Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love the cool, crisp weather, the football games on TV, the emphasis on gratitude and of course all the food. If there is one meal that says comfort food to me it is the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey, dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and pie for dessert – but the labor that goes into that one meal is enough to daunt even the most experienced cooks. An accredited online cooking college is what some busy people look into when they want to learn more great recipes.
There is a restaurant in San Francisco called Zuni Café, located in an old building with brick walls, towering ceilings and a long copper bar that takes up one side of the main room. As it grew in popularity, it expanded into adjacent buildings, so there are lots of funny twists and turns, small rooms, and lofts. It is warm, welcoming, funky, and so much fun. Co-owner and head chef Judy Rogers is renown in food circles and the author of the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. While their menu is always seasonal, local, and full of endless possibilities, they are nationally known for one dish in particular … the Zuni Roast Chicken.
This dish has become so well known that it is often considered the best roast chicken in America, and typically lands in the top 5 on just about everyone’s list of the best chickens in the country. In fact, if Zuni’s chicken is not on the list, the person probably has not eaten there because if they had, it would be mentioned. Yes folks, it is just that good. And the technique, while time-consuming, is easy as pie to do. I have taken the chicken technique, added my spin and use it every year for my Thanksgiving turkey. This technique makes, by far, the best turkey I have ever had and I’m sharing that recipe with you!
The technique calls for rubbing salt on the bird and letting it rest in the refrigerator a few days. Yep, you read that right, 3 days. What happens next is a miracle. The salt initially draws out liquid from the meat, but if you wait the liquid is reabsorbed and the meat becomes seasoned from the inside out! The meat is tender, juicy and incredibly flavorful. Just think – the salt does all the work for you and no more wrestling with a slippery bird and a bucket of brine. Hallelujah, Thanksgiving just got easier!
If you make your stock and gravy base ahead of time the way I do, the hardest part of your gravy is already done and you have the most amazingly flavorful liquid. You can use it as is, or do like the pros do and strain it through cheesecloth for crystal clear broth. Either way it is delicious and perfect for adding to your stuffing or making soup with.
I know you’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating … never defrost your turkey at room temperature! Bacteria grows at room temperature and no amount of cooking can guarantee you will kill it all. The last thing you want is your guests to get sick after eating at your home! If you are running short of time, you can thaw it in a bath of COLD water, in its original packaging. Change the water every 30 minutes to make sure it stays cold and clean. Allow about 30 minutes per pound.
How Long it Takes to Thaw a Frozen Turkey
Allow approximately 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds; keep it in its original packaging.
Turkey Weight Days to Thaw in Refrigerator Hours to Thaw in Cold Water
8 to 12 pounds 2 to 2-1/2 days 4 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds 2-1/2 to 4 days 6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 pounds 4 to 5 days 8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 pounds 5 to 6 days 10 to 12 hours
How Long to Cook an Unstuffed Turkey
Cook to an internal temperature of 165°F. (For a stuffed turkey, add an additional 5 to 7 minutes per pound.) Ignore the pop-up thermometer if present.
Turkey Weight Total Roasting Time at 325°F
8 to 12 pounds 3 to 3-1/2 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3-1/2 to 4 hours
14 to 18 pounds 4 to 4-1/2 hours
18 to 20 pounds 4-1/4 to 4-3/4 hours
20 to 24 pounds 4-3/4 to 5-1/4 hours
For complete guidelines on preparing and cooking your holiday turkey, see http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Factsheets/Lets_Talk_Turkey/index.asp.
You will note that the times listed above for cooking your turkey are for an UNstuffed bird. The reason for that is that bacteria can be a problem for stuffed birds. You cannot guarantee that the bird and the stuffing will cook all the way through without overcooking the turkey. The best and safest way to cook turkey is to cook it with just aromatics in the cavity and cook the stuffing/dressing in a container on the side. There is another benefit to cooking the stuffing outside the bird. Without the bread inside absorbing moisture, the finished roasted bird will be moister and more tender. Anyway you slice it (pardon the pun), cooking your turkey without stuffing it is best.
While we all envision presenting the perfectly roasted whole turkey at the table on Thanksgiving, there is an inherent challenge in getting all the parts done at the same time without overcooking or undercooking some of them. That is because the dark meat (legs and thighs) cooks more slowly than the breast. Inevitably we wind up with dry white meat in an effort to properly cook the dark meat.
The best solution is to ask your butcher to break down the turkey. Ask them to separate the legs and thighs from the breast and cut out the backbone. Or you can simply buy the turkey parts you want. Either way, it is easy to cook the various parts properly when they aren’t attached to each other. What I like to do is start the legs and thighs first, cook them for about 20 minutes on their own, and then add the breast to the pan and finish them all together. The cooking time will be approximately 1-1/2 to 3-1/4 hours, depending on the size. It may not be as spectacular, but it will be the most succulent and tender turkey you have ever made!
For most people the most challenging aspect of Thanksgiving dinner is the gravy. It can be a nightmare or a dream, cause headaches or delight. Here are a few tricks and if you follow them, your gravy will turn out perfectly every time. Start with a roux made from turkey drippings and flour. Cook until it is golden colored, stirring to make sure there are no lumps. A flat whisk is the best tool for this. There is no need to wait until the panic of Thanksgiving is upon you, make this up to several weeks in advance and freeze it. You can eliminate a lot of the pressure on Thanksgiving!
Take the pan off the heat, add your liquid, whisking until fully incorporated and smooth. Return to the heat and cook until thick and creamy, stirring constantly. And if a lump or two happens to creep in there, pass the gravy through a wire sieve and voila, lump-free gravy. That’s all it takes. A few minutes, a little patience, and you will have award-winning gravy.
All right, are you ready to make the world’s greatest turkey and gravy? From my house to yours … Dry-Brined Turkey, Golden Turkey Stock and Foolproof Gravy!
- Sage and Lemon Seasoned Salt
- 1/3 cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 2-1/2 tsp ground sage
- 1/2 tsp onion powder
- 1 tbsp freshly grated lemon zest, from about 2 organic lemons
- 1 (12 to 15 lb) turkey, preferably fresh and organic (see below if using a frozen bird)
- 4 large onions plus 3 medium onions, peeled
- 5 carrots, chopped
- 4 stalks celery, chopped
- 2 lemons
- Fresh sage
- Olive oil
- 1 cup dry vermouth, white wine, chicken stock or water
- 1/2 cup turkey stock, chicken stock or water
- Dry Brining the Bird: In the bowl of a small food processor, combine the salt, sage, onion powder, and zest. Pulse until thoroughly blended. Measure out 1 tbsp of the salt mixture for every 5 lbs of the turkey’s weight (if you get a 15 lb turkey, you will use 3 tbsp of the salt). Store any remaining seasoned salt in an airtight container.
- Starting 4 days before you intend to cook the bird (if you are cooking on Thanksgiving, start the Monday before) remove any giblets or other items from inside the turkey. You can use them for other recipes or discard. Rinse the bird thoroughly, inside and out, in cold water and pat dry. Set on a cutting board. (If you are using a frozen bird, it will thaw and brine at the same time; see Note below.)
- Starting on the breast, sprinkle the entire top with about 1 tbsp of the salt mixture. Rub it in with your hands, putting more on the meatiest areas. Turn the turkey on its side and sprinkle with another tablespoon of the salt, concentrating on the thigh. Flip the turkey over and salt the other side. Place the turkey breast-side up in a 2-1/2 to 3 gallon resealable food-safe plastic bag. If you can’t find a zip-top, you can use an oven-roasting bag. Press the air out and seal tightly. If you are using a roasting bag, twisting it to close tightly and use a rubber band to hold it closed.
- Refrigerate the turkey for 3 days*, turning occasionally and massaging the salt into the meat (without removing from the bag) 1 to 3 times a day. Initially you will see a bit of liquid on the skin and in the bag – don’t be concerned, this is part of the process. The salt pulls the liquid out of the meat, but it will eventually be reabsorbed.
- Remove the turkey from the bag and wipe with a paper towel. The skin will be moist with no salt remaining. Place it in an open container – a plate, your roasting pan, etc. – and refrigerate uncovered 8 hours or overnight* to air dry the skin. This helps with the browning and crisping of the skin during roasting. When ready to cook, let the turkey sit at room temperature for at least an hour before placing in the preheated oven.
- Roasting the Turkey: Preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Cut the ends off the large onions and slice horizontally into 1/2-inch thick slices. Place slices in an even layer on the bottom of a large roasting pan, top with the carrots and celery, sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Cut remaining medium onions and the lemons into quarters, and place inside cavity of the turkey along with a handful of the fresh sage. Rub the entire surface of turkey with olive oil and set breast-side down on the layer of onions. Pour vermouth and stock in pan and carefully transfer to the hot oven.
- Roast for 30 minutes and reduce temperature to 325°F. Roast another 30 minutes then remove turkey from oven and very carefully flip it over, breast-side up. Add a little more vermouth or stock if the drippings in the pan are getting too dry.
- Return to the oven and continue roasting until the thigh reaches 165°F. Use an instant read thermometer. The total time will be about 2-1/2 to 2-3/4 hours. (An unstuffed turkey cooks faster than a stuffed one.) If you don’t have a thermometer, wiggle the leg – it should feel loose in the socket. Pierce the thigh and make sure the juices that flow out don’t have any pink in them. If they do, keep cooking for another 15 to 20 minutes and check again.
- When done, remove from the oven, tip the turkey on end to drain any liquid inside and transfer to a cutting board. Tent with foil and let rest at least 30 minutes. The juices will be reabsorbed into the meat as it rests. You will use the pan drippings for the gravy and to keep the leftovers moist. Carve and serve on a warmed platter.
- For a frozen turkey, you can use the same technique, just rinse the frozen bird under running cold water until you are able to pull the giblet sack out. Pat the bird dry and follow directions above for salting and brining. The turkey will defrost and brine at the same time.
- Yield: 10 to 14 servings
- *You can brine the turkey for less time, but it will not be as flavorful. It will need at least 2 days for the dry brine to work. The final drying time can also be shortened if you need to. Pat any extra moisture off with a paper towel before roasting.
- if you are cooking a cut up turkey, it will take less time than a whole turkey. Depend on the temperature on an instant read thermometer to determine when each piece is done. Remove them as they are done, transfer to a cutting board and tent with foil to keep warm.
- 6 cups turkey broth (can be made well in advance – recipe below)
- 4 tbsp butter
- 6 tbsp all-purpose flour
- Pan juice from roasted turkey, optional
- 1 to 2 packets of liquid turkey broth concentrate from Savory Choice, if desired for a more intense turkey flavor, optional
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Warm broth in a saucepan, over medium heat, to just below a simmer. Reduce heat to low.
- In a large saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. Using a flat whisk, stir in the flour until smooth with no lumps. Cook, stirring constantly, until golden brown, about 10 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the heat and gradually add the broth. Whisk until completely incorporated and smooth. Return to the heat and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened. If you want you can add in some of the pan juices from the roasted turkey. Taste and add concentrate if the turkey flavor isn’t strong enough. Taste again and add salt and pepper if needed. If there are any lumps, you can pour the gravy through a wire strainer.
- Pour very hot water in your serving container to heat it. When warm, pour out water, wipe it dry and fill with steaming hot gravy. Keep remaining gravy warm on the stove so refills will be hot.
- Yield: about 6 cups
- Olive oil
- 8 to 10 lb turkey wings, necks, backs, thighs, and drumsticks, or any combination
- 8 quarts water
- 1 to 2 tbsp turkey or chicken base, optional
- 3 large onions, roots cut off but skins left on, quartered
- 4 large shallots, roots cut off but skins left on, quartered
- 4 large carrots, scrubbed, ends trimmed, cut into large chunks
- 4 large celery stalks, scrubbed, ends trimmed, cut into large chunks
- 2 to 3 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- Crushed peppercorns
- Fresh thyme sprigs, rinsed and patted dry
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Pour a layer of oil in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Add the turkey parts, placing them skin side down. Roast for 1 to 2 hours, or until well browned. Add a little water to the pan if drippings start to get too brown. Using tongs, transfer turkey wings, necks, backs and legs to a 12-quart soup pot. Reserve the thighs separately.
- Add 1/4 cup water to roasting pan and bring to a boil on the stovetop. Scrape the bottom with a wooden spoon to loosen browned bits. Pour the pan drippings into a container, cover and store in the refrigerator until ready to use to make your gravy. You can do this months in advance and keep drippings frozen for gravy any time of the year.
- Add water, stock base (if using), and vegetables to the soup pot with the turkey parts. Stir in the salt and pepper. Add 6 to 8 sprigs of fresh thyme. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce heat to low, partially cover with a lid, and simmer for 2 to 3 hours or until it is fully flavored. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
- Strain the stock and discard the solids. Refrigerate. When cold, skim the fat that solidifies on the top and add it to the reserved pan drippings to use for the gravy.
- Stock can be refrigerated for about a week or frozen for up to 3 months.
- Yield: about 6 quarts … enough to make gravy and add to your stuffing
What a gorgeous recipe! You are so right about the benefits of making turkey parts instead of the whole bird. This looks delicious. Thanks for submitting it to my Thanksgiving blog hop!
Jane Bonacci, The Heritage Cook
Thank you Katherine! I love the idea of your blog hop – thanks for letting me join in the fun!