The words "succulent" and "turkey" rarely find company in the same sentence, but I'm making it my mission to change all that. So, if you're willing to join me on a delicious turkey journey, read on.
Roasting a turkey is an innately tricky proposition. Being that it is typically roasted whole, you have various parts that all require different temperatures to be safely and deliciously "done". The breast meat, being lower in fat, requires less heat to finish while the fattier "dark" meat in the wings and thighs needs to cook to a higher temperature. Unfortunately, the traditional roasting method, with the turkey facing breast side up, only serves to exacerbate the aforementioned issue.
Exposing the breast to direct heat, without the protection of the roasting pan almost guarantees that the breast meat will dry out before the wings and thighs are done. Obsessively basting the breast can alleviate this issue to some extent as evaporating juices actually cool the breast meat, but this prolongs the overall cooking time because opening and closing the oven door also lowers the oven temperature. Basting also keeps the skin on the breast moist, which prevents it from crisping, denying you and your guests the joy of biting into bits of salty crispy turkey skin.
Another strategy that seeks to maintain moisture in a turkey is brining. By immersing a turkey in a solution of salted water, muscle proteins are broken down, rendering them less capable of squeezing out turkey juices when they heat up. I do recommend brining, but it does not go far enough to alleviate the moisture loss suffered by most turkeys.
As it stands, the best way to render a roast turkey succulent is to select a small turkey (10-12lbs), dry brine it for 12-24 hours with coarse salt, and "spatchcock" it by cutting out the spine and smashing it flat. This solves both the dryness and crispy skin problems and also ensures that your turkey will be perfectly cooked in less than half the time of a traditional roast.
If you're on the fence on this, I recommend that you read my post "Norman Rockwell Got it Wrong: Why a Small, Salted, and Spatchcocked Bird is the Best way to Cook a Turkey". In it, I dive deep into the three factors of size, salt, and spatchcocking and make my case for their superiority when it comes to turkey cookery.
If you're game, however, let's go!
Oh snap, hold up! Let me just rant about gravy for a second. Gravy from a jar is not acceptable under any circumstances. To really experience "umami", the 5th flavor of delicious, unctuous, tastiness, you don't have to be an amazing chef, you just need to know how to layer flavors. In my Uber Umami gravy recipe, I take care of all of the work for you, so all you have to do is follow along to get a maximally delicious gravy to compliment your roast turkey.
Succulent Spatchcocked Roast Turkey and Uber Umami Gravy
10-12lb young fresh turkey (heritage breed or organic if possible)
For Dry Brine:
1/2 cup coarse Kosher or sea salt
4 tbsp Aluminum-free baking powder
1 medium white onion, chopped
1 medium head of celery, chopped
8-10 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
Homemade or store-bought chicken or turkey stock
For Uber Umami Gravy:
2 tbsp olive oil
Turkey giblets, roughly chopped
Turkey backbone, roughly chopped
Turkey neck, roughly chopped
1 medium white onion, chopped
1 medium head of celery, chopped
4-5 garlic cloves roughly chopped
4 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 tsp Tamari (wheat free) soy sauce
Homemade or store bought organic chicken or turkey stock (MSG free)
1/2 cup gluten free flour (like Bob's Red Mill All-Purpose Baking Flour)
4 tablespoons grass-fed butter, ghee, or shmaltz
Dry Brining and Spatchcocking the Turkey:
The day before you plan on roasting your turkey, sprinkle it with a generous amount of the dry brine of coarse salt and baking powder. You may wish to remove the turkey giblets and neck (be sure to save them for gravy!) and rub some dry brint into the turkey cavity and under the skin as well. Put the turkey on a roasting pan on a grate and place in the fridge. For best results, let the turkey dry brine for 12-24 hours.
When you are ready to roast the turkey, remove it from the refrigerator and pat it dry with paper towels. Flip the turkey so that it is breast side down and, with heavy duty kitchen shears or poultry shears, completely cut down one side of the backbone. You may have to "work" the shears a bit, but you'll get through if you're persistent. Repeat this process on the other side of the spine and set the turkey back aside for use in the gravy. Locate the wishbone and, using a paring knife, cut around it and remove.
Flip the turkey onto it's back and tuck the wings behind the shoulders and press down hard on the breast (like you're giving the turkey CPR) to break the breastbone and smash it flat. You should feel a little "crunch" when this happens.
Note: You may also wish to "internally rotate" the thighs. This will better expose the thigh skin and make them crisp up when cooking. To do this, forcibly rotate the turkey thighs inward so that the "knees" face in.
Roasting the turkey:
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Line the bottom of the roasting pan with aromatics and cover with stock to prevent them from scorching (this is necessary because your dry brined and spatchcocked turkey will exude less drippings). Replace roasting pan rack and place the turkey on top. Rub the turkey lightly with olive oil and season with black pepper. Additional salt is not necessary as the turkey will be sufficiently seasoned by the dry brine.
At the 45 minute mark, start checking the turkey with a digital thermometer (I recommend the Thermapen digital instant read thermometer). Resist the urge to baste! Basting will only ruin the crispy skin and won't make any difference in terms of juiciness! You want to see the breast meat at the thickest portion closest to the bone read 150 and the thighs at their thickest portion closest to the bone reading 160. Keep checking the turkey every few minutes until these temperatures are reached. It will probably take ~60min for a 10lb turkey to reach this temp, so it may take more or less depending on the size of your particular bird.
When the proper breast and thigh temperatures have been reached, remove the turkey from the oven and loosely cover it with foil. Let the turkey rest for at least 20 minutes before carving. This is a great time to finish the gravy so let's go over that now.
Uber Umami Gravy directions:
While your turkey is roasting, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a stock pot. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the turkey neck, back, and giblets and cook until they are nicely browned. Add the onion, celery, garlic, thyme, and bay leaves and cook for a few minutes. Add the turkey or chicken stock and, using a spoon or spatula, scrape the bottom of the pan to get all the brown bits into the mix. Add the tamari soy sauce and shiitake mushrooms and bring the pot to a boil. Reduce the temperature back down to a simmer and cover the pot.
When the turkey is finished, strain the gravy with a kitchen strainer, discarding the scraps. In a separate saucepan, start a roux by melting the butter and, while constantly stirring it, slowly adding in the gluten free flour. You want the roux to darken in color and become the consistency of a thick paste. When the roux is ready, keep stirring while slowly adding the strained gravy back into the roux. It may seem like it's "messed up", but don't stress out, it's OK! Keep stirring and keep adding the strained gravy into the roux until it "loosens up" and starts to thin.
Using a turkey baster, draw out some of the pan drippings from the roasting pan and squeeze them into a measuring cup. Draw off the fat on the top and add the remaining drippings into the gravy. When finished, the gravy should be nice and smooth with the thickness of paint. Season the gravy with salt and pepper to taste.
Carving the turkey:
To carve the turkey, take the wings and rotate them around to find the ball and socket joint of the shoulder. Cut around the joint to separate the wing and then, use the knife to divide the wing into drum and flat portions. Grab the thigh and work it around to find the hip joint and, just like the wings, cut around the hip to free the entire leg. Remove the drumstick from the thigh and set aside. With a paring knife, debone the thigh portion and slice it crosswise. To remove the breasts, use a knife to cut along one side of the breastbone removing both the breast and the tenderloin in one piece. Cut one breast crosswise and leave the other whole. Plate the carved and whole pieces of turkey and serve.
There it is, Succulent Spatchcocked Turkey and Uber Umami Gravy!
|The turkey as it is normally roasted, do not do this!|
|To start spatchcocking, flip the bird.|
|Locate the spine and grab a pair of heavy duty kitchen or poultry shears.|
|Cut all the way down one side of the spine. And yes, shit just got real.|
|Cut along the other side of the spine and set the backbone aside.|
|Locate the wishbone and remove it to make carving easier.|
|Flip the bird again and tuck the wings back.|
|Next time I do this I will "internally rotate" the thighs to help them crisp up better.|
|Make a double portion of aromatics, one half goes to the gravy making, the other to the roasting pan.|
|Line the pan with aromatics.|
|Cover it with the roasting rack.|
|Grease up the turkey with a light coating of olive oil and season with black pepper.|
|Voila! This was my 10lb turkey after 90min in the oven. I probably could have taken it out sooner but I got caught up on a phone call with my sister. Hey, it was Thanksgiving and I put my family before food!|
|Carve it like you would a rotisserie chicken. Starting by disjointing the bird.|
|Debone the thigh meat and cut it on a bias.|
|Do the same with the breast meat.|
|Plate the turkey in whatever fun way you can think of. My turkey is actually doing the "Chicken" dance.|
|To make the gravy start with an empty pot and some hot oil.|
|Get the umami going by browning the giblets, neck, and backbone.|
|Oh yeah, that's the good stuff.|
|Add the aromatics next and cook them for a few minutes to get all the flavors happy.|
|If I was super cool I would have used home-made stock, but ain't nobody got time for that.|
|This mushroom might not be "magic", but the umami flavor it imparts is quite magical ;)|
|Cover the stock pot and let it simmer while your turkey roasts.|
|Gravy phase two: Get a clean pot ready.|
|Put a strainer on top.|
|Pour the stock through the strainer to remove all the big bits.|
|In a separate pot, add some butter, ghee, schmaltz, or even turkey fat. When the fat gets hot, start stirring in the gluten-free flour.|
|Gravy that meat up real good.|
Wondering what to dowith the leftovers? Check out the following recipe...
The Perfect Thanksgiving Leftovers Sandwich Recipe