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.
Q: Any seasonings suggestions?
Rodgers: One of the things that I’m trying now is a dry rub or brine. I’m seasoning the bird with about 1/3 cup of kosher salt, dried herbs and pepper overnight. So, this again is going to create moisture that’s going to deeply season the bird, but I don’t have the mess of having to worry about where I’m going to store a 20-pound turkey in 3 gallons of [liquid] brine.
Q: You’ve provided a sense of what kind of bird to choose and how to cook it. Are there any safety tips you’d stress?
Rodgers: The most important safety issue concerns stuffing. The best thing to do is to put warm, freshly made stuffing into a cold bird because you want to get the stuffing up to 165 degrees to kill any bacteria. The worst thing you can possibly do is to stuff the bird and let it sit overnight—even in the fridge—because the bird will end up being tepid for quite a long time, and that’s the perfect temperature for bacterial growth.
Q: How do you clean your bird before roasting?
Rodgers: You do not need to rinse the bird before you roast it because the bird is going to reach 165 degrees. Actually, if you’re overly aggressive with washing the bird, you could splash the turkey juices all over your kitchen. [And that could spell salmonella.]
Q: How about tips for avoiding another potential danger—serving the wrong food to the wrong guest? As chef and host, how do you plan for guests on weight-loss or medically prescribed diets?
Rodgers: For anyone who is [concerned about] menu items at a Thanksgiving feast, bring your own food, stick it in the microwave, and your host will be your friend forever. You should talk it over with the cook [before you arrive].
Q: Any suggestions for cutting back on fat and calories?
Rodgers: If you look at the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, nothing goes together. Everything is sweet and heavy. Look for ways to lighten your menu. If you’re going to have cranberry sauce, then keep fruit out of your other side dishes. [Include] plenty of vegetables in your stuffing. If you control the amount of gravy that you put onto your mashed potatoes, [then don’t heap on so much of the fatty brown sauce]. The popular fresh foods are on sale, too. Sweet potatoes are pretty cheap in November.
Q: So with all this turkey talk, we have to ask—does it really make you sleepy?
Rodgers: There’s [the amino acid] tryptophan in turkey, and tryptophan will make you sleepy—but you’d need to eat an entire turkey to get sleepy. What makes you sleepy is the carbohydrate overload combined with the stuffiness of the room, the change of the weather, the amount of alcohol that’s consumed and your boring brother-in-law’s jokes. That’s what makes you sleepy.