Here are a few of the various techniques and ideas I have tried, or that I know others have tried through the years:
- Wet brine. Find a container large enough to allow the whole turkey to soak in a salt/sugar/herb/spice solution, at a safe temperature of course for a couple of days. The idea here is that the salt in the solution actually activates small electrical charges that relax tissues and allow them to absorb some of the flavorful solution. I've never tried this because it sounds like a major PITA.
- Dry brine. A/K/A salting. Several days ahead of cooking, mix yourself up a salt/herb mixture and rub it all over that bird inside and out. Seal it up in a big bag and let it sit in the fridge. When I do this I turn the sucker over a few times to let gravity work WITH me for a change. You rinse it all off and let it dry before cooking. Like wet bringing, the general idea is that the salt draws out some moisture which the bird re-absorbs after mingling with the herbs, etc.
- Roasting bag. Do I really need to explain this?
- Brown paper bag. Same as plastic roasting bag, but a more eco-friendly approach.
- Breast up.
- Breast down. Making gravity work with you, again. Supposedly juices drip down into breast and not out of it.
- Slow roast. Use a temperature somewhere around 325 degrees.
- Hot roast. Roast closer to 500. Incidentally, this is rather how Thomas Keller makes chickens and trust me, that's a damned good roast chicken.
- Different parts. Separate the breast and cook it separately from the thighs and legs and back. Breast meat is done at about 160 degrees, but dark meat should go to 180.
- Ice the breasts. I am aware of a technique that calls for icing the breast meat with a plastic bag full of ice for 20 minutes or so prior to cooking to give the dark meat a head start on the cooking.
- Butter under skin. Some people whip up some compound butter and shove that under the skin.
- Butter on skin. The lotion of choice in flavor town. I might rub some on myself some day.
- Beer can turkey. Roast vertically with a beer can, probably Foster's in this case, inserted in the poultry's kiester so the liquid in the can (beer, wine, Tab, water) simmers and steams out into the cavity.
- Deep fry. I bet that's good, but I don't think I want to play with that much oil at that temperature since I really like to drink between basting the bird.
All these choices!! What to do??
After a lot of years of playing with this stuff I have reached the following conclusion: I'll be forked five ways to Fuddrucker's if any of this actually makes a difference. No kidding. Short of marinating a turkey for days in a strong marinade, I am not sure a person can significantly alter the taste of a turkey.
But all is not lost, here is what I think you can control- skin crispiness and bird moisture. If you want a crispy skin, you definitely need to think about cooking a little hotter and might even consider letting the turkey sit open in the fridge a good 24 hours before the cook to let the skin dry. Want moist? You might have to sacrifice the skin crispiness and should probably be working with a covered roaster or a bag. You might even think about breast down. Why not? If you want to hit the holy grail of crisp skin and moist meat, that is all technique, baby. Watch your temperatures and be prepared to tent the bird to keep it from getting too brown. You might also consider your cooking device and consider the benefits of steam in an oven or a ceramic grill. It takes a fine combination of temperature control, a little moisture, and a watchful eye.
No matter how you cook a Thanksgiving turkey, the point is to eat the meal with friends and family and enjoy the bounty of being together. Make a few new side dishes, but keep most of the classics on the table to keep the memories of dinners past alive.
All this talk of turkey has made me hungry and has me thinking of Christmas dinner. And that means prime rib- another ingredient notoriously susceptible to multitudes of cooking technique.