When it comes to cooking a juicy, flavorful turkey, the nation's chefs aren’t afraid to fly in the face of tradition. Here are a few of their top suggestions worth trying this holiday season.
1. Buy a Fresh Turkey.
Most home cooks opt for a frozen turkey, but chef Sara Moulton recommends buying fresh. The reason: Muscle cells damaged by ice crystals lose fluid while the turkey thaws and roasts, making it easier to end up with a dried-out bird. For those who stick with a frozen turkey, make sure to properly thaw the bird—one day in the fridge for every 4-5 pounds.
2. Buy a Smaller Bird—or Two.
Idealizing the big, fat Thanksgiving turkey is a mistake, according to numerous chefs. Large birds take more time to cook, which can dry out the meat. Wolfgang Puck told Lifescript he won’t cook a bird larger than 16 pounds, while Travis Lett recommends going even smaller and cooking two or three 8-pound birds.
3. Brine That Turkey.
Brining a turkey adds flavor, and it allows salt and sugar to seep deep into the meat, helping it retain moisture as the bird cooks. You can opt for a basic brine like the one chef Chris Shepherd recommends, which calls for one cup sugar, one cup salt, five gallons of water, and a three-day soak. Or, try something less traditional, like Michael Solomonov’s Mediterranean brine, which includes allspice, black cardamom, and dill seed. One challenge is finding a container big enough to hold a bird and all the liquid. Chef Stephanie Izard of Chicago’s Girl and the Goat recommends using a Styrofoam cooler.
4. Or, Try a Dry Brine.
If the thought of dunking a turkey in five gallons of seasoned water doesn’t appeal to you, a dry brine could be the ticket. It’s essentially a meat rub that you spread over the bird and under the skin. Salt should be the base ingredient, and to that you can add dried herbs, pepper, citrus and other seasonings. Judy Rodgers, a chef at San Francisco’s Zuni Café before her death in 2013, shared this dry rub recipe with apples, rosemary, and sage. In addition to a shorter prep time, chefs say a dry brine makes for crispier skin and a nice, moist interior.
5. Bring the Turkey to Room Temperature First.
Don’t move your bird straight from the fridge to the oven. Let it sit out for two to three hours first. Doing this, according to Aaron London of Al’s Place in San Francisco, lets the bones adjust to room temperature so that when roasted, it "allows the bones to hold heat like little cinder blocks, cooking the turkey from the inside out."
6. Cut Up Your Turkey Before Cooking.
This might sound like sacrilege to traditional cooks and turkey lovers. But chefs insist it’s the only way to cook a full-size bird through and through without drying out the meat. Chef Marc Murphy, owner of Landmarc restaurants in New York, told the Times he roasts the breast and the legs separately, while chef R.B. Quinn prefers to cut his turkeys in half before cooking them. Bobby Flay, meanwhile, strikes a balance: "I roast the meat until the breasts are done, and then cut off the legs and thighs. The breasts can rest, and you can cook off the legs in the drippings left in the pan."
7. Cook the Stuffing on the Side of the Turkey.
Many chefs these days advise against cooking stuffing inside the turkey. The reason? Salmonella. "With the stuffing being in the middle, a lot of blood drips into it and if everything in the middle doesn't come to temperature then you're at risk," chef Charles Gullo told the Chicago Tribune. TV host Alton Brown echoed this advice, and writes that it’s very difficult to bring the stuffing to a safe 165 degrees without overcooking the bird. (You can check out some more tips to prevent food poisoning on Thanksgiving here.)
8. Butter Up That Bird.
No matter if you’ve chosen a dry brine, a wet brine, or no brine at all, turkeys need a helping of butter spread around the outside and under the skin. Thomas Keller, founder of The French Laundry, recommends using clarified butter. "It helps the skin turn extra-crispy without getting scorched," he told Epicurious.
9. Use Two Thermometers.
A quality meat thermometer is a must, chefs say. When you use it, make sure to take the temperature in more than one spot on the bird, checking to see that it’s cooked to at least 165 degrees through and through. Also, says Diane Morgan, author of The New Thanksgiving Table, you should know the temperature of your oven, as a few degrees can make the difference between a well-cooked bird and one that’s over- or under-done.
10. Turn Up the Heat.
If you’ve properly brined your meat, you don't need to worry about high heat sucking the moisture out, chefs say. Keller likes to cook his turkey at a consistent 450 degrees. This allows the bird to cook quickly, and creates a crisp shell of reddish-brown skin. Ruth Reichl, the famed magazine editor and author, seconds this method, but warns that your oven needs to be squeaky clean, otherwise leftover particles could smoke up.
11. Baste Your Turkey—But Don't Overdo It.
Spreading juices over top the turkey would seem to add moisture, no? Not necessarily. According to chef Marc Vogel, basting breaks the caramelized coating that holds moisture in. The more you do it, the more time moisture has to seep out of the turkey. Also, opening the oven releases its heat, and requires several minutes to stabilize afterward. It's not really an either/or prospect, chefs agree. Best to aim somewhere in the middle: Baste every 30 minutes while roasting.
12. Let It Rest.
Allowing a turkey to rest after it’s cooked lets the juices redistribute throughout the meat. Most chefs recommend at least 30 minutes’ rest time. Famed chef and TV personality Gordon Ramsey lets his turkey rest for a couple hours. "It may seem like a long time, but the texture will be improved the longer you leave the turkey to rest," Ramsey told British lifestyle site Good to Know. "Piping hot gravy will restore the heat."