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No More Undercooked or Overcooked Turkey
Ah, the holidays, when family and friends gather to spend time together and partake in devouring a delicious feast. There's nothing like a crowd of hungry relatives gathered around the kitchen island, watching—spellbound—as you finally slice into the beautiful turkey that's been roasting for hours in the oven. Imagine my horror last Thanksgiving when we carved into that beautiful bird only to find the meat inside was bloody! Despite the fact that the "it's done" button had popped up, and while the breast meat was well cooked to the point of being a tad dry, other portions of the bird were bloody and contaminating the cooked turkey meat by leaking red, raw juices all over the carving board.
My guests were silently horrified, as was I. We quickly removed the turkey from the carving board, put it back in the roasting pan and back in the oven, where the cooked meat continued to dry out and the raw meat became safe to eat. Everyone's appetite was spoiled due to the shock of seeing bloody meat being carved up, and we had to go into overdrive, sanitizing the carving board, serving platter, carving knife, and anything else that had come into contact with the raw poultry juices. I was embarrassed as I finished preparing the dinner, and although my guests (eventually) politely ate their meal, the enjoyment of preparing it and serving it had vanished.
How to Prevent Another Turkey-Cooking Disaster? Spatchcocking!
A year later when it was time to host Thanksgiving for my family once again, and knowing that it was also my turn a few weeks later to host Christmas dinner for my husband's family, I was not looking forward to either task. I absolutely did not want another overcooked/undercooked embarrassment which my guests were afraid (or too grossed out) to eat. I considered purchasing a pre-cooked smoked or fried turkey, but really wanted not only the money-saving advantage of roasting a turkey myself, I also wanted to fill my home with that wonderful aroma of roasting turkey. It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without it.
A few years earlier, my husband had stumbled upon a recipe for "butterflied" turkey, and this year had seen a similar method called "spatchcocking" demonstrated on TV. The advantage of this cooking method is that the bird's backbone is removed and the breastbone is broken, which flattens the bird so that it cooks more quickly and evenly. Additinally, more of the skin is exposed, which provides diners with more of that yummy caramelized and seasoned skin. We investigated this cooking method further and decided to try it. A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, we practiced on a chicken; it turned out perfectly, so we decided to go all in and try a spatchcock turkey for our Thanksgiving feast.
When researching this cooking method, we found a number of cooks complaining that cooking the high-heat spatchcock method had filled their oven and home with smoke. According to some rather angry comments left on various online spatchcock recipes, at the typically recommended 450°F cooking temperature, the drippings burn in the bottom of the pan, causing a stinky, smoky mess. Some cooks remedied this by placing the turkey on top of a mound of wine-soaked vegetables, which prevents the drippings from burning by keeping plenty of moisture in the pan. We cooked our "test chicken" this way and it worked fine, but the veggies were something of an over-cooked waste, and they soaked up all the drippings, which we were hoping to use for gravy.
Cooking at a Lower Temperature Solves the Smoking Issue.
Although spatchcock recipes typically instruct cooks to heat their ovens to 450°F, we roasted our spatchcocked turkey at 325°F. While a higher-heat 450°F oven cooks a bird quite quickly, the flattened profile of a spatchcocked bird ensures that your turkey will roast more quickly and evenly than an intact turkey. Even at the lower temperature of 325°F, a 12- to 14-pound turkey will be fully roasted in about 1.5 to 2.5 hours, depending upon your oven and the temperature of the turkey when placed in the oven. The main benefit of roasting at 325°F is that the lower temperature keeps the drippings from burning and smoking, which keeps your home free of smoke and allows you to put the drippings to good use as a base for gravy or a flavorful addition to your turkey's rice, bread or cornbread or dressing.
While the current increased interest in spatchcocking might make it seem like a novelty or the trendy cooking method of the day, this method has actually been used for several centuries. We were so pleased with the results at Thanksgiving that we cooked two spatchcocked turkeys at Christmas, and plan to never go back to cooking an intact turkey. We'd rather put in a little extra effort the night before, than cook it the old-fashioned way and end up feeling like a couple of schmucks as we hope for the best, with the result being a disappointing combination of dried out and bloody meat.
Before You Get Started: Equipment, Notes, and Tips
Cooking poultry using the spatchcock method requires a few pieces of equipment you may or may not already own. I happily invested in these relatively inexpensive items, as they are all very useful pieces of cooking equipment which I will use year round, as well as year after year during the holiday season.
First of all, you'll need a pair of sturdy, sharp poultry shears to cut out the backbone. We cleaned and sterilized a pair of sharp garden shears and they worked well; other options include cleaned and sterilized tin snips or a sharp, professional meat cleaver for those with experience swinging one.
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Second, you'll need a large baking pan. A typical turkey roasting pan will be too small, as the spatchcocked turkey takes up much more surface area once it is flattened and spread out for roasting. For a turkey weighing in at 12-14 pounds, we found that a 15x21 baking pan was the perfect size. I found that our local big box discount store for sells them for $16, so was happy to stumble across two of them at Ross for just $8 each. I bought them both, so I can roast two turkeys at once, because a 12- to 14-pound turkey is about the largest turkey that will fit on a pan, but is too small a turkey for large holiday gatherings when I would normally cook a turkey weighing 20 pounds or more. These 15x21-inch "Wilton Mega Cookie Sheets" have a shallow lip around all four sides to hold drippings. I worried the lip was too shallow, but the pans worked perfectly.
You'll also need a shallow rack to place inside the baking pan. I used cookie cooling racks which I already had. They fit nicely into the shallow baking pans, and lifted the turkey just far enough off of the pan's surface to prevent the turkey from sitting in greasy drippings as it roasted.
A meat thermometer is a must. I have learned the hard way not to trust those crummy plastic buttons that come pre-inserted in mass market turkeys. We invested $20 in a ThermoPro TP09 digital meat thermometer and could not be more pleased. For $20, you get a probe that goes into the meat before cooking, stays in the meat as it cooks, and uses a thin metal wire to transmit the meat's internal temperature from the probe to a receiver stand with a detachable, wireless temperature gauge that you can place in your shirt pocket and carry with you as you entertain. The portable temperature gauge keeps track of how long your meat has been in the oven and what temperature it is. When the meat reaches your chosen pre-set temperature, the gauge beeps to let you know the turkey is ready. You can also use a standard instant-read thermometer, and place it in the meat for a quick temperature check each time you take the turkey out for basting.
If you have a large crowd to feed and a smaller turkey won't be enough, you can cook two spatchcocked turkeys at once in a single oven as long as you have two oven racks, two baking pans, and two baking racks. Yes, due to their flattened profile, two turkeys will fit in one oven! Position the oven racks so that one is near the top and one is near the bottom. As the turkeys roast, rotate the them from top rack to bottom rack about every 30 minutes, so that the turkeys cook and brown evenly. (See photo below.)
Presentation: this cooking method produces perfectly cooked turkey, however, your finished product will not be the tall, whole, intact large turkey on a platter as depicted in holiday advertisements and Norman Rockwell paintings. Nevertheless, you can still wow your dinner guests with a plate of beautifully cooked and carved meat. One bite and you'll forget all about that Norman Rockwell painting. See the carving video, below, for tips on carving and creating the perfect platter of meat.
- 1 turkey, 12-14 pounds
- 1 pound real butter, sliced into large, somewhat flat chunks
- Freshly ground black pepper
Instructions (See Photos, Below)
- The day or night before cooking your turkey, make sure it is completely thawed (if previously frozen). Remove giblets, neck parts, gravy packets or any other items which may have been placed inside the turkey's neck or body cavity.
- Again the day or night before cooking, place the turkey breast-side down on a cutting board. Use sharp shears to cut along both sides of the back bone in order to completely remove it. See the video below for a demonstration.
- Flip the turkey over, breast-side up, and press down hard on the breast bone to break it. You will feel it collapse and hear it crack as you accomplish this step. If desired, to more easily crack the breast bone, flip the turkey breast-side down, and use a sharp knife to score along the breast bone. Striking the top of the knife with a hammer can help sink it into the underside of the breast bone for scoring.
- Use a sharp knife to remove the wings. Do not discard them—they will be cooked along with the rest of the turkey, tucked underneath it to keep them from overcooking.
- Generously salt the inside and outside of the turkey, as well as the wings, for an easy dry salt brine. Wrap the turkey and wings together in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator over night. We found that a one-gallon zip-top bag works perfectly on some but not all 12- to 14-pound turkeys, depending upon their length.
- On cooking day, remove the turkey from the refrigerator an hour or two before you plan on placing it in the oven, to allow it to come closer to room temperature.
- Place your oven rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat oven to 325°F.
- For the easiest clean-up, cover the bottom of your 15x21 baking pan completely with a seamless piece of heavy-duty, extra-wide of foil, being careful not to puncture the foil. Place the baking rack in the pan.
- Remove the turkey from the plastic wrap or plastic bag. Place the wings on the middle of the rack, and place the turkey, breast-side up, over the wings.
- Run your hands up underneath the skin, placing chunks of butter between the meat and the skin. Sprinkle pepper over the turkey.
- Place the meat thermometer probe into the thickest part of the breast, making sure the probe is not touching any bone. If you're using an electronic probe, set the receiver to alert you when the temperature reaches 165°F.
- Roast at 325°F, basting with the turkey's drippings about every 30 minutes or so, until the meat thermometer reaches 165°F. Remove from oven and allow turkey to sit about 20 minutes before carving.
- As the cooked turkey rests, use the pan drippings to make gravy by transferring them into a pan. Heat on medium heat until bubbling, and thicken with about 1/4 cup of cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup water. Season with pepper, garlic and onion powder if desired; thin with chicken broth if needed. If it seems as though there are no drippings, look under the foil—the drippings may be hiding there if the foil has become torn or punctured.
How to Carve and Present a Spatchcocked Turkey
Did you make a spatchcocked turkey? Do you have questions or comments?
Let me know about your experience in the comment section below.
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