I Conquered Thanksgiving for Good with this One Turkey Hack
This year will be the 29th official Thanksgiving meal I have cooked, and there have been at least a dozen Friendsgivings or Fakesgivings sprinkled in there, so there is a lot about this holiday meal that is second nature to me. But even an old hand like me is prone to a bit of butterflies when it comes to the centerpiece of the meal. That turkey is the key to everything, and let's be honest, while many will claim that it is just a delivery service for gravy or cranberry sauce, or a backdrop to 17 carb-tastic side dishes, or a gateway to pie? Be real, if the turkey isn't good, it puts a pall on the day.
A word about techniques for a perfect turkey
There are many ways to help ensure you have a terrific turkey, and my guess is that if you are reading this, you have tried many of them with mixed results. Turkey that ends up dry, or with under or overcooked parts. Skin that is flabby or unrendered fat. Long cooking times that commandeer your one oven for way too many hours, or large birds that take up half your fridge space. And then the ancient battle over who likes white meat, who prefers dark, and who gets dibs on the prized drumsticks.
There are a lot of techniques that you can employ to mitigate a lot of these. Wet brining can help prevent the bird from drying out, but takes up a lot of room, can make the meat watery instead of juicy, and can make it hard to get a full render and good crisp on the skin. Dry brining is a great choice, and my preferred prep method, but you still can have issues of uneven cooking. Basting helps the skin but opening the oven every 15 minutes drops the temp and you'll need to cook things at least an hour longer. A giant bird takes care of enough meat for everyone plus leftovers but takes a long time to cook and you need a lot of storage space.
The true secret to a perfect turkey has nothing to do with any of these techniques
After years of stressing over the turkey, I made one simple shift that has given me total confidence, and provided not only a stress-free roasting, but a truly perfect eating experience for my family and friends. That shift? I don't roast a whole bird, I roast parts.
Breaking down a turkey into its major pieces does a lot of things for your cooking and eating experience. Let me count the ways:
Parts are easier to store than a whole bird, and any brining technique you use will penetrate easier and faster.
You can customize for the needs of your guests. Does everyone love white meat? Buy two to three whole breasts. Do you have five people who fight over the legs? Grab as many drumsticks as you have need.
Even how you shop is easier on you. You can buy the parts already separated, but I usually buy one whole bird and have my butcher break it down for me, then add extra pieces I want. This gives me the wings and back for my turkey stock, and a full breast crown for my white meat, and since my family leans towards dark meat, I will add a couple extra thighs and drumsticks to my order.
You can make sure there's enough for yummy leftovers. You will know how much you will want to have leftover and can add a half-breast or more thighs to ensure your second-day sandwich needs are covered.
There's more crispy skin! Roasting your bird in pieces means all the skin is exposed, for great browning and crisping.
Nothing will get under- or overcooked. You can cook each piece to its optimal temperature, and pull it to rest when it is done, meaning no part of the bird gets either over- or undercooked.
You can make better gravy. If you are looking for great drippings and fond (the little crispy bits left in the pan) for gravy, you can roast the parts on top of sliced onion, whole carrots or shallots, celery ribs. If you want your stuffing to have that "in the bird" moistness and flavor, you can roast your parts atop a pan full of your stuffing instead.
You will save tons of oven time. The best part? A broken-down turkey will cook fully in as little as a third the time as a whole bird, which is helpful if you like to eat early in the day, or if you have a battle for oven space.
Are you thinking you might miss the Rockwell painting moment where everyone is looking at the whole bird on your table? Okay, but maybe you're a family that carves in the kitchen anyway. Or maybe a gorgeous platter with a bountiful arrangement of white meat and dark pieces is every bit as exciting and beautiful as a big ol' bird. And believe me, the moment everyone tucks into a perfectly cooked, juicy turkey with crispy skin, that Rockwell painting has gone right out the window!