Strategies for Your Best Bird—And Why You Won’t Find Me Spatchcocking a Turkey
Every year, just before Thanksgiving, the blogosphere explodes with eccentric methods for cooking turkey. Breast side up/breast side down. Wrapped in butter-soaked cheesecloth. Covered with a bacon weave. Deep-fried in gallons of peanut oil in the driveway. Deboned and stuffed with a duck and a chicken. Standing on its head. But the weirdest cooking method among them is spatchcocking.
Of course, I know the theory is simple: you divide and conquer the bird, cooking the legs longer than the breast to make sure the latter doesn’t dry out. I’m all for spatchcocking a chicken. (Hey, I introduced the technique to American grillers 20 years ago in my book How to Grill.). It’s the perfect way to direct grill a whole yardbird while maximizing the surface area exposed to the smoke and fire.
But spatchcocking a turkey makes it look like it was run over by a steamroller. Turkey is supposed to be the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table, and a squashed, flattened bird just doesn’t cut it. The turkey just doesn’t deserve to be presented and remembered in such an indecorous position.
This point was made clear to me on a recent visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Yes, I know, it’s easy to dismiss Rockwell as a sentimental magazine illustrator. But he was a master craftsman, not to mention a keen observer of human psychology and the American psyche. His World War II period painting “Freedom From Want” has become the timeless icon of the American Thanksgiving—three generations of family seated around a table, with a white-haired grandmother serving a turkey the size of a small hog. Now that’s what a Thanksgiving turkey should look like—mahogany skin, plump breast, sturdy drumsticks. Not a bird that looks like it was run over by a steamroller.
And if, happily, our guest list is more inclusive and multi-cultural these days, a well-roasted (better yet, make that grilled) turkey remains the star of the show.
Withal, turkey still presents challenges—chief among them the tendency for the breast to dry out. Which is why, over the years, I’ve developed several strategies to keep the bird moist while keeping it whole—as tradition demands.
Strategies for Cooking Your Best Thanksgiving Turkey
Strategy #1: Brine the turkey.
To wet brine, oak it in heavily salted water (1 cup of kosher salt per gallon of water) in the refrigerator or insulated cooler for 24 hours before cooking it. The salt will denature the proteins, making the bird more juicy and tender. The difference between a brined bird versus an unbrined bird is remarkable. (Click here for my recipe for this brined smoked turkey spiked with bourbon.)
Strategy #2: Use a dry brine.
To dry brine, sprinkle the turkey and its cavities with kosher salt (about 1 tablespoon for every 4 pounds of bird), wrap in plastic or enclose in a plastic bag, and refrigerate for 2 days. I prefer to rinse the excess salt off before grilling, but that’s optional.
Strategy #3: Inject the turkey.
Injecting is another way to introduce moisture to the bird. (Click here for a summary of the advantages of brining versus injecting.) A thin injector sauce of chicken broth and melted butter is drawn up into a large hypodermic needle and delivered deep into the breast, legs, and thighs of the bird. Here’s a link to my injector sauce recipe and a link to a turkey injector.
Strategy #4: Place herb butter under the skin.
I have often used a technique on the annual Thanksgiving turkey that I first learned in cooking school in France: I gently lift the skin on the breast and rub butter on the flesh underneath it. Sometimes I gild the lily by slipping leaves of fresh herbs (such as sage) or thin slices of truffles under the skin. I finish the bird by rubbing softened butter on the outside as well. (The solids in butter promote browning.)
So happy Thanksgiving, everyone—however you cook your turkey!