January 10, 2011

Not Just for Thanksgiving, Part 1: Turkey, Stuffing and Gravy

Over the New Year's weekend, Juli and I made a roast turkey with gravy and stuffing, mashed potatoes, rolls, cranberry sauce and a sweet potato casserole.  A lot of people think of such a meal only in connection with Thanksgiving, or perhaps Christmas, but we both love turkey, and we both love making a sort of feast in conjunction with a roast turkey.  In addition, that weekend was also our anniversary weekend, so something a bit celebratory was called for.

I cooked up the turkey in a Reynolds Oven Bag.   A lot of cooking purists aren't fond of this method, and I've seen some cooking articles really dismiss this way of cooking a turkey.  In the October/November 2010 issue of Cook's Country, for example, Diane Unger describes the results of her cooking a turkey in a bag as providing lots of juices for gravy and rendering the turkey quite juicy, but also described the turkey as "pale, its skin flabby, the meat at the bottom waterlogged."  That's never been my experience - quite the contrary, I've found this method always results in a moist, perfectly-cooked turkey with browned skin, not the least bit flabby or waterlogged.   I've always just taken for granted the bird would end up this way, so this time around I paid a bit more attention, to see if I could puzzle out why my experience with cooking a turkey in a bag has been so much better than that of many others.

One thing I realized right away was that I almost always cook the turkey stuffed.  It takes longer for a stuffed turkey to cook, and that extra time is probably one reason why I don't end up with a pale-looking, flabby turkey.  Plus, I note that the aforementioned article's author followed the minimalist - and, frankly, inadequate - directions provided along with the bags.  She just sprinkled the bag with flour, lightly oiled the turkey, tossed it in the bag with chopped celery, carrot and onion, cut a few tiny vent openings in the bag and bakes the bird.  That probably would result in a pale, sickly-looking bird.   But that's not what I do.

Before.  Here's the turkey, stuffed,
prepared and in the bag.
After.  Here's the finished turkey, ready to carve.

First off, I rub the turkey with seasoned butter, and rub some more under the skin over the breast.  As the turkey cooks, the butter and seasonings help the skin brown.   Second of all, as mentioned earlier, I always cook the turkey stuffed.  On this occasions I made a Simple Apple-Cranberry Stuffing by chopping and adding some fresh fruit to Stove Top Stuffing.  As I noted before, the stuffed turkey takes longer to cook, which gives the turkey skin more time to brown, plus the stuffing absorbs some of the juices as the turkey cooks, which probably helps avoid the waterlogged results Ms. Unger notes.

I also make longer slits across the top of the baking bag - three to four inches wide, as opposed to the half-inch slits called for in the directions included with the oven bags.  Although this allows a bit of the juices released from the turkey to cook off, what remains is more than ample, and the venting helps the turkey brown.

Finally, I skip the carrots, but add a double portion of onions and celery to the bag, along with two sliced-up apples, all of it sliced into large chunks and the turkey placed atop them.   This flavors the turkey juices with apple, which makes for a great gravy, and it also lifts the cooking turkey a bit, which probably also helps keep the turkey from being waterlogged. 

Now, mind you, I'm not saying the bag method is the only way to cook a turkey, or even the best way.   In fact, if you follow the directions in the oven bag packaging too closely, bag-baking will probably not give you a very good result.  If you change up a few things, though, bag cooking can be a perfectly valid way to roast a turkey, and the advantages provided by this method - less mess, wonderfully moist meat, ample juice for making gravy - make it my go-to method.

Jeffrey's Turkey-in-a-Bag Recipe

3            6 ounce boxes Stove Top stuffing
4 1/2      cups chicken broth
8            tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus
              3 tablespoons, softened
1            turkey-size oven bag
1            turkey, 18-20 lbs
2            tablespoons all-purpose flour
2            large onions, peeled and thickly-sliced
2            large stalks celery, sliced into pieces 3-4 inches long
2            Granny Smith apples, cored and each sliced into 8
1 1/2      teaspoons kosher salt
1            teaspoon garlic powder
3/4         teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/2         teaspoon dried sage
1/2         teaspoon dried thyme

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Add chicken broth and one stick unsalted butter to a Dutch oven over high heat.  Bring to a boil, stir in contents of stuffing envelopes, cover and remove from heat.  Let stand 5 minutes, then uncover and set aside to cool.

Add flour to oven bag and shake.  Arrange bag in large roasting pan, then onion slices, celery pieces and apple slices evenly across bottom of bag. 

Remove the neck and giblets from the turkey.  Wash the turkey inside and out, then dry with paper towels.  Stuff cavity of turkey with the stuffing, being careful to not over-stuff or heavily pack the stuffing.  Excess stuffing can be stuffed into the neck cavity and beneath the skin in that part of the turkey.

In a small bowl, combine 3 tablespoons softened butter with kosher salt, garlic powder, black pepper, sage and thyme.  Use fingers to loosen skin over both sides of the turkey breast and to spread half the butter mixture over the breasts beneath the loosened skin.  Rub the remainder of the butter mixture over the turkey breast and legs. 

Place turkey in the oven bag, seal the bag and tuck the ends of the bag into the pan.  Roast for two hours, then rotate the baking pan.  Cook another 90 minutes or until a meat thermometer reads 160 degrees when placed in the thickest part of the breast or 175 degrees in the thigh.  Remove from the oven and keep the turkey covered for at least 10 minutes or until you are ready to carve it. 

The version of seasoned butter I detail above is simply one option, albeit the one I go with most often.  You can get a different flavor by using different seasonings, of course.   I've sometimes made a more fruit-flavored seasoned butter, using orange zest and one of the Penzeys Spice seasoning mixes that include some fruit flavors.  One could make a Southwestern version (using cumin, cayenne, sage and black pepper), or any number of other possibilities.

Stove-Top prepared per the box directions isn't particularly good, in my opinion, but with a little work, it can turn out pretty good.   The following my suggestions for making it good.

1)  Use chicken broth instead of water.   This really boosts the flavor of the stuffing.

2)  Use less butter than is called for in the directions.   Less butter = healthier, plus you get enough flavor from the chicken broth that you can get by with less butter.   The directions call for 1/2 stick of butter per box of stuffing.   I used one stick for three boxes, cutting the butter by 1/3.

3)  Add something else to the stuffing for extra flavor and texture.  Fresh or dried fruit and nuts are particularly good choices for perking up the boring stuffing.

4)  Use the stuffing to stuff the bird, rather than eating it from the stove top.  Spending some time inside the bird gives the stuffing a better texture and richer flavor. 

Apple-Cranberry Stuffing
Peel and core one Granny Smith apple and dice into 1/4 inch pieces.  Prepare Stove Top stuffing as detailed above, but adding the diced apple and one cup fresh cranberries to the Dutch oven along with the chicken broth and butter. 

For me, one of the highlights of making a turkey is gravy.   Below is a simple recipe for turkey gravy.  It's pretty much foolproof, but I've nonetheless found that it always turns out better when Juli makes the gravy than when I try it.   She's just got a knack, I guess.

Turkey Gravy

2            cups pan juices from cooked turkey, fat skimmed off
1            tablespoon chicken soup base
1            tablespoon corn starch dissolved in 2 teaspoons
              cold water
              salt and pepper to taste

Pour the pan juice into a large saucepan over medium heat.  Stir in soup base.

When the liquid comes to boil, stir in the corn starch mixture.   In order to avoid lumps, continue to stir constantly until the gravy reaches the desired consistency.   Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve atop mashed potatoes, meat slices and/or stuffing.

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