Thanksgiving! There’s no other meal so rewarding yet so anxiety ridden then this once yearly feast. Your heritage turkey is going to be the star of Thanksgiving dinner. Protect your investment and your reputation this year by avoiding these 6 Common Thanksgiving Turkey mistakes!
1. Give It A Rest
Sometimes the best ingredient is time itself. No matter what recipe you follow, plan to rest your heritage turkey at least twice during your cooking process— once at the beginning, and once at the end. Before you begin cooking let your turkey rest outside of the fridge for at least 40 minutes.
Allowing your bird to come to room temperature first will decrease the time it spends in the oven. This will help improve texture and prevent the white meat from drying out.
The second rest should come after you take your turkey out of the oven. Put down the knife! If you want your turkey to taste as good as it looks it needs to rest. Plan to give a full 30 minutes before carving.
2. Skip The Stuffing, But Don’t Forget To Stuff
Long gone are the days of warm, doughy stuffing overflowing from the cavities, nooks and crannies of holiday turkeys. Thanks to science, concerned mothers, and a better understanding of food borne illness it is now accepted that cooking stuffing inside of the actually turkey is a big no-no.
Play it safe and prepare your stuffing in a separate baking dish, but don’t ignore that cavity! Think of it as your flavor cave. The perfect basket to hold all of your favorite aromatics- herbs, citrus, onions, fennel, and don’t forget lots of salt and pepper!
Fill it up but keep it loose. Over stuffing can cause your heritage turkey to cook unevenly.
3. To Brine or Not To Brine
Brining has gained considerable momentum over the last few years. Many cooks have come to love this technique, which adds an additional buffer against dry white meat. When you use a traditional liquid brine both the salt and the liquid permeate the meat. The salt acts to help relax the proteins, aiding in tenderness, and a small percentage of the water is retained, increase the overall weight just slightly and helping preserve juiciness while roasting.
This works great for your average grocery store bird who’s a lack of natural fat can cause it to dry out quickly in the oven, but when you use a brine, even a delicious recipe full of herbs and spices, it does little to impart actual flavor. We will spare you the boring science of molecule size and cell wall semi-permeability and just say that no matter what you add to your brine the internal meat of the turkey will only retain the water in the solution. Adding water will help against drying out, but that water will also act to dilute the turkey flavor.
With a commercial bird this isn’t such a loss. Your average grocery store turkey isn’t known for its deep, rich turkey flavor, but heritage breed turkeys are unique. They are very distinct in their flavor and you run the risk of losing that richness.
There is a middle ground in the battle over the brine and that is the dry brine. This technique involves generously salt your turkey inside and out and allowing it to rest uncover in your refrigerator for 24-48 hour. Rinse the salt off before starting your final pre-over preparations and proceed as you normally would. The salt is still able to work its magic and help add tenderness to the turkey without adding the wateriness of a liquid brine. Trust us, the generous fat found in heritage turkeys (as much as 10 times that of their commercial counterparts) will be all you need to keep your turkey juicy and delicious this year.
4. Low and Slow Baby!
When compared to their commercial counterparts, our heritage turkeys enjoy a long leisurely lifestyle roaming and forging on the open prairie. Unlike your average grocery store turkey, whose fast growth rates out paces their bodies ability to develop and store fat, heritage turkeys are known for packing on the pounds!
They can develop as much as 10 times the amount of fat when comparing the white meat from both. This means a turkey that is juicier and more flavorful, but that fat needs time to render.
Cooking at a low and steady 325 will ensure your bird has enough time in the oven to render out that fat and break down connective tissue while still keeping it safe from drying out.
5. Live By The Thermometer
The only way to know if your heritage turkey is done is to take its temperature. We recommend pulling your turkey out of the oven when the thigh meat reads 165. The internal temperature of your heritage turkey will continue to rise even after you pull it from the oven.
If you are really a heritage turkey perfectionist you may opt to divide your turkey into pieces before cooking. This is best done separating the leg and thigh quarters from the breast. Because white meat and dark meat cook at different rates, this is the only way to ensure perfectly cooked and tender dark meat without over cooking the white meat.
Many chefs also swear by starting their turkeys breast side down and roasting them in that position for the first hour or so. This can help protect the white meat while the dark meat gets a head start on cooking, but be warned— if you’re planning to roast a big ol’ turkey this year, it ain’t easy flippin’ a big, hot, greased up bird without the help of a small crane.
6. You Carve What You Eat
Finally. You’ve navigated your way through the many perils of preparing the perfect Thanksgiving meal. Time to carve! While every movie ever made featuring a turkey dinner shows the turkey being carved and served right from the table like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, no one actually does this and ends up with a good result. This is a step that is best left in the kitchen.
After presenting your beautiful heritage turkey, remove both halves of the breast from the turkey in complete sections and slice. Carve and pull the remaining dark meat from the legs and thighs. Be carful not to slice more turkey then you plan to use immediately. The best way to store turkey and all meat for future meals is un-carved.
Still have a heritage turkey question!? Leave your question in the comments and please share your favorite Holiday tips with us!
Have a Healthy and Happy Thanksgiving!