Better Thanksgiving turkey in half the time — by braising.
It’s time for traditionalists to face facts: turkey is a pretty lousy item of poultry. That it became the standard for the Thanksgiving celebration is, of course, a function of the mythologized first pilgrim and native dinner date (no movie, no kiss) in 1621, Plymouth Colony. Turkeys were one of the principal comestibles mentioned in the account of Plymouth Governor, William Bradford. But he also listed waterfowl, venison, fish, lobster, and clams on that first menu – all of which are way tastier than turkey.
So why has turkey persisted as the Thanksgiving mainstay? Undoubtedly because it is big enough to feed an army of poorly mannered relatives and is relatively cheap. Scalability of domesticated production is also a key consideration. Turkeys can be easily and economically (if rarely ethically) raised, slaughtered, and frozen in order that whole countries – first Canada, in October, then the U.S., in November – can sit down to essentially the same meal at the same time.
A week of post-partum Turkey sandwiches may, to many minds, offer compelling justification for doing the bird. Perhaps. But if a turkey sandwich is good, a roast chicken sandwich is still better; it just doesn’t come to mind as readily. Why? Because chicken is delicious enough (and appropriately sized) to devour at the first sitting, leaving far fewer such leftover opportunities.
My mother would add another factor in favor of the turkey. She thinks there is a thrilling, primal culinary drama when such a large bird is roasted essentially intact. I challenge this rationalization. Only those in the kitchen generally get to appreciate the bird in its complete, golden majesty – and, then, only for the brief period between emergence from the oven and the point at which it has rested sufficiently to be carved. Or should I say, “hacked.” Despite the fact that carving a turkey is about the simplest thing one can do with a knife and a bird, most people manage to make quite a mess of it. And there is nothing dramatic about a hacked-up turkey carcass – unless you are a compassionate vegetarian, in which case it is absolutely the wrong kind of drama.
My preferred approach to preparing the Thanksgiving bird would be to roast a chicken and pretend the “turkey” shrunk in the oven. When tradition prevails and prevarication won’t fly – as on, say, a day when we are supposed to be expressing gratitude for the beauty of life and the bounty of the earth – I take an approach to turkey that fully abnegates my mother’s delight in its roasted wholeness. I reduce the turkey to pieces before anyone has a chance to see it.
The basic concept for my preparation comes from a piece published several years ago by the fabulous Mark Bittman in his New York Times column, The Minimalist. Bittman argued that roasting a whole turkey is not only a waste of time (four hours or more for a large bird), it is almost guaranteed to produce a crappy meal. Since breast meat cooks in a fraction of the time required for the legs – not to mention the stuffing in the body cavities, which is actually the good part of the thanksgiving meal – it is invariably dry and tasteless. Braising the meat allows each part to be cooked according to its individual needs.
Bittman’s recipe involves braising some veggies along with the bird; but it does not really address the full-blown Thanksgiving context, which requires a dressing (stuffing) and gravy that are directly influenced by preparation of the meat. What follows is my adaptation of Bittman’s Braising technique to the traditional Thanksgiving menu.
But I’ve done one more thing, which you might find useful. I’ve placed the methodology within a chronology, so that even the least coordinated cook can turn-out all the components of the dinner on-time and well synchronized. My objective was to demonstrate that one can shop for Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving morning and still comfortably have it on the table by dinnertime. My approach makes for a very simple, fast, relaxed Thanksgiving Day preparation. There is plenty of time to create the other dishes – say, cranberry relish, sautéed Brussels sprouts, cornbread, and, of course, mashed potatoes – even if you don’t start cooking until noon. Not only is this the best damned turkey you’ve ever eaten, it is the easiest.
So give thanks this Thanksgiving to Mark Bittman for suggesting braising, rather than roasting your turkey.
Braised Turkey and Stuffing for Thanksgiving Dinner
1 turkey, cut into 6 pieces: breasts, thigh+drumsticks, wings
1-½ liters water
½ cup sea salt
½ cup brown sugar
Stock for Braising Liquid and Gravy
Bones, wing-tips, and giblets from turkey
Chicken bones (if you have any in the freezer)
½ yellow onion
2 cloves garlic
2-3 celery stalks
Water from rehydrating the shiitakes
Stuffing Stuff: this year’s version – but make whatever dressing strikes your fancy at the moment.
1 large yellow onion, diced
½ kg white or crimini mushrooms, sliced and oven roasted with olive oil and fresh sage
Handful of dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated and chopped
½ kg celery sticks, chopped
1 can water chestnuts, chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
250 g of pork products: ground pork, sausages (de-cased and crumbled), pancetta (chopped small), or some combination
Fresh bread crumbs from a medium boule of good bread
500 ml cream, plus or minus
A bit of the braising liquid
100 ml Cognac
Stock plus residual braising liquid
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 T flour
250 ml cream
1. Break-down the bird. Cut the meat off the bird using standard technique, leaving the thighs attached to the legs, removing the breast meat from the bone, and cutting the tips from the wings. Go ahead and separate the back-bone and hack-up the rest of the carcass now, because you are going to use it to make the stock. Likewise, reserve the giblets for the same purpose.
2. Brine the bird. Soak the bird parts, refrigerated, in the brine solution for 4 to 5 hours.
3. Prepare stock. You have the turkey carcass from breaking-down the bird; but adding a chicken carcass will improve things greatly. (I always stockpile — forgive the pun — chicken bones in the freezer and make my demi-glace periodically.) First, the extra bones mean more flavor for the stock. More importantly, the worst chicken tastes way better than the best turkey (which, incidentally, you are about to make). Brown the bones and the giblets in olive oil. Add the rest and simmer-away for a few hours. Then strain and reserve. This will be the liquid you use for braising as well as for your gravy; so, make enough. With two sets of bones, you should be able to deliver more than enough rich broth in a few hours. Chill to skim the surface fat.
4. Mise en place. Prepare all the stuffing veggies and pork products.
5. Start Stuffing. Mix together the bread crumbs, egg+cream mixture, tarragon, parsley, salt, and pepper in a large mixing bowl. Yes, you need to taste the mixture to properly season it – so don’t be a sissy about the little bit of raw egg in there. You’ll survive. You always have.
6. Warm oven. Preheat to 350º F (175º C).
7. Roast the mushrooms. Arrange the slice ‘shrooms on a roasting pan, sprinkle with chopped sage, and drizzle with olive oil. Roast at 350º F (175ºC) for, say, 15 minutes or so. This dehydrates the mushrooms slightly and significantly deepens the flavor.
8. Brown baby brown! Brown the pork products in olive oil and remove. Next, brown the thighs+legs and wings in olive oil, getting good color on the skin side before flipping to brown the exposed side. Finally, brown the breast meat; again, skin-side first, then the flip-side.
9. Prepare big-ass roasting pan. Sauté the onions in olive oil, adding-in the celery, both kinds of mushrooms, water chestnuts, and pork products. When these are ready, set the thighs+legs and wings, skin-side up in the pan. Add the stock as braising liquid to about half-way up the turkey parts. Do not add the breasts yet. If you are too busy to read ahead, then just trust me and keep these in reserve for the time being.
10. Braise baby braise! Roast for 2 hours at 300º F (150ºC).
11. Reconfigure big-ass roasting pan. Remove the thighs+legs and wings from the pan. (They can keep the breast meat company for the moment.) With a slotted spoon, remove all the veggies and pork bits from the braising liquid, add these to the bread crumb mixture, and mix. This is your stuffing. If it is too dry, add more cream or some of the braising liquid or both. If it is too moist, no big deal. Check again for seasoning. Pour the remaining braising liquid into your reserved stock, bolstering the gravy-makings. Next, put the stuffing into the big-ass roasting pan. Place all the turkey parts, including the breast meat, skin-side up on top of the stuffing.
12. Roast baby roast! Pop the stuffing and turkey back into the oven for 30 minutes, no more, at 350º F (175º C) to finish the thighs+legs and to cook the breast meat.
13. Rest the meat, brown the stuffing. Take out the meat and let it rest for 10 minutes, and pop the stuffing back into the oven to brown during this time.
14. Make the gravy. While the meat is resting and the stuffing browning, make the gravy. Reheat the pan in which you browned the meat. When it is hot, deglaze the pan with the cognac. Add the stock and thyme, and bring to a hard boil. Reduce for until the breasts are sliced and ready to serve. Whisk-in the cream+flour pseudo-roux to thicken.
15. Slice the breast meat.
16. Eat the best damned turkey you’ve ever tasted.
Total lead-time on this method is 7 or 8 hours, depending on brining time. It takes 5 minutes to break-down the bird. Brining runs 4 to 5 hours. You need to start the stock at least a couple hours before the cooking begins in earnest, which involves less than 10 minutes of prep. The prep time for everything else is perhaps 20 minutes. The cooking and interim prep steps will take about three hours. The timeline looks something like this:
Noon: Break-down bird and brine the parts. (1,2)
By 2:00 pm: Start stock. (3)
By 3:00 pm: Start mis en place, roast mushrooms, and start stuffing. (4-7)
By 4:00 pm: Complete stock (3)
4:00 pm: Start browning meat and sautéing veggies. (8)
4:15 pm: Assemble braising configuration and commence roasting the thighs+legs. (9, 10)
6:15 pm: Reconfigure roasting pan with assembled stuffing and all the bird parts. (11)
6:20 pm: Return to oven. (12)
6:50 pm: Remove meat and let rest, brown stuffing, and make gravy. (13, 14)
7:00 pm: Serve dinner. (15, 16)