To brine, or not to brine. Roasting vs. frying. Insight into that key ingredient, patience. And wait, what was that about mayonnaise?
Here are some of the valuable tips we gleaned after asking five Twin Cities chefs to share their methods for approaching the Thanksgiving turkey.
First-timers, fear not
"Start by getting rid of the intimidation factor. Think about a turkey like it's a gigantic chicken. It's the same as cooking any bird in the oven, it's just bigger. Break the process down into steps, and you'll find that it's probably related to something you've done before."
— Karyn Tomlinson, Myriel, St. Paul
In favor of a wet brine
"When I brine at home, I use equal parts water and chicken stock, to introduce more flavor to the turkey. Then salt and brown sugar. My brines are based on brown sugar, not white sugar; brown sugar is a more robust, rich flavor. The easiest way would be 1 gallon liquid, 1 cup salt and 1/2 cup brown sugar, plus aromatics: herbs, garlic, onions, a lemon peel, and maybe a couple of slices of ginger peel to give it an edge.
"I try to brine overnight, then I pat it dry. I'll put a layer of canola oil over the whole turkey, then I'll grab a handful of kosher salt and work my way around the bird. The same with freshly cracked black pepper. Then it's ready to go into the oven."
— Denny Leaf-Smith, All Saints, Minneapolis
The dry brine argument
"My technique for roast turkey works every time. The turkey must be fully thawed. The night before cooking, I liberally salt around the entire bird, and inside the cavity, with a fine kosher salt; I use Diamond Crystal, in the red box. Some people add garlic powder or onion powder, but I don't. I really kind of rub it in, over all of the exposed parts of the skin, then hit it with a medium- to fine-cracked black pepper.
"The next day, when I take the turkey out of the refrigerator, I'll rub it with my Thanksgiving compound butter. I'll take room temperature butter and put it in a mixer with freshly chopped garlic, finely chopped parsley and sage, some shallots and a touch of some kind of alcohol, maybe brandy, or bourbon, or white wine. And a touch of celery salt, which really rounds out that beautiful Thanksgiving flavor.
"I'll whip it up until it increases in volume, and then I'll rub the entire turkey with it. I'll deposit a good amount of it in the cavity, and I'll work the butter between the skin and the breast meat.
"Then it's ready to roast. I'll use that compound butter as a component in everything. It takes mashed potatoes to a totally different place."
— Thomas Boemer, Revival in Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Louis Park
Bring out the Hellmann's
"Mayonnaise is the secret to a crispy skin. I know that people like to rub butter on a turkey, but I like mayonnaise. It gives the turkey an even browning. It doesn't run down the side of the turkey, it sticks to it a little better than butter. And it keeps the inside extremely moist.
"I use tons of mayonnaise and rub it all over the bird, just a thin coating. It's kind of gross, for sure, but it works. You have to make sure that the skin is absolutely dry before you rub in the mayonnaise, and you have to use real mayonnaise."
— Adam Eaton, Saint Dinette, St. Paul
"When we were making a turkey, my son kept looking inside the cavity, and he finally said, 'Dad, I think there's a toy in there!' Never fill the cavity with stuffing. It never works out, it's not a controlled situation. The only thing you should put in there is aromatics, and tons of them. Sage, rosemary, garlic, any citrus you have lying around, salt and pepper. That's all you need."
— Mike Brown, Travail Kitchen and Amusements, Robbinsdale
"The turkey should temper a bit before it's roasted. Let it sit on the counter for about an hour or two, so it doesn't go into the oven stone cold. You don't want it blasted by heat on the outside while it stays cold on the inside."
— Karyn Tomlinson
Don't touch that dial
"Try to cook at a consistent temperature, maybe 350 degrees the entire time. I don't like to change temperatures with any cooking that I'm doing. Every oven is different, which is why I'd rather do low, slow and uncovered; no tenting with foil. If the bird is done but the skin isn't golden, that's an easy fix. At the end, just crank the heat up to broil for the last few minutes of cooking time. It's so much harder to have the skin done but the flesh not done, rather than vice versa."
— Adam Eaton
Into the fryer
"Some of the worst turkey that I've ever had was fried, and some of the best turkey that I've ever had was fried. When people fry a turkey, they will often set a temperature and drop it in the fryer. That's a mistake. Frying is an efficient cooking mechanism, but frying a turkey in a sustained 325 degrees can give you a tough bird.
"That's why every restaurant that serves quality chicken wings knows to blanch the chicken wings first, frying them in a lower temperature — 185 to 225 degrees — for a longer period of time, then finishing them at a higher temperature.
"With turkey, fry with the oil at that lower temperature, until the turkey reaches about 145 degrees. Pull it out and let it cool a little as you increase the heat in the fryer to 350 degrees. Then you drop the turkey back in and finish it. You're almost doing a confit, followed by a second step for crisping. This two-stage fry is a bit more fuss, but man, the results are a different world."
— Thomas Boemer
Give it a rest
"The hardest part is at the end. I take the turkey out of the oven when the internal temperature is about 158-ish degrees. Everyone says 160, or 165. But for a large bird, the internal temperature will continue to rise after you take it out of the oven, so I pull it a little earlier.
"But whenever you take it out, don't touch it. Much like when you cook a steak on the grill, all you want to do is cut into it. But don't. Wait. Give the turkey time to redistribute all the juices. Rather than carve the turkey, find entertainment somewhere else. Make a lap around the room. Fill empty glasses. Just do something. I try for at least 20 minutes. Twenty-five would be pretty great."
— Denny Leaf-Smith