Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Let’s Talk Turkey – The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

With Thanksgiving practically upon us I thought it might be a good idea to talk about turkey. We’ve all heard the stories, and maybe even been party to, some of the turkey disasters that can befall the hapless Thanksgiving cook.  I’m sharing mine (starting with the bad and ending with the good, because I really like to end things on a positive note), and I hope you’ll share yours too. 
The Bad:  The first time I ever cooked a turkey was for a friend’s graduation party.  I was 18 years old and the oven at home was out.  My mom dispatched me and the turkey (which was her idea to serve) to another friend’s house where most of the party prep was going on.
I had no idea how to cook a turkey, but I wasn’t going to let that slow me down.  I decided that turkeys were basically just large chickens (at that point I didn’t have much experience cooking chicken either) so I would treat it that way.  My mom always bought the boneless, skinless chicken breasts, so I decided that the first order of business was to skin the turkey. Yeah.
Have you ever attempted to remove the skin from a 20 pound turkey?  You can cancel your gym membership if you’re going to make that a habit.  I enlisted my friend’s brother (who didn’t know how to turn on the oven) to help me, and we basically engaged in a tug of war match until the turkey was skinned. 
After we skinned the turkey I proceeded to wash it, using dish detergent, because I’d heard you were supposed to wash meat before cooking it.
I’ll be honest.  I didn’t try any of that turkey when it was finally cooked.  I was pretty sick of dealing with it by then.  People said it was good.  I suspect they were being polite. 
After that turkey fiasco I swore off cooking turkeys for a while.  But then my job gave everyone a turkey as our Christmas bonus is 2005. That was the year that my sister, my best friend, and I were renting a house together. 
My best friend and I decided to brave cooking the turkey. This time we knew not to skin it.
My mom has always cooked a turkey by smearing it down with a mixture of mayonnaise and mustard (about 2/3 mayonnaise and 1/3) mustard, sprinkling it with salt and pepper, and covering it with aluminum foil and pouring a little water in the bottom of the pan.  It sounds disgusting, but it’s actually pretty good.  It’s not my favorite way to prepare turkey, but it’s good.
It also sounded relatively foolproof.  Except for the fact that we had just moved in a week before and didn’t have a fully stocked kitchen.  We didn’t have mayonnaise, and we didn’t have aluminum foil, but decided that neither were terribly important. 
We were wrong.  We ended up with an extremely dry turkey that tasted more like burnt mustard (gross!) than turkey. 
Once again, I swore off cooking turkeys for a while.  I decided to learn from the pros.  I asked everyone who ever served a delicious turkey how they did it, and took copious notes.  I filled up an entire notebook with notes on how to cook a turkey. 
The Ugly:  My parents went out of town, and my husband and I came to take care of my grandparents (maternal grandmother and paternal grandmother and grandfather).  I decided it would be nice to make a big turkey dinner.  They liked it when I cooked for them, and my parents could have leftovers when they came home.
I used a combination of techniques I’d picked up from various people and the turkey was delicious.  The only problem was in carving it.  I’d never carved a turkey and neither had my husband.  None of my grandparents were up for carving it.  So hubby and I basically executed the poor turkey.  It didn’t even resemble a turkey when were finished “carving” it. 
My grandparents all giggled about it for weeks, and insisted on pictures of the carnage.  At least it tasted good!
At Thanksgiving the same year we were facing the same problem.  Hubby, my sister, my best friend, and I were all standing over the turkey (holding various carving tools) each arguing as to why we should NOT be the one to carve.  We all agreed that something didn’t look quite right already and none of wanted to be the one to execute the turkey.
Finally, another friend, Cathey, (who is much older and wiser) arrived.  She started laughing hysterically as soon as she came in the kitchen.  She said the four of us looked like we weren’t quite sure the turkey was dead and were planning to kill it if it moved.  It was also upside down (still not sure how I managed that one), which was why it looked a little off to us. Cathey carved the turkey, which was delicious.
The Good:  I have two favorite ways of cooking whole turkeys now:
The Cosmopolitan Turkey:
Stuff the turkey with a mixture of cranberries, chopped granny smith apples, and chopped onion, mixed with a about a tablespoon of butter.  Salt and pepper the turkey and pour vodka over it.  You want a little vodka pool in the bottom of the pan. Cover and bake according to the package instructions for the weight.
The Drunk Buttery Turkey:
Coat the inside of the turkey with butter and stuff with chopped onions mixed with butter, parsley, salt, and pepper.  Generously butter the outside of the turkey and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and parsley.  Pour in white wine and cognac (about 2/3 white wine and 1/3 cognac). Once again, you want a little pool of liquid in the bottom of the pan.  Cover and bake according to package instructions for the weight.
Both of these recipes are great with turkey breasts, which you can easily fit in a large slow cooker.
We’ve also learned to designate someone else as the carver.  Last year we asked a friend who was coming to come early and carve the turkey. 
So what about you?  What are your turkey disaster stories?  Or tried and true techniques?  Do tell.


  1. OMG Danielle that is too funny! I've only made turkey once and it worked out pretty well. I took a leave from college to help out when my granddad was sick and part of what I did was make sure we kept celebrating holidays so I did all the cooking. I'm a vegetarian but still tackled the turkey and he came out pretty nice in the end even if he was a bit too big for their oven and I used kitchen gloves to handle him. I just tucked pads of butter under the skin and then basted as we went.

    I usually make eggplant parm for Thanksgiving if it's not a big family to-do for the holidays.

    1. Yeah, kitchen disasters are at least good for a laugh, after the fact. :-)

      You can't go wrong with butter! That's so sweet that you did that for your granddad!

      I've never actually tried eggplant. My sister is allergic to it, so I'm a little afraid of finding out that I am too. Eggplant Parmesan just sounds so cool though! :-)

  2. Good grief, Danielle. This was hilarious, but I guess I shouldn't laugh. I know that having a fan oven has worked wonders in my cooking of turkey. I also leave the turkey uncovered for the first thirty minutes. This seems to make the turkey cook very well.

    Of course, there is a second Thanksgiving in North America. Happy American Thanksgiving this Thursday, my friend.


    1. I laugh about it too, now. Not so much at the time, but it's funny now. :-)

      I may have to try uncovering the turkey for part of the time next time.

  3. I admire your attempts to try to skin a turkey, LOL :) Honestly, the first turkey I cooked was when I was in my 30s and my mom helped me through the whole process. We've made a few more over the years on our own and the secret I learned was to put the turkey in the oven first thing in the morning on low heat and let it cook all day; tender and juicy.

    My mom said the first turkey she made she didn't know the giblets were wrapped in paper and stuffed in the neck so she didn't remove them. They cooked, paper and all. She learned her lesson on subsequent turkeys and passed down that advice to me.

    This year we are trying something new; smoking cornish game hens. Should be an adventure!

    Happy Thanksgiving!


    1. I'm nothing if not determined! :-) The long, slow cook is great!

      I hope your cornish game hens came out well.

  4. Oh my gosh! You made me laugh out loud with the part about skinning and washing the turkey. :D

    I remember cooking a small turkey one year when I was still single. It actually turned out wonderfully, but I remember being sad that I did not have anyone to share it with!

    1. I'm still not sure what possessed me to do that! At least it's good for a laugh, now.

      Aww, so glad you have someone (and furry someones) to share with now. :-)


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