With the number of hotlines, websites, recipes, chat boards, and support groups available, you’d think cooking a Thanksgiving turkey was a task roughly akin to landing an airplane while juggling knives as monkeys throw cigarette butts at your face. It’s not. I swear before the throne of glory, it is one of the easiest things to cook in the world. I once wrote very similar instructions on the back of an envelope for my brother-in-law, and he produced a bird that would have looked at home in Martha Stewart’s house. Trust me; you can do this.
If you go to Food Network’s website or one of the bazillion other more informative, cuisine-specific blogs on the internet, you’ll read all about stuff like brining and barbecuing and how if you’re going to fry your bird, you’ll need 300 gallons of peanut oil and a fireman with a sense of humor. I have nothing but love and respect for those writers, and I’m sure all their information is spot-on correct. But they’re making things hard on themselves and you; they’re cooking exotic gourmet turkey for the kind of discerning palettes that think of nothing of putting truffle oil on popcorn (or people who believe it ain’t food unless you deep fry it). And if you’re that person or want to cook Thanksgiving dinner like that person, by all means, go ahead. Me, I’ve got better things to do.
So here’s how to make a totally basic, totally old-fashioned, roasted Thanksgiving turkey. It is quite juicy (not dry as the briners insist it will be) and flavorful (not bland as the deep fryers would expect). We serve ours with dressing (not stuffing), rice and gravy, cranberry sauce, macaroni pie, green bean casserole, rolls, and way too much dessert. And I defy you to find a better holiday feast.
So here’s what you’ll need:
One turkey, whatever size you need to feed your crowd. I usually get the biggest one I can find. And if it’s frozen, put it in the fridge RIGHT THIS SECOND to thaw – seriously, if you want to eat it for lunch on Thursday, you need to have it thawing in the fridge by mid-afternoon on Sunday at the latest.
2 large onions
2 or 3 stalks of celery
1/2 cup of butter (1 stick)
1 tablespoon of flour
2 tablespoons of poultry seasoning (or 1 & 1/2 tablespoons of dried sage plus a generous sprinkle of parsley, rosemary, and thyme – they were obviously cooking turkeys at Scarborough Faire)
generous sprinkle of salt & pepper
1/2 to 1 cup of water, depending on the size of the turkey. If it’s a small one, 1/2 cup. If it’s the biggest one in the store, 1 cup.
1 browning bag – look on the foil and plastic wrap aisle
1 big roasting pan – if you don’t have one, the disposable foil kind works; just be sure to put it on a cookie sheet so you can pick it up
Here’s how to cook it:
A few days before Thanksgiving: Thaw the turkey in the refrigerator. If you missed this step, you can thaw it in the sink in COLD water in a few hours, but be very careful to wash your hands before and after you handle it. NEVER use warm water. Nothing ruins Black Friday shopping like a family-wide case of the runs.
The day before Thanksgiving: Check and see how much your turkey weighs and read the instructions with your browning bag to see how long it will need to roast. You’re going to want to have it out of the oven at least 45 minutes before you eat, so plan accordingly.
Thanksgiving Day, starting 30 minutes before you need to get the bird in the oven:
Move the oven rack to the lowest position and turn on the oven to 350 degrees to preheat. Put the tablespoon of flour in the browning bag, hold the end closed, shake vigorously to coat the inside of the bag with flour. Put the bag in the roasting pan with the open end facing out.
Put the bird in the sink. Take the wrapper off. Reach inside the body cavity and remove the bag of giblets and the neck. This is the part the lady in that turkey hotline commercial calls putting her hand in the what and pulling out the what-what. (And yes, I laugh every time–she’s awesome.) But it’s not that big a deal. If you can’t bear the notion of putting your hand inside a hollow dead bird, wear rubber gloves. If you can’t stand it even then, eat at Denny’s. Rinse the bird thoroughly with cold water, pat dry with paper towels.
Peel and thickly slice the biggest onion. Arrange the slices on the “floor” of the roaster inside the bag. Wash the celery and lay it on either side of the onions. This makes a kind of baking rack inside the bag.
Smear about 2 tablespoons of the butter on the outside of the bird. Put it in the bag with the legs pointing toward you (so you still have access to the what). Sprinkle your herbs, salt and pepper all over the bird. Peel the other onion and put it and the rest of the butter inside the bird. Pour in the water.
Close up the browning bag with the little twist tie thingie enclosed with it. Tuck the corners into the pan so nothing’s hanging out to possibly catch on the oven rack or the heating element. Cut six slits in the plastic with a sharp knife. (This is the step I always forget until thirty minutes later, aka seconds before the bag explodes all over the oven. Spare yourself the heart attack.)
Put the bird in the oven and wait. Time it by the instructions in your browning bag. Professional chef type people will tell you that you simply must insert a meat thermometer through your bag into the fleshiest part of your bird (between the leg and the thigh or in the thickest part of the breast) without touching bone and cook it to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. I’m sure this is excellent advice. I don’t own a meat thermometer and never have. I time the sucker, and I also have a child’s foolish faith in the little plastic pop-up thermometer with which many birds are already skewered when you buy them. I have never had a turkey be underdone or overdone. Do with that information what you will.
Let it rest for at least half an hour after you take it out of the oven before you move it to a serving platter and slice it. Strain the copious juice left in the roasting pan and use it to make dressing and gravy.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!