Holidays are hectic enough. The entire family is in town, kids are running around, and the house is at three times its comfortable capacity. The process of cooking an entire turkey can be overwhelming: roasting, resting, carving, plating — all before eating. By trying this unconventional way to prepare a turkey, you can spend about half the time you would normally need to prepare, roast and carve the bird.
By carving the turkey a day or two before you need it, you are able to turn the turkey into three different dishes. The breast is brined, roasted and carved; the legs, thighs, and wings are cooked confit (a slow-cooked procedure submerged in fat with an extremely tender and moist result), and the bones are turned into soup. Using this method means the only time-consuming cooking task left for the day of your event is searing and roasting the breasts, which takes less than an hour, as opposed to three to five hours for the whole bird.
Most people get a little nervous the first time they carve the turkey. It’s just food. You may mess up a little during the first couple of times, but it will get easier. I think carving a raw bird is easier. There is no pressure of a dining room full of guests waiting to eat, and you can carve or fabricate it at your own pace. Cutting or fabricating the bird into usable parts sets your less-hectic holiday into motion. By making the cuts now, you won’t have to make them later.
Start with an 18 to 20-pound turkey. Cut an upside-down “V” about one-fourth inch deep outlining both sides of the wishbone just above the neck. This will allow a better yield when removing the breasts. Next make a cut just through the skin between the breast and the legs as close to the leg as possible. Hyperextend the leg until the bone from the thigh pops out of the socket. Don’t remove the legs at this point because in this position they help support the bird during the carving process.
Cut down one side of the breast along the breast or keel bone. Follow the ribcage all the way to the wing and remove the breast. Repeat on the other side, then cut off the wings from the back just between where it meets the carcass. Separate the wing by placing the wing into a “V” shape on the cutting board and cut through the cartilage. Lay the wing down and cut through the cartilage to remove the tip.
To remove the leg and thigh, cut from the tail toward the head, and cut into the “U” where the bone connects. Repeat on the other side. Lay each leg, skin side down, on the cutting board and cut though the cartilage at about a 45-degree angle just along the fat line.
Cut the remaining carcass into smaller pieces and it is ready for stock.
Brining, roasting and slicing the two breasts is much easier than roasting a whole bird. When you roast an entire turkey, by the time the thickest parts of the bird have reached 165 degrees (the proper temperature for all cooked poultry) the breast has become dry. Roasting the breast individually allows a much more precise control of the temperature.
Brining for 8 to 12 hours helps retain more moisture. Brine is a mixture of four different components: liquid, salt, sugar and aromatics. The first three are self-explanatory, but aromatics can get a little more complicated. Aromatics can be just about anything you want — herbs, fruits, vegetables, spices. You can flavor the brine however you like. The brine performs three tasks.
1. It seasons the meat all the way into the center. The liquid is infused with the desired flavors as well as dissolved sugar and salt.
2. The salt (with sugar to balance the taste) softens the protein filaments in the protein. The softening prevents the coagulating amino acids in the meat from squeezing out as much moisture as a nonbrined piece of meat.
3. The prolonged exposure to salt water, along with the softened protein filaments, can increase the meat’s weight by 10 percent when brined. When meat is cooked properly, it can lose 20 percent of its moisture. So brining cuts moisture loss in half before taking into account the loss of contracting protein filaments.
The ratio is easy:
1 gallon water
1 cup kosher salt
½ cup granulated sugar
Aromatics as desired
The rough rule for soaking the meat is two hours for every pound. With a whole turkey you may need three or four gallons of brine to fully cover the bird. Brining just the breast is much simpler — two breasts will easily fit into a zip-close bag and require only a fraction of the brine for a whole bird.
Brined Turkey Breast
Yields 3 cups
2 cups water
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1½ tablespoons sugar
3 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs rosemary
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon peppercorns
Ice as needed
2 turkey breasts
Bring water to a simmer; add seasonings and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Pour liquid into a measuring cup and add ice until volume reaches 3 cups. Add breasts and brine into Ziploc bag, squeeze out air and close. Brine breasts for 8 to 10 hours, remove from brine and place on a plate uncovered for up to 24 hours until ready to roast.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat an oven-safe sauté pan over medium heat and add enough oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan (you can roast a single breast at a time or if you have a large enough pan, you can roast two at time). Place the breast(s) skin side down into the pan and cook until the skin has become golden brown. Flip the breast(s) and place into the oven; cook until internal temperature is 165 degrees, about 45 minutes to an hour. Remove breasts and place onto a cutting board. Allow them to rest for 5 to 10 minutes, then carve and serve.
Confit is a form of preparation and preservation. Before we had freezers and refrigerators, there were many different methods of preservation used. Cooking and storing in saturated fat (animal fat that solidifies at room temperature) was one method of preservation. The cooking process kills bacteria and makes the meat easier to digest. Cooling and storing the meat in the fat (solidified at room or cellar temperatures) creates a moisture and air barrier from bacteria that could spoil the meat. We hold on to these traditions, not because we need this method of preservation, but because confit is delicious.
Turkey legs and thighs confit extremely well, and can be served hot or cold. The meat is great to enjoy alone, on a salad, in a soup or as leftovers in pot pie. The process is simple: season, add aromatics, cover with fat and cook. The fat can be rendered chicken, duck or pork fat, as well as butter, vegetable oil or olive oil You don’t even need a thermometer; the meat is well beyond the minimum internal temperature; you can just poke it with a fork and know it’s done.
2 turkey legs/thighs
2 wings and 2 drumettes
Salt and pepper as needed
5 cloves of garlic
3 to 5 bay leaves
3 to 5 thyme sprigs
1½ to 2 quarts fat (enough to cover)
Lightly season the legs/thighs, wings and drumettes with salt and pepper. Place into a pot or pan that holds them snugly. Add aromatics and cover with melted fat. Place a lid on the container and place into a 225-degree oven for 10 to 12 hours. Check the doneness with a fork or skewer; there should be almost no resistance in the meat. Allow the pan to cool on the range for 15 to 20 minutes, then place into the refrigerator to cool. To remove the meat from the fat (saturated fat only, oil will not set) it must be tempered. Remove the pan from the refrigerator and place onto the range on low for 2 minutes and turn off the heat. Allow the fat to sit another 15 to 20 minutes to allow the fat to warm. This will keep the extremely fragile meat from breaking. From here the skin can be seared and the meat warmed, or the cold meat can be tossed into a salad. Reserving the meat from the wings and drumettes for soup helps balance the amount of meat.
Many people toss out the bones of the turkey once it is carved. Whether you have the bones from a roasted or unroasted turkey, there is still a lot of function and flavor left in them. Stock can be as easy or as complicated as you want. Stock is typically made with four components: bones, water, mirepoix(carrots, onions and celery) and a sachet d’epice (parsley stems, peppercorns, bay leaf, thyme and garlic). This produces a well-rounded stock that works well in most savory applications. There is a way to make a great soup that circumvents a couple of steps.
Turkey carcass, bones and wing tips
5 to 7 parsley stems
1 teaspoon peppercorns
3 to 5 bay leaves
3 to 5 thyme sprigs
7 cloves garlic
1 bunch celery, small diced
4 onions, small diced
3 large carrots, small diced
After carving the turkey, cut the bones into smaller 3- to 4-inch pieces and place into the bottom of a large pan or stockpot and cover with ice water. Simmer for 2 to 4 hours, add your sachet d’epice (parsley, peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme, garlic) and simmer for 1 more hour. Using a ladle, carefully strain and place stock into saucepan. Pull meat from bones and reserve for soup. Add diced carrots and simmer for 10 minutes until carrots are about half cooked. Add onions and celery, and simmer until carrots are fully cooked. Add meat from bones and pulled wings, and drumette meat from the confit. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.
Add carrots to stock, simmer for 10 minutes until carrots are about half cooked. Add onions and celery, and simmer until carrots finish cooking. Add meat, and season with salt and pepper to taste before serving.
Season meat lightly on both sides with salt and pepper; add meat to pan so that everything fits snugly on one layer. Add aromatics and cover with fat. Cover with lid and place into oven.
Place the turkey breast into a gallon sized zip-close bag. Pour brine into bag and squeeze out excess air and close. Place bag into a container to prevent it from tipping over or spilling and store in the refrigerator.
Heat a sauté pan over medium heat and add a small amount of oil. Carefully place the dried turkey breast into the pan, skin side down. Once skin becomes golden brown and releases from the pan, flip the breast and place into a 350-degree oven and cook until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.
When the turkey breasts have reached 165 degrees, place them onto the cutting board and allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Slice at a slight angle about ¼- to ½-inch thick and serve.
Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.