The centerpiece of the traditional Thanksgiving – and Christmas – table is a golden -brown, gleaming delicious baked turkey. Pre-frozen, pre-basted, store-bought turkeys can easily become dry and unappetizing if not cooked exactly right. A freshly slaughtered free-range bird has a taste and succulence that no frozen turkey can match.
Remember that a full grown turkey is a big, very strong, creature. A blow from a wing has been known to break a man’s arm. Treat your bird with respect.
Wear eye protection and a protective mask over nose and mouth when dispatching the turkey.
The bird is going to thrash a bit as it dies. This is not a sign of suffering – merely nervous energy being released. The process also helps expel blood from the body.
To avoid injury from sharp claws or wingtips, place the live bird in a feed-bag – the sort that once contained 50kg (100lb) of rice or animal food. Cut a hole in the bottom of the bag large enough for the turkey’s head to fit through.
Dispatching the Turkey
First make sure you have a large container full of enough hot water to completely immerse the bird. The fun way to do this is to get up very early on the big day and heat the water in a sawn-off oil-drum over an open fire.
- Then catch your turkey. If you intend doing this in daylight, you will probably need help, as they can run and dodge like ace quarterbacks. The easiest way is to sneak up on your bird early in the morning while he is still sleeping. Grab him by his legs. He will become quite docile once he is suspended upside-down by his legs.
- Pop him into the bag, and tie the top securely.
- Now wait for his head to pop out of the hole in the bag’s bottom – this may take a few minutes but, believe me, that curious bird will poke his head out.
- This is your moment. One quick blow with a very sharp axe, and it’s all over bar the plucking.
- Once the initial bloodspurt – and twitching – have ceased, remove the corpse from the bag and hang it up by its feet so that the rest of the blood can drain.
Dressing the Turkey
It is a strange feature of the English language that the act of plucking a bird is known as “dressing” it! This stage of the process is, for me, the most unpleasant task. A turkey has lots of feathers, and they are all pretty firmly attached.
- Plunge the whole bird into your hot water (not boiling – you don’t want to cook your turkey just yet) and leave it there for about four or five minutes. This will loosen the feathers and make your task a lot easier.
- Starting with the wings, remove a few feathers at a time. The best way to do this is to place one hand flat on the area to be plucked with a few feathers protruding between the index and middle fingers. With the other hand, grasp these feathers as near their base as possible and give a gentle jerk.
- As your skill improves you will find that you will be able to pluck larger groups without tearing the skin.
- Only progress to the breast of the bird once you are adept at removing feathers without damaging the skin. If you find that the feathers are becoming more difficult to pluck, put the bird back in the hot water again. Once you have removed all the feathers – even the tiny little squibs – you are ready for stage three:
Drawing the Turkey
- Cut the through the leg tendons at the “knee” joint, snap off the lower-legs and discard – or keep for making a delicious turkey broth.
- Next make a circular incision around the anus, taking care not to cut through the rectum. Lift the circle of skin, plunge your hand into the inside of the bird and pull out all the entrails. This is more fun than it sounds.
- Keep the heart and liver. The rest should be discarded.
- Once the inside of the carcass is empty, cut a ring around the neck and separate the cervical spine from the rest of the carcass. This can be kept, sans skin, to add to your turkey-foot-broth.
- You should now have a turkey carcass that looks much more like a store-bought bird than it did about an hour ago.
- Wash it thoroughly, inside and out, and remove any little feather-squibs that may have escaped your attention before.
- Weigh the bird – this is the cooking weight.
Following Your Recipe
The secret to a delicious, succulent turkey is to cook it slowly and baste it often. At a temperature of 160 degrees celsius (320 degrees Fahrenheit) it should take about 20-25 minutes per 500g (1lb).
My favourite way of cooking a turkey is in a kettle BBQ, like a Weber or similar.
I slip a little garlic butter under the skin of the breast and neck, together with a few rashers of really smoky bacon. The stuffing stays outside the bird. This I roast in little ball-shapes in aluminum foil trays under the turkey. The bird’s juices drip onto the stuffing and the stuffing absorbs the lovely smoky flavour of the fire.
I use compressed charcoal briquettes for the fire. They allow the heat to be adjusted with some accuracy, but keep a separate fire for your replacement briquettes.
Mount the bird on a spit and secure it firmly. Place it over the fire, and put the lid on. I find that giving the turkey a quarter turn, and basting – with oil applied with a sprig of rosemary – every 20 minutes or so works best. About halfway through the cooking time, I sprinkle a small handful of pre-soaked hickory chips on the coals. This adds a lovely smoky flavour without causing you to serve smoked turkey.
Keep the lid off the kettle for the last half-hour – this helps crisp the skin.
When the leg joints move freely, and the juice from the thickest part of the thigh runs clear on being pricked, your masterpiece turkey is ready to grace your Thanksgiving table in all its succulent, savoury and golden glory.
Recommended: Try cooking this turkey in the best greaseless fryer!
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