Crash Course

Talking Turkey: The Raichlen 12-Step Program for Taking Your Holiday Bird Over the Top

Turkey on grill
  1. There’s a big difference in texture and taste between ice-hard frozen supermarket turkeys and fresh organic birds from your natural foods store or farmers’ market. The organic bird may seem a little tougher, but you can’t beat the flavor—or the knowledge that it’s free of hormones and chemical additives. You’ll need to order it ahead, so don’t wait until the last minute.
  2. So how big a turkey should you buy? Figure on 1 1/2 pounds per person. This will make you feel properly overfed (as you should at Thanksgiving) and leave you with welcome leftovers.
  3. But bigger isn’t always better. For me, a 12- to 14-pound turkey is ideal. For large gatherings, I’d rather cook two 12-pounders than one 24-pound monster. (It’s easier to control the cooking.)
  4. A lot of industrially raised birds come pre-injected with stock, water, and/or butter or vegetable oil—up to 15 percent. Water is cheaper than meat, which is one reason processors do it. Try to buy your turkey un-injected. You can always brine it yourself (see below).

  5. The best and safest way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator. Depending on the size of the bird, you’ll need to start thawing it up to five days ahead: figure on one day for every four pounds of turkey. Alternatively, thaw the turkey in a deep sink or cooler filled with cold water: Change the water every 30 minutes. It’s important for food safety reasons to keep the water at 40 degrees or less. You can add resealable bags of ice to the water to keep it cold. Never thaw the turkey in hot water as the outside will thaw long before the inside, risking dangerous bacterial growth.
  6. Most turkeys come with some of the innards (liver, heart, gizzard) and neck in a plastic bag secreted inside. These are called giblets. There are two places to look for them: in the main cavity and in the front cavity (under the neck skin). This may sound obvious, but once I was served a roast turkey that still had the innards in their plastic bag inside.
  7. Use the turkey liver for making chopped or sautéed liver. (For extra flavor, smoke it before chopping.) While you’re at it, smoke the heart, gizzard, and neck and use them for making turkey soup or stock. Tip: smoked turkey necks are one of the “secret” ingredients in a great Louisiana gumbo. (Just ask David Rauch of Wayne Jacob’s Smokehouse in LaPlace, Louisiana.)

    Beer can turkey
  8. One thing that makes a turkey challenging to cook is that the legs (the dark meat) take longer to cook than the breast (the white meat). This explains why so much turkey tastes dried out. One way to keep the breast moist even while cooking the legs to a safe temperature is brining. Another is injecting. A third technique is spreading butter under the skin of the turkey (find out how to loosen the skin of a chicken or turkey in How to Grill or in this Turkey Adobo recipe). A fourth method is to smoke-roast the turkey “beer can chicken style” on a tall-boy can of beer. A fifth method is to deep-fry the turkey—admittedly not barbecuing or grilling, but you also do it outdoors (you can find a recipe in Man Made Meals).

    Loosening turkey skin
  9. Despite the name, stuffing is best cooked separately, not in the turkey cavity. For one, you can brown and crisp the top. (In the bird it merely steams.) You also greatly reduce the risk of bacterial contamination by cooking the stuffing separately.
  10. Turkey should be cooked to at least 165 degrees. To check the temperature, insert the probe of an instant-read meat thermometer into the deepest part of the thigh (but not touching the bone).
  11. I always smoke-roast my bird (on the grill) using my Best of Barbecue Poultry Blend. A 12-pound bird takes 2 1/2 to 3 hours at 350 degrees.
  12. Never carve or serve a turkey hot out of the oven. Let it rest, loosely tented with aluminum foil, for at least 20 minutes. (Lay a the sheet of foil over the bird—don’t wrap it.) This “relaxes” the meat and restores the juices. In our next blog post, we’ll show you step by step with photos how to carve a turkey.

Adapted from Man Made Meals by Steven Raichlen (Workman Publishing). Copyright © 2014.

Find more invaluable tips in Man Made Meals:

Man Made Meals by Steven Raichlen