With Thanksgiving fast approaching, at-home and professional chefs alike have a lot to say about turkey — and rightly so. When it comes to the brines, baking temperatures, and the best ways to season a bird, everyone has an opinion, and every opinion is as good as gospel when the Thanksgiving meal is on the line. So this year, rather than listening to your aunt’s adage about sage or your brother’s beliefs about butter, check out what these Southern experts have to say about the most important main course of the year.
Tip: Choose (and thaw) the right bird (for the right amount of time)
“Always get fresh if available,” says chef Brandon Frohne of Nashville’s Mason’s, who will cook a Southern Thanksgiving feast at the James Beard House in New York City on the culinary holiday. “If you can find a heritage bird, go for that. They are bred to have a more natural, stronger turkey flavor.” Unfortunately, some turkey farmers require orders up to a year in advance, so if you can’t secure a heritage bird, choose an organic turkey that is pasture raised rather than free range, because pasture raised turkeys likely had more time outdoors, which leads to slower growth and fuller flavor.
After removing the giblets, it’s important to fully thaw the turkey. Frohne offers a simple rule of thumb — every five pounds of turkey needs one day to thaw in the refrigerator. “Or you can always make reservations for the James Beard House in New York City for Thanksgiving,” Frohne laughs. “We’ll make sure you have a great time!”
Roderick Bailey, The Silly Goose, Nashville
Tip: Brine with abandon
“Always, always brine the turkey,” exclaims chef Roderick Bailey of Nashville’s The Silly Goose. In March 2013, Bailey was voted Food & Wine magazine’s “People’s Best New Chef Southeast” and has a personal brining recipe that’s foolproof. By brining, or soaking the (thawed) turkey in a solution of salt, sugar and seasonings, the poultry will retain more of its juices and flavor.
For the brine, Bailey offers the following recipe:
Ingredients: Two gallons of water, two cups of kosher salt, one cup of light brown sugar, 10 sprigs of thyme, five sprigs of rosemary, 1/4 cup of whole fennel seed, 1/4 cup of black peppercorns, two oranges (quartered), and two heads of garlic (split in half).
Directions: Bring all ingredients to a simmer while stirring to dissolve salt and sugar. Cool. Then, pour over turkey and refrigerate for at least 12 hours, up to 18 hours.
Tip: Butcher and roast
Though he is better known for his seafood expertise, chef Tenney Flynn of the famed GW Fins in New Orleans grew up cooking poultry alongside his father at his restaurant in Stone Mountain, Ga. Flynn also cooks a meal for 40 people every Thanksgiving. Through the years, he’s come to the realization that, “the presentation of a whole turkey is not that important.” Instead, he separates the breasts, thighs and legs so they can cook to the proper temperature, and debones and slices the meat ahead of time so there’s no need for carving at the table.
“It’s kind of like barbecue,” Flynn says. “Cooking something [until] it’s done and cooking something [until] it’s tender are sometimes are two different things. And having a decent thermometer really helps.” To roast the pieces separately, chef Flynn suggests the following method:
Directions: Start roasting the breasts, legs, and thighs at a high 375 degrees to crisp the skin. After about 30 minutes, or when the breasts register around 145 degrees, remove the breasts and lower the oven temperature to 300 degrees. Continue cooking the legs and thighs to an internal temperature of 150 to 160 degrees. (The temperature will rise by about 10 degrees as the meat rests.) The leg bone should be somewhat loosened when twisted.
Another expert tip: Flynn uses an ice cooler lined with newspaper or paper towels to keep the turkey (and other side dishes) moist and warm during the day.
Tip: Take a smoked shortcut
If all of the above makes you nervous — you can always let the experts handle it from start to finish. This year, twin brothers Jonathan and Justin Fox of Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q in Atlanta are smoking more than 500 turkeys that will end up on tables across the Southeast. The turkeys are $60 for 12 to 14 pounds of slow cooked perfection, accompanied by homemade gravy. But don’t be discouraged if you’re opting for an easier preparation route — experts are experts because they’ve learned from their mistakes.
“One year,” Jonathan laughs, “I bought a last minute turkey from the store, tried and tried to thaw it, but it didn’t get close. So I decided to go ahead and smoke it, and it was horrible. Raw, soggy … everything you don’t want in a turkey, I achieved that year. Luckily that was long ago, and I tend to learn from things, so the moral is plan ahead. We start talking about turkeys around Labor Day!”
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