Turkey, the main dish of most traditional Thanksgiving dinners, is something many of us cook only once a year. For this reason, a refresher is always useful. We consulted chef, cooking teacher, and turkey expert Rick Rodgers for pointers. Author of Thanksgiving 101 and The Turkey Cookbook, among 25 other cookbooks, Rodgers has cooked more than 1,000 turkeys, by his own estimate.
Although it often causes stress for novice cooks, roasting a turkey is essentially the same process as roasting a chicken, only on a larger scale. Just follow a few guidelines, and the turkey will be the standout of your holiday meal, be it your first or your fiftieth.
Buy the Right Bird
We favor fresh turkeys over frozen because we prefer their texture, flavor, and moistness. But there are other considerations. You can also choose among organic, heritage-breed, and free-range birds. "I find fresh organic birds have richer, more natural flavor," Rodgers says. "It's always my first choice. Every time I serve one, my guests always remark, 'So this is what turkey is supposed to taste like.'" Rodgers adds that minimally processed supermarket brands are also good choices.
Heritage breed turkeys, such as Bourbon Red and Narragansett, have stronger-flavored meat than their hybrid counterparts. Rodgers recommends serving these pricey birds to adult gatherings since the strong flavor may not appeal to children.
Fresh organic turkeys can be considerably more expensive than mainstream frozen ones, and heritage breeds are most expensive of all. In the end, Rodgers advises, "go with your budget."
Bags and Brining
In our roundup of turkey techniques, we haven't included two popular approaches: oven bags and brining. Rodgers says in his experience, oven bags have produced disappointing results. "Sure, the meat is tender, but the turkey steams, and it tastes more like stew," he says.
Brining, too, has been unsatisfactory for Rodgers. The process requires a method of holding the turkey in a chilled, salted marinade for 12 to 24 hours. Rodgers places the turkey in a double layer of oven bags, covers it in brine, then places the sealed bag in an ice chest and adds ice packs. Still, he considers the procedure cumbersome. More importantly, "it changes the flavor and texture of the meat too much," Rodgers says. "Brining doesn't make the turkey juicier; it's salty water you're tasting." Nevertheless, we have had success with brined turkeys in the past.