I was 22 years old and living in Brooklyn when my then-girlfriend came home from work and tearfully announced that her boss would not be giving her time off for Thanksgiving, and that I’d have to go to New Hampshire to visit family without her. While at the time it was tough to think about upending the annual tradition of traveling to the brutal north to stuff myself, leaving her alone clearly wasn’t an option, and we soon found ourselves roasting a comically enormous turkey for the very first time.
Now, some 15 years later, with travel and gatherings being disrupted across the country due to the pandemic, many of us are facing a holiday season unlike any other. We might be scaling down; we might be cooking entirely different foods; we might be skipping Thanksgiving altogether. But there’s no question that many people will still be roasting a turkey, perhaps for the first time ever, and I’m here to tell you that it’s going to be okay.
Roasting a turkey inspires a special type of cooking anxiety, and that’s largely because no other meat has been elevated in the broad holiday psyche quite like turkey. For decades Americans have been pummeled with photos of hulking, perfectly bronzed birds while being repeatedly told that the only acceptable option for the holidays is to produce food that looks like it’s been pulled from the cover of a magazine. We also tend to cook turkeys exclusively around the holidays, and as a result many of us don’t have all that much experience or practice preparing this particular protein.
The reality is that cooking a turkey can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be. If you simply season your bird with salt and pepper, slide it into the oven, and keep an eye on it, you’ll almost certainly end up with a perfectly delicious meal. When we cooked our turkey in Brooklyn we accidentally put it into the roasting pan upside down, draped it with bacon (for reasons I can’t explain), and then roasted it until done. Did we baste? I really don’t know. Probably not! And you know what? It was great.
For expert information I turned to J. Fox, who along with his husband, Kevin Haverty, co-owns and runs Hudson & Charles, a whole animal butcher shop in New York City that specializes in local, sustainably raised, grass-fed meat.
“Thanksgiving is the Super Bowl of the butcher shop and people are at their highest anxiety, but they’re also putting too much pressure on themselves,” Fox says. “I always tell people, pare it down and focus on a couple of good dishes.”
Most supermarket turkeys are conventionally raised feedlot birds, which using more common language means they were factory farmed (Warning: the process is so horrific you truly might not want to know how it goes down).
According to Fox, feedlot birds can have significant problems with quality. The most common is related to birds packed with saline, which are easily identifiable both because of the “2% saline solution” label and because they’re swimming in liquid in their packaging.
Birds are injected with saline to mask problems with quality, and to artificially plump them up, which raises the price you pay per pound. Feedlot turkeys (and chickens) are also commonly dipped in boiling water to remove their feathers and cooled in tanks of ice water to bring their temperature back down, which also leads to water absorption. While they’ll be super plump in the store these waterlogged birds may leak saline solution during cooking, leading to a wet pan and dried out flesh.
Whenever possible, avoid turkeys injected with or packed in a saline solution. If you can find one, look a bird that has been “air-chilled,” as this cooling process means birds will have less water weight.
Fox says that you should choose turkeys whose skin is more beige or off-white, and avoid turkeys with mottled skin. If the turkey has a blue stamp on it, or if a wing tip has been removed, that’s completely normal and happens during the USDA inspection process.
If you purchase a turkey that’s cryovaced (i.e., sold in shrink-wrap) don’t be alarmed if there’s a sulphuric aroma when you first open it. That’s a phenomenon Fox says is called “cryobloom,” and it’s normal. But, if the smell persists for longer than 15 minutes, return the bird, as a lingering smell may indicate the meat has spoiled.
Pasture raised birds are without question a better product. The birds live much happier, healthier lives, and farmers make more money. The meat itself is also of a better consistency and quality, and Fox says that pastured turkeys “spend the entire day outside running around, foraging for their food, and a pastured bird is going to be a little bit on the leaner side because they’re using their muscles more.”
Pasture raised turkeys do taste a a bit different too, and Fox describes the flavor as leaning more closely toward that of dark meat, even in the breast. They’re also dramatically more expensive. While a supermarket bird is likely to be $1 a pound or less, a pastured bird from a quality butcher may be $7.99 a pound.
If you’re planning on a smaller gathering this year, consider buying turkey parts. If your supermarket doesn’t sell packaged turkey parts, or have an actual meat counter, just go to the glass window that’s typically located above or near the case holding pre-cut meat and hit the call button. The butcher behind the glass should be able to cut up a turkey for you and to sell you parts individually.
When you roast a turkey, don’t rely on the built-in thermometer embedded in the flesh; they’re notoriously inaccurate. Instead, use a digital instant read thermometer. The Thermoworks Thermapen is a great choice and the Thermopop also works very well, and is much less expensive. Thermoworks intentionally doesn’t sell their products on Amazon, so if you want one buy directly from the company.
Fox says that under no circumstances should you cook stuffing inside of a turkey, as it’s one of the biggest sources of food poisoning during the holidays. “People aren’t temping the stuffing and the stuffing is undercooked and has all that raw turkey juice in it,” he explains.
And lastly, if the turkey is too dry, Fox recommends pouring some more gravy on it and breaking out an extra bottle of wine. Nobody’s going to notice!