Cooking a turkey, the quintessential, holiday centrepiece, can cause the most expert of chefs to cry “fowl.” Under-cooked, over-cooked, sometimes both at once – cooking a turkey properly is more difficult than just throwing it in the oven and hoping for the best.
To help our readers roast the perfect birds this holiday season, Avenue asked chefs Blair Lebsack and Shane Chartrand for their top turkey tips.
From Farm to Table
When the fresh, wild turkey from Dirt Willy’s Game Farm & Hatchery arrives at Chef Blair Lebsack’s RGE RD restaurant, he inspects the bird carefully to ensure all the bone and skin is intact. “It’s something that when you buy a turkey frozen, you can’t do,” he says.
Next, he prepares the brine. In a giant bucket, he mixes eight litres of hot water with 500 millilitres of salt (roughly four tablespoons for every litre of water) and adds a touch of honey. Setting the bird in the brine, and the bucket in the fridge, he leaves the meat to soak up the moisture for over six hours. “Too often, turkey seasoning stays on the surface,” Lebsack says. “Brining helps it absorb the flavour throughout.”
Lebsack’s Turkey Tips
Careful with your salt!
Don’t add too much salt to the bird during the cooking phase because it will pull the moisture out of the bird, leaving it dry.
Let it rest.
“People fuss too much about timing the bird to be finished cooking exactly as people are gathering to eat,” says Lebsack. He recommends that after the turkey is cooked (use a meat thermometer to tell), let it rest for at least 45 minutes to two hours to further absorb the juices. To retain the heat, cover it with a towel and heavy foil, then forget it as you mash potatoes and stir gravy.
Buy birds with the freedom to roam.
“Turkey breast texture is at its best when you can see what direction the meat is running,” says Lebsack. Turkeys from small farmers that allow their birds space to run tend to always have this. Lebsack recommends trying a bird from Four Whistle Farm or other local, small producers.
Set Tradition Aflame
Shane Chartrand, executive chef of Sage at the River Cree Resort & Casino, isn’t a traditionalist when it comes to holiday dinners. “I enjoy turkey dinner more because of everything else – the gravy, the veg, the buns, the stuffing – than for the turkey,” says Chartrand.
He suggests spicing it up. Add Cajun spice to the marinade or peppercorns and red wine vinegar to the brine. Or, try barbecue sauce as a marinade rub. “There’s nothing wrong with trying something totally out there,” Chartrand says, “because you’ll eat turkey a few times during the season and you can know it will all be exactly the same.”
Chartrand’s Turkey Tips
Cook it low and slow.
Chartrand cooks his birds in a 150 C oven, over more time than generally recommended. He says there is less chance of the bird drying out – meaning far juicier, tastier meat.
Turn that turkey upside down
“I often cook turkeys breast facing down,” says Chartrand. “The juices from the brown meat run down and keep the breast moist.” Because he serves the turkey cut up, it doesn’t matter if some of the breast skin stays with the pan.
Big isn’t always better.
Chartrand recommends choosing smaller turkeys, because a smaller bird is less likely to get overcooked (and dry). “If you need more meat, buy two,” he says.