Friday, November 28, 2008

The Easts Sheet: Maple-Glazed Turkey

This is my third year roasting a turkey, and this was the best so far.

First, I made up a rub of salt and black pepper with some ground sage and marjoram. I rubbed this all over the inside of the cavity, then quartered an onion and and apple and stuffed these into the cavity with a few broken stalks of celery. This gets a good infusion into the meat, and since you don't eat it, you don't have to worry about it getting cooked, like you do with stuffing.

But the real difference was the sweetness. There were two things I did to get some sweetness going: first, I poured about a half cup of apple cider into the bottom of the roasting pan to keep things moist in there; second, I made up a maple butter glaze to baste the bird while it roasted. There glaze is deceptively simple; there are exactly two ingredients: one cup butter, and 1/2 cup maple syrup. I used a dark amber syrup, which is the most common commercially available maple syrup. A lighter syrup would be sweeter, but since turkey is a savory dish to begin with, I liked the earthier flavor of the dark amber.

I melted the butter and the syrup together and poured about half of it over the bird before sticking it in the oven at 325. I then basted with the remaining glaze every 45 minutes or so. I roasted the bird covered, worried that the sugars and the milk solids in the butter might burn. My plan was to take the cover off for the last hour, but I underestimated how quickly it would cook with the cover on. When I took the cover off, the thighs were already registering at 160. So I kept it in for another just 45 minutes. It didn't quite get the browning I wanted, but it still looked very nice. The meat was more done than I prefer, but with a baby in the house, that's probably a good thing.

But even with the meat being a little overdone, even the breast stayed nice and juicy, not like some dried-out Thanksgiving birds. The reason: resting. When the bird comes out of the oven, it can be really tempting to cut into it right then because everybody's hungry. It's better to let it rest. When the meat is hot, all the tasty fat and juices are hot, so when you cut into it, the juices pour out and instantly turn into steam when they hit the air. The result is that they all evaporate the meat is left dry. When you let the bird rest, those juices have time to cool and to absorb back into the meat. Most recipes suggest a 20-25 minute resting time. I think this is way too short. I like to let it sit for at least 30-35 minutes, and I prefer up to an hour if people can wait that long. If the meat is too hot to touch with my fingers, I don't think it's ready to carve.

But everyone prefers a hot meal, not a room temperature one. You might be wondering if it can be appetizing to eat meat that has cooled that much. There are a few ways to tackle this dilemma: First, you can just cover the meat and stick it in a warm oven to gently reheat it. Second, you can cover the meat and just let the residual heat work. But the best option, and one that you can combine with either of the first two, is to get your heat from the gravy, not the meat. Serve up the turkey on a platter, and then just keep your gravy piping hot on the stove until the moment that everyone has sat down and is ready to eat. With some near-boiling gravy, that meat could be room temperature and nobody would care.

Speaking of gravy, that was really the highlight of this recipe. While the meat was good prepared this way, the real kicker was the gravy that came from the drippings this bird produced. I threw some of the apples and onions into the bottom of the roasting pan to infuse the drippings. There were a good 4-6 cups of drippings. I skimmed off the most obvious fat and then reduced the rest of it down to about 2 1/3 to 3 cups. I salted it, peppered it, threw in some tyme. With it still boiling, I added a cup of milk with 3 tablespoons of cornstarch mixed in, and then let it boil until it thickened. The sage, the onion, and the natural saltiness of the turkey fat mingled with the cider and the maple butter for a mellow gravy with just a hint of sweetness. Very good.

Carving technique is another issue. A lot of people like to carve the breast from the bones. That's the traditional way. But the problem is that you end up slicing along the grain of the meat rather than across the grain, leading to more chewy/stringy, and less tender slices. I like to carve the bird like a butcher would: removing the meat in large pieces, keeping muscles as intact as possible, and then slicing those large chunks on a carving board across the grain into small slices. This, I've found, also preserves the juices better. Here's a handy guide to carving.

First, I take off the drumsticks and thighs together, then the wings, and then I go back and get the breast by slicing down as close as possible to the breast bone, and pulling more than slicing to remove the breast. I then slice the drumsticks off the thigh and serve them up without further carving. The thighs I like to debone before carving. You slice along the bone, and then rotate the bone, continuing to slice along it until you can lift it out. Then you have a whole boneless thigh, which slices up much more nicely than a mangles mess of muscle tissue. The wings are usually pretty fatty and with not all that much meat, so I usually just shred the wing meat and mix it up later with some barbeque sauce for sandwiches, nachos, tostados, or whatever.


Cabeza said...

I want to try out your glaze/aromatics technique. Have you ever tried brining a bird? I think it would be good, combined with your rub and the glaze. Though you would have to apply the rub very soon before cooking, so the spices wouldn't have much time to sink in (but they still would while cooking).

I brined last year, but this year I missed the stuffing, so I went back to the old Gillins method. It turned out to be my best solo-stuffed bird yet. But yeah, I'd definitely like to try the glaze method you describe here.

I also appreciate the carving tips. I keep wanting to take a cutlery class at the local Sur La Table ($70).

JKC said...

Brining may be the on the menu for next year. I've considered it before, but it always seems like such a pain, having to find a big vat or cooler or something. So far, I've forgone it each time. But I would like to try the apple cider-based Dinosaur pork chop brine on a turkey some time.

I have to admit, though, that I've never heard of brining and rubbing/basting. I've always heard that brining eliminates the need for any other flavor enhancements.

I missed the stuffing last year, but I didn't miss it this year. We still made stuffing, we just baked it in dishes. You don't get the flavor of the turkey quite as much, but if you pour some gravy on it, it's just as good. I think maybe next year I'll try saving some of the drippings before I make gravy and just mix them in with the stuffing.

The problem with stuffing is that you have to get the stuffing up to 180 degrees to be safe, which means that you have to get the meat up significantly higher than that, which in turn usually means a dried-out breast.