Last year, Rouses Markets sold over 1 million pounds of turkey for the holidays. This year, that number will grow to 1.6 million because of the expanding number of stores. Sell that much bird, both prepared and frozen, and you learn a thing or two about how to really make a turkey sing with flavor, and how to awe Instagram with that beautiful, crispy brown skin. Turkey is a hard bird to prepare properly; a little too long in the oven and you get a bird as juicy as sawdust. A little too short, and you get food poisoning. To find out how you might make the best Thanksgiving turkey ever, I asked the experts at Rouses for advice on how to do it right. Here is what you need to know to make this year’s Thanksgiving dinner a success.
THE FIRST THING TO BUY
According to Marc Ardoin, corporate chef for Rouses Markets, the most important thing you need when preparing a turkey dinner is a meat thermometer. “When you are cooking a big piece of meat like that,” he says, “you’re going to want to have a meat thermometer handy to check the internal temperature. You don’t want to get anyone sick.” The thermometer should be inserted into the joint of the leg and thigh. Don’t push it in so far that it touches bone; the thermometer makes its reading within the first inch of the probe. And gone are the days of hard-to-read, easy-to-stain analog thermometers; you can find everything from inexpensive digital varieties to Bluetooth ones that tell your phone when the turkey is ready.
Ardoin does not recommend trusting the little plastic pop-up thermometers that feature in many frozen turkeys. “It was a great thing for back when nobody had a thermometer to go by, but I take those out,” he says. “Use an actual thermometer that has been calibrated properly. I’ve heard enough horror stories of people getting sick that I don’t trust them.”
Moreover, on the subject of food safety, Ardoin strongly urges safe handling procedures when dealing with raw turkey. Wash your hands regularly, and wipe down counters and nearby items with soap and water or Clorox wipes. “I’m always concerned during the holidays that people are trying to do so much that they forget about the safe handling of their turkey. Clean as you go, and sanitize and sterilize everything.”
He says to keep raw items cold and hot items hot. If you have to take something out of the oven to make room for something else, maintain the temperatures of the items removed. “It’s very easy a lot of the time,” says Ardoin, “to work with raw turkey, and some of the juice from the turkey, or some of the blood, can splatter. You don’t realize it, but it gets on something that you are going to cook with, like salt, or on other food nearby on the counter. Be careful.”
THE PERFECT ROAST
If you are going to roast a turkey, you will want to buy it at least four days before Thanksgiving, because it will take a while for the bird to thaw in the refrigerator. You have the option of leaving it out to defrost in the sink, but it might not be the best course of action if the nearest hospital is too far from home. If you must do a sink defrost, you can buy your bird two days early and let it sit in the sink overnight with water running over it (the safest way to do a non-fridge defrosting); it should take about seven hours to thaw. That’s a lot of running water…
Once your “birdsicle” is totally thawed, you have a few options for preparation. The most common and traditional way is a standard roast. First, brine your turkey. This is a process that involves fully submerging the bird overnight in a solution of water, salt and other seasonings. The brine is absorbed into the meat of the turkey, which helps to keep it moist during the roasting process. A brined turkey can be roasted at a higher temperature for a slightly shorter length of time, which also helps the meat retain its moisture. (A non-brined turkey roasts lower and slower.)
The Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture both recommend roasting your bird to an internal temperature of 185 degrees. (This is true whether you grill it, smoke it or roast it.) For a brined turkey, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Do not use the convection setting. Roast the turkey for 20 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 325. Cooking times will vary based on the size of the bird. Plan for about 15 minutes per pound, regardless of total weight. (Your biggest limitation will be the size of your oven.) To protect your turkey from browning too quickly or drying out, create a foil “tent” to cover the turkey breast. This will help insulate the quicker-cooking breast and maintain its moisture. Remove the tent for the last 20 minutes of cooking for that nice, crisp, golden-brown skin.
If you are celebrating Thanksgiving with Chef Ardoin this year, you’ll discover his secret for preparing the most flavorful turkey imaginable. “I like making a little compound butter and sticking it beneath the skin,” he says. He takes softened butter and mixes it with salt, pepper and fresh herbs — chopped parsley, green onion, fresh sage and rosemary. He puts on a pair of kitchen gloves (“Again,” he says, “safe handling practices.”) and separates the skin from the breast meat without tearing it. He takes the softened butter and gently works it beneath the skin. This keeps the breast moist and flavorful and crisps the skin nicely. “When that skin renders out, you can see flecks of herbs underneath sitting on the turkey breast. It’s beautiful and has a great flavor,” he says.
THE SPATCHCOCKED TURKEY
Another method of preparing a turkey is called spatchcocking; this method has become particularly popular in the last few years. Spatchcocking involves carving out the turkey’s backbone and spreading the spineless, featherless fowl on a baking sheet with the breast facing up, the bird splayed open. It will slash the cooking time while allowing you also to indulge any latent and grisly Halloween impulses. The finished product will retain its moisture better simply because it doesn’t have to cook as long.
To spatchcock a turkey, you will want first to brine it, just as you would a bird for a traditional roast. When ready to roast, preheat your oven to 350 degrees, brush the turkey with oil and, depending on its weight, cook for 70 to 90 minutes. (A 12-pound turkey will take approximately 70 minutes.) Because your turkey is splayed open with no center cavity, a safe internal temperature is 165 degrees. Once the roasting is complete, you’ll discover a very even cooking of the legs, thighs and breast. (The breast is typically the part of the bird that suffers most during a traditional roast, drying slowly over time. By opening the turkey with this technique, the breast will be far juicier and have more flavor.)
WHEN TURKEYS FIGHT BACK
The method of turkey preparation most likely to cause horrible, lifelong suffering is deep-frying. It’s a great way to prepare a turkey in terms of speed and flavor (I mean, c’mon, it’s fried), but it’s not without its risks. You’ll need to fry it in an open area with no covering (i.e., outside and definitely not in the garage or under any patio covering). You will need a large thermometer made specifically for your pot to monitor the temperature of the oil. You will need to know what you’re doing. To deep-fry a turkey, first pat it down to remove all water. The biggest mistake people make is attempting to fry a turkey with moisture on or in it. Water will cause the oil to splatter, which can cause severe burning and/or a house fire.
Before going forward, ask yourself: Do you know what you are doing? Are you sure? If you are reading this article to learn how to fry a turkey, you definitely should not fry a turkey. But if you’ve never seen an animal that you didn’t want to dunk in hot oil, just remember to bring your oil to 350 degrees, and to fry your turkey at three-and-a-half minutes per pound. Your standard-issue, 12-pound turkey takes about 45 minutes to fry. You need enough oil in the pot to fill the turkey’s cavity while leaving a gap between the top of the turkey and the surface of the oil, and a gap between the surface of the oil and the top of the pot. You don’t want the turkey to cause the pot to overflow, so you don’t want too much oil there, either — yet you must have enough oil. It’s a difficult balance to achieve. A successfully fried turkey will earn the people’s ovation evermore, but again: It’s hard to overstate how incredibly dangerous it is. Go to YouTube and search for “fried turkey explosions.” They create mushroom clouds. Like the atomic bomb. Have you considered spatchcocking? It has zero chance of fiery explosions and none of your loved ones will leave your house by hospital helicopter.
IN THE EVENT OF EMERGENCY
So you’ve roasted your turkey. The family is gathered around the table, and you stand, Charles Dickens-style, carving knife in one hand and carving fork in the other. It’s time to carve the bird. The order is pretty straightforward: Remove the legs and thighs, and separate them. Carve the breast meat. Remove the wings. Everything goes onto a platter.
But what if you slice into the turkey, look inside, and find a pink, translucent mess? Your turkey is undercooked! What do you do?
“To bring a turkey back to life,” says Ardoin, “the easiest, fastest and safest way to get it fully cooked is to cut the rest of the turkey off of the bone.” He suggests carving as stated above, setting the parts on a baking tray, and sticking the whole thing back in the oven. Don’t put the uncarved turkey back in the oven whole, he says, because the parts fully cooked will completely dry out. Rather, he says, expose as much of the raw, uncooked turkey to heat as possible so that it cooks faster and is finished evenly.
“Again,” he says, “that’s why you use a meat thermometer. It’s the easiest way to avoid this problem.”
What about the opposite problem? You carve into the turkey and it’s like plywood: the bird is an overcooked nightmare. “There’s nothing you can do about that,” says Ardoin. “You can’t resuscitate it, but you can take it and shred it and use it to make a turkey pot pie, because it will braise in the sauce. Or you can make turkey salad with a mayonnaise-based dressing. But that’s about all you’re going to be able to do with it.”
MAKING THINGS EASIER
Rouses is on a mission to make this Thanksgiving the easiest and most flavorful ever. The stores now carry brine bucket kits that take the guesswork out of preparation. The buckets include two giant resealable plastic bags and a salt-and-seasoning mixture. To create your brine, boil the mixture in about two quarts of water. Afterward, cool the solution before mixing it in the bucket with a gallon of ice water. Wash your turkey, pat it dry, and submerge the bird in the brine, adding a little more ice and water to keep the bird submerged and its cavity filled. Seal the bucket and let it soak overnight. The next day, pull out the turkey, pat it dry, and get your oven ready for roasting. The brine bucket is a great all-in-one package for people who don’t know seasoning ratios or don’t have the tools to do the job. And if you don’t have room in your fridge for a big brine bucket, you can use the included plastic bags. Drop the turkey in one, pour in the brine, and seal it. You can protect it from catastrophic leaks with a second bag. (It’s not a bad idea to lay the double-sealed brining bird in a roasting pan.) And don’t worry: The bucket includes a recipe card that tells you everything you need to know.
But it can be even easier than that. What if I told you that you didn’t have to do anything at all to prepare your turkey? That you could just…pick up a perfectly prepared bird, and then tell everyone how hard you worked on it?
Rouses offers two fully prepared, traditional Thanksgiving dinners: a basic meal that includes a turkey and such sides as cornbread dressing, peas, gravy and rolls. It also offers a premium dinner with more sides in greater quantities. In addition, you can buy the items à la carte: You can order only a prepared turkey or only a ham, or such items as sweet potato casserole by the pound, gravy, cranberry relish, and macaroni and cheese. The meals are designed for families to get from box to table in about one hour.
For those weekend-long Thanksgiving extravaganzas, where the family rushes at midnight to the mall for doorbuster deals, Rouses also sells Thanksgiving party trays with items like finger sandwiches, egg rolls, muffalettas and cheeses.
What makes the Thanksgiving offerings from Rouses special is an attention to local cuisine and culture. “Most traditional sellers don’t sell shrimp and mirliton,” says Michael Westbrook, Rouses director of deli cold cuts and sushi. “We sell oysters Bienville, which is an oyster dressing. We sell lots of rice dressing, and that’s also very unique to this part of the country, and we try to make sure our meals are geared toward what our customers would be eating for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter. Our comfort food.”
Ordering for holiday meals begins on November 10. Stores will have tables with order forms set up near the deli sections. Holiday sides will be available for customers to sample, and if you like what you taste, you can place your orders on the spot, or later by phone, and pick up the meals just before the big day. The two busiest days for pickup are the day before Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving morning (yes, the stores will be open). The meals are completely prepared, and the customers need only heat them in the oven or on the stove when they get home. The meal boxes come with instructions for how to heat each item.
In recent years, many Rouses customers have chosen to pick up their dinners much earlier — not for Thanksgiving Day, but for special meals called Friendsgiving feasts. “It’s where friends come together to have a celebration separate from Thanksgiving Day, where people generally already have family traditions. It’s an interesting new phenomenon.” Anyone who would like Rouses to prepare a dinner specially timed for their own Friendsgiving celebration need only request the earlier day and time to pick up their meals.
But let’s say it’s Thanksgiving Day, and you’ve tried to prepare the dinner of your dreams. The family is all around, plates in hand and ready for round one, but when it comes out of the oven, dinner is an inedible mess. The turkey tastes like tree bark. The sides are watery bowls of despair. The rolls can double as baseballs. Rouses will do what it can to help.
“We absolutely do our best to not turn away an order,” says Westbrook. “We have had customers who walk up on the day of Thanksgiving, and in all circumstances our stores go above and beyond to help. We know it is an important holiday for families.” If you turn up an hour before lunch without having pre-ordered, there’s no guarantee, of course, that a prepared turkey will be available. But the team will do what it can to save the day. “We go out of our way to make sure we take care of you.”