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Made a practice Thanksgiving turkey-- help me reflect/refine

Hi all,
I really want to host Thanksgiving this year but the cooking of the turkey inspires great fear in me. My mom suggested trying a trial run to alleviate the pressure and so I did just that.
The one I made was the smallest I could find, 11 pounds, a fresh (not frozen) one from Whole Foods. I've made 5 or 6 pound chickens before so it didn't look that daunting once out of the package.
I chose a combination of a family friend's recipe and a little bit of a Martha Stewart recipe. I went stuffingless for my practice run, so after removing the neck and liver etc. from inside, I rubbed peppercorns and coarse salt in the cavity, and I put in some rosemary, thyme, and sage. I rubbed the outside with salt, pepper, and paprika, and then soaked cheesecloth in OJ and butter, and draped that over the breast and part of the legs.
Cooking was pretty uneventful. I cooked it at 350, basting every 30 minutes. I took the cheesecloth off at 90 minutes and and took the turkey out after a little less than 2 hours when the thigh registered about 160 degrees. Then I covered it with foil and let it rest for 30 minutes while I made the gravy.
The verdict-
The skin wasn't crispy enough. I guess I left the cheesecloth on too long. I could see when it reached temperature the skin probably wasn't crispy enough but I had to make a game time decision about undercooked skin versus overcooked chicken. I guess next time I would take off the cheesecloth earlier and if I saw it getting too well done put some foil over the breast. COuld I have stuck it under the broiler a minute or is that risky?
The breast meat was really, really good. Very moist and really tasty, which I was pleasantly surprised about, after reading a lot about overcooked, dried out breast meat. But I really didn't like the drumstick. I realized I don't think I have ever actually eaten a turkey drumstick so I don't have anything to compare it to. It was flavorful, but dry and kind of sad looking and tasted overcooked, which I don't understand since the breast meat was so perfectly cooked, and usually isn't the other way around with under/overcooking? Maybe I just don't like drumsticks. The thighs and wings were great.
In retrospect, the cheesecloth didn't really cover the drumsticks so much, so maybe that's why they tasted dried out?
My gravy tasted fine with store bought chicken stock, but I am planning on making turkey stock with the dregs of this one. Is it worth it?
Anyway, for someone like me so terrified of cooking a turkey, it's not a cheap experiment, but it definitely bolstered my confidence and I think I'm ready to take on a slightly bigger bird on the big day. Any other tips for a novice turkey maker?

Oh, and because I'm a novice, I hope you won't laugh at me about my big faux pas: I was so annoyed that they didn't include the giblets, muttering and cursing about it, and I felt so so stupid when I found them...... AFTER we had eaten the turkey........... attached to the non-neck side of the turkey in a bag, that, thankfully, was made of some heat-proof paper type substance that can withstand heat... OOPS!

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  1. Don't baste. Introducing moisture to the outside of the turkey does nothing to keep the meat moist - all it does is make the skin flabby.

    7 Replies
    1. re: biondanonima

      Interesting, thank you. That would be another explanation for why the skin wasn't crispy.

      1. re: biondanonima

        I agree completely about not basting. And I'd skip the cheesecloth too. I've never understood the point of cheesecloth.

        The reason basting works against you is that you're opening the oven door and allowing heat out all the time. That means the coils having to rev up instead of having a nice even heat.

        If you're concerned about moisture -- tho it sounds like you were happy with your results -- a dry cure a couple days before roasting can add flavor and preserve moisture. Here's mine:

        • ½ cup kosher salt
        • ¼ cup sugar
        • 1 tablespoon dried thyme
        • ⅛ teaspoon cayenne
        • ½ teaspoon allspice
        • ½ teaspoon ground sage

        Use about 1 tbs per 5 lb of turkey sprinkled on the skin and inside the cavity. Rub it on to make good contact. Put in a big plastic bag and store it in the fridge for 3 days before roasting. About 3 or 4 hours before roasting remove from the bag, Wipe dry return it to the fridge uncover for the skin to dry. Roast.

        1. re: rainey

          Thanks. Our family has gone to this one family friend's house for Thanksgiving for practically my entire life and she is the most amazing cook. We are all partial to her turkey especially. The cheesecloth is part of her recipe, and since I saw it other places, I figured I'd go for it, even though, like you, I"m not quite sure of the point.

          That totally makes sense about basting. The oven door ended up being open a couple minutes each time we basted and I felt like that couldn't be good for the oven temp.

          The turkey was quite moist and I thought it had great flavor... except the drumsticks were dry. Maybe I just don't like drumsticks. But thanks for the dry cure recipe.

          1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

            The problem about drumsticks is that they simply take more time than breast meat. No way around that. If you cook until the drumstick are fully done your breast meat has already dried out.

            The solution is when you take your turkey out to rest, cut the drumsticks off, and let them do their resting in the warm oven.

            The whole Norman Rockwell thing of the gorgeous bird going to the table for carving as performance just sets us up.

            1. re: rainey

              Butterflying/spatchcocking, or roasting turkey parts, pretty much eliminates the uneven cooking time issue. But it's true, we have that Rockwell image in our minds and feel like we're cheating if we use another method, no matter how much better the results might be.

            2. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

              I second the dry cure, though I just use salt, and put some fresh herbs under the skin.

          2. re: biondanonima

            I concur about skipping basting--don't think it's necessary. One more step you can skip: that foil while it's resting--you're trapping in steam, which will de-crisp the skin. I'd skip the cheesecloth, too--simple is better. I just butter the heck out of the skin and get good crispy skin every time.

            Absolutely worth it to make turkey stock from this trial run--much better, IMHO, than boxed chicken stock.

            Think of turkey as just a big chicken--nothing to be intimidated about.

            LOL about those giblets inside. I'm sure you're not the first person to do that!

            Congrats on a good-tasting bird (I don't care for drumsticks, either).

          3. I think you should get a turkey 14 lbs or LESS; that way you're getting a hen, not a tom. (I cover all of turkey with cheesecloth and tuck inside of pan.)

            I posted this in 2011, take a look:

            http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/817518

            7 Replies
            1. re: walker

              Thank you. I don't think the turkey I buy for Thanksgiving will be much bigger than this one. Probably around 14 pounds sounds about right for our small group. I'll definitely be more liberal with the cheesecloth draping next time.

              That link is helpful, especially the gravy recipe. Things got a little dicey during the gravy making process today so it would be good to make the base ahead of time.

              1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                I don't brine the turkey; it ruins the gravy because it's too salty.

                Here's my recipe for turkey stock:
                5 organic (if possible) turkey wings (about 5 lbs) cut at joints
                2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
                a few carrots, large chunks
                6 parsley sprigs + few sprigs of thyme, tied in a bundle
                3 Bay leaves
                1/4 tsp. whole black peppercorns
                (Make stock up to 3 months ahead and freeze in airtight containers. Refrigerate 2 days to thaw) Otherwise, stock can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and keep chilled, spoon off fat before using. Some chefs say celery turns stock sour so I don't use it.
                Arrange wings in a large roasting pan and place in 400 oven. After 45 minutes, turn wings over and add onions. After 45 minutes more, add carrots. Roast until deep brown, about 1/2 hour more, total of 2 hours. (I reserve one wing at this point to bake on top of extra stuffing pan.)
                Transfer wings, onions, carrots, herbs to a large stock pot. Add 2 cups of water to roasting pan, place over 2 burners and bring to a boil, scraping up the browned bits .. add all to the stock pot.
                Add enough cold water to cover by 1 inch, bring water to a boil then reduce the heat to medium-low; simmer uncovered until the stock is very flavorful and reduced to about 8 cups, about 2 1/2 hours.
                Strain stock into a large container. Cool 1 hour then refrigerate until cold, about 3 hours. When wings are cool you can pick off the meat and use for whatever.
                Then, you can follow recipe for Stress Free Gravy from Whole Foods. This stock makes a terrific gravy.
                Good luck.

                1. re: walker

                  Brining does NOT ruin gravy.

                  I am gravy goddess, so says my family.

                  Just use unsalted stock.

                  1. re: C. Hamster

                    On time I draped a couple of strips of bacon as suggested by someone. That for sure ruined the gravy, at least for me! I'm very cautious since then.

                    1. re: C. Hamster

                      I concur. Brining does not ruin gravy. Walker is about the third or fourth person I've seen on these boards say that and I have to wonder if the people saying this are skipping a step or using other sodium laden ingredients. Back when I made full turkeys I brined them every single year and my gravy was never salty.

                      Also, to avoid posting twice, C. Hamster's method below is almost identical to what I did every year and had a perfect turkey every time. The only difference is I used Alton Brown's method and did 500 for the first thirty and then covered the breast in foil to avoid it getting too dark and for my aromatics in the bird I used an apple, orange, couple sticks of celery, an onion, a couple of cinnamon sticks, and lots of thyme and sage. The nice thing for me about brining is that I live in a cool enough environment that I could keep the turkey in the bucket in the garage or on the deck and I didn't have to give up fridge space for it (or in the years when I had neither a garage or deck I kept it in my car parked outside...it even came to work with me several years in a row).

                      Skip the cheesecloth and basting. It's fussy and a waste of time when there are so many more ways to impart flavor that don't involve opening your oven every 30 minutes.

                      1. re: amishangst

                        Thanks. I am getting excited about the big day. I ordered my turkey yesterday.

                  2. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                    In that Petrini's recipe, you pour slightly heated up brandy and dry white wine over the turkey half way thru baking .. they say it's the secret to the gravy and I really agree with that. I deglaze the turkey roasting pan with the same white wine.

                2. I also do the make ahead gravy. I first make the broth by roasting turkey wings. This year I'm going to make the broth a couple weeks ahead and freeze it so I'm not racing around the week of T-Day and this will leave me more room in fridge.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: walker

                    This is what I'm planning. Do you have a stock recipe you like? I froze the neck and stuff from today and I have a ton of leftovers from the turkey so I was thinking I could pre-make (and freeze) my stock for Thanksgiving in the next few days. Thoughts?

                    1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                      It's definitely worth making the stock.

                      I don't have a recipe - but I dump the turkey carcass into a big pot with an onion, a celery stick, and a small carrot cut into chunks, cover with cold water, slowly bring it up to a simmer, simmer for a few hours, cool a bit, strain, refrigerate and then remove the fat.

                      1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                        I just buy assorted parts at the good butcher in town. Roast 'em, make stock.

                        1. re: JudiAU

                          +1 on roasting whatever goes into the stock. I make stock often from whatever carcasses and bones I have as well as vegetable stock from whatever trimmings I have. Roast until whatever you are using is nicely browned. Also, I find gravy from a hodge podge of innards is heavy. I prefer dried mushrooms reconstituted with Sherry.

                        2. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                          Also garlic clove, parsley, thyme, salt and pepper.

                          1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                            Thanks. I saved the carcass so I will be making the stock this week and I'll freeze it for my Thanksgiving gravy making.

                      2. I am wondering abount the cheese cloth. Do you apply it without buttering or seasoning the bird first? My luck I'd remove it and it would stick, taking the skin and seasoning with it.
                        Oh I just saw you applied your seasonings, so I guess the seasoning stays put.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: chef chicklet

                          Oh, this reminds me, I forgot to mention one thing. Yes, salt, pepper, paprika went on before the cheesecloth. What I forgot to write was that also before the cheesecloth was a really liberal slathering of olive oil.

                          It stuck in one place but came off fine otherwise. The seasoning did stay put.

                        2. I don't do cheesecloth. Don't want to throw you off track, but I make a compound butter with various herbs (don't worry, you just do it in the food processor) pull the skin up a bit on the breast and legs and squish it in. Hasn't failed me yet. Crispy, tasty, everything you've dreamed of. I make turkeys all year round, but only the big holiday meal gets this treatment; don't know why, because it's not that hard.

                          9 Replies
                          1. re: coll

                            Sounds delicious!!! The more butter the better in my opinion! :)

                            1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                              So simple, I will post the basic recipe before the big day.

                              1. re: coll

                                OK here is what I do. First, I don't think anyone has mentioned this yet, but if the turkey is wrapped in plastic, take it out of it a day or two before and let sit in fridge uncovered so it dries out a bit. Then the morning of, make the compound butter: mix in processor two sticks of softened butter, a dash of maple syrup, a spoonful of Sherry and any spices you like, dried or fresh. Thyme, parsley, poultry seasoning, garlic, salt and pepper, paprika, the skies the limit! You can also add a sprinkling of almond meal or the like to keep in all in place, if you like.

                                Then put on a pair of plastic gloves and gently stick your hand under the skin, pushing forward to separate it from the meat. Go as high as you can without tearing too much. Also do the skin on the legs this way. Then spread half the butter mix between the skin and the meat, and the rest on top of the skin. People will be fighting over the skin when it comes out of the oven, if they're like my family!

                                Other tips: instead of a rack, cook the turkey on a bed of carrots, onions and celery, to add to the flavor of the drippings. In addition to stock, I defat the drippings when the turkey comes out (using a Pyrex pourer made for that purpose) deglaze the roasting pan with some white wine, and add the stock AND the drippings, bring to a boil and thicken with browned flour (as below).

                                I have started to stuff mine with lemons, limes and oranges, makes it very juicy but not in a fruity way. I do the stuffing in its own separate pan, drenched with broth that I make the night before with the giblets, or have waiting in the freezer.

                                Oh another tip on the gravy, which I got here. Toast the flour in a cast iron pan until it browns, SO much better than adding raw flour. If I don't do that, I prefer cornstarch, thinned with wine.

                                1. re: coll

                                  Coll: Thank you for all the advice! Do you think it's worth it to buy one of those de-fatting Pyrex implements?

                                  1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                    Yes, even if for the one day a year. I don't know how I'd do it otherwise.

                                    1. re: coll

                                      Thanks. It was really annoying trying to skim the fat off with a spoon for my gravy. I'll have to put this on my list for turkey-related items at Bed Bath and Beyond. What kind of thermometer do you use?

                                      1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                        The kind that there is a wire running to an outside thermometer, I can't recommend it highly enough. I get mine at restaurant supplies but I bet BB&B might have it. I have a $5 off coupon if you want!

                                      1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                        My 2 cents: I love this one from Amazon and have given many as gifts and no one has ever had any problems with it .. best of its type (I have a beautiful glass one I never use anymore).

                                        http://www.amazon.com/Amco-Swingaway-...