A three day adventure with a free-range turkey

Sophie EdmondsThe following is an accurate account of my adventures with a 4.5kg free-range Crozier's turkey.
Two weeks ago, I received an email from the ODT asking if I wanted a free-range Crozier's turkey to write about for this blog. Somewhat shocked, I said "yes". I had never roasted anything before, not a chicken, not anything, let alone a whole turkey. In hindsight, I wonder what made me agree.

A few days later a frozen bird was delivered at my old hall, Carrington. I am eternally thankful for the use of their freezer for the week prior to cooking it, as there was no way the thing would fit into our tiny freezer.

I planned on hosting a Thanksgiving dinner the Saturday before exams were due to start. Probably not the smartest idea, but at least I got to put into practice some of my knowledge on how to avoid giving an entire party food poisoning (I have had lectures on that, no joke).

Thanksgiving in Canada falls on the second Monday of October, so this party was only a few days late. It was also the perfect excuse to make mini pecan and mini pumpkin pies for dessert.

Planning this thing was kind of stressful. My family is a ham family; we have an aversion to turkey. The last time we had it -- like, seven years ago -- it was too dry and so I have never seen it as a viable feasting option.

After doing a bit of research I found that if you soak the turkey in a brine solution overnight the resultant cooked bird is lovely and moist. I then did some brine-recipe investigation. Initially, I was confused. Some well-known food personalities have their science mixed up. They say that the brine solution causes the water to move into the meat via osmosis.

Unfortunately, they have it around the wrong way. The high salt concentration in the surrounding water would cause water in the turkey cells to leach out to try to dilute the salt solution, resulting in an even drier bird than before. What they are right about, nevertheless, is that brining does make the bird juicier. I went to talk to my lecturer to find the salty solution to this brainteaser.

The salt in the brine solution migrates into the muscle tissue. The myosin (the proteins involved in contracting the muscle) is solubilised. The negatively charged chloride ions (from the salt) cause the proteins to have an overall negative charge. As we know, like charges repel, causing the protein fibres to repel each other. This repulsion leads to increased space between the proteins.

Water migrates into these spaces. The chloride ions and the dissolved sugars also like to hold on to the water, making it stay in the meat. Therefore, the water-holding capacity of the meat is greater and hence a juicier slice of turkey breast. The same thing happens with our ham, bacon and other meats. If the meat holds more water it weighs more, it is juicier and therefore meat retailers can charge more for it.

So armed with this knowledge I set about making up my brine, stuffing and cooking recipes. Remember, I had never done this before and there was a good chance that this would be a disaster.

Now, large frozen birds take a while to defrost. But if you were to leave one on the kitchen bench to thaw, there is a good chance you would spend the 24 hours after eating it in the bathroom. The way to avoid spending the night caressing your favourite bathroom fixture is to slowly defrost the bird in the fridge over a couple of days. Sure, it will take longer, but it is better than the alternative.

So, my turkey adventure proper began on a Wednesday.

On the Wednesday we went to pick up the turkey (in the car thank goodness) and it began its great but slow defrosting adventure.

Thursday evening:
Thursday was the day for making the brine concentrate. After looking at a few recipes I decided that a successful brine recipe had the following components: salt, a sugar source, a fruit flavour, thyme and rosemary, garlic and plenty of water. I decided that I wanted my turkey to have apple and pear as the main feature, so a litre of apple juice went in. I chose brown sugar to be my sugar source as it has a more complex flavour than white sugar. I threw in some rosemary and thyme and five crushed cloves of garlic. A few recipes suggested peppercorns so those went in too.

To freshen the brine up a bit I threw in the zest of one orange and the flesh cut into cubes. This method also helped to release the flavours in the orange rind and herbs. The high salt content of the brine concentrate lowers the boiling point quite significantly. So it will be bubbling away at about the 70degC mark. I took it off the heat, left it to cool for a bit then poured it into a clean milk bottle. Once it was room temperature, I popped it in the fridge to chill overnight.

Friday:
Friday was the day I found a large enough plastic bag to brine my turkey, a plastic bag that wouldn't leak briny turkey juice everywhere. I also needed to make my mini pies. I told a friend to come over after work and do some quality control. I said that there would either be lovely cute wee pies or she would find a crumpled Sophie-shaped mess on the floor crying over ruined pies. Both scenarios were completely plausible.

In the afternoon I began the brining process. If I am ever asked in a job interview when was the last time I used problem-solving and perseverance, I can tell them about the time I brined a turkey.

It was almost as comical as a Mr Bean Christmas special.

After 48 hours defrosting in the fridge, my turkey was still frozen. That's a good start. When I opened the bag the turkey was in, I forgot that I was dealing with a gutted, headless animal, frozen into a shape that fits conveniently into a plastic bag. I opened the leg end of the bag and as it tore open I let out a little yelp. All I could see was the bit of neck sitting inside the internal cavity. I have a thing about animal spines. I can't even look at a roast chicken if I can see its spine. So tinned salmon is a no go for me too.

I manned up and lifted the bird out of the bag, at which point it  skidded, frozen, across the kitchen bench, almost landing in the sink. It was then that I realised that I didn't actually have a bag big enough to brine it in. This was a problem.

Solution 1: I could use my bucket. I got out the hot glue gun and glued up the hole in the bottom. Then it occurred to me that I needed to fit this bucket, along with the 4.5kg bird and about 8kg of water on to a glass shelf in the fridge. Unfortunately, a) the bucket wouldn't fit even if I removed all the shelves, and b) the weight of the full bucket would surely break the shelf.

Solution 2: The last Dunedin City Council rubbish bag sitting in the laundry. It was 40 litres. It was perfect, except that I didn't think it could carry the 12kg of weight without splitting. After filling it with the frozen bird, brine and 6 litres of extra water it looked like a giant black bladder sitting on the bench. The bench (and floor) at this stage was covered in brine (and probably a little bit of melted turkey juice).

Right now I needed a way of supporting the bladder so that it wouldn't split under its own weight. Aha! I had a largish clothes shop bag with handles. I awkwardly slid the bladder into the bag (one-handedly as I was taking photos of the ridiculousness at the same time). I tied a nice knot and tried lifting it. I still didn't trust this wrapping. Next thing you know I am sliding my clean (I hoped) gym towel under the bird bag and forming a sling, just as you would  to carry a real body in first-aid training. I moved everything from the vege bin in the fridge on to the bottom shelf, then very carefully lifted the precious cargo into the vege bin. Closed the drawer. Bam. Done. I'm awesome.

I sat there for a few minutes revelling in my ability to solve problems and defy the odds.

I called Mum and recapped the afternoon's events. She pointed out that I could reuse the council rubbish bag; after all, it's just going to have rubbish in it. Win!

After disinfecting everything of turkey-juice contamination, I proceeded to make my mini pecan and pumpkin pies. I owned those mini pies. They turned out excellently (much to my surprise actually, pastry and I haven't had a good relationship in the past).

So it's 8pm, I am winning at life and completely exhausted. Absolutely shattered.

Lunchtime, Saturday.
After running to the supermarket to get a few last-minute things, I began the day's preparations. First I grated an endless number of carrots and beetroots for another salad, before getting down to making the stuffing. At first I followed the recipe I sort of made up. Then I felt like adding some chopped dates to it. I love dates so surely a few of them in there wouldn't hurt. Then I added some orange. Why? Because orange goes excellently with dates and almonds (which were also in there).

Just before 3pm, I rolled up my sleeves, donned an apron, sanitised the bench and threw on some disposable gloves. I poured out the brine from my double-lined council rubbish bag and had a look at the bird inside. At least it had defrosted. I faced my aversion to bird carcasses and flipped the legs out from the flap of skin keeping them tight together. Making a reach of faith I stuck my hand in and pulled out the neck and the liver. Nom nom. I'm sure an anatomy student would be stoked with these.

After rinsing out the inside I proceeded to stuff the bird. I had to YouTube how to do this first. Apparently you don't want to pack it too firmly or it takes too long to cook and you end up with a dense soggy mass. You should be able to slide your hand in and over the mound of stuffing. Once it was full of my delicious mixture, I stoppered the hole with a half-orange and popped the legs back under the handy skin tie the butcher had made. Now to put it in the roasting dish.

The turkey god seriously hates me.

The bird was too big for my dish. The tail-flap hung out and over the end of it. After doing a call around to see if anyone had a bigger dish (which no one did - students can't afford such large amounts of meat) I decided to just squish it in and hope that it shrank before the fat melted over the side. Thankfully it did and I avoided an oven fire.

I cooked it at 180degC for 45 minutes. I think this was to crisp the skin first. I then added as much cider to the dish as I could without it spilling. I think it was almost a litre, minus a few confidence-boosting swigs. I turned the temperature down to 160degC, at which I let it cook for another hour. I took it out again and poured some of the cidery juices over it before putting it in again for another hour.

Now Annabel (Langbein) told me (via her blog, not in person) to cook a bird of this size for 2 hours 45 minutes. The packet said two and a half. My mum (who had to convert it to pounds) said three. As exams were coming up I was quite nervous about it being undercooked. We couldn't afford any food poisoning. The bird had a pop-up timer inserted into it but I don't think it popped (I was expecting it to shoot up). So after giving it a few stabs here and there in the chunky bits to check if the juices had run clear (which they had) I finally took it out of the oven after almost three hours.

Note to self, don't cook a turkey wearing glasses. It was a bad day to try to channel the inner smarty-pants. Every time I opened the oven door I forgot I had to wait for the steam to gush out, so my glasses kept steaming up. So annoying. When I went to take it out there was a delayed steam gush and I ended up spilling some of the oily juices on the floor (and on me). So half an hour before everyone arrived I was mopping the floor to avoid a slippery head injury.

Sweet giblets! The bird smelt amazing. As in, like, amazing. I gave it a good poke and the skin was crisp and crunchy. Now I'm usually the healthy poultry consumer and remove all skin before I eat, but all that was going out the window. I had to flip the bird on to its breast to let the juices flow back into it as well as to relax the muscle fibres before we ate it. I was by myself and flipping this steaming-hot bird with only a dinner fork was quite comical. In the process a portion of wing "accidentally" snapped off. How tragic.

I had to sample the wing of course.

It was the best thing I have ever eaten. I ended up with grease from ear to ear (thank goodness none of the guests had arrived yet). I immediately went about rubbing the meaty goodness in my brother's face (he's in Auckland) by sending him a picture of it. I gave myself a quick pat on the back before running around getting everything else together. I also had to make the gravy. The best thing about pouring all the cider in is that you have a delicious amount of liquid from which to make the gravy.

Carving was also an interesting experience. Once again I had to YouTube the instructions. The guy made it look so easy. That was probably because he had a decent knife. However, the meat came off and all my fingers remained attached. Success!

Everyone finally arrived and as it turned out, everyone forgot to bring the cutlery and plates that I asked them to bring. This was going to be interesting. So Alix and I checked our bags for rogue forks. I had a nightmare a few days previously that while I did something else, everyone ate all the turkey. This actually almost happened.

As I was doing a quick tidy up, everyone dug in. When I went to get something to take a nice photo, all the pretty breast pieces had gone. Like disappeared. Just like the plates and cutlery had. So I had to get out this small 20cm plate and put a huge caveman leg on to it. I then had to do a quick dash to get a few things to put on my plate before they too disappeared. Then I realised there were no forks left. I couldn't even find a plastic one in the drawer. So I had to pick apart my leg with my fingers while waiting for someone's fork to become available. The turkey god really didn't want me to have this.

I also discovered that taking attractive photos of a rather caveman-like meat experience was quite difficult. Knobbly bits of cartilage and other bits of turkey anatomy aren't very aesthetic. So the photos really do not do it justice, neither does my iPhone, with which I was taking the photos. For those of you wondering what was on my plate other than the huge leg, there was a raw-energy salad comprised of raw beetroot and carrot with a pomegranate molasses-based dressing, a roasted pear, and walnut and blue cheese salad. Take my word for it, it tasted excellent.

I was kind of hoping there would be leftovers for our lunches the following day, and maybe even a dinner. But no. Everything was eaten. Before I even got a fork the carcass was being picked over. At least that meant it tasted good and many a student belly was filled.

The gravy and the stuffing were fantastic on my juicy thigh (which is probably where they ended up). The leg had been sitting directly in the cider and was super-juicy. I am not too sure about the breast meat though. I don't think it needed that extra time in the oven, but it is better to be safe than sorry. The flavour of the meat was excellent. It had that satisfying level of salty that makes tummies smile. The sweet stuffing complemented the meat perfectly. The fruity components removed any need for fruit-based condiments and the almonds, oh the almonds. They just went brilliantly with the dried fruit and the orange and provided that well-needed crunch among it all.

Success! I could sleep easy that night (with a very large food baby indeed).

Once the dishes were cleared and the kitchen returned to a less bombsite-like state, it was time for dessert. And what more perfect to finish a Thanksgiving turkey meal than pumpkin and pecan pies? They went down a treat (the recipes for these are on my personal blog (sophielikescake.blogspot.co.nz).

So here concludes my adventures in turkey town. After a week of planning and more trips to New World than I care to remember, it is over.

I would like to give a huge thank you to Crozier's (www.croziersturkeys.co.nz) for providing me with the magnificent bird, as well as to my flatmate Alix, who put up with all my obsessive turkey nonsense this week.

The following methods I have adjusted slightly, taking in my own learning experience to make the process easier.

48 hours before you plan to cook the turkey:
Turkey brine:

2 cups salt
1 cup brown sugar
4 cups of water
4 cups apple juice (just use the cheapest you can get)
3 Tbsp whole peppercorns
4 Tbsp rosemary leaves
3 Tbsp thyme leaves
5 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped or crushed
the peel of one orange plus the flesh, cubed
6 litres of cold water.

In a medium saucepan, dissolve the salt and sugar in 4 cups of water and 1 cup of apple juice. Add the peppercorns, herbs, garlic and orange. Simmer until all the salt and sugar has dissolved and a good aroma has been released (about 10 minutes). Take off the heat and leave to cool for a bit before pouring into a clean milk bottle (if the mixture is too hot it will melt the bottle). Pour in the remaining three cups of apple juice. Leave to cool to room temperature before placing in the fridge overnight. Leaving it overnight not only cools the brine so that it doesn't raise the temperature of the turkey meat (health hazard!) but it will also help to develop the flavours.

24 hours before you plan to cook the turkey:
Take your defrosted bird out of the fridge. It doesn't really matter if it hasn't fully defrosted, it still has 24 hours to do so. Unwrap the bird. Place the bird into a double-lined (clean) rubbish bag. Carefully pour in the brine solution, making sure it doesn't spill out of the bag. Pour in another 6 litres of cold water (from the tap will do) over the turkey. Tie the bags up nice and tightly.

Either a) create a towel sling and transfer the turkey bag into the vege drawer of your fridge or
b) fill a large chilly bin with ice and place the bag in that. If using a chilly bin, make sure no animals can get to it; it would make a nice feast for them. Check the chilly bin every six hours or so and top up the ice if required. If you want to be super-safe, throw a thermometer into the bin and monitor the temperature, making sure it doesn't rise above 4degC.

Leave to soak in the brine for 24 hours.

Approximately 4 hours before you want to serve your turkey:
Remove the turkey from the plastic bags. Remove the giblets from the internal cavity and give the bird a good rinse with fresh cold water inside and out.

Prepare the stuffing:
3 cups chunky breadcrumbs
3 eggs
½ cup chunkily chopped almonds
½ cup crystallised dried apple (the sweet sugary type from the bulk bins)
½ cup dried dates, chopped
The peel of one orange, finely sliced
2 medium-sized onions, diced
40g butter
3 Tbsp thyme
a good handful of parsley, chopped
the leaves of 2 sprigs of rosemary
salt and pepper to taste
½ an orange

Soften the onions by frying them in the butter along with the thyme and rosemary. Cook them until they are translucent but not brown. Mix all of the ingredients apart from the eggs in a bowl. Just before you plan to stuff the turkey, mix in the eggs (otherwise it goes soggy).

Hold the bird upside down and spoon the stuffing inside. Return the turkey to its normal position. Make sure you can slide your hand in and over the mound of stuffing inside, be careful not to overstuff. Stopper the cavity with the half-orange. Tie the legs together with some cooking string.

To roast the turkey:
2 medium-sized onions, sliced into rings
2 pears, sliced lengthways
3 sprigs of rosemary
5 sprigs of thyme
30g butter, softened
1 litre apple or pear cider
Preheat the oven to 180degC.

Place the onions, pears and herbs in the roasting dish. Place your stuffed turkey on top of them. Rub the skin of the turkey with the softened butter.

Place the turkey in the oven and cook for 45 minutes. At 45 minutes, take the turkey out and pour as much cider as you can into the roasting dish. Turn the oven down to 160degC and put turkey back in the oven for another 2 hours. At intervals pour some of the cider and juices back over the breast. To see if the meat is cooked, stab the thickest part of the meat (usually the thigh) and see if the juices run clear.

In young birds, the bones are still quite porous and so it is common for some of the marrow to leach into the surrounding muscle, giving it a very pink or purple colour. This is completely normal, just make sure the juices are clear and not pink.

Take the turkey out of the oven and flip it onto its breast. This is to help the juices flow back into the breast meat. Cover with tinfoil and a couple of tea towels to keep it warm. Leave to rest for half an hour before you carve and serve it. This gives you a good amount of time to get other things together, such as the gravy.

I placed all the pears and onions from the roasting pan in a small bowl for people to have as a side to their turkey. Waste not, want not.

Gravy:
¼ cup cornflour
¼ cup cold water
3 cups of the cooking juices surrounding the turkey.

Slurry together the cold water and cornflour in a separate cup. Pour into a saucepan along with the 3 cups of turkey juices. Cook on a medium heat until the sauce thickens.

Carve up the turkey (with a sharp knife!) and serve with a good portion of amazing stuffing and a good drowning in gravy (oh, you should probably put some vegetables with it too!).

Enjoy!

As exams are next week, this will probably be my last post for the year. So good luck to all my fellow Scarfies, see you next year!

- Sophie