The Thanksgiving holiday is upon us, which means, for many of you novice chefs out there, you’re going to cook another dry ass turkey for family and friends. You see, the Thanksgiving Turkey is the culinary equivalent of the 1RM Back Squat; everyone has their stupid ideas on how you’re supposed to execute it, and they feel the need to hack at ways to shortcut the prep work.
Here’s the cold hard facts. We approach the holiday bird just like we approach the Back Squat in the Power Athlete training system, by accumulating reps on reps under the careful guidance of seasoned mentors and coaches.
This recipe will lay out everything I do to attack the fundamentals of Thanksgiving: how to make an outstanding Thanksgiving turkey, and the mouth-watering gravy to top it off. Then, I will detail the steps I take to ensure the turkey stays moist and flavorful. You will notice that this recipe starts and ends with the gravy. This is not a coincidence. You see, gravy runs in my veins; I love gravy! I love it on pancakes, I love it on pizza, I love it on turkey!
It’s worth noting that there are kitchen utensils that simplify the recipe but aren’t technically required. I know this because I made two turkeys in my God awful dorm one year, with one of those foil trays and a frying pan.
The process starts on Tuesday morning, with a 24 hour wet brine followed by another 24 hours to dry in the fridge. So you need to be sure to give it time to thaw if you’re buying a frozen turkey. The general consensus is 24 hours for every 5 pounds. If you happen to be reading this on Tuesday morning, don’t fret because you can thaw the turkey rapidly in a bucket of cold water. This takes 30 min per pound, but you also need to change the water out every half hour.
Prep for the week
- Thaw Time (if frozen): 24 hours for every 5 pounds
- Clean the turkey remove giblets and neck, and prep the brine.
- Brine Time: 24 hours
- Dry time: 24 hours
Game Day Prep (4.5 hours total)
- Prep time: 1 hour
- Cook time 3 hours
- Gravy time 30 min
- 1 18 lb jive turkey
- 2 lemons
- 2 sticks butter
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 bunch fresh parsley chopped
- 2 onions halved with the skin on
- 2 Roma tomatoes
- 2 sprigs of rosemary
- 2 sprigs of thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1-1.5 lb thick-cut bacon
- 1 bottle of hard cider
- 1 qt chicken stock
- Brining bag and zip tie
- 5 gallon bucket
- Roasting tray
- Roasting rack
- Leave-in probe thermometer
- Turkey baster
- Fat separator
- Mesh sieve/ strainer
Prep the Bird
Unpack the turkey check that its thawed, strip innards, rinse well with cold water. You may want to keep the neck for stock or gravy. Keep the liver for later, to make liver or pate.
Here is a simple brine that will ensure the turkey will be more moist and juicy than anything you’ve had before: add 1 cup of kosher salt (or ½ cup of table salt) and ½ cup of sugar per gallon of water. Boil if it needs help dissolving. Cool it down in the fridge, freezer, or ice bath. If you want to amp the flavor up even more add 1 tablespoon of the following for each gallon of water: pepper, dried sage, dried rosemary, garlic powder, onion powder, and celery powder. Submerge the turkey in the brine and wait a day (or at least an hour per pound). These recommendations come from our friends over at Tacticalories, who pulled off one of the best rubs I’ve ever had. To put that last statement in context, I’m gifted rubs all year long from half the people I know, and my pantry is stuffed with half-full shakers of different bbq and steak rubs, but more on this particular rub in a later post. To pull off a wet brine, you will need a 5 gallon bucket. I also recommend picking up the optional brine bag as well, to make the whole process go smoothly. If you aren’t equipped for a wet brine, you can always use a dry brine by liberally (like Berkeley rhetoric major-liberal) seasoning with salt and pepper on the outside and inside of the bird. Let this concoction sit for a day or two.
This is a critical step to achieving that picture-perfect crispy skin. Like a steak, the outside of the turkey needs to be dry to ensure good browning. To accomplish this, we can leave the bird in the fridge uncovered for 24 hours. If you’re in a pinch, you can expedite this process by setting it on a rack on the counter next to a small fan, but you must make sure to turn the bird every half hour to hour so that all sides get dry.
Buttering the Bird
To impart maximum flavor, we are going to add a compound butter to the turkey. First, you need to separate the skin from the breasts, because we’re going to put a compound butter underneath. To do this, just run your fingers under the skin to break up the membrane that holds the skin to the meat. If you have big meaty claws, you might want to recruit someone else with more dainty hands to do this step because we don’t want the skin to rip. Now wash your hands and make the butter. Simply combine two sticks (1/2 lb) of nice butter (or one of those big ass Kerrygold blocks) 3-4 cloves of crushed garlic, the zest and juice of 2 lemons, the leaves of a bunch of chopped parsley, and salt and pepper. Mix this together with your hands to ensure that it’s well incorporated, (bonus, so you can lick butter off of them once you’re done).
Now, take ping-pong sized balls of butter and slide them underneath the skin of the turkey. Slide them along the meat by pulling the skin back over the top and pushing it toward the legs (there are videos on YouTube if you are confused). Try to get as much butter underneath the skin as possible, but if you can’t reach the dark meat don’t worry about it. Once you can’t fit any more butter under the skin rub the rest of the butter all over the outside.
Stuffing the Bird
Take the leftover lemon, two halved onions, some sprigs of thyme and bay leaves, and stuff those inside the cavity. These will steam inside, flavoring the turkey, and in return, the turkey drippings will flavor what’s in the cavity which will pay dividends when we make that gravy I keep dreaming about. Depending on the size of your turkey, you may need to quarter the onions. And, if it’s massive, you may need to add an extra onion.
Now drizzle a little olive oil over the top and throw it in the oven at 425, and nervously look at it until you get worried about the skin (about 10-15 min), then pull it out, baste, and add bacon strips over the breasts to protect them from burning. *Note* if any part of the turkey starts to look too dark, put bacon on it and swap the bacon out so it doesn’t burn. My oven ran hot last year and the bacon ‘cooked fast’, so make sure you have plenty of bacon (or foil) on hand to protect the skin. After this has been done, set the oven to 325 and leave until it’s cooked (I recommend a leave-in probe thermometer set to 160 in the breast since the pop up doesn’t work).
Now that the turkey is done, it’s time to remove it from the roasting tray and let it rest for a minimum of 20-30 min. This gives you plenty of time to make a show stealing gravy.
First, separate the fat from the rest of the liquid. The best method for this is to use a fat/ gravy separator, but if you don’t have one you can skim the fat off the top with a ladle. Save both of these in separate bowls, and put your roasting tray back on the heat. Pull everything off and out of the turkey (onions, lemon, bacon, parsons nose, and wings), chop them up, and put them on the heat with a few splashes of the turkey fat. Also, be sure to include a fresh sprig of thyme, rosemary, and two or three quartered Roma tomatoes. Fry these in the turkey fat for a few minutes while stirring, until the tomatoes are breaking down. Add a hard cider to the pan and scrape up all of the brown bits from the bottom of the tray.
Simmer until the liquid has reduced to about half the original volume. Now add the non-fat drippings, resting juices, and some chicken stock. You want the liquid to cover about 80% of the turkey and veggies. Simmer again until the liquid reduces by half, strain through a sieve or colander, and put in a gravy boat.
There you go! The centerpiece of Thanksgiving a whole turkey with gravy to go on top. You now have the knowledge and game plan to conquer the often feared roast turkey. Now get out there and buy one of those majestic and intelligent creatures because Bird-Ban is officially off!
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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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