Fire Up the Flavor: Old-School Techniques for a Tastier Turkey

WRITE ABOUT FOOD for long enough, and eventually you’ll find yourself presiding in your pajamas over a pit 3 feet deep, shoveling hot coals over a 16-pound turkey. Such is the power of Thanksgiving.

Indeed, for a holiday dedicated to All-American traditions, our national feast has a funny way of making ambitious cooks itchy to experiment. A plain, honest bird at the center of the holiday table—no elaborate trussing, no scientifically calibrated brine, no exotic stuffing? That sufficed for a few centuries, but nowadays, sure as the leaves fall from the trees, November will herald a buzzy new turkey technique—spatchcocking! mayo-basting! sous vide!—guaranteed to vanquish every stringy breast and dry drumstick.

In my experience, the philosophical divide between turkey traditionalists and technologists just gives families one more thing to bicker about. Consider mine: On the fourth Thursday of each November, my mother rises before the coffee maker chimes to pack a sage-and-sausage-stuffed turkey into the oven for a leisurely roast. A few hours later, she sighs as my father saunters into the yard toting another, smaller turkey—I’ve taken to calling this the “groom’s bird”—on which to test the latest poultry-flaming gizmo he’s summoned via Amazon Prime. I’m thankful to report no human beings have been harmed in his experiments, though a few birds certainly have.

Which is why, as this holiday season loomed, I got to puzzling: Could I bridge the divide and come up with a few unconventional turkey methods that married my mother’s exacting standards with my father’s flair for the dramatic?

Before setting off on my quest, I called up

Rick Rodgers,

the man who literally wrote the book on the holiday, “Thanksgiving 101,” a collection of recipes, time-
tables and other strategies for pulling off the preparation with military precision. In his time as a teacher, writer and recipe developer, Mr. Rodgers has tried it all: low-and-slow, hot-and-fast, dry brining, wet brining, foil-wrapping, packing the bird in a paper bag, chilling the breasts with ice packs, mopping them with butter-soaked cheesecloth. One holiday, he nearly burned down his garage by way of a frozen bird and a deep fryer. “Everyone wants to reinvent the wheel every year because the turkeys most of us grew up eating were dry and just not very good,” he said. “But there are sensible ways to do it. You don’t have to be a hero.”

Thus forewarned, I established some ground rules: I’d steer clear of recipes requiring expensive or esoteric single-use equipment. (Here’s looking at you, sous-vide circulator.) And I’d pay special attention to methods that promised to lock in the bird’s essential juices. Finally, rather than insisting on the newfangled simply for novelty’s sake, I’d try looking back—thinking creatively about historic techniques and mining the collective wisdom of cooks that came before me.

Which brings me to that hole in the ground. I knew turkeys were first domesticated in Mexico and Central America, and that this poultry remains common in homestyle Mexican cooking. I found some delicious sounding Mexican turkey recipes but kept coming back to a festive pork preparation from the Yucatán, cochinita pibil, in which a whole suckling pig is marinated in achiote and bitter orange, covered in banana leaves and slow-roasted in an earthen pit. Surely I could do the same with a big bird.

For help assembling a recipe, I rang up

Hugo Ortega,

the James Beard Award-winning chef behind Hugo’s in Houston. He cautioned, “Yucatecan seasonings, especially achiote, have this amazing intensity of flavor—but it can be tricky to find a balance. One of the reasons people use whole pigs is that the fat content neutralizes the achiote.” A leaner turkey would require a lighter touch.

Blending the marinade, bathing the turkey in it and wrapping the lot up in banana leaves turned out to be a cinch; digging an enormous hole, less so. But I distracted myself by daydreaming of the feast to follow: the earthy, herbal, terracotta-hued bird, paired perhaps with a platter of chile-ribboned tamales, a salsa verde and a tangy orange-and-onion salad. I tended the fire and watched it burn down to coals, tossed in a few scoopfuls of river rocks, lowered my tightly-wrapped package into the glowing pit, and filled it back in. Then I went to a football game.

Ten hours later, as the sky darkened, my husband and I approached with our shovels. The earth was still warm—a promising sign!—and when we freed the bird from its steamy tropical cave, the flesh was so tender it literally fell from the bone. While this turkey in no way resembled the typical

Norman Rockwell

fantasy, the complex, floral flavor was remarkable enough for my husband to declare, “From now on, I would like all my meals to be exhumed.”

Of course, spending hours sweating over a ditch is not everyone’s idea of a holiday well spent. So, a few days later, I took a stab at replicating the results in the kitchen. The predictable heat of the oven meant the cook time could be considerably shorter, and, as a nod to aesthetics, for the final hour of roasting I unwrapped the bird and basted it regularly, aiming for a happy medium of moist flesh and burnished brick-red skin. The result was a triumph any host would be happy to show off—and the leftovers made for some next-level enchiladas.

A salt-crusted chicken recipe I’d filed away in a folder years ago inspired my next flight of fancy. A turkey is really just an oversize chicken, I reasoned, and the ancient technique—a theatrical one that calls for completely sealing the bird in a rough pastry made from equal parts salt and flour, thus locking in heat and juices for a speedy, succulent cook—promised supernaturally moist meat. My first attempt was clumsy: Turns out, encasing a crowd-size turkey in dough requires considerable engineering skills. Then I remembered that, because white and dark meat are ideally cooked to different temperatures, many chefs recommend detaching the turkey’s breast from the thighs and cooking them separately. Eureka! A compact breast was easier to seal, and the outcome made other turkeys I’ve tasted seem like sand by comparison. Sure, preparing the bird in parts precludes dramatic tableside carving. But trust me: Once that platter of buttery-tender breast meat and golden drumsticks is tucked alongside a green-bean salad and mashed potatoes, no one will give a damn.

By this point, my freezer had become a turkey boneyard and my butcher—

Adam Harvey,

the colorful chef/owner-cum-butcher at A&E Supply Co. in Gowanus, Brooklyn—was starting to wonder about me. Like Mr. Rodgers, Mr. Harvey has performed his share of turkey stunts, but with a wife, an infant son and a restaurant to manage, he admitted that this year, his wildest aspiration is to smoke a bird on his Big Green Egg. I don’t have an Egg, but I do have a sturdy old Weber kettle in my yard, and the idea of a few hours lazily basking in the autumn sunshine with a cold beer in hand and an applewood cloud settling around me was not unappealing.

I lugged home one more bird, mixed up a dry brine of kosher salt, dried apples, brown sugar and crushed pepper, and gave the turkey a good rubdown. The next day, I stoked a small fire on one side of my grill, settled a pile of damp wood chips into it and nestled the bird on the other side. When I lifted the lid less than three hours later, the sight that awaited me was a stunner: mahogany and crisp, redolent of smoke and spice, a turkey doing its best ham impression. The meat—pink, flavorful, dripping with juices—begged to be gobbled down with baked beans and bourbon-spiked cranberry sauce. Here was a turkey I’d be happy to eat on the fourth Thursday of November or the second Sunday in May or the last Monday in March. And maybe I will. After all, as Mr. Rodgers reminded me, “Where in the rule book does it say you can only make turkey once a year?”

Pibil-Style Turkey With Achiote and Oregano

ACTIVE TIME: 1 hour TOTAL TIME: 16 hours (includes marinating) SERVES: 10-12

For the marinade:

  • 2 large heads garlic
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons achiote seeds
  • 3 tablespoons Mexican oregano
  • 2 ½ tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons black peppercorns
  • 3 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • ½ teaspoon whole cloves
  • 3 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1½ teaspoons ground árbol chile
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 cup lime juice
  • 1 cup orange juice

For the turkey:

  • 1 (16-ounce) package frozen banana leaves, defrosted
  • 1 (12-to-15-pound) turkey, neck and giblets removed
  • 2 navel oranges, halved
  • 1 yellow onion, halved
  • 1 bunch fresh oregano, plus more for garnish
  • 8 tablespoons salted butter, melted
  • Tangerines, for garnish

Special equipment:

  • Extra-large disposable roasting pan

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Make marinade: Cut ½ inch off tops of garlic heads. Arrange garlic heads on two separate sheets of aluminum foil and drizzle olive oil over garlic. Wrap garlic, seal tightly and place on a baking sheet. Roast in oven until garlic cloves are golden-brown and tender, about 45 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.

2. Once garlic is cool enough to handle, squeeze cloves from skins into a blender or food processor. Add achiote, oregano, brown sugar, peppercorns, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, árbol chile, salt, garlic, lime juice and orange juice. Blend until smooth.

3. Line bottom of roasting pan with a bed of banana leaves, leaving long strips of leaves hanging over edges of pan. Place turkey in center of roasting pan. Pour marinade over turkey, rubbing all over and inside cavity. Stuff cavity with halved oranges, onion and fresh oregano. Fold banana leaves over turkey, placing more on top if needed, until turkey is completely covered. Chill turkey overnight or up to 12 hours.

4. Remove turkey from refrigerator and let come to room temperature, 2 hours.

5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cover roasting pan tightly with heavy aluminum foil. Roast 3½ hours.

6. Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees. Carefully remove foil and banana leaves, taking care not to burn yourself with steam. Reserve ¼ cup juices from pan and combine with melted butter in a small bowl. Transfer turkey to a rimmed baking sheet. Wipe off any excess marinade on skin, then baste bird generously with butter mixture. Return to oven and continue to roast, basting every 10 minutes, until turkey is a deep reddish-gold and an instant-read thermometer reads 160 degrees when inserted into the breast and 170 degrees in thickest part of thigh, 30-40 minutes. Discard orange, onion and herbs from cavity.

7. To serve, transfer turkey to a platter. Garnish platter with banana leaves, fresh oregano, tangerines and roasted garlic.

Pit-Cooked Variation:

ACTIVE TIME: 5 hours TOTAL TIME: 26 hours (includes marinating and pit-roasting) SERVES: 10-12

Same ingredients as above, plus the following special equipment:

  • Shovel
  • 20 large logs firewood
  • 1 (½ cf) bag large river rocks
  • Heavy-duty baling wire
  • 1 (½ cf) bag sand
  • 1 (48-by-48-inch) piece sheet metal

1. Clear a clean, flat area in your yard and dig a hole 3 feet deep and 3 feet wide. Build a fire at bottom of pit and feed it continuously until flames have subsided and embers have burned down white hot. (Embers should be about a foot deep. This will take a few hours.) As fire burns, use shovel to stir in river rocks until they are glowing.

2. Prepare turkey as instructed in recipe above. After wrapping turkey in banana leaves, tightly wrap it again with multiple layers of aluminum foil. Wrap baling wire tightly around turkey to make a long handle. (This will allow you to pull turkey out when done.)

3. Use shovel to move half the rocks and embers to one side of pit. Lower turkey onto bottom layer of rocks and embers, then move remaining rocks and embers around turkey until it is completely surrounded. Fill hole with sand and dirt. (Make sure you leave baling wire handle sticking up.) Top hole with sheet metal and shovel dirt around the edges so it is completely sealed. Cook 10 hours.

4. Remove metal and carefully retrieve turkey. An instant-read thermometer should read 160 degrees inserted into breast and 170 degrees in thickest part of thigh. Shred meat to serve.

Spiced Apple Smoked Turkey

ACTIVE TIME: 3 hours TOTAL TIME: 18 hours (includes dry-brining) SERVES: 10-12

  • ½ cup kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons ground dehydrated apple slices, such as Bare brand
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 (12-to-15-pound) turkey, neck and giblets removed
  • 1 large apple, halved
  • 1 large onion, halved
  • Juice and zest of 2 lemons
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted

Special equipment:

  • Medium/large kettle grill
  • Lump hardwood charcoal
  • Small disposable foil pan
  • Applewood chips, soaked and drained
  • Hickory chunks
  • Heatproof tongs

1. Make dry brine: In a small bowl, combine salt, brown sugar, ground apples, black pepper, pepper flakes, paprika and cloves. Pat turkey dry all over with paper towels and transfer to a large rimmed baking sheet. Use your hands to rub dry brine all over turkey, paying special attention to breast. Tie legs together with kitchen twine. Chill turkey, uncovered, overnight or up to 2 days.

2. Remove turkey from refrigerator and let it come to room temperature, 2 hours. Fill cavity with apple and onion halves.

3. Meanwhile, prepare grill: Close bottom vents halfway and leave top vents fully open. Fill a chimney starter with lump charcoal and empty it, unlit, onto half of outer edge of charcoal grate, making a half moon and leaving a bare spot in the middle. Place a small disposable foil pan in bare spot on grate and add enough water to come halfway up sides of pan. Fill charcoal chimney halfway and light. Once charcoal is hot and has begun to ash, add to grill, scattering over unlit charcoal. Make sure hinged part of cooking grate is sitting over charcoal, so you can add more charcoal or wood chips as needed.

4. Scatter 2 large chunks of hickory wood and a large handful of applewood chips over burning charcoal. Set grate in grill and place turkey, breast-side up, on grill over foil pan. Cover grill. Monitor grill’s internal temperature until it reaches 300-325 degrees. Adjust vents as necessary to maintain a steady temperature.

5. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine melted butter with lemon zest and juice. After the turkey has smoked 1 hour, brush lemon butter all over turkey, and repeat every 30 minutes. (Check wood chips. If smoke inside grill seems to have subsided, add a few more to hot coals each time you baste.) Smoke turkey until an instant-read thermometer reads 160 degrees when inserted into breast and 170 degrees in the thickest part the thigh, about 3 hours.

6. Transfer turkey to a cutting board and let rest at least 20 minutes before carving.

Salt-Crusted Turkey with Citrus and Sage

ACTIVE TIME: 1 hour minutes TOTAL TIME: 3 ½ hours SERVES: 10-12

  • 5 tablespoons butter, softened
  • ½ cup chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 lemon, zested and halved
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 (12- to-15-pound) turkey, neck and giblets removed, legs and thighs separated from breast
  • 5 cups kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
  • 5 cups all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • ½ cup chopped fresh sage
  • ½ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 8 egg whites

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Make herb butter: In a small bowl, combine butter, rosemary, lemon zest and a generous pinch of black pepper. Pat turkey parts dry. Starting at neck end of turkey, slip your hand between skin and meat to loosen skin. Press ⅔ herb butter under skin on turkey breast. Arrange legs and thighs in a separate shallow roasting pan and rub with remaining herb butter, salt and pepper. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, combine salt, flour, sage and parsley. Add egg whites and and ½ cup cold water, and stir to combine. Knead dough until it begins to come together. Continue to knead, adding cold water, a splash at a time, until it is pliant but not sticky. Divide dough in half and shape into 2 balls. Let dough rest, covered, 30 minutes.

3. On a lightly floured surface, roll one portion of dough into a large rectangle about ¼ inch thick. Lay dough on the bottom of a large roasting pan. Place turkey breast in center of dough and fold sides of dough up and around breast. Roll out remaining dough and lay it over breast, pressing edges of dough to seal with moistened fingers and patching as necessary. Turkey should be completely covered in dough.

4. Transfer turkey breast to oven and monitor closely for first 15 minutes of cooking. If deep cracks begin to appear, remove turkey from oven and quickly repair them with a paste of equal parts salt and flour moistened with water, then return turkey to oven. After 1 hour, place legs and thighs in oven. Roast until an instant-read thermometer reads 160 degrees when inserted into breast and 170 degrees in thickest part of thigh, about 1½ hours more. Remove both roasting pans from oven.

5. Cover pan of thighs and legs with foil. Transfer turkey breast to a cutting board and let rest at least 20 minutes before carving. Break open and discard salt crust. Remove skin from breast and carve. Arrange turkey breast slices on a platter along with the legs and thighs. Garnish with fresh herbs.

Corrections & Amplifications

In the U.S., Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday in November. An earlier version of this article stated that the holiday falls on the third Thursday in November.

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