By James Briscione, Director of Culinary Research
Your Thanksgiving turkey has a secret; and I’m here to tell it: that bird HATES being roasted in the oven. I know it, your turkey knows it and deep down, you know it, too: roasting a whole turkey in the oven just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It consumes a massive amount of time, space and energy, none of which I would be against if the results were impeccable. However, the sad truth is that roasting turkey in the oven is inefficient and the end product is imperfect.
I blame Norman Rockwell. Ever since he painted that famed portrait of an American family gazing lovingly at Mom as she places that large, bronzed bird on the table, the whole, roasted turkey has been the Thanksgiving gold standard. I can only imagine how dry the breast of Rockwell’s turkey must have been — he should have painted a 50-gallon drum of gravy in the background because I bet the family would have used every last drop of it.
Whole roasted birds have an inherent problem: for optimal flavor, tenderness and juiciness, the breast and legs need to be cooked at different temperatures for different lengths of time. At times like this, I like to channel Alain Senderens, one of my favorite rebel chefs and one of the fathers of Nouvelle Cuisine. Chef Senderens balked at the way that tradition trampled innovation in French cuisine. So this Thanksgiving, join me as I thumb my nose at tradition and invite innovation to my pumpkin-spice themed Friendsgiving.
Two words: sous vide. I have spent years extolling the tender, juicy and delicious virtues of cooking chicken sous vide. That led me to think, if sous vide makes the best chicken I’ve ever tasted, it will surely make the greatest turkey, too. All I had to do was figure out a way to cook turkey sous vide, yet make sure it still looked like a turkey when it arrived at the table, lest my family think I’m a total failure in annual fatherly duties (thanks for nothing, Rockwell). I decided to use a technique that I learned from Bryce Shuman at Betony, where they always cooked sous vide chicken breast with the bones in, so it would retain its natural shape. I applied the same method to the turkey breast, which I fit into a large, gallon-sized zip top bag. I zipped the legs and wings inside a separate bag and was on my way to a glorious Thanksgiving revolution: perfectly cooked legs and breasts with a classic presentation. This just may be the type of thing that makes everyone around the table happy this Thanksgiving. Check out the recipe below.
Sous Vide Thanksgiving Turkey
2 teaspoons dry sage
2 teaspoons ground fennel seed
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 cup kosher salt
1 whole turkey, about 10-12 pounds
4 ounces melted butter
- Start by making a dry brine — combine the sage, fennel seed, pepper, sugar and salt in a small bowl. Mix thoroughly to combine.
- Fabricate the turkey into a bone-in breast by removing the back-bone with a chef’s knife or kitchen shears. Separate the wings from the breast by cutting through the wing joint. Remove the legs from the body, cutting through the thigh joint and leaving the thigh and drumstick attached.
- Use a Polyscience immersion circulator to heat a water bath to 66˚C (151˚F).
- Generously season all of the pieces with the dry brine on both sides. Place one leg and one wing in each of two large, gallon-sized zip top bags. Add 1 ounce of melted butter to each of the bags. Place the seasoned breast in the refrigerator while the legs cook.
- Fill a large pot or bowl with room temperature water and lower the open zip top bag into the water. The water pressure will push the excess air out of the bag. When the top of the bag reaches the level of the water, seal the bag. Transfer the sealed bags to the water bath and cook for six hours. Remove the bags and cool immediately in an ice bath. When chilled, transfer to the refrigerator and store for up to seven days before serving.
- Reduce the water bath to 62˚C (143.5˚F). Place the turkey breast into a large, gallon-sized zip top bag and add the remaining 2 ounces of melted butter. Use the method above to remove the excess air from the bag and seal. Transfer the sealed bag to the water bath and cook for four hours. Add the chilled turkey legs to the bath and cook 40 minutes longer to reheat. Or, if not serving immediately, remove the bags and cool immediately in an ice bath. When chilled, transfer to the refrigerator and store for up to seven days before serving.
- When ready to serve, heat a water bath to 62˚C and add the sealed bags of breast and leg to the bath and leave 40 minutes to reheat.
- To serve, heat the oven to broil and arrange the turkey pieces on a baking pan and place on the middle rack under the broiler until golden brown.
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