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Talking Turkey

Experts give advice on how to make this year's Thanksgiving meal the best ever

No matter how many holiday dinners you've hosted or turkeys you've roasted, you still may be obsessing over this year's bird.  Maybe you're hoping that the meat will be juicier, the wings will be crispier or the skin will be roasted to that perfect amber hue.

Help is on the way. Rick Rodgers and Diane Morgan, renowned food writers and cookbook authors, offer their top turkey tips.

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What is the secret to a moist and juicy turkey?

Rick Rodgers: The best way to keep the breast moist is so simple that people find it hard to believe. All you do is cover (cover, not "tent") the breast area (not the wings or legs) with foil before the turkey goes into the oven. This effectively slows the cooking down in this area, and also creates steam to keep the breast moist. During the last hour or so of the roasting time, just remove the foil and baste the bird a couple of times: The pale breast skin will brown beautifully.

There seems to be a lot of buzz about barbecuing your Thanksgiving turkey. What do you think about this method?

Diane Morgan: There are some great reasons to barbecue a turkey. If you are a one-oven household, it's the best way to free up oven space. On top of that, there's no messy roasting pan or grease-splattered oven to clean. Barbecuing is especially good if you live in a warm climate.  But there are always those diehards who light up a grill whether it's raining or snowing!

Is brining worth the effort?

Rick Rodgers: In my opinion, brining isn't worth the effort. The method makes the bird saltier and wetter, but you are not actually adding meaty juices. If you want a turkey soaked in salt water, then just buy a frozen bird: almost all of them are injected with salty flavor "enhancers" to make up for the liquid lost during defrosting.  Or you could buy a kosher turkey, which is salted as part of the koshering process.

Well, I'd still like to give brining a try. How do I do that?

Rick Rodgers: To estimate the amount of brine, place the turkey in a jumbo oven-roasting bag in an ice chest, and measure the cold water needed to cover the bird completely. For each 2 quarts of water, use 1/4 cup plain salt; 1/4 cup sugar; 1 1/2 teaspoons each of rosemary, thyme and sage; and 3/4 teaspoon each of marjoram, celery seed and peppercorns. Use plain, noniodized table salt for the brine. The turkey must be well chilled during brining. Surround the brined turkey in its bag with lots of ice cubes (buy bags of ice if you don't want to deplete your freezer's supply), or use frozen "blue-ice" packs. And don't run the risk of stuffing the turkey, as the salty juices could ruin it. Instead, loosely fill the cavities with seasoning vegetables and bake the stuffing on the side.

Next page: Does trussing the bird make for even cooking? »

Does trussing the bird really make for even cooking?

Rick Rodgers: Trussing is overrated. The idea is to simply keep the wings and turkey legs in place so the bird keeps a uniform shape. Tuck the wing tips behind the turkey shoulders so the "elbows" are akimbo. This gives the turkey a solid base when carving. If the turkey is especially wide, which happens with some big birds, just tie the wings to the body with a loop of kitchen twine, or even unwaxed, unflavored dental floss. Now, if the turkey producer has provided one, tuck the ends of the drumsticks in the metal or ovenproof plastic "hock lock" near the tail. If the turkey producer has just made a strip of skin at the tail for tucking the drumsticks, skip the tucking, and loosely tie the ends of the drumsticks together with the twine. I find that the drumsticks tend to come undone if you tuck them into the skin.

How do I properly carve a turkey?

Diane Morgan: If you are a confident turkey carver, place the turkey on a large serving platter and carve it at the table. For the majority of us, though, carving the turkey in the kitchen is a safer bet. Place the turkey on a carving board, ideally one that has a moat and well to catch the delicious poultry juices. Untie the bird and remove all skewers. Using a sharp carving knife and meat fork, cut down between the thigh and body until you feel bone. Twist the leg and thigh a little until you see the thigh joint. Now cut through the joint to separate the thigh from the body. Cut the joint where the leg meets the thigh. Repeat on the other side. Now you have legs and thighs ready for a warm platter. To carve the breast meat, start at the keel bone that runs along the top of the breast. Angle the knife and cut thin slices of breast meat from one side of the breast. At this point, you should have plenty of meat for serving. Lay slices of breast meat in an overlapping fashion down the center of the platter. Place the legs and thighs along the side. If a guest wants to have a wing, pull back the wing until you see the joint between the wing and the body, cut through that joint and add the wing to the platter. Cover the rest of the turkey loosely with aluminum foil and remove the meat from the carcass later for some fine leftovers.

Next page: Difference between a heritage and regular turkey. »

Is cooking a "heritage" bird different than cooking a "regular" turkey?

Rick Rodgers: Heritage turkey can be daunting. You just never know exactly what you're in for because each turkey is different — a Bourbon Red may roast differently than a Narragansett. Just allow extra time for the turkey to roast. My rule of thumb is 15 minutes per pound for a stuffed turkey at 325 degrees. I'd estimate 3 1/4 hours for a 10- to 12-pound heritage bird. If it is done sooner, just let it stand at room temperature until you are ready to carve. Also, the heritage turkeys I get have very thick skin and a lot of fat in the tail and neck. Remove the fat from these areas, but save the fat. Render it (chop it well, and let it melt slowly in a saucepan over low heat with a little water) and use it! Rub some of the fat over the turkey instead of butter, or use it when making gravy.

What do you do with the turkey carcass?

Diane Morgan: When it is time to clean up and put leftovers away after Thanksgiving dinner, my husband assigns himself the task of "dealing with the turkey." He carefully carves whatever meat is still left on the carcass and arranges it in a container. He also offers to chop the carcass into large chunks and store them in a separate container, and this delights me. Come Friday morning, while I'm shuffling around in slippers and sweat clothes, drinking my coffee, I open the refrigerator and pull out the chopped carcass ready for the stockpot. While some may head for the mall to tackle their Christmas lists, honestly, I'm happier lounging with the newspaper, watching the stock simmer.

For more Thanksgiving advice, visit Diane's website and Rick's website, where you'll find tips, techniques and recipes.

The original article was published November 2010.

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