It's a little embarrassing to admit how long it took me, culinarily speaking, to get around to roasting a turkey for the first time. I had written two cookbooks and was well into a third before I actually attempted to roast a full-sized, naked turkey in all its glory. (Neither cookbook, I hasten to add, had much to do with poultry.)
Are you a turkey novice too? Looking on from the side dish sidelines? Let me pull you into the game. A turkey may be big, but it's not a big deal.
This is what I learned after many years of edging away from turkey duties on Thanksgiving. Why the turkey avoidance? The bird just made me nervous. There's so much chatter — by which I mean chattering of teeth — every year before Thanksgiving. Can you do it? Can you do the turkey? The advice and troubleshooting emanating from food magazines and television ends up feeling ominous, rather than reassuring.
I got away with it for years, telling people I didn't really like turkey. I didn't have a big enough pan. My mother, my uncles (yes, both of them), my grandmother, and my little brother all make a better turkey than me. Why mess with tradition?
Now, I did cook turkey parts — breast and thighs and legs braised separately for a fabulously non-conformist Thanksgiving dinner. But never the full monty. I never dragged home a full-sized turkey and put it through its paces.
That finally changed a year or two ago, when I had to test a roast turkey for The Kitchn Cookbook. I grumbled all the way through buying and thawing the turkey, scraping the giblets out of its middle, and banging it into the oven.
And then, three hours later, I took that turkey out of the oven and muttered to myself, "What was the big deal about that?"
It's a rite of passage, and let me tell you: I was silly to avoid it for so long. It's just an overgrown chicken, people. You don't need to be afraid of it.
This may seem like the height of obviousness to most of you. A turkey, after all, is shaped like a chicken, and most of us have dealt with those. But its sheer size, bulk, and unfamiliarity (not to mention the once-a-year rituals around thawing, brining, and cooking it) can conspire to make us feel that a turkey is more than it really is.
Turkeys Are Just Like Chickens, Except Bigger
Now, before you get all persnickety with me, yes, of course turkey and chicken are two different birds. They are not the same. Turkey has a richer, darker taste than chicken, and it makes even more wonderful stock and broth. After that, though, the differences are few. Let's weigh them up:
- A turkey is bigger than a chicken: You'll need a bigger pan.
- A turkey needs more seasoning: Because it's bigger than a chicken.
- A turkey needs to brine for longer: Because it's bigger.
- A turkey needs to roast a little longer than a chicken: Because, again, it's bigger. This also leads to a little more delicacy about making sure the breast doesn't overcook; the mismatch in size between the breast and legs is greater in a turkey, but it's not that big a deal.
All you really need to do with a turkey is bang it in the oven, the way you would a whole chicken, and let it roast until it's golden and succulent, then pour lots of gravy on top. Can you tweak and improve and apply bits of family lore all over the process of roasting a turkey, like so many ephemeral Post-It Notes passed down through the generations? Of course. To your heart's delight.
But just don't forget: this is just a really, really big chicken. You've got this.