How To Cook A Turkey

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First, consider cooking something other than a turkey

Cooking turkey is actually kind of a dumb idea. Most people don’t ever cook turkey. Turkey is like chicken … it’s a domestic bird that is familiar to all Americans … but it is very difficult to cook in a way that does not ruin it. So once a year, you cook this huge bird and try not to ruin it, and invite everybody that is important to you over to see if it worked.

As a result of this the truth is that many people have never had good turkey. They’ve only had ruined turkey. And for each of these people, what they think turkey tastes like is unique to the particular way their family’s turkey cooker learned to ruin the turkey every year.

How to cook a turkey

… you might as well try doing it the most difficult way possible. But before considering that, try this idea on for size: Cook more than one a year and use different methods to see how it turns out! (Jeesh, you’d think this would be obvious.)

This isn’t the only way, but it is a good way. It is also the hardest way that I’ve done it.

My daughter, Julia, is named after two people. One of them is Julia Child. I happen to think Julia Child has had more influence on American society than most other people, by helping to make varied and interesting cuisine part of American culture.

One day when Julia was a very young child (my Julia, not Julia Child), I was out walking her in her carriage. I turned the corner around the Van Serg Building on the Harvard Campus and practically ran into Julia Child, who was walking in the other direction on her daily constitutional.

“Oh, what a cute child,” she said. (And she was a cute child, I assure you.) “What’s her name.”

Well, that was an interesting conversation…..

Anyway, I want to suggest that you use a recipe invented by Julia Child for cooking your Thanksgiving Turkey this year. It is called “Laid Back Turkey.” It is, in my view, the best possible way to cook a turkey.

But it is not for the faint of heart….

Laid Back Turkey a la Julia Child

You can find more specific instructions in The Way to Cook by Julia Child. Julia made this on her show once, so somewhere out there is a video of this process. Here, I’ll just give you the basic idea. If you are the kind of person to even try this, the you are also surely willing to experiment and take some chances. All you should really need is the basic theory. If you are the kind of cook who prefers specific instructions and actually follows recipes, then hang up now…

The first thing you need to do is to remove all but a few of the bones from the bird.

Lay the uncooked turkey on it’s front. Slice down to the bone along the spine. Use this slit as the starting point to expose the entire skeleton, working your way around the rib cage, etc., all of which you will remove except for the wing bones and the distal leg bones. Cut through the wing and leg joints at this point in order to free the “outer” part of the bird from the main skeleton.

Caution: As you work your way around to the front … to the breastbone … your chances of cutting through the skin increases. Don’t do this.

When you’ve got the skeleton out of the turkey, lay the deboned bird on it’s front, exposed flesh facing up, and brush the livid tissue with an appropriate oil based marinade. I recommend half grape seed oil and half olive oil with lots of thyme, some black pepper, and a little salt.

In the meantime, make a huge pile of stuffing. Put this pile on a flat pan with very low sides big enough to hold the turkey. You are going to lay the turkey on this pile later. If possible, put the stuffing on a cookie sheet that, in turn, fits into a large low-sided baking pan. You can even fashion the pan from aluminum foil or from those disposable pans you get in the spice and cooking supply aisle of your basic grocery store. You’ll see later why this method … the cookie sheet set into a crushable aluminum foil pan … is useful.

Now, back to the turkey. You’ve got the exposed flesh facing up, and you’ve put it on some kind of a pan, temporarily. Fire up the broiler and slide the bird in there. Watch it closely. You want to brown the exposed flesh and hopefully get it cooked a quarter to a half inch deep. The more cooking at this stage, without burning, the better.

Now, take the large, floppy bird that is now covered with hot oil (so be careful!) and lay it flesh side down over the big pile of stuffing. Manipulate the corpse to make it look like nothing’s happened, like it is supposed to be this way. Brush the skin, which is now facing up, with your favorite substance for these purposes. I recommend coating the skin with oil and sprinkling copious amounts of dried green spice (thyme and basil … avoid oregano) for this purpose.

Put this in the oven and cook until done. It will take a fraction of the time that a “normal” turkey will take. It is also a good idea to make sure the stuffing is not cold … in fact, it could be heated up in advance .. when you put the turkey on there. You want to avoid partly cooking bird-meat, cooling it down, then cooking it again. Makes it a bit rubbery.

Now, here comes the fun part.

When the bird is done, wrangle it onto a huge cutting board, big enough to hold this laid back bird. This is where the cookie sheet inside the big pan is helpful. You could poke a hole in the pan and drain it into a bowl sitting in the sink, then cut away one side of the pan, and then use this fenestration to slide the bird-bearing cookie sheet out of what is now a scrap aluminum mess. To cut the turkey properly, slide it off the cookie sheet onto a huge cutting board. Have a mop handy. Might be good to wear rubber boots with a good tread, as the floor tends to get slippery at this stage.

Get a whopping big knife, which you have sharpened, the biggest spatula you have (maybe two) and possibly something large and flat and metal like a cookie sheet cut in half down the long axis. Maybe a flattened hubcap. Whatever you’ve got that is big and flat and thin.

Having an assistant help you with this step is a good idea, if it is someone you work well with.

Get the plates ready … the plates you will be serving dinner on.

Cut the laid back turkey right down the middle, the long way, in half. Using large flat devices, separate the two halves by a couple of inches.

Now, cut a slice about a third of an inch from this freshly exposed cut … so you are cutting a saggital section from near the midline of the bird. Use your flat devices to keep this slice from falling apart, angle it onto the flat surface, and move it over to one of the plates. Now, carefully slide this big slice onto a plate. You will probably have to curve the ends in to make it fit on the plate.

Now, look at what you’ve done. You have a slice of white meat and a slice of dark meat, nestled along side a slice of stuffing, all in one glorious unit. Because both forms of meat will cook much more nicely with this method than the usual ways of cooking turkey, your guests will enjoy both even if they’ve come to the table with preconceptions about their preference for dark vs. light meat.

Repeat this slicing operation, working from both halves of the turkey. As you work your way laterally, make the slices a bit thicker if you want all of the servings to be similar in total mass.

If the slicing procedure does not work well, don’t worry. Just cut the bird up and serve as normal. The flavor will be far superior to any other method you’ve ever tried, and the meat will be moister and tastier.

An interesting variation of Laid Back Turkey is Laid Back Flock. Here, you get a few birds, like a few of Cornish game hens, two big chickens, and a medium sized turkey. You totally fillet the smaller birds (cut off the wings and the distal legs and get rid of the skin) and arrange them over the giant pile of stuffing, and cover them all with the turkey. This can produce astounding results.

The frame of the turkey can be used for stock. Also, don’t forget to make some excellent gravy to go on this dish.

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7 thoughts on “How To Cook A Turkey

  1. Duh!

    Or you can do the entirely brainiac thing and cook the turkey upside-down! Yup! That simple.

    Place the breast on the bottom in a roasting pan appropriately sized so that the moisture is contained around the bird while roasting.
    As the water and fat are released from the areas of higher myoglobin, (the dark meat), they run into the less fatty proteins of the breast, adding loads of flavor…..AND more importantly, moisture!
    Cooking need not be rocket science! Prep time to avoid ever running afowl (sic) again?
    As much time as it takes you to remove the bird from it’s wrapper, remove the packaged organs from the abdominal cavity, toss it ,breast-side-down,in the roasting pan, slap the lid on, and put it in the oven!
    Your baking time is contingent on the weight of the bird, and the patience you have to wait until it is done. Meaning, you can set the oven temperature at 250 degrees Fahrenheit, and wait all day, or set the temperature a 450 for the first two hours then turn it down for the time it takes for all juices are running clear, and the meat is easily separated from the bone.
    Got more time? You can stuff it first, OR, now you have plenty of relaxed prep time for the rest of the meal!

  2. The best turkey I ever cooked was a 12-lb bird, unstuffed, cooked over indirect heat on a charcoal barbecue using mesquite charcoal (never briquets!)

  3. I brine mine for 12 hours, and then cook it upside down. I use a meat thermometer to let me know when it is optimally cooked. My turkeys are famously juicy! 🙂

  4. Interesting technique Greg – I would suggest to anyone wanting to try it that you need to have a very (!) sharp and quite flexible boning knife to accomplish this without tearing the skin. Another technique after boning is to roll the the turkey (duck, chicken etc) into a log, tie with butchers twine and roast

  5. The deboning portion is also the method used in making a turducken. My dad once made one from scratch; it was heavenly, but really too much work to do often. Or even more than once. 😉
    1) Using the process described above, debone a turkey. For aesthetic reasons, retain wings and drumsticks.
    2) Remove wings and legs from a duck. Set them aside to cook separately, or discard. Debone completely. Skin can be kept or discarded depending on preference; it will not be getting crispy, however, so I recommend removing it. (If there is lots of fat, this skin can have other excellent uses.)
    3) Remove wings and legs from a chicken. Set them aside to cook separately, or discard. Debone completely. Skin can be kept or discarded depending on preference.
    4) Lay the turkey, skin down, on top of some long, precut sections of butcher’s twine. Spread a thin layer of stuffing across it.
    5) Lay the duck down on top of that, in a similar attitude. Spread a thin layer of stuffing across it.
    6) Lay the chicken down on top of that, again in the same orientation, and put the remainder of your stuffing on that.
    7) With assistance, roll this whole mess up and truss it tightly.
    8) Bake as a roast.

    It’s delicious, but very very fussy. I might try this method of cooking a turkey, though. Not this Thanksgiving, though; I’m gonna be short on time, and will be going with the upside-down and otherwise cook normally method.

  6. By the way, I have a very interesting (or at least I think so) post coming out tomorrow AM on 10,000 birds on the first thanksgiving vis-a-vis turkeys.

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