Just before Christmas, I received a bonus at work! I walked into the lobby where the envelopes were being handed out to employees, and I stepped into my designated area: a line corresponding to the first letter of my last name. I anxiously awaited the prize. I stepped up and received the efflugent envelope with a smile as if holding Willy Wonka’s last golden ticket. Passing the security guard on the way out, I clasped the envelope tightly and gave a nod as if saying, “Good job. Keep up the good work.” I could hardly stand the wait of the elevator ride back down to my department’s floor. The doors opened, and not a soul was in sight. I felt safe to open the envelope and lay my eyes on this year’s Christmas surprise. I took out a pocket knife and carefully made a slit in the end; making sure not to damage anything inside. I squeezed the envelope just enough to slide a finger and thumb over the edge of the slip inside. I slowly pulled it out, and, as if scratching the last place on a lottery ticket, I took a hopeful breath, wondering what this Christmas would have in store. My eyes widened; pupils dilated. Then, I exhaled as if my last breath had just left me. And, in an instant, I had turned into Clark Griswold; madly shouting through the halls, “What?! A frozen turkey?! That’s it? The big announcment, the beefed up security, all for a frozen turkey? How am I gonna buy my kids a brand new pair of shoes – with a certificate for a frozen turkey?! Oh, wait…there’s more…and a “free package of brown and serve rolls,” it says. yippee.”
OK, ok…I wasn’t REALLY upset, and no, my kids don’t need new shoes. Truth-be-told, between us and all the grandparents, (God, love ‘em), they’re spoiled rotten. And, actually, I was glad to get anything at all as a gift. It was unexpected, and I was thankful. (I DID, however, find it quite funny to see the security guards.)
So, a frozen turkey, eh? I didn’t even try to hide the fact that I had no idea what I was going to do with a frozen turkey. Well, ok, of course I knew that I’d go claim it. And, of course, I knew that I’d cook it, and, with any luck, eat it. It’s just…I had never dealt with a frozen turkey before. A few years ago, Sara and I somehow managed to cook a turkey at home, but I think she did most of the work, and I can’t even recall how it was prepared. I just remember putting it in the oven and checking the temperature for doneness. And, surprisingly, It came out pretty well. But a big, hard-as-a-rock, frozen bird seemed to be a different story to me. Some research was needed.
I recently roasted a whole chicken, and it turned out well (more on that here). So, I knew it could be done with a turkey. But, this was a little different; it’s a much larger bird, it’s frozen solid, and it HAS to be good enough for a holiday feast. The pressure was on.
As I sat in front of my computer scratching my head, trying to think of where to start to develope a plan, curiosity crept in, and I found myself digging up some info on the bird at hand. First, I was intrigued to find that the native American bird got it’s name due to a little mixup by the early european settlers when they came across it. Long-story-short, it was apparently, incorrectly identified as a type of native AFRICAN bird ”known as [a] turkey fowl (or turkey hen and turkey cock) due to the birds’ importation to Central Europe through Turkey.”(Wikipedia) Hence, the name. “Well, that’s good to know,” I thought, “but it ain’t gonna help me cook it. Gotta get back on track.”
Then, as my turkey trot continued, I got to thinking about how a certain idea gets thrown around a lot. I think it’s even become almost a sort of…cliche’. Around Thanksgiving and Christmas, you will, inevitibly hear someone utter something to the tune of, ”Boy, that was a good meal. Now I’m ready for a nap; must be the turkey. You know turkey makes you sleepy.” I’ve heard this a thousand times, and I’ve always been a little suspect, but never really cared long enough to see if there’s even any truth to it. So, is there?
To be brief, not really. It stems from the fact that turkey, like many other meats, contains something called Tryptophan: an amino acid that the body uses in a multi-step process to regulate sleep. But, as Christopher Wanjek from www.livescience.com puts it,
Turkey gets singled out for no other reason than being eaten during the biggest meal of the year.
In essence, big meals with any food containing tryptophan can cause sleepiness. The real culprits are all those carbohydrates from potatoes, stuffing, vegetables, bread and pie. The massive intake of carb-heavy calories stimulates the release of insulin, which in turn triggers the uptake of most amino acids from the blood into the muscles except for tryptophan.
With other amino acids swept out of the bloodstream, tryptophan—from turkey or ham or any meat or cheese, for that matter—can better make its way to the brain to produce serotonin. Without that insulin surge, tryptophan would have to compete with all the other kinds of amino acids in the big meal as they make their way to the brain via a common chemical transport route. And not enough tryptophan would make it to the brain because other basic amino acids are far more plentiful in food
So, there you have it. Eat all the turkey you can stand, and leave out the high carb stuff, and you might eliminate the need for that nap. Well, Maybe not.
“Good to know, ” I thought to myself again. ”But that’s not gonna help me cook it either! Get back on track, Morrison!” I soon self-scolded.
Obviously, the first question to ask was this: How do I thaw this thing? It made sense to just put it in the fridge to thaw; but for how long? The answer was easily found via google, and it seemed that all respectable sites concurred: 24 hrs for each 5 lbs. I had a 15 lb bird, so…doing a little math, I murmured, “Let’s see…5 pounds times 24 hours…divided by the square root…times pi…yada…yada…carry the one…OH, ok…3 days. Wow, 3 days? Really? Well, that’ll work.” I did, however, find that if 3 days in the fridge seem too long for you, you can also just thaw it in cold water for about an hour and a half. I feel that it’s also important to repeat a recurring order from the whitecoats by adding this: NEVER thaw a frozen turkey at room temperature! This makes sense to me. The turkey will start to thaw, and while the still frozen sections continue to thaw, the thawed sections, coming up to room temperature, will be more susceptible to bacterial infestation. Yuk!
Once the turkey was thawed, I geared up into flavor-enhancing mode. I had heard from several sources that brining a turkey is the key to success. So, I decided to go all out and make a brine. I had already studied up a little on brining (more on that here if you’re interested), So I had a good idea of the process. I only needed to find a large enough vessel to house the brine and the bird. I dug through the shed and found the perfect thing: an old plastic cooler that was just the right size. I thought I had remembered seeing Alton Brown use something similar, but didn’t really feel like looking it up, honestly. I knew that the turkey had to stay cold, and the insulated cooler would be perfect for that. I added the brine to the cooler:
1 1/2 gallons of filtered water
1/2 gallon of ice
1 cup salt
1 cup brown sugar
2 Tbls dried sage
2 Tbls dried thyme
2 Tbls dried rosemary
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 Tbls black pepper
Then, I added the thawed bird to the brine and closed the lid. I put the cooler under the counter and let the brine do its thing overnight; only opening it occasionally to monitor the temperature. It stayed at a safe 36-38 degrees.
Considering that I was told that it would take anywhere from 4 to 5 hours to cook, I started the cooking process early the next morning. I took the turkey out of the cooler, and I could tell a slight difference in that it was obviously a little “plumper” I assumed that was normal, and I scratched my head as I wondered how to prepare it for cooking.
I remembered seeing a few people stuff a mix of stuff under the skin to enhance the flavor and texture, so I decided to do the same. I made a mixture of butter, homegrown, dried sage from Sara’s mother’s garden, salt, and pepper, and stuffed it under the skin. It looked good except for the fact that I tore the skin on one side a little with my big, burly, man hands. Guess I’ll have to either be more careful or have Sara do it next time.
I wanted a good presentation, so I asked Sara to hand me the butcher’s twine. I stood there looking more confused than – well – than a turkey. I tried a couple of times to wrap it up with the twine, only to ask sara to get online to look up a good twine tutorial. We ended up, go figure, on a clip from Good Eats. I would watch the clip, then proceed, only to tear off the twine and repeat. I’m a little embarrassed to say, it took me about 3 trys just to tie up a dead turkey.
Anyway, I finally got it tied up and looking nice, and I placed it in the oven (preheated to 325). Occasionally, I took a spoonful of chicken stock and poured it over the turkey while cooking. It cooked for about 2 1/2 hrs, and I checked the temperature with this new, handy dandy “Food Network” thermometer/timer thingy (because my insta-read thermometer went missing. We’ll probably find it at the bottom of a toy chest in the kids’ room a year from now.) It was around 150 already. That seemed too quick, and I began to doubt my thermometer…again. Long-story-short, I had had the thermometer for a while stuck in a drawer because I had already suspected that it was highly inacurate from my previous attempts at figuring it out. But, I did acknowledge that I could have just been using it wrong. So, I decided to give it another shot with the turkey. I was still in doubt, and had no choice but to go out and buy another simple, cheap, RELIABLE meat thermometer. My fear was verified when it consitently read 10 whole degrees lower! What’s the deal?! I paid like 40 bucks for the “fancy schmancy” one! I digress.
Once the turkey reached 170 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh, I took it out and placed some foil over it and let it rest for several minutes befor cutting. It certainly looked and smelled great. Time would only tell if it was worth all the effort.
The skin that was slightly torn on one side was a bit drier, and the sage under the skin made it look like it had little burnt places. But it was perfectly presentable. However, I decided to go ahead and cut all the meat off and serve it up with all the other “fixins” on the table for easy access. The meat seemed moist as I was cutting it. I tried a bite, and…it tasted VERY good! And, that was all that mattered. VICTORY!
Did the brine do the trick? I think so. It was certainly a little salty, and it didn’t seem quite as dried out as turkey I’d had in the past. However, I think in all my thermometer testing and switching mayhem, I might have juuuust slightly overcooked it. The fancy thermometer read 180, and “el cheapo” read 170. Perhaps it was right in between. Either way, it still came out very well, and I was one pleased dinner dasher! And, most of all, we had a Christmas feast to remember.
(More photos! Click to enlarge)
1 - Easy with the lumberjack hands under turkey skin.
2 – Don’t trust some “high-falootin’”, high dollar thing just because it says “Food Network” on it.
3 – Any bonus is a good bonus; even if…I mean ESPECIALLY if it’s a frozen turkey (and a package of brown and serve rolls. And, oh yeah – we used ‘em).