Nosh Box: Bidding Big Bird Bye-Bye
To most, the perfectly browned, picturesque turkey presents a bevy of trials.
Detail from Norman Rockwell's "The Thanksgiving Picture."
Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
November reminds us there is no grander exhibit of Americana than Norman Rockwell’s nostalgic 1945 painting, “Thanksgiving.” Showing guests gathered around the holiday table, the centerpiece is a huge, roasted turkey, plated on an oval platter, as the hostess presents it at the table. Once seen, this image imprints in hearts, minds, and psyches. It’s the standard against which Thanksgiving fare forever will be judged.
To most, the perfectly browned, picturesque turkey presents a bevy of trials. These challenges have promulgated how-to articles in local food sections, provided job security to generations of Butterball home economists, and kept phone lines buzzing at 24-hour turkey hotlines.
Cooking Whole Birds Properly
Roasting whole turkeys presents issues. To begin with, a whole bird takes up more space and cooks more slowly when intact. So the first hack is divide and conquer.
Strategy One: Halving the Problem
One simple alternative is to purchase a suitable bird just before Thanksgiving, when loss-leader turkey prices are at their lowest. Then cut the bird in half yourself—or ask your meat cutter. For Thanksgiving, cook the first half, placing it flat on a roasting pan with any optional dressing tucked beneath. This technique not only saves oven space for other dishes but also speeds the cooking time of bird and dressing.
The other half of the bird should be freezer-wrapped and immediately frozen for use about a month later at a Christmas or New Year’s feast.
Strategy Two: Parsing Poultry
Not all parts of a turkey cook at the same rate. Being smaller, wings, tips, drums, and neck cook faster than larger parts. Breast meat overcooks waiting for other parts to reach doneness. Thighs and other dark-meat pieces are more forgiving of extended heat. Should the body cavity be stuffed, food safety mandates cooking the stuffing to at least 140°F, another process that leads to dry breasts.
Let gravity help moisten breasts. Invert the bird for most of the roasting cycle, turning it upright for browning for 15 to 20 minutes at the very end. This process works well with birds 12 pounds or less; not so well with monster trucks of the poultry industry topping 30 pounds or more.
Another highly recommended technique—whether dealing with large gathering and multiple turkeys, or just one bird—first, cut up each bird like an oversized chicken. Then separate the parts into three roasting pans based upon cooking times: small pieces (wings, tips, drums, neck), dark meat, half-breasts.
Operating in the Kitchen
Carving a whole bird tableside is borderline folly. Don’t force a tableful of guests to suffer through your once-a-year knife skills. Disassembling and carving the great bird are best performed behind closed kitchen doors—and before guests arrive.
So consider 86-ing the big bird altogether for other poultry. The easiest choice would be a turkey half-breast, fresh or frozen, which is particularly satisfactory with white-meat lovers. Plus, it’s small and easy to cook.
Diner: I’d like some turkey soup.
Waiter: Sorry, but we’re out of turkey soup.
Diner: OK, then I’ll have chicken soup.
Waiter: If we had chicken soup, we wouldn’t be out of turkey soup.
Moving beyond the 2- to 3-pound fryers that populate poultry cases, the ubiquitous chicken conveniently offers two suitable turkey substitutes. Especially bread and fed, “roaster” chickens average 4 to 6 pounds. Also available by special order, capons are neutered roosters that weigh in at 6 to 10 pounds. Both look like, cook like, and taste like a small turkey.
Other Suitable Fowl
Duck and geese make only slightly smaller turkey substitutes. While popular in other cultures and venues, the learning curve for roasting them in the American kitchens is almost non-existent. So to remain on the safe side, scratch both off your list.
When Cost is No Problem
Prime rib is a traditional—but more costly—centerpiece for the Thanksgiving table, as is chilled and cracked Dungeness crab, a West Coast favorite.
Finally, thumb your nose at the family-table tradition. Gather your guests at a restaurant, where all of the previous poultry challenges are met and mastered by a professional chef—who also offers alternate menu choices.