For many of us, Thanksgiving is the only time we’ll take on the tireless task of baking a turkey—basting a 20-pound bird hour after hour in hopes of achieving the elusively moist breast meat. With all the passing trends in turkey preparation, what’s the best way to bake a delectable, healthful meal?
We went to the expert: Rick Rodgers, an award-winning cooking teacher and author of more than 30 cookbooks, including Thanksgiving 101 (William Morrow, revised 2007) and Christmas 101 (William Morrow, reprint 2007). We asked Rodgers how he selects, cooks and serves up an unforgettable feast every year. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: Consumers might be overwhelmed by all the options for cooking turkeys. Some still bake the turkey in a brown paper grocery bag. Is that really safe?
Rodgers: The brown bag attracts heat and makes a very even heat over the turkey. It’s not a good idea these days because the bags are chemically treated—but turkey roasting bags pretty much make turkey stew, not turkey roast. And fried turkey, as far as I’m concerned—because you get no gravy and stuffing—ranks very low on my scale. Also, you have to have your wits about you. It is an extremely dangerous proposition to fry a turkey.
Q: What about brining or marinating a turkey overnight in a salted water solution? Wouldn’t that seal in seasonings and lock in moisture?
Rodgers: When you take it out, you’ve seasoned the bird inside out, but you’ve also incorporated a lot of salt and flavor that you just really don’t need. If you’re going to brine a bird, you may as well buy a frozen turkey because they’re already injected with sodium brine to keep them moist after they’re defrosted.
Q: That brings up a good point: frozen or fresh?
Rodgers: The key word is local. You want to buy a fresh turkey [from a farm that’s] as close to you as possible because that means your bird has never been frozen.
Q: Does this include heritage turkey breeds, which are said to be more like turkeys from centuries past?
Rodgers: [If you’re hosting] a lot of kids or other people who aren’t gourmet diners, then you’ll do well with a fresh bird from the supermarket. Heritage birds are about $10 per pound, [and] they’re just too richly flavored for some people. Also, the look of the turkey is different…and you don’t get as many servings per pound because you have the natural amount of meat on the bones. My favorite is the fresh organic turkey.
Q: How about a turducken? Deboned duck inside of deboned chicken inside of deboned turkey—that sounds like an interesting mix of flavors.
Rodgers: To me, you have a turkey, you have a chicken, you have a duck. When you make turducken, all of them are overcooked. I do an old-fashioned bird that is just roasted with butter, salt and pepper. If I’m buying a top-notch fresh turkey, I want to taste the turkey.
Q: Sounds like a plan. So what’s your roasting method?
Rodgers: The No. 1 problem that you have with turkey is that the breast dries out because it’s so lean. I cover the breast with foil before it goes into the oven—that deflects oven heat away from the turkey breast and makes the breast cook at a slower speed than the rest of the bird.
Q: Covered or uncovered?
Rodgers: I use an open pan because a turkey is going to roast for three to five hours, and it will get brown—but if you cover it too long, it becomes so moist that it’s hard to remove it from the pan without falling apart.