As the guy who does some of the cooking on Thanksgiving in my family — and enjoys it — I also appreciate doing as much of it in advance as possible.
Which is why several years ago, after watching an old Julia Child cooking show, I settled on a great way to roast turkey. Child demonstrated how to carve up the turkey the night before, separating the leg quarters, and the backbone from the breast.
Along with allowing some of the work to be done the night before, the method:
Reduced the size of the pot needed to brine the bird the night before;
Allowed for a delicious sage seasoning of the thigh meat;
Allowed the breast a head start in the oven so the dark meat wasn’t overdone;
And permitted me to make mounds of stuffing that was flavored with the turkey’s juices but didn’t pose the food safety concerns of stuffing cooked inside the bird.
Since then, America’s Test Kitchen, which produces cooking shows for PBS, Cook’s Illustrated magazine and its website, updated Child’s recipe, suggesting an easier way to separate the breast and backbone, while providing turkey parts for a stock that makes really good gravy.
Hacking apart a 15-pound turkey might sound a little intimidating, but it’s kind of satisfying to hear the pop of bone joints — the turkey’s, not yours — and make the bird a little easier to handle. As a bonus, after the big meal, you’re not left trying to find room for a huge, unwieldy carcass in the fridge.
Relax, if you’re concerned that drawing and quartering the bird the night before might spoil your chances for a Norman Rockwell moment where the turkey is paraded into the dining room to be carved by granddad while everybody looks on in anticipation. (In reality, nobody’s waiting patiently. If the uncles haven’t gotten up to check the football game, the kids are playing finger puppets with the olives. So we carve in the kitchen and bring it in ready to serve.) But if presentation is your thing, you can still do that with this bird.
What follows is my adaptation of ATK’s version of Child’s recipe.
Out-of-Joint Turkey and Lots of Stuffing
1 12- to 15-pound turkey, neck and giblets reserved for stock and gravy
2 teaspoons plus 2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
Salt and pepper
3/4 cup kosher salt for brining
1 pound dried bread cubes
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons butter
3 medium onions, chopped fine
6 celery ribs, chopped fine
1/2 cup or more of chicken broth (optional)
1 cup dried cranberries
4 large eggs, beaten
With turkey breast side up, use a boning or paring knife to cut through the skin around the leg quarter and breast. Bend back the leg until you hear the thigh joint pop, then cut around the joint and meat to free the leg quarter from the breast. Repeat with the second leg quarter. Remove the thigh bone from each leg quarter by cutting along the thigh bone to free the meat. Bend each thigh bone until it pops and cut it free. Reserve both bones for the stock. (Stock and gravy recipe follows)
Splay the thigh meat and season with salt and pepper and a teaspoon of minced sage for each thigh. Roll up the thigh meat, using skewers and kitchen twine to truss up the thighs. Cover and refrigerate for 6 to 12 hours.
Taking the rest of the turkey, use kitchen shears to cut between the breast and back, following the line of fat on each side where breast and back meet. Taking the breast by the tip and the back by the tail, pull the two apart and back until the shoulder joint pops. Cut though the joint to separate back and breast. Hack the back into chunks and reserve for gravy stock. Trim extra fat and reserve for stock. Using 3/4 cup salt, make a brine with 6 quarts of water and submerge the breast, cover and refrigerate for 6 to 12 hours.
While preparing the stuffing, heat oven to 425 degrees. Melt butter in 12-inch nonstick ovenproof or cast iron pan over medium heat. Add onions and cook until softened, about 10 to 12 minutes, add celery and 2 tablespoons sage and 11/2 teaspoons of ground pepper and cook until celery starts to soften, about 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer vegetables to bowl with bread cubes and wipe pan with paper towel. Tuck wing tips behind the wings and place turkey breast side down in pan and roast for 30 minutes.
While the breast is roasting, add dried cranberries and beaten eggs to bread and vegetables and stir. If you like a moister stuffing, add a 1/2 cup of chicken stock. Pour stuffing in a 16-by-13-inch roasting pan, moving it away from the sides of the pan and mounding it in the center. If you wish to use a different recipe for stuffing, cut back on the wet ingredients. You want a fairly dry mix, as the stuffing will absorb juices from the turkey as it cooks.
Here’s the tricky part: Using two wads of paper towels or cheesecloth, lift the breast from the pan, flip it and place it over the stuffing (arrange leg quarters over the stuffing), covering as much of the stuffing as possible. Try to push any exposed stuffing under the bird. Brush breast and leg quarters with vegetable oil and lightly season with salt. Roast turkey and stuffing for another 30 minutes at 425 degrees.
Reduce temperature to 350 degrees and roast until the thigh meat registers 160 to 165 degrees and the breast meat registers 175 to 180 degrees, about 40 minutes to 1 hour and 20 minutes depending on the size of the bird.
Transfer breast and leg quarters to a cutting board, cover and let rest for 30 minutes. Turn off the oven. Stir the stuffing and return it to the oven while the turkey rests and you get other dishes ready for the table. Or, if you need the oven to finish other dishes, warm the stuffing in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes. Season with salt to taste.
If you want to make a presentation of the turkey at the table you can remove the skewers and twine from the leg quarters and reassemble the turkey on a serving platter atop the stuffing. Otherwise, after the meat has rested, carve and serve.
Night Before Turkey Gravy
This is easy to do the night before after you’ve cut up the turkey and have it in the fridge. You could also refrigerate the stock and use it to make the gravy the next day while the turkey is resting. The gravy will keep for two days, refrigerated.
Reserved turkey giblets, back pieces, thighbones and skin
2 medium onions, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped into 1-inch thick pieces
1 celery rib, cut into 1-inch pieces
6 garlic gloves, unpeeled
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
3 1/2 cups chicken broth
3 cups water
2 cups dry white wine
6 springs of fresh thyme
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place turkey parts, unions, carrot, celery and garlic cloves in a roasting pan. Drizzle with vegetable oil and toss. Roast, stirring occasionally, until well browned, 40 to 50 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven and place the turkey and vegetables in a dutch oven. Pour the chicken broth into the roasting pan and stir to scrape up any browned bits and then pour into the dutch oven. Pour in water, wine and thyme, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 90 minutes until the liquid is reduced in half.
Remove large pieces of turkey and pour remainder through a strainer, pressing the vegetables with a spoon to remove more liquid. Pour strained liquid into a fat separator and let settle for about five minutes.
Skim 1/4 cup of turkey fat from the top of the separator and place in a sauce pan. Warm the turkey fat over medium high heat until it bubbles, then whisk 1/4 cup flour until it’s combined and turns a tan color. Reduce heat to medium and gradually whisk in the hot turkey stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer, stirring occasionally until the gravy thickens. Season with salt and pepper to taste.