Turkey is a delicious and affordable food that is available all year long, so it is a pity so many people look at it as only a seasonal food.
It is another in the long list of good things to eat that came to us from the New World. Turkeys have been domesticated for more than 2,000 years and most people think the bird's origins were in Mexico.
Early Europeans thought the bird was a guinea, a bird that came to Europe through Turkey and so many people called it a turkey fowl. We shortened the name to turkey and that name has stuck. The bird was introduced to England in the 16th century, and its popularity has since spread throughout the world.
The wild turkey and the domesticated one are of the same species, but they taste nothing alike. The wild turkey is mostly dark meat and has almost no fat. The most popular breed of domesticated bird is the broad-breasted white, but there are at least eight other breeds that are raised commercially. The male turkey is known as a tom or gobbler and the female is a hen; the chicks are known as poult or turkeyling. Turkeys have two rather odd adornments on the top and bottom of the beak; the one on the top is the snood and the one on the bottom is the wattle.
Cooking the bird
Now that we know more about the turkey than we ever wanted to know, let's talk about how best to cook one for your holiday meal.
As is almost always the case, buy the best quality bird you can find. All can be made delicious, but if you have a few extra coins in your pocket and can afford free range and organic then that will be your best choice.
The method you choose to cook your bird is perhaps the first big decision you will make. Traditionally we roast turkeys, but deep frying has become popular in the South. The deep fry
ing method produces a delicious bird, but there are obvious safety concerns. Never fry a turkey unless you have the proper equipment and understand thoroughly how the procedure works. The other method you might consider is smoking, but, of course, that requires a smoker that allows you to control the temperature exactly.
A technique that is sure to produce a moist bird is brining. There is no other variable as important to your success. More turkeys are ruined by overcooking, using too high a temperature or other misstep that makes for a dry bird. Brining is very simply soaking the bird for a few hours or overnight in a seasoned liquid.
Some brines are as simple as water with sugar and salt added, others are quite complex. The decision you have to make here is whether you want to add only moisture or if you want to enhance the flavor with seasonings. White wine is always a good choice to add to brine.
Cook-in bag or foil
Another choice that will keep your bird from being too dry is to use a cooking bag or tin foil. These simple and inexpensive precautions can produce excellent results.
A point of contention is whether to roast the bird breast side up or down or both. I can find no evidence that one works better than the other and so will mark this option up to personal choice.
How to stuff your turkey is a subject of some import. The two prevailing points of view, and both have their merit, are to stuff with dressing or to stuff with just herbs or fruit.
There can be no doubt that adding a dressing to the cavity will make for a longer cooking time. Cooking the dressing separately may speed things up, but I think the results of the stuffing will be less flavorful.
The argument can be made that to stuff a turkey with herbs like cilantro and vegetables like onions, carrots and garlic will not increase the cooking time and will impart more flavor. It's another decision you will have to face alone.
Trussing the turkey
No matter the method you use the stuffing can be held in by a piece of tin foil, but make sure to close the cavity by trussing the turkey. Trussing is not that difficult to do and if you want to learn how I suggest you watch Alton Brown's Youtube video. He makes it simple and clear and the video is less than 3 minutes long. Another good online cooking aide is the Butterball calculator. This website is full of good recipes, ideas and tips.
If you just can't afford a whole turkey, there are alternatives that might work for you. Most grocery stores carry packages of turkey wings and thighs that can be roasted with a good result and when you add in a few baked sweet potatoes and some simmered greens you will have a feast just right for the holiday.
You also can buy a turkey breast for slightly less than a whole bird, although a word of caution is necessary; the breast can be quite dry so proceed with caution.
As a last resort you can make a turkey gumbo with what odd pieces you can cobble together. Use lots of onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic. You can get a piece of smoked sausage then your success is guaranteed. Simmer it all slowly, seasoning as you go. Serve with steamed rice.
BASIC TURKEY RECIPE
1, 12-to-16-pound turkey (start thawing in the refrigerator two days before cooking)
1 cup salt
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 gallon chicken or vegetable stock (homemade is always best)
1 chopped onion
Tops of one bunch of celery
1 tablespoon black pepper corns
Optional: 1 can local beer or 2-3 cups white wine
Combine all of the ingredients for the brine, bring to a simmer and hold for 30 minutes. Turn heat off and allow to come to room temperature. Refrigerate if you are not going to use right away.
Brine the bird for at least 3 hours, over night is OK, too.
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Remove the turkey from the brine and dry thoroughly. The brine should be thrown away, do not re-use it. Stuff the bird as you like, truss and roast for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and roast for about 2 hours. Use an instant read thermometer and remove the bird when the temperature reaches 165 degrees when taken deep in the thigh (so says the USDA). Please do not overcook. A visual test is that when pierced the juice from the thigh should be clear. Let the turkey rest for at least 15 minutes before carving.
There is an almost endless list of good things to serve with a roasted turkey, but perhaps this is not the time to experiment with modern fusion or some over-the-top something from a TV super chef. Serve your turkey with traditional sides that your family loves.
The visual appeal of your holiday meal cannot be overstated.
You should always remember to use a green garnish and perhaps some bright red cranberries to enhance its appearance. A whole bird on the table looks nice, but as you carve it its appearance declines. Consider carving the bird in the kitchen and plating it as attractively as you can.
You can't go wrong if you pair this holiday bird with a good Pinot noir or Shiraz.