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Cooking turkey for dummies in Eagle County

Sarah Mausolf
Vail, CO, Colorado
AE Basic Turkey 1 DT 11-20-07
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EAGLE COUNTY, COLORADO ” For a while, I could blame my aversion to cooking turkey on being a vegetarian. Thanksgiving, after all, is specifically designed to torture non-bird-eaters.

At best, vegetarians have to endure snarky comments from relatives (“The Dalai Lama called,” my dad said one year, handing over the peas. “He said you can eat these”). At worst, they face the unspeakable: Tofurkey.

Recently, though, signs emerged that my vegetarian morals have been compromised. I lost my only copy of “Fast Food Nation” and ate bacon on three separate occasions this past weekend.

With my rather tenuous grip on vegetarianism slipping, I am finally ready to embrace cooking a turkey of my own. But wait a second. Turkeys, to me, had always been something that simply materialized out of a flurry of maternal scurrying at my aunt’s house. How am I going to cook a turkey when I’m utterly clueless?

As I rolled my shopping cart down the utensils aisle at the supermarket this week, eyeing the basting bulb and meat thermometer, I began to have doubts. What do I look like here ” MacGyver?

Luckily, local turkey experts assured me roasting a bird is possible, even for the culinarily challenged. In skiing terms, oven-cooking a turkey is the equivalent of a “groomed blue slope,” said Tom McNeill, owner of the Gourmet Cowboy in Minturn. “I really don’t think it’s that difficult,” he confided.

The trick is avoiding a few rookie mistakes. Turkey gurus agree cooking the bird too long is a common, cardinal sin. “The secret is: Never, never overcook your turkey,” Judy Trujillo, kitchen manager at Turntable Restaurant in Minturn said, shortly before cooking 14 turkeys for the restaurant’s Thanksgiving day feast. “People think you have to cook it all day and overnight but you don’t.”

Here is a breakdown on how to cook turkey, for those of us who have no idea what’s going on.

Though I have a vision of prancing around the backyard, tossing corn from my apron to a flock of soon-to-be-slaughtered pet turkeys (do turkeys even eat corn?), it turns out buying a bird from the store is the simplest route to success.

Trujillo recommends the standard Butterball or Honeysuckle White brands that frequent most supermarkets. “To me, they seem more tender, just easier to take care of,” she said. “You don’t have to keep basting the turkey because it doesn’t seem to dry out really quick.”

McNeill prefers the Red Bird Farms variety. “The Butterball is a very good turkey but I don’t like the fat they inject into it,” he said. “It’s almost too greasy. They call it moist but it’s that imitation butter they shoot into it.”

To figure out how much turkey to buy, consider that the average portion size is 4 to 8 ounces, Trujillo said. Most turkeys weigh in at 22 pounds, including about 4 to 8 pounds of bone and waste, and cost $8 to $18, she added.

Experts recommend buying a frozen turkey two to three days in advance of cooking it, to allow plenty of time for thawing. Thaw the bird for at least 24 hours in the refrigerator, Trujillo suggests.

“Don’t leave it at room temperature because that’s how bacteria starts to breed,” she warns.

As the bird defrosts, keep it in a different pan than the one you plan to use for roasting, to avoid contamination, Trujillo said.

Once the bird is thawed, she likes to rub it with salt and rinse with cold water, to flush out bacteria.

The next step is where things get interesting. Cooks generally consider two areas on the turkey taboo. They remove the neck, which is usually tucked inside the body and just pulls out ” “It’s real long, almost like a candy cane” ” Trujillo said, along with a parchment pouch often filled with the liver, gizzard and heart.

If you plan to stuff the turkey, spread the legs and push the stuffing into the body cavity as far as it will go, she said. Making stuffing is easy with the help of store-bought kits with pre-seasoned bread crumbs, she added.

Roasting the turkey too long leaves it parched, but undercooking it can be just as problematic.

“A lot of people use raw egg in their stuffing and don’t cook it thoroughly,” McNeill said. “Undercooking’s a biggie because it’s raw poultry. Not good.”

To hit the sweet spot, cook the turkey until the internal thermometer reaches 140 degrees or until poking the breast with a fork dredges up a clear broth instead of blood, Trujillo explained. Another good measure is poking the joint between the leg and the thigh to make sure clear juice comes out rather than blood, McNeill added.

Let’s back up, though. To cook the turkey, set the oven to 350 degrees and plan to cook the bird for half an hour per pound of turkey, Trujillo said. She likes to baste with butter, thyme and tarragon (1 tablespoon each). Fill the pan with 2 to 2 1⁄2 cups of water or chicken broth and place the turkey inside.

As an alternative, place the turkey and the water or broth in an oven bag. “It will fill itself up and make its own vapor cave and you don’t even need to check on it for the rest of the day,” Trujillo said.

Place the turkey in the center of the bottom rack and baste frequently with its own juices. Jean-Michel Chelain, executive chef/owner of The Left Bank Restaurant in Vail, suggests basting every 15 minutes.

Once the bird is cooked, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool for 20 minutes, Trujillo suggests.

You don’t have to be a Ninja master to carve a turkey. Just let the bird express itself, experts say.

“The turkey will just pretty much let you know where it’s falling apart on the joints,” Trujillo said. “It’s easy. It’ll almost do it for you if it’s cooked right, it will fall right open.”

She usually slices off the drumsticks and wings, then removes the breast and slices it. At this point, there’s just one thing to do, and even turkey-cooking novices can handle this one. Simply dig in and enjoy.


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