Growing up in an Italian family, Thanksgiving was a major feast (which is kind of funny because it is not a holiday celebrated in Italy obviously. But it combines two loves – family and food – so it was more than good for us!).
The meal started with antipasti, which consisted of deli meats rolled up and placed on a platter along with various cheeses, stuffed cherry peppers, pickled vegetables, marinated artichoke hearts, and olives. Next course – pasta, either a homemade tagliatelle in tomato sauce or lasagna. Sometimes, there was “Italian wedding soup” in the place of pasta but those years were few and far between as my Grandpa was a pasta man! Gotta keep i nonni happy at these family gatherings. The turkey came next, stuffed with a breadcrumb stuffing, accompanied by roasted potatoes, sauteed broccoli rabe with garlic, one or two other vegetables and sliced Italian bread. When we would remember to serve it, salad would follow next. And we ain’t done yet… Chestnuts, nuts, fruit and dessert all followed. It’s no wonder half the family would fall asleep on the couch soon afterward!
With all that good food around, the bird was not exactly the center of attention. My own Thanksgivings now are a little different. Our turkey is the stand-out star of the day. My husband and I decided a few years ago to try brining the turkey and follow a recipe/technique from one of the Food Network’s stars, Alton Brown (the #1 recipe on Food Network for 6 years straight!). The result? A juicy, delicious turkey that is the center of attention!
Choosing a Turkey
There are some things to consider when purchasing a turkey – fresh or frozen? size? The past few years we’ve opted for a fresh turkey. A fresh bird has never been frozen, does not have additives and obviously does not have to be defrosted. We would place our order with our local butcher (in our case, Turco’s in Yorktown) for a fresh turkey and typically we would pick it up on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. There are also local farms offering fresh turkeys if you order ahead. A fresh turkey should be cooked within 2 days of refrigerating it. A frozen turkey takes a while to defrost and you DO NOT want to thaw it on your kitchen counter top! That’s just inviting bacteria! Defrost the bird in the refrigerator, in it’s original packaging, by following this general rule – 24 hours for every 5 lbs. When determining what size to buy, another general rule of thumb is 1 – 1.5 lb per each guest; this allows for some leftovers as well.
Brining the Turkey
This brine is intended for a 14-16 lb turkey. If your turkey is smaller, cut the recipe accordingly. You will need:
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 gallon vegetable stock
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 1/2 tsp allspice berries (you can find this where spices are sold in your supermarket)
1 1/2 tsp chopped crystalized ginger (same as above)
1 gallon heavily iced water
a 5-gallon bucket (we’ve got the orange one sold at Home Depot)
The night before you plan on cooking the turkey – Combine the vegetable stock, salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, allspice berries and candied ginger in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve solids and bring to a boil. Then remove the brine from the heat, cool to room temperature. Combine the brine and ice water in the 5-gallon bucket. Place the turkey with innards removed breast side down in brine. If necessary, weigh down the bird to ensure it is fully immersed, cover with aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight, turning the bird once half way through brining. When it’s been cold enough, we’ve been able to keep the bird covered tightly on the back deck, because that 5-gallon bucket will take up a lot of room in your fridge!
Cooking the Turkey
On the big day, preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Remove the bird from the brine and rinse inside and out with cold water. Place the turkey on a roasting rack inside a pan and pat dry with paper towels.
Fill the turkey’s cavity with steeped aromatics:
1 red apple, sliced
1/2 onion, sliced
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup water
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
6 leaves fresh sage
Combine the apple, onion, cinnamon stick and 1 cup of water in a pot and bring to a light simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat and add the steeped aromatics along with the rosemary and sage to the turkey’s cavity. Tuck the wings underneath the bird and coat the skin liberally with canola oil.
Side note: don’t stuff the bird! You can make stuffing as a side dish (I have a great recipe for stuffing!) but cooking it inside the turkey dries out the meat AND increases the chances of bacteria like salmonella. So skip it and stuff the bird with the herbs and aromatics instead, things you aren’t going to be eating later.
Roast the turkey on the lowest level of the oven at 500 degrees for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Insert a probe thermometer into the thickest part of the turkey. Disregard the pop-up thermometer some of the frozen turkeys come supplied with; they are not accurate. If your probe thermometer is equipped with an alarm, set it for 165 degrees. A 14-16 pound turkey requires about a total of 2 to 2.5 hours of roasting (use your thermometer as a guide. You don’t want undercooked turkey but an overcooked bird will be dry and not too appetizing).
Another side note: nowhere above do I mention that chore of basting. You know, opening the oven every half hour or so to coat the turkey with its own juices using a turkey baster. Skip the basting, it’s not needed. Opening the oven allows the heat to escape, so you get uneven cooking. The turkey will be plenty juicy on its own because of the overnight brining and you’re not going to overcook it, right, so it won’t be dry.
When the bird’s temperature has reached 165 degrees, remove it from the oven and let it rest. Loosely cover it with foil for about at least 15 minutes before carving. If you carve it right after removing it from the oven, the juices will run all over the place and dry out the bird.
If you need some help with the carving part, here’s a great video from Alton Brown on how to do it:
And if you’ve made it through this entire long post, here’s a thank you: