Yes, I know. Thanksgiving has passed. Humor me and enjoy a peek into how a chef’s mind works!
The day before Thanksgiving, I found Chef at work in the kitchen, butchering a whole turkey. I watched him slice off both legs with clean, confident knife strokes. Next, he removed both breasts and saved the carcass and giblet (the edible innards, including the heart, liver, neck and gizzard).
What on Earth was Chef doing with this poor turkey? Thanksgiving turkeys are always roasted whole, right? At least, that’s the way it’s always been in my family. Oh, I’m so naive.
The answer was simple. Chef was thinking like a chef, not a home cook.
By putting in more work ahead of time, there would be more time to relax, drink and catch up with the family on Thanksgiving Day. Chef’s method was not only efficient, but it would also maximize the turkey’s flavor and texture. As he put it, “It’s the best turkey you’ll ever have.”
Chef then explained to me how he prepares a turkey on Thanksgiving. Be forewarned, things are about to get technical.
After breaking down the bird, Chef brines the breasts in water, salt, brown sugar and aromatics for eight hours (ideally, the night before Thanksgiving). Because it is fairly easy to overcook, turkey can benefit greatly from brining. How exactly does this work? Essentially, the meat absorbs the brine and stays moist while it cooks. In addition, the dissolved salts in the brine break down proteins in the muscle fibers and let moisture inside the meat.
After preparing the brine, Chef coats the legs with a mixture of sea salt and spices, sealed them in a plastic bag and cured them overnight. Practiced since ancient times, curing is a way of preserving meat. (Do you think the Greeks had refrigerators?) During the curing process, salt draws moisture out of the meat. Bacteria need water to thrive, and without it, they die. And without the ability to sustain bacteria growth, the meat cannot spoil.
The final item Chef prepares in advance is the turkey stock. First, he roasts the bones and giblet until well-browned. He places everything in a large pot and adds thyme, bay leaves, black peppercorns and a mixture of carrots, celery and onions (otherwise known as mirepoix). He fills the pot with enough water to cover the ingredients and simmers them for at least four hours. Finally, Chef strains out the liquid and refrigerates it overnight.
On Thanksgiving morning, Chef cooks the cured legs in rendered duck fat (because it’s the tastiest). He stressed cooking the legs slowly at a lower temperature, about 325 degrees. He also roasts the brined breasts for a few hours over sliced onions and thyme. It is very important to let the breasts rest for at least 30 minutes before slicing them.
To make the gravy, Chef thickens the turkey stock with flour and adds a little Dijon mustard and white wine for flavor. Finally, he reheats the legs by crisping the skin in the broiler. Finally, finally, finally – you’re ready to feast.
Chef’s method eliminates the risk of an overcooked, dry turkey. Even better, no part of the bird goes to waste (a huge plus in a restaurant).
Although I think Chef’s way is brilliant, I’m not sure it’s entirely realistic in a home kitchen. Don’t tell him I said this, but I think roasting the turkey whole and carving it the traditional way is probably easier in the long run. Even so, I would love to give it a try. I’ll shoot for next year.
Actually, I did not cook at all this year. I worked the day before and after Thanksgiving, so I wasn’t able to go home to Charlotte, North Carolina. My family visited me, and we decided to dine out on Thanksgiving.
We chose 1789, a Georgetown institution. With my newly gained perspective on cooking turkey, I was excited to see Chef’s philosophy reflected on 1789’s Thanksgiving Day menu. Stay tuned for my review of the meal in my next post.
Image borrowed from http://nymag.com/nymetro/food/homeent/14995/
(And of course, Chef John Manolatos himself)