There’s a reason why most of us eat turkey but twice a year. Sure, we treasure turkey as ritual, and, yes, some people admire high-protein, low-fat gobbler as dense fuel. But turkey as gastronomy doesn’t really make sense – especially prepared the traditional way. That’s why the Thanksgiving-Christmas turkey industrial complex feeds us ever more novel ways to coax a little joy from what we all know to be the driest, toughest, blandest protein money can buy. We return holiday after holiday with a new trick in tow, certain that this season’s bird will be different. This will be the Christmas when your $80 heritage breed will shine because you are going to brine, Thompson, deep-fry, or smoke some life into it. Maybe all of the above.
Some of these tricks work, of course. But the most important piece of advice? Abandon the idea of roasting the bird whole. We think of turkey as a single piece of meat, but I like to think of it as three separate preparations that evolution combined into one delicious package. Sacrilege, I know, but the tradition of a caramelized bird filled to bursting with stuffing is the very reason turkey usually sucks. If tradition dictates that our most cherished meals must feature either overcooked breast or undercooked legs and thighs, in addition to the risk of food-borne illness from stuffing, then it’s time to abandon tradition.
After much experimentation, my new and (dare I say it?) best approach is to divide and conquer. So, break down that turkey into the following parts: two bone-in breasts; two legs and thighs; wingtips removed; one leftover carcass and those wingtips. Brine and roast the breasts in a low-temperature oven until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 150F, then remove the breasts, crank your broiler and return the breasts to the oven to brown the skin. As for the legs and thighs, they’re best braised with red wine and aromatics (a riff on coq au vin with some garlic, thyme and bacon, for example) or, better yet, confited in duck fat. (Better still if you do this a day or two ahead of time – a day or two improves braised meats.) After you and your guests have enjoyed a multi-course turkey feast, take a day or two off – you totally deserve it – then take the leftover bones, and the carcass and wingtips you set aside earlier, and make an intense pot of stock.
Of course, this is turkey, so if these tips don’t work, make you sure you have gravy, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes handy.