Cooking a big Thanksgiving dinner is a testament to multi-tasking. Let’s face it, a lot can go wrong when there’s a 25-pound turkey involved, along with all those side dishes that need to be ready at the same time the bird is done. Most people roast their chosen birds, yet there are a plethora of techniques involved when it comes to using this method. Some folks prefer to grill their turkeys, let’s say, on a Weber. Others attempt to deep-fry the bird, with varying degrees of success. Any way you look at it, there are many ways to screw up the Thanksgiving bird.
1) The Bird is Completely Frozen!
One of the biggest Thanksgiving dinner catastrophes possible is when you forget to thaw the turkey in time. A frozen bird can really throw a wrench into your cooking plans, especially when the family starts showing up and the bird already needs to be in the oven. This snafu can easily be avoided with a little planning, though. It’s best to thaw the turkey under refrigeration for 2-3 days, even longer for birds that weigh more than 20 pounds. That means you actually have to buy the bird (if it’s frozen) a few days in advance. Soaking it in lukewarm water (at the last minute) doesn’t work, and is generally a bad idea. Save yourself the hassle, and just plan ahead, or buy a fully thawed turkey.
2) Failing to Truss the Bird
It is common knowledge (at least to chefs and grandmas) that turkey breast cooks at a different rate than the legs and thighs. This is why the experts tell you to truss (tie) the legs to the body cavity while it cooks–to prevent the breast meat from becoming drier than a popcorn fart. Some people go as far as taking the bird apart and cooking the breast and thighs/legs in a different manner. They usually roast the breast in a traditional style, while the leg and thighs get braised for a much longer period of time with herbs and wine. This preparation is becoming more common, especially for foodies who like doing this kind of thing.
3) Turkey That Is Too Dry
While on the topic of dry turkey, there are many ways to get this undesirable end result.
It’s imperative that you pay attention to your bird, meaning you need to baste it constantly while it’s roasting, or use a self-basting cooking bag. First and foremost, when roasting the bird, you need to have a rack to elevate it so it doesn’t sit on the bottom of the roasting pan. The preferred basting liquids are butter or olive oil, and the bird’s own juices, of course. (A little white wine never hurts, either.) Just soak some cheesecloth in melted butter and drape it tightly over the turkey, and baste it with a pastry brush about every 30 minutes. If you’re using the self-basting brown bag method, make sure that the bag doesn’t have ink on it, because where there’s a company logo, there’s probably some nasty chemicals, as well. Most grocery stores have suitable basting bags–both clear and the brown-bag variety–located in the baking aisle.
4) Roasting at the Wrong Temperature
Roasting is the most common way to cook the holiday bird. There’s nothing more comforting than the aroma of a turkey roasting away in the oven. But timing is everything when roasting is involved, in relation to the size of the bird. A general rule of thumb for roasting a 15-pound turkey (your average sized bird, with the gizzards removed) is to cook it at 325 degrees for a little more than 3 hours, or until the internal temperature reaches 170 degrees, preferably near a bone. Larger birds (a 25 pounder, for example) need to cook longer–a wee more than 5 hours at 325 degrees. You can use a leave-in thermometer or many store-bought turkeys have those nifty pop-up indicators that tell you when the turkey is done.
5) Careless Slow Cooking
Cooking a turkey in a large crock-pot or other slow cooker can be a dangerous endeavor, considering that harmful bacteria and toxins breed like bunny rabbits in an environment under 300 degrees. Some folks swear by slow-cooking the turkey (let’s say, at 275 degrees for 8 hours) for ultimate tenderness, but if you do it this way, your guests could end up puking their guts out. Kids, pregnant women, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are particularly susceptible to this kind of food-borne illness, which means just about everyone at your dinner table is at risk of getting sick. If you insist on slow cooking your turkey, make sure to crank up the heat to 350 degrees for the last 30 minutes–to help kill off any dangerous bacteria.
6) Doing It Differently
Some people can’t help but do things differently. For those who think that roasting the turkey is way too pedestrian, maybe you should try cooking your turkey outside on the charcoal grill, or submerging the bird in bubbling oil. The former requires a large kettle-style charcoal grill or any other large grill. (Gas grills work fine, but use some soaked wood chips to impart some flavor.) Getting the temperature just right can be tricky on a charcoal grill, but after some practice, it can be done with great results–or your bird could be pink on the inside and black on the outside. There’s no doubt that deep fried turkey is ultra-tender, yet make sure to put the propane burner (with that cauldron of 375-degree oil) far away from your house. That new cedar deck is not a good place to fry the turkey, dude. Can you say full-blown structure fire?
7) Taking It Out of the Oven Too Late
There are certain indicators to let you know when your bird is done, besides getting an internal temperature reading of 170 degrees. When the juices run from pink to clear it’s safe to say the bird is done. Looseness of joints is a sure bet, too. (You know, when you slightly pull a leg and it comes off in your hand.) But play it safe and use a thermometer, if you have one. Don’t forget about the resting temperature, either. Your bird will continue cooking (up to 10 degrees more) once it’s out of the oven. Pulling it out at 180 degrees will result in overly dry turkey. Many people take the bird away from the heat at 165 degrees, to allow this carry-over cooking. This resting period also helps the juices redistribute throughout the bird, keeping it juicy and tender. If you slice the turkey too soon, all those delicious juices run out onto the cutting board.
Image Via Flickr
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