If you were to ask people, "What is your most feared meal?", chances are it would be Thanksgiving. The meal is always a large one, usually with many people around the table, all eyes on the pièce de la résistance. This is what we think of when we think about the Thanksgiving table, and no one wants to be remembered as the one who ruined an avian centerpiece. The fear is unwarranted, however, as with a few steps ahead of time and some careful planning the day of, you should be able to avoid a dry, tasteless turkey and have something remarkable for your guests and/or family.
Heritage vs. Broad Breasted
One of the main reasons people fear cooking a turkey is because conventional turkeys have been bred to the point of massive breasts and overall unnatural size and growth rates— weighing in well over 20lbs when they are processed! If there is one thing that's certain in this world, it's that a wild turkey or any heritage breed turkey, will rarely, if ever, weigh in past 20lbs dressed weight. You see, while the Broad Breasted Whites are the Kardashians of the turkey world, our heritage breed birds are far more in proportion, with a whole lot more flavor to bring to the table (pun intended). They have smaller breasts, much more proportional bodies and higher distribution of intramuscular fat [not to mention being far less obnoxious and way more useful than any Kardashian, ever]. All of these things mean that we need to cook these turkeys differently, but when done right, you'll be met with some superb flavor. If this is your first time having a pastured, heritage breed bird, well, you are in for quite a treat.
Cooking and Prep
Cooking a turkey is not difficult in the least if you pay attention and think it through. It all starts with the prep of the animal, and as far as I see it, there are three basic options as to how you begin the Turkey Day ritual. Lets take a look at these methods now.
It seems that the most popular way to prep a turkey is to brine it. Brine is simply a solution made up of water, salt, sugar and various other aromatics to impart flavor and water into the bird. Notice I said flavor AND water, which is key to understand. The water is what keeps the bird seemingly "moist", however it's a bit of a misnomer, as it's not so much moist so much as it is wet. When meat is tender, it's because of the fat, the protein breakdowns, etc. Think dry-aged beef for instance— it's the fat and the protein breakdown from the aging that improves the texture, not a brine. The same is true for turkeys.There is 0 shame in the brine, so long as you're aware of why it works and what it's doing. If you do happen to take this path, make sure to pull the bird out of the brine with adequate time to let the bird come up to room temp and for the skin to dry. Do not cook from cold, as this will both slow down cooking times, as well as begin the horrible uneven cooking process.
If you're interested in detailed science and studies around brining (I know this is odd), here is a fantastic article on it: http://www.genuineideas.com/ArticlesIndex/brine.html
If we're keeping with common tradition and going to put a whole bird on the table, this is my go-to method. It's also incredibly simple, yet so very effective. Take 1/2 to 1 tbsp of salt per pound of bird, and very generously salt the skin of the bird. Place on a wire rack over a plate or pan in the fridge for 24-48 hours. About 2 hours before you're ready to cook, remove the bird from the fridge to allow it to come up to room temperature and then begin the roasting process. This prep method has proven to create the most crispy skin and evenly seasoned bird of the methods mentioned here. I use this very same method on pretty much any bird I cook, except duck, but that's a post for another day. What happens here is that the salt helps to pull out the moisture from the skin, as well as break down some of the protein in the muscle, creating tenderness, as it migrates throughout the bird.
If you can get away from the traditional mindset of a whole turkey, trussed and stuffed, the absolute best way to cook a turkey is in rolled form. One of the biggest challenges with cooking a whole turkey is that different parts of the bird do best at different temps and different lengths of time [think legs vs. breast]. When cooking a whole bird, you're really in an exercise of compromise, trying to find the happy medium. However, if you modify your cooking shape, you can unify the cooking times and create a much more evenly-cooked turkey, but in a non-traditional form. I know that boning out a turkey may seem daunting, but with a little bit of patience and a sharp paring knife, you can accomplish it with no problem. Here is a great video for deboning a chicken, which is exactly the same as a turkey, just on the obviously smaller scale.
Now that you have a prep method, you're going to need to make sure you cook it to the right temp. If you read any conventional cooking method instructions for typical turkey, they will suggest pulling the bird at a temp of 160 - 180. If you happen to hit anywhere near that temp with a heritage bird, which has smaller breasts, you will have a beautiful mount for your wall, rather than a delicious heritage bird. Don't do it! For a heritage bird, you want to cook to 145 degrees. A meat thermometer is essential, and for a whole roast bird, you're looking at 6-8 minutes per pound at about 400 degrees. When you pull the bird, you'll get carry over of about 10 degrees, leaving your dark meat at about 155, which is perfect. You can go lower temp if you choose, but the time per pound will obviously increase (325 is 12 - 15 minutes per pound). Invest in a good instant read thermometer to monitor the thigh and breast meat, they are indispensable. You'll want to ensure that your thigh is cooked to 145
Stretching the Bird
No, don't physically stretch your turkey out! People splurge on holiday turkeys, we all know this, but there are way to extend your purchase beyond Thanksgiving dinner and Leftovers sandwiches. Save the bones and gristle that's left over and make a stock. Take that stock and remaining meat and make some pot pie. Save the bones again and make a remoulage.
Recipes to get you going