28 November 2010

A tale of two turkeys

Thank you all for your suggestions for future blog posts. What I did not tell you when I made the request is that I intend to write up a post based on each and every one of the suggestions I received (JBod's second suggestion is likely eclipsing his first one, for the record). So my goal is to get my fingers flying and write a post every day this week. Starting today, with a suggestion from ANJ to blog about the Great Turkey Experiment my brother and I pulled off for Thanksgiving this year.

Two and a half weeks before 25 November, my brother Scott sent me an email titled "Interesting Method to Cook Thanksgiving Turkey." The email contained a link to a Huffington Post article with detailed instructions on brining, rubbing, perching, smoking, and grilling a turkey in spite of many traditional methods that produce dry or otherwise undesirable meat.

Everything about the method looked good to me, but I kept going back to the explicit instructions NOT to stuff the bird. Which makes sense for this recipe. But the unfamiliar reader here must understand that for a Gillins, a Thanksgiving turkey is really just a vessel for creating moist, flavorful stuffing.

I pointed this out to Scott, and he saw my point. We then agreed that the only way to proceed was to cook two birds--one traditional, the other new.

I picked up two 10-pound, free-range turkeys from Whole Foods (no performance-enhancing moisture injections in those birds) on Tuesday, and on Wednesday I made two separate batches of brine (one the recipe from Alton Brown we've been using for the last three years, the other the one from the Huffington Post article). I set each turkey to rest overnight in separate containers, as depicted below:*

Thanksgiving morning Scott and I set to work preparing each bird according to its prescribed method. I left partway through the process to donate blood (the American Red Cross really, really wanted it). When I got back, one turkey was stuffed and in the oven, the other perched over a gravy pan, hot coals, and smoking wood chips outside in my grill.

The grill-smoked turkey required a little more effort than the oven-roasted one. Scott had to add fresh, hot coals three times during the cooking process and all-in-all it took a little longer to cook. But the results were well worth the work.

We pulled the stuffing out of the oven bird (delicious as stuffing from inside the cavity always is), then set to work carving each turkey up. I cut an entire half-breast off the smoked turkey and sliced up three slivers for me, Scott, and Scott's wife Marilee to try.

Many of you who know me well understand that I have an affinity for hyperbole. I use it from time to time as I see fit. However, I mean no exaggeration when I tell you that that smoked breast meat was THE BEST TURKEY EVER. Under the browned, crispy skin was a rosy, smoke-infused meat that retained more juices than I'd ever seen in a roasted turkey. The smell was tempting, the taste irresistible.

I carved the rest of that half-breast and the majority of a thigh, then set in on carving the oven bird. It seemed to have no flavor. I ended up slicing up one half-breast, but I didn't bother with the rest, knowing where my attention would be during the dinner.

After our dinner was over and Scott and I laid on our backs for a while, we went back into the kitchen to divide the two carcasses between us. With a few hours of objectivity now between me and my first try of the two meats, I took a taste of the oven-roasted bird. It actually tasted quite good. It was reasonably moist, had a nice flavor, and it was pretty tender. Then I took one more small bite of the smoked bird--it was simply superior. I conducted my first taste test in an order that was unfair to the oven-roasted bird. If I'd given it the first shot, I would have appreciated it for what it was. Putting it second in the line-up was like having the Beatles open for your cousin's boyfriend's Oasis tribute band.

The future of Thanksgiving is undecided. Now we know how great a turkey can be, but stuffing is still the king of dishes at our table. The next 12 months will be filled with careful deliberation--and possibly some heated debate--as we decide how the next Thanksgiving turkey will be prepared.

*I intended to take pictures of the entire process and the end results for comparison, but I only got these two preliminary brining shots. Ah well.


Stephanie said...

I can't believe you made two turkeys! That is hilarious. But am glad your experiment yielded a tasty new bird,

Becs said...

You would.

JKC said...

I did two turkeys also. But I roasted them the same way, using my old recipe: Dry rub of dried sage and lemon thyme (from the garden), and stuffed with apples, onions, fresh sage leaves, fresh rosemary sprigs, and apple cider, followed by a glaze of butter, maple syrup, apple cider vinegar, salt, and fresh herbs.

The only thing I did differently this year was to pull the turkeys out when the breast hit 155, let it rest 20 minutes, cut off the breast whole (don't slice it), and stick the rest back into the oven until the thighs reach 160.

It was awesome. Moistest thanksgiving breast meat I ever tasted.

I imagine the smoked meat was probably even better.

One idea for stuffing if you must have natural juices is to stick the neck and giblets into the stuffing while it cooks. I've done this before and it works pretty well.

The Shark said...

Excellent work. Jenn coerced Amy into buying a HUGE (25-lb.) turkey this year, and I'm sure stuffing quantity was a huge part of that.

Thing is, the pan wasn't big enough for the turkey, so it was sort of bulging out of the pan's edges and stuck to the pan in several places. I was given the task of finding a way to remove the bird, so after some careful cutting I found the only way to do it was to slide my bare hands under the turkey and grab the thin handles of the grate that held the bird elevated. Luckily things were cooled enough by that point that I didn't scald myself, but the lingering heat and the weight of the massive bird left my right index finger slightly burned and sore as I heaved it to a cookie sheet. But it's worth it for a good meal.

Scotty said...

@JKC Jared failed to mention that we used his new probe thermometer to monitor the temperature of the birds. When the turkeys hit 160° F, we removed them from the heat. Each turkey's temperature raised to 165° F, outside the oven/grill. This is the first time I had done this which I think contributed to a moister turkey. In the past, I had not pulled the turkey out until it reached 165°, not realizing that the turkey continues to cook for 5 of 6 minutes after you remove it from the heat.