How I Prepared My First Thanksgiving Turkey

30 11 2012

Vegetarians beware: this post contains some explicit pictures of raw turkey.

I know this is quite a bit late, but I figured I’d share my experience in preparing my first ever turkey. I hope it might serve as a good “how to” for some first time turkey cookers.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

Before I got my hands on (and in) a turkey, I did some research. I spent a few days googling “How to roast a turkey” and reading the latest Food Network Magazine and the little Thanksgiving handout from Williams Sonoma. I also was curious about brining, so I read up on that too. The Serious Eats Food Lab had a really interesting article about the science behind brining. It was a little too detailed, but I did pick up on a few things.

Anywho- my indecisiveness paired with my desire for perfection caused me to flip flop between whether or not I was going to brine or not brine. In the end, decided to go for it.

I loosely followed The Pioneer Woman’s recipe for her favorite turkey brine. Man, did it fill the house with a wonderful aroma! I started this several hours before I went to bed on Wednesday night because the brine needed to come to a boil and then cool completely before sticking the turkey in.

Note: if you are going to brine a turkey, use a fresh turkey and make sure it hasn’t been pumped full of sodium already! I’ve read too much Michael Pollan and watched too many food documentaries to buy one of the run of the mill Butterballs, so I opted to spend a little extra money on a free range, organic turkey. Worth it? I dunno, I’ll just tell myself it was.

(um not sure what is up with my eyes/eyebrows in this picture…)

Next came the icky part- finding the giblets and such and pulling them out from inside the turkey. I rinsed the bird and then dug in.

Don’t forget to check both openings of the turkey! I made that mistake and only checked the obvious opening. I didn’t realize they might have stuffed the other end with the bag of innards until after I talked to my mom, when the bird was already brining in the fridge. Whoops.

I used one of those oven bags and filled it with the brine and turkey, wrapped it up tight, stuck it in a bowl and put it in the fridge to brine overnight. I think it may be possible to overbrine the turkey by letting it soak for several days. My turkey brined for about 14 hours.

Thanksgiving is all about backwards planning, starting with the time you want to eat, and then calculating how long it will take to prepare the bird, including the brining, the resting, the cooking, and more resting. (Not to mention figuring out when to cook the sides when the oven is monopolized by the turkey!) My bird was 10.8 pounds so I was guessing it would take close to 3 hours to cook since I was going to stuff it. I wanted to let it rest for about 30 minutes before putting it in the oven and I needed to let it rest about 30 minutes after it came out of the oven, so I took it out of the refrigerator about 4 hours before the planned meal time.

While it was resting, I prepared my stuffing.

I didn’t really follow a recipe, but here’s what I used: 1 roll of Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage, 1 onion, ~8 celery stalks, 1 loaf stale German Dark Wheat Bread, 1 Braeburn Apple, fresh Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Salt, Pepper to taste.

I patted the turkey dry and filled the it with the stuffing.

My turkey came pre-trussed, but if yours isn’t, just use some twine and tie together the legs.

I filled all of the crevasses I could with stuffing, and let it overflow a little. Once stuffed, I buttered and seasoned the turkey all over. I probably could have used more butter, but oh well!

Now it was ready for the oven!

Well, almost. Before sticking it in the oven, butter a piece of foil that will fit on top of all the stuffing. Put it butter-side down onto the stuffing so that it doesn’t burn.

It’s also worth noting here that a lot of what I’ll call “purists” shy away from stuffing the turkey, and instead make the dressing on the side. Stuffing the bird prevents it from cooking as evenly, and you need to be extra careful that the stuffing is at least 165ºF so no one gets sick.

I popped it in the oven at 400ºF for the first 30 minutes before turning the temperature down to 325ºF for the remainder of the cooking time.

Not gonna lie, I was a little lot worried out when I pulled it out at 30 minutes at the tips of the wings were already a dark brown and clearly crispy. But Bill assured me it would be okay and that no one really eats the wings anyhow:-)

I basted the turkey every 30 minutes with a mixture of butter and chicken broth. I think I might have been doing something wrong because I always expected to baste the turkey with drippings in the pan. But every time I pulled the bird out, there was just some pieces of the turkey browning on the bottom, no juices…

3 hours later, my first turkey was done!

Not quite as photogenic as I would have liked, but it will do!

Carved and plated was much prettier:

I’d say this turkey was a success! The meat was juicy and flavorful. I definitely think the brine helped! The stuffing was delicious and I made a flavorful gravy with the pan drippings. (Side note: I unstuffed the bird and put the stuffing in an oven-safe pan and threw it back in the oven, just to make sure any contaminants were cooked off.) What a great meal!

I was a little intimidated by the whole process going into the holiday, but when it was all said and done, it wasn’t all that bad. Sure it’s a pretty labor intensive process, but I love being in the kitchen, so I didn’t mind it.

Now that I’ve got one under my belt, I’m ready (well, maybe not until next Thanksgiving) to tackle another one, and make it even better next time!