Stuck with Turkey? Some Ways to Make It Better

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This being Thanksgiving week, you can expect to find a lot of talk about turkey. Everyone with a pen and a pan thinks they have something meaningful to impart. Some say you should brine your bird; others suggest suffusing it with smoke, or plunging it, feet first, into a cauldron of boiling oil. Progressive types demand you embrace the cruelty-free, flat-chested bird of yore, the heritage turkey. Others say you should bail on turkey entirely. (This is my own position, a cause I've advocated for years, to absolutely no effect. Even I don't listen to me.) I recently wrote about three cooks who are trying to do something different this Thanksgiving, but for those of you who aren't molecular gastronomists, farmers or part-time vegans, here are a few of the ways you can make this year's turkey better than the one eaten by your parents.

Unless you run a soup kitchen, it's unlikely you'll be serving Thanksgiving stew to family and friends. Which is a shame, because the most primitive form of cookery is basically the best when it comes to turkey. Part of the reason turkey generally lacks any flavor is that we eat it too young. An old tom, leathery and red from years of walking around looking stupid, has immensely more flavor, and gives every bit of it up to a long, winey stewing. Think turk au vin.

Turkey, like its more flavorful cousin, chicken, takes well to hardwood fumes. And now, with more Americans taking up the tongs and seeking to master the smoky arts, they have the means to do so. A full-scale professional barbecue cooker is just the thing, of course, but a Weber will do, even an apartment-size one. But don't bother to try to do it in the oven, either with moistened wood chips or a contraption like the Smoking Gun. The smoke won't get more than a millimeter deep. Although I guess that's better than nothing.

Don't do this.

Sous Vide
One of the most revolutionary cooking techniques to come along, well, ever, is the art of vacuum simmering, usually called sous vide. Basically you take your food, seal it up in a vacuum bag, set a warm-water bath at exactly the temperature you want the food to be, and put the bag in. Then you walk away and watch all 12 episodes of Shogun, or take a nap, listen to The Wall, drive around, say hello to your friends, maybe clean and oil your firearms. It doesn't matter — the thing can't overcook. And you can get a ton of flavor into it because it's easy to lock it in with any kind of seasoning or infused oil you want. Grant Achatz, possibly the greatest of all American modernist cooks, demonstrates in this video.

The Other Bag
I'm not saying it's glamorous. In the cooking-bag universe, sous vide is a Chanel clutch, and the Reynolds cooking bag is whatever is on sale at T.J. Maxx — but that doesn't mean that it doesn't work. It does. In fact, for a novice cook, there's not a single thing more useful for preparing a less tasteless, less desiccated turkey than usual than this simple, ugly, crinkled, bizarre-looking product, which produces the promised results each and every time.

Only a few years ago, deep-fried turkey was still a freakish Southern custom, like deep-frying Oreos or hunting squirrels. Now every burgher with a propane burner and a 5-qt. stockpot is ready to fry him up some turkey. The method actually works surprisingly well, producing a crisp skin and fairly juicy bird in a fraction of the roasting time. But, unfortunately, it still tastes like turkey. But what if someone were to soak turkey parts in buttermilk, dredge them in flour and fry them in tallow in a cast-iron pan? What would happen then?

What we call roasting isn't really roasting in the classical sense — it's baking. There's no direct heat source, no turning on a spit, just constant dry heat murdering the bird a second time. Generally, the lowest possible temperature you can get away with is best, with a quick flash of heat at the start to get the browning going. The most important thing to know about roasting poultry is this: get it to stand up. When birds are positioned upright on their haunches, they cook evenly, and even baste themselves to some extent. This is why beer-can chicken is so good; it's just as good on a poultry stand like this one. I also tend to wrap my turkey in caul fat, but I'm weird.

You know how those attractive ham steaks you buy in the supermarket look so good but won't brown in the pan? It's because they, like so many of our meats, are injected with various savory fluids and/or water to make them heavier. (Note to self: Find way to sell things by the pound that are mostly water.) This technique actually works very well for turkey, which is why Butterball-type turkeys are good. But why not just use a marinade? Garlic is good. Hot sauce is good. Butter and beer and turkey stock are good too. Technically, this isn't a mode of cooking, but it's so useful that it would be remiss not to mention it here.

I'm not saying any of these techniques will make the turkey exponentially better. They won't. But the hard fact about Thanksgiving is that it's pretty much defined by turkey, and as the consensus No. 2 holiday in America (Christmas being first, obviously), it will have its way with us. But, given a little ingenuity and a willingness to take a risk, we might yet have our way with it too. The tyranny of turkey can't go on forever.

Ozersky is a James Beard Award–winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for, appears every Wednesday.