Local chefs share tips on cooking the perfect turkey

After talking about the sous vide method — putting vacuum-sealed meat in a low-temperature water bath for a long time, in this case 24 hours — for turkey breast, Ocean House Executive Chef Matt Voskuil answered a question about cooking a turkey in a regular oven.

First, "make sure it's fully thawed, because that is the part that I think trips up a lot of people," he said.

Voskuil is freaked out when he's at the grocery store the night before Thanksgiving and sees people buying frozen turkeys.

Before cooking the turkey, bring it to room temperature. Voskuil recommends starting with an hour of cooking time, and then another 12-15 minutes for every pound the bird weighs.

He starts with the oven at 350 degrees until the turkey reaches an internal temperature of 152-155 degrees, measured through the thigh toward the hip bone, and then turns the oven up to 425-450 degrees for crispy skin.

Voskuil said cooking the turkey upside-down helps keep the meat moist, but the downside is less caramelization and that "you're not going to get that Instagrammable moment."

On Saturday, Voskuil led a Thanksgiving cooking class as part of Ocean House's "In the Kitchen" series, with a focus on preparation that can be done ahead of time and on making a meal for a more intimate gathering.

"You don't know what Aunt Martha's going to bring and how big a vessel it will come in, and you need to kind of strategize," Voskuil said, pointing to the benefits of sous vide cooking in freeing up oven and stove space.

The menu for the class included sous vide turkey breast, turkey leg confit, roasted brussels sprouts with warm vinaigrette, cranberry relish and sweet potato casserole.

Providence resident Terry Schraeder said she decided to come and bring her husband, Rick Terek, because unlike most years, they're hosting this Thanksgiving, having recently redone their kitchen.

"I wanted to decrease my nerves and maybe pick up some techniques," she said. Schraeder felt the class was successful in this regard, and while the cut of the turkey in the class was different from her preference, she found it to be "very moist and flavorful."

From standard to spatchcocking, without the dryness

If you're someone who issues the common refrain that turkey is too dry, chefs will offer the same diagnosis: You're overcooking it. But the process for the perfect turkey starts well before that.

The first piece of advice from Grass & Bone head butcher and owner James Wayman is to get a good turkey, which he defines as one "from someone in your local community that you know, so you can verify how the turkey was raised." He prefers organic, but if not, he's looking for one that is pastured and has no antibiotics or hormones.

Grass & Bone is sourcing its turkeys from two places this year: non-organic but pastured turkeys from Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm in Sterling, and organic turkeys from Wild Harmony Farm in Exeter, Rhode Island.

Wayman would leave the turkey uncovered in the refrigerator for a day, so the fan movement helps dry it out, and then keep a smaller bird at room temperature for about an hour and a half before it goes in the oven.

For temperature, Wayman does the opposite of Voskuil, starting high and then going lower — from 400 degrees for about 45 minutes to 300. Regardless of this preference, you'll consistently hear the same internal temperature turkey for poultry: 165 degrees.

One of Wayman's favorite methods for cooking a turkey is spatchcocking — taking the backbone off and butterflying the bird, so it cooks more evenly and faster — and cooking it over wood fire.

A dry brine

Tami Grooney, farm chef at White Gate Farm in East Lyme, said that spatchcocking makes for great gravy drippings. For the more traditional method, Grooney is a proponent of a dry brine.

She will rinse off the turkey, rub roughly a teaspoon of salt per pound of turkey under the skin, wrap the turkey in a bag, leave it in the fridge for a day and then swab off all the moisture.

"Then what I do is I boil about two quarts of water, and pour it over the turkey," she said, "and that makes the skin seize up a little bit, and tightens it to the turkey, and that's what gives you a really crisp skin."

This step is her only variation from the recipe she follows, The New York Times' recipe for a dry-brined turkey. She recommends checking the doneness of the turkey by seeing if the juice runs clear from a slice on the thigh. Aside from overcooking, Grooney said turkey can be dry if it's freezer burned.

Mohegan Sun Executive Chef Richard Doucette recently bought a probe thermometer that plugs into a timer, so an alarm will ring when the set internal temperature is reached. He encourages people not to rely on pop-up thermometers that come with the bird.

One cooking method he suggests is putting four or five layers of aluminum foil over the turkey and removing it for the last hour in the oven. Another is brining a turkey with flavorings such as apple cider, orange peels and herbs for 16-20 hours.

Turkey mishaps

A common turkey mistake both he and Grooney referenced is forgetting to remove the giblet bag. Doucette also recalled that when he was a kid, a family member "tried to cook a turkey in a pressure cooker to speed things up, and it was so overcooked that it was flat like a pancake."

At Gourmet Galley Catering in North Stonington, Executive Chef Jeffrey Crawford puts the turkeys in a three-day brine with 5 percent saline solution, and incorporates juniper berries, rosemary, thyme, peppercorns, cilantro and coriander.

Part of the necessity of brining for a catering company, he said, is reducing the risk of overcooking error for customers: "You have to double your insurance, because most people err on the side of cooking things too much, so we try to give them a huge latitude to do that."

Crawford roasts the turkey with Mirepoix — celery, carrots and onion — in the pan, with prepared turkey stock. (Others will stuff the cavity with an apple and aromatic herbs, or citrus.)

Crawford finds that the steam from the Mirepoix and stock helps the turkey get crisper. He roasts the turkey at 325 degrees until the last 40 minutes or so, when he takes the top off.

He said the most common mistake people make is not considering carryover cooking, when food continues to cook even after being removed from the heat source.

"If you wait until the center is 165, that means that everything outside the center is already overdone," Crawford said. "You have to think in terms of a 15-20-degree temperature gain."

Of course, if you're cooking the turkey this year, you may go to all this effort only to find your guests first reaching for the mashed potatoes, canned cranberry sauce or Pillsbury crescent rolls.



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