Servings: 12 Prep: 1 hr Cook: 1 hr 30 min Total: 24 hrs
Domesticated turkeys can’t fly.
On that note, I’m going to fly right square in the face of tradition.
Look at just about any photo of a Thanksgiving dinner and you’ll see it taking up its rightful place as the King of the Table. A full, substantial and beaming golden turkey adorned with sides of cranberry salad, yams, green beans, stuffing, gravy, winter squash, mashed potatoes, corn, biscuits, monkey bread, pumpkin pie and all manner of other regional family favorites.
I propose a somewhat different approach to that giant turkey spread.
Why? It tastes better!
It also cooks faster and, all total, is probably just about equally complex as a full roasted turkey. It’s maybe a bit more technically sophisticated and challenging, but the final roasting and slicing couldn’t be easier. This approach front loads all the effort and yields a far tastier bird!
I’ve enjoyed over 40 Thanksgivings in my life. I’ve also roasted, smoked, brined, wrapped in bacon, and otherwise cooked hundreds of turkeys in my life. Of all my experience with turkeys, I’m here to tell you… this approach is worth it. It’s the best I’ve had. While I acknowledge that the big reveal doesn’t end in a full roasted bird, it does end in a lovingly pre-sliced assortment of succulent juicy turkey. It also can and does present equal wow factor. Plus, rather than figuring out who will slice the turkey and fiddle around with the bones and knives and hot flying turkey juice, it’s all just set, carved and ready to go onto the plates of loved ones (and that one weird +1 that aunt Kelly brought)…
Every Thanksgiving, it seems like there’s a huge burst of information on turkey tips. Butterball even has over 50 experts standing by to discuss turkey tips. If there’s any true common and consistent issue it’s how to keep the turkey from being dry.
Assuming you’re doing a full bird… a good brine will help a great deal. I’ve brined all my turkeys going back 20 years. There are many reasons why brining works, but the quickest explanation is that the brine causes the meat to absorb moisture, increasing the total weight by about 6 to 8% of pure seasoned water. This excess moisture largely stays put throughout the cooking process, yielding a turkey with a higher moisture content. Additionally, the process causes some of the proteins to turn to liquid, while also denaturing other proteins, trapping more liquid in the process. Plus, salt is a flavor enhancer. The addition of some salt boosts the flavor!
Also, don’t overcook it. This is obvious, but it may be less obvious WHY you might be overcooking it. Turkey should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 F (74 C). Before cooking, make sure you have a reliable and calibrated meat thermometer. Then, cook the turkey to 160 F (71 C). Remove it from the oven, wrap it or cover it and place in a warm area within the kitchen. Allow it to relax for a good 15 minutes. The heat still trapped inside the bird will carry-over into deeper parts of the bird. Typically, they say you can expect a rough 5 F (2.75 C) increase in internal temperature, by using this approach.
That’s right, even outside your oven, the turkey will continue to cook… gently rising to the correct temperature of 165 F (74 C). By taking it to 165, then removing it, it’ll actually be 170 F by the time it hits the table, which is a point where it starts to dry out. Don’t do that.
I should also point out that this is where you stick the thermometer into a turkey to test its temperature. Stick it deeply between the thigh and breast. In this photo, the bird is a shade overcooked in my opinion, but I like life on the edge.
Add fat: Rub fat (usually butter) under the skin, above the breasts. This helps add a little fat. Maybe this is true, but most of it will just melt out. You could use a larder to pierce the meat and literally infuse the muscle with fat. This will help more, but it’ll create puncture holes.
Flip the bird: You can roast the bird upside down. They say that typically the breasts cook faster than the legs, so flipping them makes a little sense. More direct oven heat on the legs, while the breasts get indirect wet heat and steam. It’ll also “self-baste”. Juices will run “up”, rather than down. It can give the bird a little bit of an inconsistent look, though. A similar approach is to cover the breasts with foil, which theoretically drops the temperature around the breast to an indirect wet heat. Meh. Maybe there’s some truth to this, but I wouldn’t count on it. It will, however, stop any browning that may be occurring (good, if you’re burning it, bad if you’ve got a pasty white bird).
Defrost: If you read my blog post on freezing foods, you’ll see a fresh turkey will serve you better than a frozen one. Also note that it’s best to defrost in the refrigerator, slowly, over the course of days. Don’t wait until the last minute to defrost it. A small bird can take 2 days to defrost thoroughly, whereas a large 25-pounder can take almost a week! If you MUST defrost quickly, do it in a very large bowl in the sink, with a slow stream of cool water streaming over the bird, into the bowl. This will help, but it takes a while to defrost the center. Consider the proper approach and time to defrosting.
Go smaller: Two smaller turkeys will roast more quickly and more evenly than a huge 30-pounder, for a large gathering.
Chill the breasts: The morning before roasting, place it in the sink with a big bag of ice resting over the breasts. The theory here is that the breasts will be thoroughly chilled, while the rest of the bird is a bit warmer. By the time it’s done roasting, the whole thing will be perfectly cooked, as the temperatures all even out. This one feels a bit voo-doo-y to me, but I suppose there’s some logic to it. That said, I’ve also heard hot water freezes faster than cold water. Some of the time things aren’t what we think they should be. I don’t know that this is a theory I’d want to test when I’ve got Grumpy Grandma Sally coming over!
To stuff or not to stuff: I don’t stuff my birds with stuffing. I may throw some herbs and aromatics in there, to give flavor to the meat, but I keep it loose. Stuffing adds density, which increases cooking time and the very very center of all that stuffing may not be cooked thoroughly, while the outside is overcooked and dry. I’ve seen people cook the stuffed turkey to the correct temperature, then pull the stuffing out, put it in pan and continue baking it. This seems like a complex process which is just as easily solved by starting it in the pan and then later smothering with gravy. (mmmm… graaaaavyyyyy… )
Fry it? I’ve never done this, but to me it feels dangerous. Fried foods are typically awesome, and I suspect a fried turkey would be fantastic, but… I’ve had oil burns too many times to want to fry a whole turkey. For me, the juice wouldn’t be worth the squeeze.
So, now that I’ve shared my thoughts and tips on a whole turkey, here’s where I say… I do almost none of those things.
I do start with a whole turkey. I do! I then bone it, roast the bones (to make a stock with), and brine the breasts and leg meat overnight. The next day, I wash and dry the turkey, while the stock simmers and reduces. I lay the thighs on top a sheet of raw bacon, throw some herbs in there, then wrap it up. I also flip the breasts and smoosh them together (imagine two people lying in bed, head to toe). The idea is, breasts are bigger on one side than the other. By flipping them, throwing some herbs between them, then tying them together, the overall roast is more consistent in diameter and will roast more evenly. Then, I roast the two roasts, while I slowly drain the turkey stock as it makes its way into stuffing, mashed whatever and gravy.
The turkey roasts up right quick, making for a speedier meal. It comes out of the oven MAJESTICAL! Remove the twine from the roast, slice and serve. It couldn’t be easier! Oh, and… soooooo juicy!
Magic. I’m telling you!
Super Important Info: There’s no reasonable way to describe the process of boning a whole turkey without a clear and focused series of photographs or illustrations. Even better, a video. I’m slowly accumulating equipment and conducting small tests. In the interim, the best I can do is share an existing high-quality video.
How to Bone a Turkey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GODGVtQ-AOc
There are many different ways to bone a turkey. I watched 20 different videos, each showing different approaches. This gentleman’s method is similar to mine, although I usually remove each breast individually.
How to Tie a Roast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFIwbUBiRSE
Keep in mind that this is a perfect beef tenderloin, but the tips and approach can be applied to this recipe.
Final Note: This recipe assumes that you have a full boned turkey, split into 4 separate pieces: 2 breasts and two thighs with attached leg meat. It also assumes that you have the corresponding bones. One COULD just buy the boned meat to create this recipe… and that would be fine, too.
Brined Bacon Wrapped Turkey Magic with GravyPrint Rate
- 1 whole 20-lb. turkey boned (save the bones)
- 1/4 cup liquid fat (ghee bacon fat, olive oil, etc.), divided
- 2 gallons water divided
- 4 medium carrots cut into rough 1/2-inch [1 cm] pieces
- 3 small onions chopped and divided
- 4 stalks celery cut into rough 1/2-inch [1 cm] pieces
- 3 each bay leaves divided
- 1 1/2 tbsp coarsely cracked black pepper divided
- 1 bunch sage
- 1/2 cup kosher salt (or 1/4 cup [60 mL] table salt)
- 8 each garlic cloves crushed
- 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
- 4 cups ice cubes
- butchers twine
- 1 tbsp tapioca flour
- 1 tsp 'Swerve' or other sugar replacement
- 1/2 tsp xanthan gum
- salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste
- The day before you plan to serve this turkey... Make sure you have a boned turkey (bones and all), all set and ready to go. If you don’t, you’ll need a raw turkey. Remove its bones. See video, in notes above. Then, pre-heat an oven to 350 F (177 C).
- Grease the surface a roasting pan with about 1 tbsp (15 mL) fat. Additionally, coat the turkey bones and neck with another 2 tbsp (30 mL) fat. Place the bones evenly on the roasting pan and place into the hot oven. This will give the turkey stock a bolder roasted flavor that won’t come from just the raw bones. Roast for about 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, turn the bones over, to roast the other side. After a further 30 minutes, check the turkey bones. The goal is a nice golden roasted color. If the bones are still pale, flip them and roast for another 20 minutes. Continue in this manner, until the bones are golden in color (don’t go too dark, though. It imparts a bitter flavor).
- Once the bones are golden, remove them and place into another large pot (this one holding upwards of 2 gallons [7.5 L]). Cover the bones with water, to completely cover them... depending on the size of bird, this will be roughly 1 1/2 gallons (5.7 L) of water. Place the pot on the stove over medium heat.
- Deglaze the roasting pan. To the degree that is possible, place the roasting pan over the top of a hot burner or two and add roughly 1 cup (240 mL) of water. (You could use a bit of white wine, if you’d like. I didn’t, but it’s not a terrible idea at this point). Swirl the water or wine around the bottom of the pan. With a wooden spoon or spatula scrape the brown bits (the fond) off the bottom of the pan and swirl it into the liquid. When all the brown bits are removed from the bottom of the pan and you have a murky brown liquid in the pan, add this liquid gold to the bigger pot of turkey broth.
- Once the big pot of turkey broth begins to simmer, turn the heat down to low. Simmer for about 3 hours. About every 30 minutes, use a large spoon or ladle to skim and remove any fat or funk that may be accumulating on the top of the pot. Discard the funk.
- After 3 hours, place a large sauté pan on the stove over high heat. Add a little more fat (about 1 tbsp [15 mL]). Add the carrots and coat with the fat in the pan. Cook the carrots until they start to develop a little golden color.
- Once the carrots have a bit of golden color, add 2 small diced onions to the pan. Add a small amount of salt and toss the onions and carrots in the pan. Cook. Stir and cook until the onions start to caramelize.
- Once the onions start to caramelize, add the browned carrots and onions to the turkey bone broth. Additionally, add the celery, 1 bay leaf and 1/2 tbsp (7 mL) of cracked black pepper. Also, remove the leaves from the bunch of sage and reserve for later. Add the stems to the turkey broth. Allow this mixture to simmer for a further 90 minutes. Continue skimming the top and discarding the funk.
- About now is when I make the brine. In a large pot (large enough for a gallon [3.75 L] of liquid), bring 3 cups (720 mL) of water to a boil.
- Add the 1/2 cup (120 mL) kosher salt. Whisk the water, until the salt dissolves.
- Remove the water from the heat and add the garlic, thyme, remaining coarsely chopped onion, 2 bay leaves, and 1 tbsp (15 mL) cracked black pepper. Allow the warm mixture to sit for about 15 minutes.
- Add enough water to your ice to create 5 cups (1.2 L) of ice water. Add to the brine. Make sure the brine is cold. Set the brine in the fridge.
- Back to the stock... After a total of roughly 5 hours (3 1/2 with just the bones and a further 1 1/2 with the veggies) strain the bones and veggie vittles out of the stock, so that you have only a super tasty stock. I may strain it a second time through a fine sieve of cheesecloth, if it’s got little pieces of herb or flecks of pepper. It’s up to you. It’ll be roughly 1 gallon (3.75 L), at this point. Discard the bones and vittles. Typically, I put the stock in the fridge, at this point. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce it by half, though. You can do that now, or tomorrow. For this writing, however, I’m going to suggest it goes in the fridge (uncovered) for the night (don’t let anything above it drip into it).
- I typically like to brine boneless turkey for about 8 hours. I put it in the brine as I head to bed, then remove it, wash it and dry it, first thing in the morning. Soooo... about bedtime, add the boned turkey breasts and leg meat to the brine. Make sure the turkey is completely submerged. If it's not, you can weigh the turkey down.
- Place the turkey and brine into a refrigerator. Brine the turkey for between 2 and 10 hours. Any brining is good, even an hour. Longer is better, up to 12 hours. After 12 hours, the turkey meat starts to deteriorate, resulting in salty and somewhat mealy roast.
- The next day, if you have not reduced the turkey stock, put it on the stove and bring it up to a slow simmer. At this point, it’s about 1 gallon (3.75 L) of liquid. We want it to be about half that (8 cups [1.9 L]). Reduce it by half. Once it’s about half, remove 4 cups and set aside for things like mashed whatever and stuffing. Keep the remaining 4 cups on the stove and reduce by half, again. We’re going to make gravy from the final 2 cups of super reduced roasted turkey broth.
- When the turkey has been brined, remove it from the brine and wash thoroughly under cold water. Pat the turkey dry and set aside. Discard the brine. It cannot be re-used.
- When ready to roast the turkey, preheat oven to 450F (232 C).
- Lightly grease a roasting pan and set aside.
- On a large cookie tray, lay out a single slice of bacon. Next, line a second piece of bacon up, very slightly overlapping the first slice. Continue laying down slices of raw bacon, shingling them over each other, until you have a nice sheet of raw bacon. You’ll likely want roughly 10 to 14 slices of bacon.
- Lay the two turkey legs onto the bacon sheets, side by side. Lay half of your reserved sage leaves on the turkey. Now, roll the turkey roll, as tightly as possible. Slide a spatula underneath, without upsetting the wrapped roll and gently move the roll to the roasting pan. Be sure to leave enough room for the turkey breast roast.
- Put one breast, skin side down, on the cookie tray and line it with the remaining sage leaves. Now, place the other breast, skin side up, above the first breast, sandwiching the sage leaves. Make sure the breasts are reversed, to help create a more consistent width. Now, using the tips in the video in the notes above, tie the roast. Place it in the roasting pan with the leg meat.
- Place the roasting pan in the hot oven. After 15 minutes, turn the heat down to 350 F (177 C).
- After 45 more minutes, check the internal temperature on the turkey. Assuming the legs were rolled side by side, it should be a far thinner roast, causing it to cook much faster. So, test the deepest part of the breasts. Unless your breast roast is tiny, it’ll likely need a bit longer. Test the temperature every 10 to 15 minutes from this point forward. Use this opportunity to baste the roasts with any fat or juices that had collected in the pan. The roast will likely take somewhere between 1 to 2 hours (for a huge roast). Once the roast’s internal temperature is 160 F (71 C), remove it from the oven. Place the roasts on a large platter under some foil, in a warm place. Allow them to rest for about 15 to 20 minutes, before slicing.
- Deglaze the roasting pan with a bit of water. Over a burner, scrape the brown goodness off the bottom of the roasting pan and add the liquid to the 2 cups (480 mL) of super reduced turkey stock.
- In a small bowl, combine the tapioca starch (or arrowroot), the sweetener and the xanthan gum (or glucomannan powder or guar gum). Add a small amount of salt and pepper. Combine the dry ingredients together.
- Place the super reduced turkey stock over low heat on the stove. Whisk in the dry ingredients. Whisk until smooth. After about 3 minutes, you should know how thick the gravy is. Make a bit more of this thickening/seasoning mixture, if you’d like it a bit thicker. Continue adjusting thickness until it’s at the desired level (be careful not to add too much, though... Err on the side of a thinner gravy. Too much tapioca or arrowroot adds a lot of carbs. Too much xanthan, guar or glucomannan can cause the gravy to cross the line from a pleasant thickness... to slimy.) Taste, adjust season and place in a sauce boat.
- Slice the turkey. Serve with all the other goodies!
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