How to cook a turkey

This isn’t the only way, but it is a good way. It is also the hardest way that I’ve done it.

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 The Way to Cook by Julia Child. 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.

Comments

  1. #1 MadScientist
    November 9, 2009

    I’ll have to collect some other Julia Child cookbooks; all I have is a tattered “The French Chef Cookbook”. Some recipes require a lot of patience and skill though. I tried to rush some croissants one day and they ended up looking like sausages. Texture, smell, and taste were all fine but the appearance needed some work. The lesson was that it isn’t possible to make traditional croissants in 6 hours.

  2. #2 Dacks
    November 9, 2009

    “But it is not for the feint of heart….”
    Love it! What a picture this conjures. Somehow palpitations jump into my mind…

    Hope your almost-number #2 child is doing well, and that Mama is hanging in. In my pregnancies, the last month was – JUST get this over with, OK!

  3. #3 Wowbagger
    November 9, 2009

    Sounds damn good, Greg – now all I need do is find an excuse to celebrate Thanksgiving in Australia. Oh, and hope that the weather on the 25th is a little less severe here than it is today; the forecast temperature for where I am is around 100°F – not exactly hot turkey weather…

  4. #4 Stephanie Z
    November 9, 2009

    Inspired by last year’s post on this, we went somewhat simpler (mostly due to cooking in a tiny kitchen that wasn’t ours) and spatchcocked the Thanksgiving turkey before cooking it over the stuffing. It was quite lovely and much quicker.

    This year, we’re back to our kitchen and smoker, though, and stuffing the turkeys with herbs/spices/fruit under the skin before grilling.

  5. #5 Lou Doench
    November 9, 2009

    And people think my overnight brine bird is complex.

  6. #6 peter
    November 9, 2009

    fun variation, if you’re careful, you can actually extract most of the skeleton without slicing it open first, and you end up with what is essentially a turkey tube. fill with stuffing, truss tightly and roast as normal.

    the end result can be sliced like bread. doesn’t have the browned interior, but very good nonetheless. also works well with smaller chickens.

  7. #7 JenW
    November 9, 2009

    Last year (after reading your post) I was inspired to try this. But leery of doing it for the first time with a 20+ pound turkey. I asked our grocery store butcher if they’d do it. They said “um….no.” (So much for all those Food Network folk saying “just ask your butcher…they’ll be happy to *do whatever with meat* for you).

    We promised ourselves we’d try it with a chicken first… but haven’t gotten around to it. Thanks for the reminder!

  8. #8 Dorid
    November 9, 2009

    or you can merely go to Trader Joe’s and get a cranberry apple stuffed turkey breast and throw it in the oven… which is what I do. After 3 decades of cooking turkeys, I’ve decided simple is good.

    and it’s delicious.

  9. #9 Leigh Williams
    November 10, 2009

    Then again, if you’re as organized as I am (which is to say, not at all), you can follow this recipe:

    On the night before Thanksgiving, at 11:00 o’clock when you’ve finally finished making pies, realize that your bird is still frozen solid. Pause to panic if this is the first time you’ve screwed up so badly.

    Put the frozen turkey in a turkey-sized Brown-n-Bag and a suitably-sized pan. This is a two-man operation, but even so, the bag may break and the turkey may bounce off the floor (be sure to have spare bags on hand). If this happens, just rinse and repeat, being more careful. Cool down the oven (still hot after the pie-making) to about 200 degrees. Shove the turkey into the oven and go to bed.

    On Thanksgiving morning, remember the turkey in the oven. This is not hard since it will smell good. Take it out and remove it from the bag; it will be somewhat pallid and saggy. Dismember it, if it’s not already in pieces, but keep the skin on. Use the good juice to make southern-style dressing in a separate pan. Throw some salt and maybe some sage and thyme on the turkey pieces. Put them, arranged as attractively as you can manage, back in a hotter oven to crisp up and brown.

    Slice it all up and serve it to 75 hungry family members who will like it just fine, but who really came for the dressing and pies anyway.

    This recipe also works well if you catch turkeys on sale after the holidays. Just load up freezer bags with the meat, and you’re ready to make casseroles or turkey-and-dumplings for quite a while.

    I used to cook for real, but I went to survival mode when the twins were toddlers and the girls were young teenagers. Expectations around my personal Chaos Manor are accordingly pretty low.

  10. #10 Jason
    November 10, 2009

    After seeing this last year, I tried a variation where I made two piles under the turkey. One stuffing and the other a vietnamese rice dish. Wonderful.

  11. #11 Hypatia's Daughter
    November 11, 2009

    I saw (& tasted) this at a Boy Scout exhibition and my husband has cooked several turkeys this way: Turkey in a bucket. Not at all hard and very tasty – like beer can chicken but on a bigger scale. (On cold / windy days it may take longer to cook as the bucket doesn’t heat up as much inside.)
    Leigh Williams #9 – I don’t think cooking poultry at low temps (200 deg) is recommended – but I am no expert on the subject.

  12. #12 Nina Hoffman
    November 18, 2009

    Greg, your post had me laughing aloud! Always a nice thing in the middle of the workday. I’m Editorial Director for RecipeLion.com, a free cooking and recipe website, and I’m sure our readers will enjoy your post as well. To that end, I’ve linked to it from a post of my own:
    http://blog.recipelion.com/how-to-cook-a-traditional-turkey/

    Please feel free to link back to us, and keep up the good work! Thanks for making me laugh.

    Nina

  13. #13 Joan
    November 22, 2009

    Hooray! Someone else who remembers this dish! I’ve been doing our turkey this way for years (decades?), after learning by watching Julia on TV. Just wish there was some reliable way to figure out a timetable for when the feast would be done. We always seem to be either waiting on the turkey, or having the turkey wait for everything else. But then, isn’t that often the way – no matter how you cook your turkey?! Give it a try, it really isn’t all that challenging.

  14. #14 David
    May 17, 2010

    Well, it certainly sounds delicious, and a real workout for the chef, but why is it, no matter what method I read, the predicition is that it will be flavorful, moister, and tastier. AT least you didn’t say it would be the best, then I would be suspicious. Guess I just have to try myself.

  15. #15 Tom
    November 26, 2011

    It took me a little while, but I found this:

    There are three parts in all. From your description, I believe this is how you’re preparing your turkey.

    It’s too late for Thanksgiving this year, but I can practice it a couple times to be sure I have it right for next year. (And in the mean time, I get to eat turkey and stuffing homework).

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