How Do You Do Your Turkey?

Type the words "Thanksgiving turkey recipes" into a Google search box and you'll get a return of 1.7 million possibilities. (Actually it's 1.73 million, my mistake.) The thought of wading through even a sliver of this recipe mountain is giving me a headache.

Over the years, I've tried various methods and flavoring techniques to make that turkey crackle with zing at the table. I've poked 40 cloves under the skin and flambéed the roasted bird with cognac (fun and theatric but a bit dangerous if you've been drinking wine all afternoon); I've made compound butters with shallots and herbs, tucked under the skin and basted with its buttery juices (safe, traditional) and one year I think I even flipped the bird and roasted it breast-side down (not worth the trouble).

Turkey, center stage. (PRNewsFoto)

But six years ago, when I finally got hip to brining the bird, I stopped shopping for turkey recipes. Although I browse magazines and cookbooks to see who's doing what and occasionally am tempted to date other recipes, I am a committed bird briner (includes recipe details), unless someone can convince me otherwise. (In this week's Food section, Bonnie Benwick narrows her scope down to wet versus dry brining, and ultimately decides on wet. She's a smart woman.)

Several tempting options have come my way in just the past few days; I've considered the spatchcock method, which involves removing the backbone and flattening it onto a rack for quicker cooking, a method I love using for whole chickens. The current issue of New York Magazine dishes up a handful of turkey twists with a decidedly global theme -- including a harissa rub a la northern Africa, Peking style with a 24-hour drying period and juniper berry-roasted turkey breast served with tender leaves of Boston lettuce.

I'm also weighing the virtues of tandoori turkey, with an Indian-spiced yogurt marinade, which I found in "Giving Thanks" by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver and Plimoth Plantation, one of my favorite books on Thanksgiving (maybe this method would be fun for entertaining during the month of December?). I'm also digging the idea of a Cuban-style pavo relleno, marinated in a mojo (sour oranges, oregano, lots of garlic) stuffed with black beans and rice -- that just sounds too good to ignore.

Now here's where you come in: What's your all-time method of doing the bird? Flavors, techniques and recipes are all welcome in the comments area below. And if you don't do a bird, what's your go-to main course year after year?

Then stop by and talk to me today at 1 p.m. ET for the eighth annual What's Cooking Thanksgiving special.

By Kim ODonnel |  November 15, 2007; 8:38 AM ET Chicken/Poultry , Thanksgiving
Previous: As the Bird Turns | Next: A Hearty Helping of Thanksgiving Chat Leftovers


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I've done: unstuffed and roasted plain (blech), miso-onion-butter under the skin (makes delish gravy!, my go-to for the last couple of years), brined (good but a pain in arse), deep-fried (good but scary) and this year I'm going whole-hog with my garden-fresh sage and making fried-sage Madeira-braised stuffed turkey (recipe from Food and Wine, methinks).

Unless I feel wiped out by next week, then I'll probably brine...easier to clean out the fridge than to make scratch stuffing.

Posted by: librarylady | November 15, 2007 9:42 AM

I brined the past 5 years, and will stick to that. My in-laws still cannot get over how flavorful and tender the turkey turns out. I'm not sure why all of the contributors to the Post continue to complain about the difficulty of this technique. I brine my bird in a cooler (that's right, one of those plastic gizmos that hold beer). The only difficult part is to sanitize the cooler with hot soapy water prior to introducing the brine and bird. The only other thing that becomes a pain is to ensure the brine stays cold by adding ice throughout the process. In the end, brining is the best and easiest technique I've found to ensure a perfect Thanksgiving turkey.

Posted by: Turkeyman | November 15, 2007 10:10 AM

I too am a committed briner. But one year I had to cook at my brother's bachelor pad and didn't have the space, tools or time to do a proper brine so I found a recipe that called for stuffing copious amounts of prosciutto and fresh rosemary under the skin and in the cavity. This was far and away the best turkey I've ever made. Tender, flavorful and just different enough to be interesting without offending the traditionalists. Just thinking of it brings back mouth-watering memories. Maybe I'll bust out that recipe again next week.

Posted by: Juicy | November 15, 2007 10:43 AM

Kim - can you stuff a brined bird? We've done them the last couple of years and everyone's loved the juicy turkey, but now the family doesn't want to do it because they want to be able to put the stuffing in the turkey. Suggestions?

Posted by: brining question | November 15, 2007 10:52 AM

I don't brine because I've found it unnecessary with the very fresh local turkeys we can get.

Posted by: Fran | November 15, 2007 12:29 PM

I found it very interesting in the Veggie Tday chat that you said that going meatless takes more effort...I think it is so much easier to think up flavorful dishes that are NOT dominated by the flavor of whatever meat that is in them. I am not a complete veggie, and I don't have a good excuse for it - it's partly because I enjoy some meat dishes too much, partly because it takes a little effort to avoid meat dishes completely when you're not the one cooking all of them -- but I rarely cook meat myself, and often substitute veggies (esp beans or potatoes) for the meat in recipes - so much easier! And leftovers keep longer! But I don't understand the appeal of fake meat - I gladly eat tofu when a dish is good with tofu, but I don't try to pretend it's not tofu! And even though my mother cooks a 20+lb turkey and a ham for Tday every year, there are so many great veggie side dishes to stuff oneself with that I usually skip the meat entirely -- besides presentation, why is everyone so worried about having a turkey dish?

Posted by: Anonymous | November 15, 2007 2:41 PM

Since she was in middle school my daughter has been our pumpkin pie baker for holidays. A few years ago she found a recipe that is upside down, and it's now our favorite:

Makes 2 pies, 10 servings each

1 can (30 oz.) pumpkin pie mix*
1 cup sugar
1 can (5 oz.) evaporated milk
3 eggs
2 t. ground cinnamon
½ t. salt
1 package (18¼ oz.) yellow cake mix
1 c. butter or margarine, melted
1½ c. chopped pecans

Line two cake pans with waxed paper or parchment paper. Coat the paper with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, combine the pumpkin, sugar and milk. Beat in eggs, cinnamon and salt. Pour into prepared pans. Sprinkle with dry cake mix. Drizzle with butter. Sprinkle with pecans and press down lightly. Bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes or until golden brown. Cool for 2 hours on wire racks.

Carefully run a knife around edge of pan to loosen. Invert pies onto serving plates; remove waxed paper. Refrigerate until completely cool.

Cut pie into slices and dollop with whipped cream.

* Since I prefer to season the pumpkin, I use canned pumpkin, NOT pumpkin pie mix, and add additional cinnamon, ½ t. cloves, ¼ t. nutmeg, ¼ t. allspice and 1 t. ginger.

Posted by: Cathy | November 15, 2007 2:41 PM

At our Thanksgiving, we do a small breast for the kids. For the adults however we do grilled oysters all day for a premeal. And for dinner we do a Southern Maryland stuffed ham. It is a corned ham, stuffed with kale, cabbage, red pepper flake, mustard seed. We make ours really spicy. So good! Time consuming but its my favorite.

Posted by: SOMD | November 15, 2007 3:01 PM

Several years ago, the Los Angeles Times food section had a recipe for roast turkey that's my favorite: stuffed with quartered onions, quartered lemons, whole garlic cloves, and branches of rosemary and thyme. The dripping was so wonderful it could be used as soup broth as was -- you can imagine what delicious gravy it made. Nobody missed stuffing.

Posted by: Beth | November 15, 2007 3:03 PM

At our house, the turkey is simple. Salt and pepper outside and in, fill both cavities with stuffing and the place a few strips of bacon on top. The bacon bastes the turkey and even the white meat comes out juicy. And then the bacon becomes the cook's treat - yum!

We also end up having it rest for 30, 45, even 60 minutes because my mom's timing is off - every year. It's a family joke. But even after sitting for an hour, the bird is still steaming hot when you cut into it.

Stuffing is also my grandmother's recipe - whatever bread is lying around gets torn up and then poultry seasoning, an egg and some other ingredients I can't think of now get added. The bread is usually whole wheat multi-grain which adds great texture and flavor.

Posted by: Adams Morgan | November 15, 2007 3:42 PM

Can I float what some may view as a heretical suggestion? Don't do turkey. We never had a turkey at Thanksgiving when I was growing up - no one was all that fond of them and even a small turkey was too much for our little family.

Last time we hosted we did a turkey at husband's request. Meh. I prefer to roast a chicken. Easier, tastier, and fewer leftovers.

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | November 15, 2007 4:15 PM

Last year I tried a high heat method that was a disaster. By the time it turned into a disaster, it was too late, I was committed to finishing the high heat method as I had a time line to meet. The drippings burned as they hit the pan, way too much smoke for my tiny little exhaust fan to handle. We were practically smoked out of the house, my guests were crying. Never again. I tried brining once. Good. But stuffing the bird so will go with a compound butter thing this year.

Posted by: Catonsville | November 15, 2007 4:36 PM

2nd try. I am a resident of Virginia, but spending this Thanksgiving in MA. If I were at home we would be preparing the turkey in the smoker - my husband's job. I prepare the turkey by stuffing the cavity with a quartered orange and two quartered apples, fresh rosemary (from the garden), and some garlic cloves. I don't know at what temperature he smokes the turkey, but a 20 lb. turkey is usually finished in about 3 to 3-1/2 hours (always sooner than I am ready for). Sides can vary from year to year. Cranberry sauce is always home-made; last year I made a merlot cranberry sauce - I thought it was delicious. One of the sides is always a variation on 'three sisters' - a combo of squash, corn, and beans; sometimes hot, sometimes cold. One daughter bakes bread, another may bring a veggie, one son bakes pies, another son does the chopping and clean-up; the sons-in-laws babysit (no daughters-in-laws yet). Oh - dressing is usually cornbread, as my husband is a southerner. There has been a campaign to do an all-pie T-day, but we haven't taken that plunge yet. Anyway - since I am in MA I will be roasting a turkey - for the first time in about 6 years - back to the drawing board/internet on how to do that. Happy T'day - may it be filled with many blessings.

Posted by: Ashfield, MA | November 15, 2007 5:11 PM

I have brined - and while I like it, it's hard to find room if I am doing a whole bird (a lot easier if I'm just doing a breast). This year I am actually doing a repeat (I am one of those people who very rarely do repeats, even on dinners). When now hubby and I were dating his parents were heading to WV and he had to work the next day - and I had to also. I drove the 2 hours (we dated long distance) to prepare T-day for him, and used a recipe from the Post that I still have but can't find on the site. It listed a few ideas and I went with the Roasted Garlic butter one. Made quite a mess in a totally foreign -to me- kitchen (with missing implements) but turned out great on the Cornish game hens I substituted instead. This year I'm making it for hubby and I, and his mom, and actually using a turkey this time. So I guess technically it's still not the same recipe, huh? ;)

Posted by: JJ | November 15, 2007 6:08 PM

My gripe with brining isn't the effort that goes into it, it is finding appropriately sized containers and space for those containers, not just at brining time but in storage year-round. Also, due to mobility problems, we eat Thanksgiving at my in-laws, and I do the cooking. Transporting a still-wrapped unbrined turkey is a lot easier than the alternative!

Posted by: librarylady | November 16, 2007 11:04 AM

Adult Cranberries:Cook 12Oz of fresh Cranberries with 1 cup of sugar over medium heat until they burst and break down. Cool. Add 1 cup of Mohawk Blackberry Brandy, cover and refrigerate overnight. Originally posted by the "Madd Russian" on the Chef2Chef website,about 5 years ago. Delicious.

Posted by: Paul Corsa | November 18, 2007 2:40 PM

Adult Cranberries:Cook 12Oz of fresh Cranberries with 1 cup of sugar over medium heat until they burst and break down. Cool. Add 1 cup of Mohawk Blackberry Brandy, cover and refrigerate overnight. Originally posted by the "Madd Russian" on the Chef2Chef website,about 5 years ago. Delicious.

Posted by: Paul Corsa | November 18, 2007 2:46 PM

I have brined the last three times I have done the bird for T-Day and will continue to brine in the future (though not this year as I'm not hosting). Moist breast meat is guaranteed! Brining has really become a marinade as there are so many other herbs, seeds, and flavorings that can be added. I still season under the skin and all over the bird with a combination of Michael Chiarello's fennel spice rub and olive oil.

I'm intrigued to try roasting the bird breast side down sometime, but last year I didn't cook the bird whole. In one of her cookbooks (the one co-authored with Jacques Pepin), Julia Child recommends cutting out the backbone, cutting the leg/thigh from the body, and roasting all together so that the smaller breast and legs reach doneness at the same time. Obviously there's no stuffing the bird's cavity, but instead she suggests roasting the breast atop a mound of stuffing and deboning the thigh and stuffing it, which makes a nice presentation when sliced. This is now my go to method as everything cooks quicker. I've also found that it's easier to arrange the cut up pieces in a container for the brining . However, next time I would just bake the dressing on the side so that I'd get the drippings from the breast to be used in the gravy, although that stuffing under the breast was delicious!

Posted by: Sean | November 19, 2007 7:11 PM

My bird is perfect every year, but no one would guess why -- I use those disposable plastic turkey oven bags! The turkey cooks very fast -- in 3 hours or less, stays amazingly moist and doesn't need basting. I just stuff the bird full of aromatics (herbs, onions, celery etc) and rub the skin with butter and herbs, stick it in the oven and forget it. I don't understand why everyone doesn't use the bags, honestly.

Posted by: arlington22206 | November 20, 2007 5:22 PM

My life's been pretty unremarkable lately, but pfft. Oh well. My mind is like a void. I haven't gotten much done.

Posted by: c0ld | November 23, 2007 9:43 AM

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