finishing up. The easiest way around this is to only cook a breast, especially since it's now the favored part. Cook two, if you need extra meat. If that isn't an option, think about cooking the legs separately--cut them off before cooking, and put them in the oven about 30 minutes before you put the turkey in. However, I realize that many people do not want to take an already dismembered bird to the holiday table. So, there is a third option. Lovely turkey, all done, no dryness. But a little muscle is required of the cook.

To begin with, think salt. Salt seals in moisture, a very desirable quality. Brining the bird results in tender meat, without an unwanted over-saltiness. The night before fill a large pot or very clean bucket with 2 gallons of cold water and 2 cups of coarse (kosher) salt. Stir to combine. Place the well-rinsed, thawed bird in the salty water. Place in the fridge overnight.

The next day, remove the turkey from the salt, and rinse under running water, removing any visible salt crystals. Dry the clean turkey with paper towels.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place the turkey on a roasting rack (preferably v-shaped) in a roasting pan. (Don't use a little flimsy tinfoil thing. You're asking for trouble. Spend the cash, buy a proper roasting pan. Trust me. And while you're purchasing, buy a meat thermometer, you'll thank me, I assure you.)

(If you don't like stuffing,like me, chop an onion and an apple roughly and toss inside the cavity. If you like stuffing, get a trusted recipe).

Brush the turkey with melted butter, lots--more than you think reasonable. Let it drip off.

Put the turkey in the oven for one hour at 400 degrees. After one hour, TURN the turkey over and lower the oven temperature to 300. Baste. Roast another hour. TURN the turkey over again. Take it's temperature. You want it read 160 at breast, and 180 at the thigh. Be careful with all this turning, you don't want to burn yourself. If you need to, baste the turkey again, put it back in the oven, and raise the oven temperature back to 400. Cook until done (check the temp), most likely another hour.

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