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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Best Turkey Ever

Sure, it's boastful.  

But when I tell you what I did to this turkey, you will see that I'm probably right.

A little back-story here, first though.

I grew up with some pretty dry and overcooked birds, and I always thought that was the way they were supposed to be.  Don't get me wrong; an overcooked chicken or turkey can still be OK, especially if you've got some delicious gravy handy.

But, as with most of my culinary spatterings, I would learn through research and experimentation a better way of doing it.

I have always been an adequate fowl-roaster.  I learned quickly that the biggest thing that every roaster needs is a freaking meat thermometer.  I don't know who these people are trying to impress by 'winging' it (heh heh heh pun intended)... GET A THERMOMETER PEOPLE.
It's not hard.  We're talking about bacteria that can not survive in temperatures above a certain level.  (With fowl, we're talking roughly 185° Fahrenheit.) People always get confused by this, and that, in turn, confuses me. When I explain to people that they are still consuming these harmful bacteria, but that it's OK because the bacteria is dead... well, no one seems to really enjoy that thought.  But there it is. It's not rocket science.  Actually, it's microbiology. :)
Anyway... to be an adequate roaster, one needs only three things.

Firstly, one arms oneself with a meat thermometer (and the knowledge of how to use it properly).

Secondly, one enforces the simple rule of cooking slowly over low heat.  Another concept which I find confuses a lot of people.  Think about it, if your meat needs to reach only 185°F to be safe, then your roasting temperature really only needs to be 185°F.  I mean, that's a little ridiculous, and I don't even want to know how long that would take at that low of a temperature, but you get my point, right?  Myself, I typically roast between 200°F and 225°F.

The third thing one needs to be an adequate roaster, is a general understanding (and appreciation for) the Maillard reaction.  Simply put: searing.

Louis-Camille Maillard was a French (obvs) chemist who first discovered the browning of proteins when they are heated above a certain temperature (~310°F).  If you're interested in the Maillard reaction, how it works, and how it differs from a similar process, caramelization, check out the wikipedia article.
Browning meat has been thought for millennia to 'seal-in' internal juices... it should be noted, however, that recently this notion has come under serious scrutiny.  Many people nowadays believe it does not 'seal' anything... and truthfully... it doesn't.  I mean... 'sealing' implies a watertight, impermeable barrier... and nothing can do that... at least nothing you'd want to eat afterwards.

Now... that said... there IS another reason to sear meat, and it is perhaps (in my mind, it is most assuredly) more important.  FLAVOUR!  Yup, that delicious brown crust holds so much yum-factor it's scary.  So do it for the flavour, people, and stop worrying about if you lost a little bit of moisture.

Now THAT said... you DO want to conserve moisture.  For the Maillard reaction to happen at all we are talking about searing in dry heat.  Anything other than dry heat will NOT incur browning.  So, this means that some moisture will be lost.  It's inevitable.  So what we can do is try to mitigate this, possibly even re-infuse moisture after the searing has been done (the whole point of basting).

And this is what elevates one beyond being simply an adequate roaster, more to the realm of a good roaster. Not basting, (I do not baste)... but conserving moisture.

So let's talk a bit, about the things I've learned which have helped my fowl roasting evolve over the years.  Honestly, though, these tips apply to ANY sort of meat roasting.

  1. Prep.  From a dry rub to a salt brine to a juicy marinade, you can get the meat to absorb some serious flavour (and even some moisture) before you even start.  This latest iteration I did something special to prepare the turkey, and I will go into that later.
  2. Room temperature meat.  Please do not put your bird in the oven straight out of the fridge!  Let her acclimate.  She's about to undergo an (arguably) very stressful ordeal after all.  Give her some time to relax and smoke that last cigarette.
  3. High temperature dry searing.  Let the oven get to like 475°F or 500°F, and then put the bird in the middle of the oven, un-covered.  The more surface area you can expose at this point, the better.  Those roaster cages that fit inside of roasting pans work well for this, just make sure there is nothing in there (including inside the bird itself) but the bird.  Sear for 5-10 minutes, or until the skin is nice and brown.  There are a few tricks you can do to facilitate this browning, like what I did this last time, which I will go into soon.
  4. Adding moisture.  Once you've seared the meat, you can add as much liquid as you like.  In fact if you want to BRAISE your meat (which is absolutely delicious, BTW) you would top up your pan so as to practically submerse the meat.  Braising creates some of the most succulent meat ever.  Admittedly, this would be more applicable to pork or beef (lookin' at you short ribs!)... I suppose there would be nothing stopping you from braising turkey though... but typically braising is more for cheaper quality (i.e. tougher) meat.  Myself, I don't like roast chicken or turkey to physically touch the liquid, so what I do is add some stock to the bottom of the pan, along with a tonne of root vegetables.  Again, for this go around, I had a special trick up my sleeve, which I will reveal soon!
  5. Slow cooking over low heat.  This is the most important part, is so simple, yet seems to be the part with which most people have the biggest problem.  Like I said, I like to go around 200°F, and then it takes at least a couple hours, depending on the size of your bird of course.  I really don't like to entertain 'adages' or 'rules of thumb' when it comes to how long your roast should be roasting.  I have a meat thermometer which completely takes the guess work OUT of the equation.  I have the kind that you can even just leave in and it will sound an alarm when your desired temperature is reached.  If you don't use meat thermometers for your roast, I can only beg so much for you to start.  It really is the most important thing, in my opinion.
  6. Maintaining moisture. You can baste if you want to.  Myself, I've always thought it rather tedious and time-consuming.  I mean what is happening to the roast while you have the oven open this whole time?  I prefer to do a couple of other tricks.  Firstly, once your meat has browned nicely, there's no reason why you couldn't cover it.  Obviously with large meats like turkey, you can't fit a roaster lid on top,  If you are lucky enough to have a huge roasting pan complete with huge fitted lid, AND your oven is large enough to accommodate it, then by all means do that.  However, for most of us, a tent of aluminium foil works just fine.  If you want it to be really moist, you can do more than a tent even, it's up to you. Secondly, you can always just add another layer of moisture to the meat.  Whether you're brushing on some stock, or smearing on some butter, it WILL help keep the roast moist.  Thirdly, if we're talking about fowl, you can fill the innards with something moist.  Many people love to cook their stuffing in there, but myself I prefer to do stuffing separate.  Mostly this is because it's less messy, but it also allows for me to do something cool and put a fruit or vegetable in there instead.  I'm sure you've all tried the orange or lemon thing in there.  Poke some holes in the peel and that piece of citrus (even grapefruit works quite well!) is giving off nice moisture throughout the whole roasting time.  However... my favourite thing is a nice big white onion.  Also quite moist.  A big fennel bulb also works excellently.  When you're done you have a delightfully roasted veggie as well!  Yum!
  7. Accurate timing.  Did I mention that having a meat thermometer is important?  Well it is.  And checking it often as the roast nears completion is huge.  You'll actually want to take it out a few degrees BEFORE your desired temperature, as it really will keep cooking for a few minutes after you take it out.  If you're worried about it though, and if you've made sure to adhere to all of these rules beforehand, it should be OK to let it go over the safe temperature by a couple degrees.  Once you take out your roast, immediately plate it and keep it covered (either with your lid or with your aluminium foil tent), and it really is important to let it relax for at least five or ten minutes before carving.  The reason is you want the tissues to re-absorb the juices.  When it is cooking, the meat is in the process of spurting those juices out, so when you let it cool down a bit, it gives the meat a chance to suck some of that liquid back in.  Besides, you're going to want at least a few minutes to whip up a GRAVY with the pan drippings, right?  
Anyway.  That's good technique.  And it's not hard.  You just have to be diligent and watchful.

And, that's the way I roast most everything.

However, this year, as a special treat for Christmas, I went ALL OUT.  And I have my local butcher shop to thank for it, Roast Fine Foods.  

I have been so thankful that this place has opened in our neighbourhood.  Even when we don't really eat meat all that often these days.  It's such a cool place, and even if you're not close by, it's totally worth the trip!  Great place, friendly (and knowledgeable) staff.  Amazing quality meats, but they also have a good selection of other foods and condiments.

Firstly we bought an amazing turkey.  We placed an order in advance, and got the local, organic, free-run, palm-frond-fanned by nubile poults kind of turkey.  I won't even tell you how awesome this was, and for those of you who think it doesn't matter, and every year go grab a butterball from the freezer section... well, it really does matter.

Secondly, and here is the special trick up my sleeve of which I alluded to several times above... turkey stock and duck fat.  Everyone knows that you can smear anything with duck fat and it will please even the most discerning French artisanal chef.  Well, pretty close anyway.

So, yah, that was my secret this year.

The thing was, I had wanted to try a technique called 'dry brining'.

Ever since my father-in-law taught me how to brine a turkey (and the deliciousness that can result from this), I've done it every year, without fail.  However, this year, I read about DRY brining, and was intrigued.

Basically, the idea is that for two to three days prior to roasting, you apply a salt rub (with some herbs if you like) directly to the meat (under the skin).  This was a little tricky, but it worked well.  I made a couple surgical incisions near each drumstick, and was able to reach pretty much everywhere.  The skin was surprisingly resilient; I expected it to tear, but it didn't.  The notion of why a dry brine "works" is that the salt, when applied directly to the meat, at first leeches the juices OUT of the tissues, where it mixes with the herbs and salt, but then... guess what happens... it gets sucked back IN to the meat.  WITH those herbs and seasonings. Pretty cool, right?

Now... what I did was technically not a dry brine, but a duck fat brine.

Heh heh heh heh.


I took a generous amount of nice sel gris, added some freshly chopped thyme and a dash of freshly ground tellicherry peppercorns, and basically just stirred all that into my small cup of duck fat.  Then I worked that in under the turkey's skin three times over the course of three nights.

I made sure to have just enough left over for the actual roasting time, for step 6) above, wherein I would brush on a fresh layer of this duck fat mixture periodically while it was roasting.  Incidentally, rubbing fat on the skin while roasting, made the skin look absolutely amazing.  Like photo-shoot-for-a-cooking-magazine-amazing.

So, yah.

I wasn't going to write about this, as I didn't have my camera and I was away from home.  This was done at home, and then transported in the car for a three-hour journey where it was roasted at my Mother-in-law's house.

But, it turned out SO well.  I mean, I can say without exaggeration that it was the best turkey I have ever had.  It really shouldn't be a surprise, considering how much effort (and money) went into its creation... but in any case, it was absolutely superb.

I admit that, at first, I had considered duck fat to be cheating, but then realized that no one cares.  It really is just all about the END result, after all.  And this was literally awesome.

I DID take a couple of photos with my phone camera... so they're not great... but if you look closely you can see just how succulent this Christmas' turkey was!