A good way to cook a turkey

You have time but time can go by very quickly and suddenly Thanksgiving is upon you. This repost from one year ago may help you plan your turkey-day meal.

My daughter, Julia, is named after two people. One of them is Julia Child. I happen to think Julia Child has had more influence on American society than most other people, by helping to make varied and interesting cuisine part of American culture.

One day when Julia was a very young child (my Julia, not Julia Child), I was out walking her in her carriage. I turned the corner around the Van Serg Building on the Harvard Campus and practically ran into Julia Child, who was walking in the other direction on her daily constitutional.

“Oh, what a cute child,” she said. (And she was a cute child, I assure you.) “What’s her name.”

Well, that was an interesting conversation…..

Anyway, I want to suggest that you use a recipe invented by Julia Child for cooking your Thanksgiving Turkey this year. It is called “Laid Back Turkey.” It is, in my view, the best possible way to cook a turkey.

But it is not for the feint of heart….

You can find more specific instructions in one or more of Julia’s books. Julia made this on her show once, so somewhere out there is a video of this process. Here, I’ll just give you the basic idea. If you are the kind of person to even try this, the you are also surely willing to experiment and take some chances. All you should really need is the basic theory. If you are the kind of cook who prefers specific instructions and actually follows recipes, then hang up now…

The first thing you need to do is to remove all but a few of the bones from the bird.

Lay the uncooked turkey on it’s front. Slice down to the bone along the spine. Use this slit as the starting point to expose the entire skeleton, working your way around the rib cage, etc., all of which you will remove except for the wing bones and the distal leg bones. Cut through the wing and leg joints at this point in order to free the “outer” part of the bird from the main skeleton.

Caution: As you work your way around to the front … to the breastbone … your chances of cutting through the skin increases. Don’t do this.

When you’ve got the skeleton out of the turkey, lay the deboned bird on it’s front, the livid, exposed flesh facing up. Brush this with an appropriate oil based marinade. I recommend half grape seed oil and half olive oil with lots of thyme, some black pepper, and a little salt.

In the mean time, make a huge pile of stuffing. Put this pile on a flat pan with very low sides big enough to hold the turkey. You are going to lay the turkey on this pile later. If possible, put the stuffing on a cookie sheet that, in turn, fits into a large low-sided baking pan. You can even fashion the pan from aluminum foil or from those disposable pans you get in the spice and cooking supply aisle of your basic grocery store. You’ll see later why this method … the cookie sheet set into a pan … is useful.

Now, back to the turkey. You’ve got the exposed flesh facing up, and you’ve put it on some kind of a pan, temporarily. Fire up the broiler and slide the bird in there. Watch it closely. You want to brown the exposed flesh and hopefully get it cooked a quarter to a half inch deep. The more cooking at this stage, without burning, the better.

Now, take the large, floppy bird that is now covered with hot oil (so be careful!) and lay it flesh side down over the big pile of stuffing. Brush the skin, which is now facing up, with your favorite substance for these purposes. I recommend coating the skin with oil and sprinkling copious amounts of dried green spice (thyme and basil … avoid oregano) for this purpose.

Put this in the oven and cook until done. It will take a fraction of the time that a “normal” turkey will take. It is also a good idea to make sure the stuffing is not cold … in fact, it could be heated up in advance .. when you put the turkey on there. You want to avoid partly cooking bird-meat, cooling it down, then cooking it again. Makes it a bit rubbery.

Now, here comes the fun part.

When the bird is done, wrangle it onto a huge cutting board, big enough to hold this laid back bird. This is where the cookie sheet inside the big pan is helpful. To cut the turkey properly, you don’t want it in the pan, but you’ll need the cookie sheet to keep it stable while you move it. There will also be a significant amount of drainage of juices during this process. So have a mop handy. Might be good to wear rubber boots with a good tread, as the floor tends to get slippery at this stage.

Get a whopping big knife, which you have sharpened, the biggest spatula you have (maybe two) and possibly something large and flat and metal like a cookie sheet cut in half down the long axis. Maybe a flattened hubcap. Whatever you’ve got that is big and flat and thin.

Having an assistant help you with this step is a good idea, if it is someone you work well with.

Get the plates ready … the plates you will be serving dinner on.

Cut the laid back turkey right down the middle, the long way, in half. Using large flat devices, separate the two halves by a couple of inches.

Now, cut a slice about a third of an inch from this freshly exposed cut … so you are cutting a saggital section from near the midline of the bird. Use your flat devices to keep this slice from falling apart, angle it onto the flat surface, and move it over to one of the plates. Now, carefully slide this big slice onto a plate. You will probably have to curve the ends in to make it fit on the plate.

Now, look at what you’ve done. You have a slice of white meat and a slice of dark meat, nestled along side a slice of stuffing, all in one glorious unit. Because both forms of meat will cook much more nicely with this method than the usual ways of cooking turkey, your guests will enjoy both even if they’ve come to the table with preconceptions about their preference for dark vs. light meat.

Repeat this slicing operation, working from both halves of the turkey. As you work your way laterally, make the slices a bit thicker if you want all of the servings to be similar in total mass.

If the slicing piece of this does not work well, don’t worry. Just cut the bird up and serve as normal. The flavor will be far superior to any other method you’ve ever tried, and the meat will be moister and tastier.

An interesting variation of Laid Back Turkey is Laid Back Flock. Here, you get a few birds, like a few of Cornish game hens, two big chickens, and a medium sized turkey. You totally fillet the smaller birds (cut off the wings and the distal legs and get rid of the skin) and arrange them over the giant pile of stuffing, and cover them all with the turkey. This can produce astounding results.

The frame of the turkey can be used for stock. Also, don’t forget to make some excellent gravy to go on this dish. I’ll provide a suggested recipe for gravy and some hints for making stock shortly.


  1. #1 Scott Simmons
    November 10, 2008

    If you want really radical recipes, you need to watch the Swedish Chef. That makes for an exciting Thanksgiving.
    1. Buy a huge, live turkey.
    2. Chase it around your kitchen with a carving knife, yelling, “Bork, bork, bork!”
    I’ve never gotten to step 3.

  2. #2 uncle noel
    November 10, 2008

    Mon Dieu! – that’s a lot of work. I slow roast on a grill (covered) with lots of rosemary and garlic. It is good and smoky.

  3. #3 HP
    November 10, 2008

    The best turkey I ever made:

    1. Roast the turkey at fairly high heat for exactly half the recommended cooking time. It will be nicely browned on the outside and raw on the inside.

    2. Remove from oven, and immediately wrap it in a couple layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Wrap the foil-covered bird in old bath towels, and then in another layer of foil.

    3. Place the now-insulated bird in a big Coleman camp cooler, and load into your car.

    4. Drive two hours in subzero weather to some distant relatives of your then-wife for some stupid party you don’t want to go to.

    5. Stand around in a room full of strangers for two more hours, until people decide they’re ready to eat.

    6. Remove bird from cooler, unwrap, and carve. It should be steaming hot, perfectly cooked down to the bone, and running with juices.

  4. #4 S.Scott
    November 10, 2008

    I am sorry to say that I did not read the entire post because *I* have the best method for turkey preparation on the planet!!!

    My hubby does it! 🙂

  5. #5 MPM
    November 10, 2008

    I just throw the whole turkey into the autoclave on the 20 minute sterilization cycle. Blammo! That’s a juicy bird.

  6. #6 Carlie
    November 10, 2008

    I turned the corner around the Van Serg Building on the Harvard Campus and practically ran into Julia Child, who was walking in the other direction on her daily constitutional.

    And have you stopped kicking yourself yet for not having a camera on you at the time? 🙂

    My turkey method – put in turkey bag. Put in oven. Leave it. Come back when the little thermometer pops out. Hey, it goes well with the Stove Top stuffing. (I kid!)

  7. #7 Ganf
    November 10, 2008

    I prefer Turducken myself. A boned chicken stuffed inside a boned duck, stuffed inside a boned turkey. One can go so far as to put an egg inside the chicken first, but I think that is entirely too much work. Oh, and stuffing in the chicken, duck and turkey of a composition to your liking. Cook at low heat 200deg F for 12-14 hours. Baste regularly.

  8. #8 Brian X
    November 10, 2008

    I’ve discovered that you can get a really, really nice turkey by steaming it and then rubbing it with oil and putting it on high heat for ten to fifteen minutes. It’s a Chinese technique. Unfortunately, it’s one I haven’t mastered.

  9. #9 Brian X
    November 10, 2008

    Incidentally, Greg, if you need a cite the recipe is on page 159 of The Way To Cook. Not only that, she’s got an even stranger one involving deconstructing the turkey and putting it back together for serving.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    November 10, 2008

    Thank you. Somebody else has my copy of that book, although I learned it by watching her do it. It makes a lot more sense that way.

  11. #11 chezjake
    November 10, 2008

    Sounds quite good. (Can you clarify a bit? Is the second oven period done at normal oven temps or are you still broiling?)

    My favorite turkey quote — from Cap Huff, the Maine woodsman and guide in Kenneth Roberts’ classic Northwest Passage: “A turkey is an embarrassing bird; it’s more than one man can eat, but not enough for two.”

  12. #12 Benjamin Geiger
    November 10, 2008

    I have to say I’m more a fan of Alton Brown’s method: brine, then cook with a aluminum chestpiece over the white meat for most of the roasting time. Hold the stuffing. (He has recanted on the subject of stuffing. I just don’t like it, and it’s more hassle than it’s worth.)

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    November 10, 2008

    Sounds quite good. (Can you clarify a bit? Is the second oven period done at normal oven temps or are you still broiling?)

    Regular oven temps.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    November 10, 2008

    Well, it went back to 206. Norm Coleman is probably getting soused on expensive taxpayer-funded champaign and groping the waitrons.

  15. #15 Doug Alder
    November 11, 2008

    I’ve done something similar with boned chicken and pistachio stuffing. One thing I would highly recommend is to brine any bird you are going to roast, be it turkey, chicken, pheasant – whatever. Brining will drive salt into the meat and give you a much more flavorful and moist bird, regardless of how you cook it.

    2 qt of water
    1/2 cup of salt
    1/2 cup of sugar (optional if you’re a diabetic – try adding some Splenda instead)

    whisk until completely dissolved then let the chicken (increase amounts for a turkey of course) sit completely covered in this mixture for a minimum of 2 hours (overnight is great) in the fridge. Drain rinse dry proceed as normal

  16. #16 WRMartin
    November 13, 2008

    I second (and third if I’m allowed) the brining of the bird. Another nice technique for cooking chicken, which should work on other fowl, is to remove the backbone and lay it flat with the skin side up for cooking. To keep the smoke to a minimum and made some decadent potatoes at the same time line a broiling pan with foil and place thinly sliced potatoes (a mandolin slicer is your friend here) that have been drizzled with oil and sprinkled with salt & pepper in neat layers on the foil. Put the top of the broiling pan over the potatoes in the bottom half then put the bird on the top and cook at 475F for 45-55 minutes. After cooking, place the chicken on a platter or cutting board, remove the foil covered potatoes by flipping the mass over onto a cookie sheet or some other flat-ish surface and carefully peel back the foil. Yummy potatoes and evenly cooked juicy chicken.