Every year at this time, cooks begin to panic about how they’re going to roast their turkey. All that anxiety is misplaced. Roasting a turkey is easy: You simply salt it, roast it and rest it. It’s the carving that will kill you.
The first time I carved a Thanksgiving turkey was at my future mother-in-law’s house. Kathy and I had just started dating and her mom thought it would be nice for me to do the honors – despite the fact that my cooking skills at that time were minimal at best. Either that or she had a wicked sense of humor. I suspect the latter.
Halfway through the carving, I called Kathy into the kitchen: “Where does the dark meat come from?” I whispered hoarsely. As I recall, our guests that day dined on turkey rags and shreds.
But carving doesn’t really need to be that scary. Take it one step at a time and you'll be fine. (And it really helps to practice at least once on a roast chicken.) Start with the right tools. You'll want a good-sized carving board (preferably with a deep groove around the outer edge to catch juices), a carving fork and a short, sturdy carving knife. Forget about those long flexible knives you use for carving roast beef and ham – you need to work around too many joints with a turkey.
Make sure the turkey is well-rested after roasting. Waiting 45 minutes or even an hour will firm up the meat and dramatically decrease the amount of juices that spill from the bird. Begin carving with the wings. Cut a deep slit through the base of the breast just above the wing’s “shoulder” joint. Flex the wing backward and cut through the joint. Hold the wing upright and cut straight down through the “elbow” joint to divide the wing in half. Repeat with the other side.
Now remove the legs. Cut through the skin between the breast and the leg. Flex the leg down to pop free the “hip” joint and then cut around it to separate the leg completely. If the legs look a little underdone, pop them back in the oven for five minutes while you finish the rest. To carve, hold the leg upright by the drumstick and cut straight down through the “knee” joint to divide the leg in half. Use a carving fork to pin the thigh to the carving board and cut away as much of the dark meat as you can in long clean slices.
Finally, carve the breast. Feel for the keel bone, the long, sharp bone that runs down the center of the breast, and cut straight down on one side until you feel the ribs underneath. Use the carving knife and fork to follow the bones, lifting the breast off in one piece. Now carve it in cross-wise slices and repeat with the other side.
Arrange the meat on a warm platter as you go, putting the dark meat at one end and the white at the other, to make choosing easier.
If anything looks a little dry, spoon over a little of the pan juices or gravy.
One last thing: Forget that Norman Rockwell painting of the carving done at the dinner table. Because watching the carving without being able to eat is just going to drive everybody crazy. Plus, it’s nice to have a little privacy in case things don’t go as smoothly as planned.
At least now you know where the dark meat comes from.
Dry-brined turkey with seasoned salt
1 (12- to 16-pound) turkey
Kosher salt or any one of the seasoned salts (see below)
1. Wash the turkey inside and out, pat it dry and weigh it. Measure 1 tablespoon of kosher salt or the appropriate amount of a seasoned salt into a bowl for every 5 pounds the turkey weighs (for a 15-pound turkey, you’d have 3 tablespoons kosher salt).
2. Sprinkle the inside of the turkey lightly with salt. Place the turkey on its back and salt the breasts, concentrating the salt in the center, where the meat is thickest. You'll probably use a little more than a tablespoon. It should look liberally seasoned but not oversalted.
3. Turn the turkey on one side and sprinkle the entire side with salt, concentrating on the thigh. Use a little less than a tablespoon. Flip the turkey over and do the same with the other side.
4. Place the turkey in a 2 1 / 2 -gallon sealable plastic bag, press out the air and seal tightly. Place the turkey breast-side up in the refrigerator. Chill for 3 days, leaving it in the bag but turning it and massaging the salt into the skin every day.
5. Remove the turkey from the bag. There should be no salt visible on the surface, and the skin should be moist but not wet. Wipe the turkey dry with a paper towel, place it breast-side up on a plate and refrigerate uncovered for at least 8 hours.
6. On the day it is to be cooked, remove the turkey from the refrigerator and leave it at room temperature at least 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
7. Place the turkey on a roasting rack in a roasting pan; put it in the oven. After 30 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees, and roast until a thermometer inserted in the deepest part of the thigh, but not touching the bone, reads 165 degrees, about 2 3 / 4 hours total roasting.
8. Remove the turkey from the oven, transfer it to a warm platter or carving board; tent loosely with foil. Let stand at least 30 minutes to let the juices redistribute through the meat. Carve and serve.
Smoky spiced salt with orange: Pulse together 1 / 4 cup kosher salt, 1 tablespoon smoked paprika, 1 1 / 2 teaspoons onion powder, 1 / 2 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 / 2 teaspoon ground cumin, 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, 1 / 2 teaspoon brown sugar and 2 teaspoons freshly grated orange zest in a spice grinder or mash them in a mortar and pestle. Makes a little more than 1 / 2 cup. The mixture can be stored in a tightly sealed jar for up to 2 weeks.
Rosemary-lemon salt: Pulse together 1 / 4 cup kosher salt, 4 1 / 2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary and 1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest in a spice grinder or mash them in a mortar and pestle. Makes 1 / 2 cup. The mixture can be stored in a tightly sealed jar for up to 2 weeks.
Sage and bay salt: Pulse together 1 / 4 cup kosher salt, 10 crumbled dried bay leaves, 3 / 4 teaspoon ground sage and 1 / 2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper in a spice grinder or mash them in a mortar and pestle to make a fine powder. Makes 1/3 cup. The mixture can be stored in a tightly sealed jar for up to 2 weeks.