One of the easiest ways to prepare a great roasted turkey is to brine it. I have been doing this for 4 years now, and everyone agrees they are the best turkeys they have eaten -- the skin is golden brown, the white meat moist and tender, and the dark meat perfectly cooked. The basic method is from Foodnetwork's Alton Brown (hereafter AB), though I have modified the brining recipe over the years.
- The Brine -- The basic brine recipe is 1 cup of salt (I use kosher), 1 cup of brown sugar, and a tablespoon of black peppercorns simmered in a gallon of
water until the salt and sugar dissolve, then cooled, and refrigerated. I use this recipe on almost all pork before cooking it.
Since I like an apple/sage motif, I make the following changes: I use 1 cup apple cider vinegar, 1 cup apple juice and add enough water to make 3 qts., add chopped fresh sage, 1 tsp. rosemary, 1/2 tsp. thyme, 1/2 tsp. Liquid Smoke, several smashed garlic cloves, some bay leaves, and some orange zest, then simmer for 1 hr., and cool by adding 1 qt. of ice (to make a gallon) before refrigerating (there is no reason to work your refrigerator harder than necessay). I do this 2 days before Thanksgiving so it is cold when the turkey is brined
- Brining the Bird -- The best way I have found to brine the bird is to use a 5 gal water cooler with a spigot in the bottom. Put 2 qts. of ice in the bottom, then the thawed and rinsed bird, add the refrigerated, strained brine solution, add more 2 qts. of ice, and cover, keeping it in a cool place for 12-18 hrs. (The normal suggestion is at least 1 hr. per pound of meat, to attain approximate osmotic equilibrium between the brine and meat.)
- Roasting the Bird -- The final critical step is proper roasting -- forget everything you have heard about cooking a turkey. DO NOT stuff or baste it, and don't rely on the pop-up thermometer which comes with many birds. The problem is that the light and dark meat should be cooked to different temperatures - about 165° F for the light meat and 185° F for the dark meat. The pop-up thermometers are set for 185° F, so their use makes the white meat overcooked and dry. Stuffing must be cooked to 160° F for safety (essentially Pasteurized), and since it is at the center of the bird, by the time it reaches the proper temperature the white meat is again overcooked and dry (or as AB says, "Stuffing is Evil."). Basting allows heat and moisture to escape, lengthening the cooking time and drying the meat.
The secret to proper roasting is to borrow a technique bakers use to keep their pie crusts from overbrowning (again, this method is due to AB). Preheat the oven to 500° F, remove the bird from the brine, rinse, pat dry with paper towels, oil the outside with canola or other oil, and place in the roasting pan on a rack. I like to add some aromatics to the cavity -- some apple slices, some fresh sage leaves, and some sprigs of rosemary and thyme. Form a double layer triangle of heavy-duty aluminum foil which covers the breasts but leaves the thighs and drumsticks uncovered and then remove. Roast on the lowest oven rack for 30 min. at 500° F, then remove and lower temperature to 350° F. Place foil cover over breasts and insert meat thermometer into the thickest part of the breast (I use an electronic probe thermometer with a remote readout and alarm so I don't have to open the oven door once the bird starts roasting, shortening the cooking time.), and roast until the breast reaches a temperature of 161° F. Cooking time will be 2-2 1/2 hrs. for a 12-13 lb. bird, depending on the oven. Remove and cover with aluminum foil to rest for at least 20 mins. before carving.
All that remains is the carving. Using a boning knife, remove the wings and thighs from the body. Separate the thighs and drumsticks, debone the thighs, and slice thinly crosswise. Instead of slicing the white meat from the side of the turkey as is normally done, I like to use a boning knife to completely remove the breast and then slice it thinly crosswise also. Slicing the meat across the direction of the muscle fibers makes the slices more tender.
UPDATE: Michael Symon's lesson on Carve a Turkey.
Since the bird is not stuffed, stuffing must be made by the casserole method. In keeping with the apple/sage theme, I add peeled, cored, and thinly sliced MacIntosh apples, chopped fresh sage, ground rosemary and thyme, 1/2 lb. browned pork sausage, some sliced bella mushrooms, and dried cranberries to a standard stuffing mix and otherwise prepare and bake according to package instructions, adding fresh chopped parsley on top when baking is complete.
I guarantee that anyone following this method will have success on their first try (I did, and I had never cooked a turkey before), the meat will be moist, tender, and wonderfully flavored, and they can bask in the compliments from all their contented guests.