Ah the Thanksgiving turkey. Is there anything more iconic and American than the picture of a perfectly roasted tom sitting on a well set table? If there is, perhaps it’s the frazzled cook who is trying to make their turkey look that good. Someone who is swearing under their breath at the frozen chunk of ice that is supposed to be Thanksgiving dinner the next day. Today we’re going to cover some tips on how to do an emergency defrost of a turkey and some alternate ways of cooking your bird.
Last Minute Defrosting
Okay, so ideally, you’re going to start thawing your turkey early. According to all the research it takes about 24 hours in the fridge for every 4 pounds of turkey. So if you have a 16 pound bird, you want to start thawing that baby Saturday morning. That gives you an extra day, which is fine. Turkeys are good for up to 4 days after thawing in a standard 40-degree Fahrenheit fridge. (Bacteria grow from 36 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit). You can use that extra day to brine your bird.
But what happens when it’s the day before Thanksgiving and you have a turkey that needs defrosted? It happens. Sometimes you need an extra bird to feed unexpected additions to your guest list. Other times, you’ve just forgotten. Whatever the reason, here’s how you do it. Get yourself a 5 gallon bucket (or a bucket that will fit your turkey with a couple of inches on each side to spare). Put it in your bathtub or shower and fill the bucket with cold water. Weigh the turkey down so it doesn’t float (we used a five pound plate from a weight set) and then turn the water on so that you get a slow trickle into the bucket. This immersion method will thaw your turkey quickly, taking about 1/2 hour per pound. So that 16 pound turkey should be ready in about 8 hours.
If you have a couple of days, you should wet brine your bird. You can actually combine this with the immersion method of defrosting, but you need a large cooler that will fit your frozen bird. Take 3 cups of hot water and one cup of salt and stir until the salt is dissolved. Pour it into your cooler. Then add ten cups of cold water. Put your naked bird in the cooler and fill it with cold water until the water covers the turkey. Put the lid on the cooler and let it go for the recommended time (1/2 hour per pound). The frozen bird will keep the water temperature low enough so that bacteria won’t grow. Once it’s thawed, move the bird to a pan and prep it for cooking. We recommend spatchcocking.
Spatchcocking is a term used for when a bird (turkey, chicken, quail, Cornish hen, goose, etc.) is split open and laid flat. You can think of it like cutting the bird in half to even out the cooking time, but the halves are still connected. It looks really complicated, but it’s very easy to do. While this method does remove the traditional picturesque bird, the results are wonderful; you’ll never go back to traditional roasting again.
Spatchcocking is easy. Take your thawed turkey and lay it on a board breast side down. Take a good pair of kitchen shears and cut along one side of the backbone, starting from the thigh end. Then repeat on the other side. Remove the backbone and set aside for making stock. When cutting out the backbone, don’t try to get super close to the spine. You’re not going to lose a lot of meat, so don’t worry. Now flip your turkey over and flatten it out by pressing on the breastbone.
That’s it. Your bird is now spatchcocked. Take a regular cookie sheet and line it with foil. Toss in roughly chopped carrots, onions, and celery as well as some aromatic herbs such as thyme and a couple of bay leaves. You can lay your dry-brined bird skin side up directly on the veggies, but we prefer to use a rack to allow drippings to collect more easily.
So, this method of cooking has a couple of huge advantages. First, all the skin is on top, which means all of the skin is going to get crispy. And who doesn’t love crispy skin? Secondly, because the turkey is now flat, cooking time has been drastically reduced. You aren’t cooking a basketball anymore, you’re cooking a rectangle. Instead of the traditional 350 at 6 hours, you’re going to roast this bird at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for about 90 minutes. Start checking the temperature at about 75 minutes with a good quality thermometer. You’re aiming for the breast and thighs to hit 150. Once they do, take the bird out and let it rest for about twenty minutes. This will get you crispy skin, a juicy breast, and dark meat that is heavenly. In short, everything you really want from a bird.
There are a couple of drawbacks to spatchcocking. First, you can’t stuff the bird. Which, you really shouldn’t do anyway, because of bacteria and the risk of illness. Secondly, you aren’t going to get that greeting card-esque bird on your table that you can carve in front of everyone and make all Norman Rockwell with. What you will get, however, is a great tasting turkey with something for everyone. Trust us. Once you spatchcock one bird, you’ll never go back to traditional roasting ever again.
That’s right, we did tell you to dry brine the bird. Ideally, you’re going to spatchcock your bird a couple of days before Thanksgiving, dry brine it, then cook it two hours before dinner is set to begin. A dry brine is essentially a seasoned salt rub that does two things. First, it draws moisture out of the turkey through osmosis. Then, the seasoned moisture gets sucked back into the turkey, bringing with it delicious flavor and juiciness.
First, make your salt mixture. Add 1/4 cup kosher salt, 1 tsp black pepper, and 2 tsp of thyme, sage, and rosemary (about 2/3 tsp. of each). Mix thoroughly.
Take your spatchcocked turkey and run your hands underneath the skin, loosening it from the meat. Start by sprinkling some salt in the cavity. Now flip the bird over and rub about 2 tsp into the thighs and legs under the skin. Rub 4 tsp. into the breasts under the skin. Now sprinkle the rest of the salt over the entire bird on the outside of the skin. Put the bird in the fridge uncovered until it’s time to cook. Don’t pat it dry before you put the bird in the oven.
That’s it. Next week in our four-part series, we’re going to talk about sides. We’ll talk about how to make gravy that doesn’t have lumps, the best sweet potato casserole ever, and a take on that traditional green bean casserole that will have people raving. The last week, we’ll talk about the best ways to recover from your Thanksgiving celebration that doesn't involve pulling out your hair and banishing everyone to the basement.