This article was originally published in November 2013. On occasion, the author will update the post to showcase how his methods on preparing a Thanksgiving turkey have changed. Scroll down to read the first and second posts.
UPDATED: November 23, 2020
Well, now things are really, really weird. After all, this Thanksgiving, if you are behaving appropriately, there is no scenario wherein you will have even remotely enough people your table to justify eating an entire turkey, unless you are a part of one of those families with seven children. Just know, the rest of us are talking about you behind your back; your parents are a drain on civilization. Don't repeat their mistakes. Thank you.
Look, one of the most important lessons I've been able to learn over 41 years is that no matter how hard I resist, I am still open to having my mind changed about just about anything. Politically, spiritually, relationally — I am truly open to hearing an argument. When it comes to my methods for cooking, I tend to be fairly rigid, but in this case, last year, I found a video from Buzzfeed Tasty wherein the producer directs us to break down our turkey into its parts, and then dry brine it, before roasting it in the oven on sheet trays.
Initially, I scoffed. How dare she? After all, you want those bones to act as a vehicle for flavor, and for the cooking process, right? Well, sort of. And in the end, the video was so compelling, and the way she presents was so engaging, I was forced to look myself in the mirror and say out loud, "Why are you so afraid to be wrong, Seth? Are you still working through your issues with your older brother from when you were children? Yes, yes you are."
Anyhow, I did this method last year, and for whatever reason, I only took two pictures of the process, but here's one good one of the way your turkey pieces should look after being dry brined and then left to dry in the refrigerator for a day to help get that crispy skin that we all crave.
Photo by Seth Fein.
As such, I highly suggest you watch that video above, and then use it as a step by step guide to breaking down your Thanksgiving turkey into parts. In this case, you can then roast half and then freeze half, and in good storage, that meat will be good through the winter. Surely there is an occasion some time in the heart of the deep long freeze where having another Thanksgiving style meal will suit you in a pandemic? This is what I am going to do.
Please, folks, be safe right now. Don't gather together right now. Literally, if you do, you are being a selfish asshole, and you need to seek a mirror and ask yourself some hard questions about why you are the way you are.
Happy Thanksgiving, though, indeed.
UPDATED: November 21, 2018
Sheesh maneesh, it's been five weird ass years since I wrote this piece on Smile Politely. Things are sort of different now, right? For me, I am a parent, two times over, and Thanksgiving brings with it more crazy than it used to, that's for sure. Donald Trump is the President now, which is weird. Also, the Illinois sports program is in the worst place its ever been in its history.
Most relevant to this article is the fact that Urbana Butcher is no longer in business. So, instead of that, perhaps grab a bird from Bane Family Meats or Triple S Farms. They have different heritage breeds, but you can still get a Bourbon Red from Caveny Farms I think, though.
But some things remain, and that is evident in my rant from 2013 about how to roast your turkey the right way. I maintain that I want you to eat well tomorrow, and that you can do that for very little, or if you have the coin, a little more — if you buy a Bourbon Red heritage breed turkey from Caveny Farms in Monticello. Regardless of which type of turkey you roast, however, it can be good — damn good — if you just pay attention to what you are doing, and don't follow USDA guidelines. Pull that bastard out when the inner part of the breast hits 155 degrees and you should be golden on the white meat.
My only update is that when you separate the breast and wings from the thigh and legs, you don't need to cover it in foil. As I mention below, the skin will get soggy. You can avoid that by turning on your broiler in the oven, and letting the flames from above further crisp the skin on the thighs and legs. It's better that way.
Anyhow, Happy Thanksgiving, enjoy the time off (if you are so fortunate to have it), and perhaps at least acknowledge the truth about this holiday, and the suffering people went through for us to have it each year.
I am writing to you today to let you know that, chances are, you blew it when it comes to your Thanksgiving bird.
I know that personally, I was blowing it for 33 years prior to this one, and frankly, will blow it again tomorrow when I sit down at the table with my in-laws to talk about everything that doesn’t matter in the world. The turkey I am roasting will be conventional, purchased from a grocery that will remain nameless, yet still brined and cooked properly. It is, at the least, raised on pasture, and without antibiotics. But it’s not like what I ate just this past Sunday, and what you could be eating for the rest of your pathetic days on this godforsaken earth.
Eating turkey from the whole bird is not something that we do often, because, well, it is a massive piece of meat that doesn’t lend itself well to your average family meal on your average night. Plus, it takes a very long time to prepare properly. And, frankly, turkey is so readily available that we don’t see it as much of anything except a novelty come Thanksgiving time.
Listen — I can respect all of that. It’s not your job to start freaking out about your turkey this time of year. It’s your job to relax, and enjoy the time off (if you are so fortunate to have it).
So, take this all with a grain of salt, as it were, but if you are interested in preparing and eating a turkey that tastes nothing like anything you’ve ever had before, you will follow these simple steps and at some point, you might stop me on the street and thank me. You won’t even have to say a word. You will simply just look into my vacant, tired eyes and I will know what you mean. I will know.
First off, just calm down here, and buy this bird:
It’s a Bourbon Red heritage breed turkey, raised on pasture in Monticello at Caveny Farms and available for about $8-$9 a lb. at The Urbana Butcher Shop.
Yes, fuck — it costs a lot more money that that Butterball Perdue GMO-riddled Waste-of-Life that you can buy at any grocery. And YES — it sucks to spend more money on things when you know that you can get it cheaper.
But it’s just not the same thing.
There is a reason people buy a different brand of shampoo than the cheap stuff. You can buy Prell. And you should if you are the kind of person who doesn’t much care about the way they look or smell, like myself. But you and I both know that that won’t wash with most people. So they buy Tresemme, or Clairol or something BETTER. Those brands probably suck too, but you know what I mean.
We buy things that cost more sometimes because they are better. And it costs more. But that’s because it’s better.
Trust me, you will spend six times as much here on your turkey, but this is so much better. It’s just… Goddamnit, are you going to make me say it again? Fine.
So there, you’ve bought your Bourbon Red from The Urbana Butcher Shop. It comes pre-brined (unless you specify that you don’t want that, but what — you are going to make a better brine than Josh Boyd? It’s got lemons and sage and brown sugar and kosher salt and well, just — you aren’t going to make a better brine, so stop pretending).
Next, precisely one day before you roast it (and you are going to roast it — don’t you dare deep fry or smoke this bird — or I will cut you) please remove it from the brine, pat it super dry with paper towels, and put it on a wire rack in the roasting pan. Clear the fridge, and let it sit in there for 24 hours. This is going to dry out the skin, which is going to make said skin super crispy. Just do it, please.
Now, on the day of Thanksgiving — or on which ever day you choose to roast this perfect, beautiful bird of flavor and wonder — slather the ever loving shit out of it with some sort of compound herb butter. In this photo, what you are seeing is a half pound of unsalted butter, a half cup of maple syrup, a quarter cup of fucking lard, and a bunch of fresh rosemary. That was good. And you can do anything you want, but just slather it, inside and out. Your hands will be greasy for a while. Deal with it. Use soap.
Then salt it inside and out, and put cracked pepper all up in it as well.
This is how it looks:
Heat your oven to 450 degrees and while it’s heating up, pour about 4 cups of cheap, dry white wine in the bottom of the pan, along with the neck, the giblets, some carrots, some onion, some celery… oh shit, Jesus — we’re just going to make a stock in the bottom of the pan while it’s roasting. And then you are going to make gravy later on. But we’re not going to get into that today. Figure it out. Thanks.
Once it’s ready, slide this majestic, buttery Bourbon Red bird into the oven. Let it go for 30 minutes.
At 30 minutes, look at it. Is it golden brown yet? No, not yet, right? GOOD. It’s not supposed to be. I tricked you, you fool! 30 minutes is not long enough! I made you go back to the goddamned oven because you need to stay on guard. You need to be vigilant. This bird will overcook within 10-15 minutes at some point, and if you blow it, you will be a very sad human being indeed. So stand attention!
Set the timer for another 15 or so, and now, you can pour a big glass of scotch. Drink it! At about 45-60 minutes total, it should be golden brown. That’s when you reduce the heat to 325, and let it go for a bit.
What is a bit? Depends on the bird, it’s size, your oven, whatever.
But you can just check it about every 20 minutes or so after it's been in there for a half an hour. Open the oven, stick the thermometer into the deepest part of the breast (not thigh — forget the fucking thigh right now) and when it hits 155 degrees, take the bird out of the oven, cover it in tin foil and let it sit for at least 30 minutes, but more ideally, an hour or more. It's going to be hot for a long, long time.
This is how it will look:
Listen — this bird is NOT fully cooked through. No chance. The thigh and the legs and the back are not finished cooking. And that is 100% OK at this point. We are going to do something revolutionary here. We are going to completely remove the thighs and the legs from the breasts and the wings.
But do it. Forget the presentation, or trying to carve the bird tableside. That's for the movies. We're trying to eat well for once dammnit and that's precisely what you are going to do.
And when you do it, know that you are better than everyone at cooking and serving turkey. Because this is the way it’s going to taste the best.
Take the thighs and separate them from the legs and then, in that same roasting pan, with the drippings, and wine and mirepoix and neck, you are going to braise them for just a little bit. Cover it in more tin foil so that it steams the meat. It's OK if the skin loses it's crispy texture, but you can also just remove the skin as well. Your call. The liquid is filled with flavor and the moisture will only serve to create a more delicious morsel of meat for you and your guests.
Once that is done, remove the thigh bone and slice them up into servable pieces. Serve the legs whole, because YES.
Now, remove each of the breasts from the carcass by taking a paring knife (oh, you don't have one of those — fine, whatever) and slice it across the grain into one inch slices. None of this carving straight from the breast on the bird bullshit. That is for cartoons. You want to be showy? Work on your jump shot. You want to serve turkey the right way, so you do that by removing the breast from the whole bird and slicing it against the grain in nice big, thick pieces.
You want the tenderest pieces of perfect breast meat, and you get that by roasting it to 155 (it has come up in temp to about 165 by now, which is goddamned perfect) and then slicing it against the grain. Just, trust me for once. Fuck it, don't trust me, trust Anne Burrell, who is better at this sort of thing than all of us:
Listen — this is short on pictures and long on text. I didn’t take pictures of the finished product because I suck at taking pictures and my wife is really good at it, and well, there were a lot of things happening, and I was hosting and kind of drunk. Honestly, I didn’t even remember that I put my shirt in the wash later that night, and my wife and I got into a small fight about whether or not it happened. So — no pictures of the way the plate looks.
But if you trust me, you will know that I have just spent an hour writing about how to properly make a Thanksgiving turkey with the right kind of bird, purchased from a local butcher by way of a local farm and by using the right kind of technique.
Perhaps you will employ it on Thanksgiving. Or don’t, and you can pretend that your way of doing things is better than mine — but it’s not. It just isn’t. I am sorry for that. I didn’t invent this technique. I learned it by reading other people’s recipes and trying it out myself. And they were right.
Honestly, I just want for you to eat well.
I know that it’s a difficult and costly decision to come to: with conventional, factory farm raised turkeys going for like $.79 a lb, you can buy one that will feed your family thrice over for under $20, and yes — if you prepare it the right way (basically the same way that I’ve told you to do above here), it’s going to taste good. And yeah — you probably aren’t going to further damage your already poisoned body.
But I implore you: if you can simply look at it from the idea that, once a goddamned year, you and your family, or friends, all chip in to eat a delicacy — something so unctuous and delicious that you literally can’t think straight for a few minutes afterwards — buy a Bourbon Red turkey from Urbana Butcher Shop by way of Caveny Farms in Monticello. It literally doesn't even taste like turkey. It tastes like something so delicious, you will want to give it a different name in order to differentiate it from what you've been eating your whole life.
You will feel really great about it, and if you can’t spend $10-$15 per person on something really incredible and delicious and communal — once a year! — well, you have issues and no one will be able to do much for you, at this point.
That’s OK — I am sure you are a wonderful person otherwise.
Happy Thanksgiving, all.