You know I’m not an on-top-of-everything blogger by the fact that my Thanksgiving dinner post is coming after Thanksgiving instead of a week or two before. Thank goodness for the professionals like Mike Vrobel at Dad Cooks Dinner and J Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats who come out with recipes and suggestions allowing the rest of us to plan. Here is my after-the-day summary that you (or I) might find useful next year.
We’ve had over 20 people for Thanksgiving in the past but this year was a small by comparison – just 8 people. Small or large there are certain must-haves: turkey, gravy, dressing.I’ve had problem in the past getting the turkey to cook evenly; that big whole in the middle doesn’t heat up quickly enough leaving the inner part of the breast under the target temperature. Spatchcocking (cutting out the backbone and flattening) the turkey fixes that problem.Spatchcocked turkeys also cook much faster. I’ve been thinking about spatchcocking a turkey for a couple of years now and this was the year I finally moved from thinking to doing. I used a 12 pound 4 ounce Butterball turkey. If you need more turkey, I recommend using two smaller ones (like this 12 pounder). They lie flat and can easily both fit in the oven.
Using Serious Eats’ guide I put the turkey breast down and cut out the backbone; then flipped it over, cut out the wishbone and pushed down – hard – to break the breast bone and lay it flat. It just barely fits on a half sheet. In for a penny, in for a pound; I bought into the Serious Eats recipe and dry-brined the turkey by sprinkling a blend of kosher salt and baking powder on both sides of the turkey and stored it in the refrigerator for 24 hours before cooking.
Cutting out the backbone of a 4 pound chicken is pretty straight forward; cutting out the backbone of a turkey requires a stout pair of kitchen or poultry shears and a firm grip. I had planned ahead enough to buy the Kuhn-Rikon shears that J Kenji Lopez-Alt recommends. But I’m glad I had by older Good Grips shears; the extra leverage was useful in cutting through the thicker rib bones. The Kuhn-Rikon shears would have worked but the Good Grips were better despite not being reversible.
One note about this method. If you dry-brine your turkey you aren’t going to get much in the way of drippings so it is important to have another plan for gravy. One great option is America’s Test Kitchen all purpose gravy recipe. When I make this I use home made chicken stock instead of a mix of canned chicken and beef stock – because it’s better. My quick-look copy can be found here.
This year I didn’t take that route; in another personal first, I used the neck and backbone to make turkey stock for my turkey gravy – another part of the Serious Eats recipe I followed. I chopped the turkey bits into large pieces and browned in a sauce pan, then added some carrots, onions, and celery.
Then I added some homemade chicken stock, thyme, and a bit of salt and simmered for 45 minutes.
After 45 minutes the stock was dark and intense (see the photo farther down).
Then I rested until Thanksgiving the next afternoon. Dinner was scheduled for 5:00 – 5:30 so I didn’t have much to do in the morning other than watch football. Or that was the plan; one of Carla’s sister ended up sick. She was going to bring the dressing – no worries I rushed out to Albertsons to pick up the ingredients. I used to chuckle at the people grocery shopping on Thanksgiving – no more. The guy in line in front of me was set to have dinner at his son’s house; but the son ended up in the hospital the night before. The woman behind me just got off a double shift at work. Life happens. I thanked the folks working for being there.
Luckily I found 1 1/2 pounds of day-old pre-sliced baguettes . That would save me some work. We had most everything else on hand. Good thing I went wild making chicken stock the previous weekend; this recipe requires just shy of a quart. I used a 2013 Cooks Country recipe I clipped but have never used – today was the day.
After cutting the bread into 1/2 inch pieces I spread them on a baking sheet and lightly toasted in a 450° oven for about 15 minutes, tossing a couple of times. Then let it completely cool before taking the next step. I used that time to a build a quick spreadsheet to time when the turkey, gravy, and stuffing had to start in order to all be done at 5:00. When that was done I felt I was on top of things – more or less.
With spreadsheet in hand I spread chopped carrots, celery and onion under the wire rack the turkey sat on and inserted a temperature probe in the thickest part of the breast. I estimated 90 minutes of cooking time – about half the time a non-spatchcocked (I love that word) turkey.
Then the toasted bread chunks were cool so I turned back to the stuffing. I mixed the bread pieces with a mixture of beaten eggs and chicken stock.
I sautéd onion and celery in butter until it started to brown. Then I was supposed to toss in thyme, garlic, and salt for 30 seconds. Rookie mistake: I got excited, missed that step and tossed the unseasoned vegetables in with the bread cubes. I didn’t want to put in raw garlic, so I carefully tossed in some of the thyme and salt. Melt some more butter in the pan and press the bread/vegetable mixture in the skillet and cook for a while to crisp the bottom.
At this point I was a bit ahead of schedule but the guests had been held up for various reasons. The dressing would have been best if put directly in the oven but I held it back for a bit. The turkey was done right at 90 minutes so it went on the cutting board. I was pretty happy with it – certainly the best looking turkey I’ve cooked.The dry brining and use of baking powder makes a very, very crispy skin. And it turned out to be very easy to carve.
When the guests came the tricky part started. I quickly brushed melted butter on top of the stuffing and put it in the oven. But how was I going to make the gravy and carve two turkeys (my brother-in-law deep fries a turkey every year – yum) at the same time?
No worries I started the roux for the gravy then slowly whisked in that dark and intense turkey stock – my son drizzled, I whisked.
Then I turned the duty over to my daughter-in-law; I do this every year – find the person closest to the stove and hand them a whisk. I told her I ask someone to do this so I can blame someone the gravy tasted terrible. She was game and watched over the thickening gravy for 20 minutes.
I turned to carving the two turkeys.
I’ve had better carving presentation but the turkey was the best I’ve made. I don’t like turkey much to begin with, so to say I liked it is high praise.
We set the table and dug in. You can see how crispy the top of the dressing is. The recipe calls for using a non-stick skillet but I thought the cast iron would be pretty.
Dinner was served.
For grace I used a prayer my son’s family in Chicago uses – I think it is perfect for Thanksgiving
Let us be grateful for this food, for this day, and for this family
And for the blessings in our lives, too numerous to count.
And let us strive to be people with open minds, helping hands, and loving hearts
This day and all days
Blessed be. Amen.
We had a great time; my niece was there with her 2 1/2 year old daughter. She charmed us all.The group was small but the love and enjoyment was big.
This method of cooking a turkey is a winner – definitely the way I’ll go in the future. If it isn’t pouring rain, I may cook it outside on my grill in the future.