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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Talkin’ Turkey – Roasting in Pieces

I know Thanksgiving is over and whatnot, but I can still talk turkey, right? ย Besides, I couldn’t report on how I cooked my turkey until after I did it. So, consider this an investigative reporting piece. 20/20 here I come.

For years I’ve been wanting to cook a turkey that is cut into pieces. I read about it in Sunset magazine. But, for whatever reason, roasting a butchered bird felt, I don’t know, un-traditional or something. This year since I was cooking a turkey just for us and not on Thanksgiving, the pressure was off and I gave it a go.

The week before Thanksgiving I saw an episode of America’s Test Kitchen where they cooked a turkey that they slow roasted in pieces. I totally trust them, so I decided to do exactly what they said to do. Please click on this link to read the recipe. (You need to register with the site to view it, but registration is free and TOTALLY worth it – great site and recipes!)

Instead of rehashing the recipe, I just want to discuss the results. The turkey was good. Honestly, though, it wasn’tย great. It was not as tender, juicy and flavorful as I was expecting. (By the way, I’m starting to think the perfect turkey is almost as elusive as the perfect watermelon.) Here are a few of my thoughts:

  • I do like cooking the turkey this way. It’s much more manageable to work with than a giant bird, and you have a lot more control when cooking. If one part of the turkey is cooking faster than another part, you can just take it out of the oven when it’s ready.
  • Next year I think I’m going to cook two turkey breasts and forget the dark meat altogether. And, since I’ll be cooking it in pieces, I’ll have that option.
  • It takes a lot longer roasting at this lower temperature (275 degrees F), so you need to plan accordingly. However, I like the slow roasting method for sure. The meat was definitely more evenly cooked – the temperature of the outer portions of meat wasn’t that much higher than the center temperature of the meat.
  • I think I’ll brine my turkey pieces prior to slow roasting next time. On the America’s Test Kitchen episode, they said you don’t need to brine the turkey when you slow roast. But, I’ve gotta say, I think if the turkey had been brined, then it would have been that much moister and more savory in flavor.
  • At the end of the recipe, they brown the turkey at a high heat for about 10 minutes. My dark meat pieces were already quite brown, so I should have just left them out of this step. And I should have browned the breast a bit longer.

I’m really glad I did this “experiment.” I will use this technique again for sure, and next time I think I’ll have it figured out!

P.S. If you DID have a totally delectable, juicy, tender turkey this year, please tell us how you did it! What kind of turkey did you buy and how did you cook it? Spill your secrets!

P.S. #2: I also tried making gravy the way they described in the episode I linked to above (although, I used whiteย roux to thicken). My gravy is better. Not to brag or anything. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I think next time I roast turkey this way, I’ll do half of the amount of chicken stock that they put in the pan at the start of roasting, and I’m going to buy turkey giblets separately to simmer in water, like I normally do when buying a whole turkey. That all makes for a much more flavorful gravy.


  1. Hmm. I would never have considered cooking my turkey in pieces. Your list of pros and cons was super helpful, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be sticking to my old, familiar, traditional ways of roasting the whole honkin’ bird!
    I’m going to have to try out your gravy… yummm gravy!

  2. 2

    After six years of brining, I decided to try Trader Joe’s brined turkey and we absolutely loved it! No more brining for me since they take care of the dirty work for you.

    I used Cooks Illustrated’s Best Turkey Gravy recipe this year and had great results, though I will admit it was on the salty side for me. We used the dripping from the TJ’s brined bird and this seems to be the case every single time I use drippings from a brined turkey – it *will* be salty. But in my family, particularly my aunts, they declared the gravy to be “Ambrosia.” So I guess it wasn’t too salty for them.

    I had great “luck” this year roasting the bird (19.32 pounds) at 500 degrees for the first 30 minutes and then at 375 degrees for the next 3 hours and it came out perfect. I had given myself 5 hours to roast, but ultimately it only needed 3 1/2 hours. We carved it up, put the slices in a large pan and poured a small amt of stock over it and then warmed it up before we sat down at the table. Moist as ever and delicious. Yeah, you don’t get that Normal Rockwell moment of showing everyone the perfectly carved turkey, but I’ll take my no stress method anyday.

  3. 3

    Well, true confession time, I’ve never cooked a turkey myself. My mom is local and she always cooks the turkey. BUT…after working with her in the kitchen, she tells me that it is always much more moist (and quicker cooking) in a roasting bag. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I like to idea of roasting two turkey breasts, also! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. 4
    Laura R.

    I watched that episode too! And yes, I decided this year I would follow their example too and also cooked the bird in pieces instead of whole. We are not big turkey eaters so we have very limited turkey cooking experience (um, around once a year on T-Day).

    I followed their instructions and made the gravy too. I was quite pleased with the gravy, because I haven’t made gravy that much (see above about how often we eat turkey).

    I agree that cooking it this way resulted in a very evenly cooked turkey. It wasn’t the OMG BEST. BIRD. EVER. type of result, but for our experience level, it was definitely more than passable. I will cook it again this way for next year. We all gave it a good thumbs up.

    I like the idea of cooking two breasts, because in the end, even though we like the dark meat, it was more difficult to carve off the bone and they ended up on the overcooked side than the breast.

    Hmm, what if you cooked it this way with lower heat and also put them in roasting bags? I wonder if that would work. I’ve never used a roasting bag.

  5. I think it is an ingenious idea to roast the turkey in pieces. I am looking forward to trying a mini version with a chicken soon. Thanks for the idea.
    ๐Ÿ™‚ Mandy

  6. 6

    I always buy a kosher turkey, it is already brined for you and always produces the best results, moist, tender, everything a turkey should be without all the hassle to brine it yourself. Cooks Illustrated rated turkeys one year and that is the route they recommended.

  7. 7

    Wow, so interesting. I’v never tried this, but I kind of like the idea… And I love hearing about your personal experience ๐Ÿ™‚ The turkey looks awesome!

  8. 8

    One year when there were just four of us I just brined and roasted a turkey breast, super juicy but a bit salty since I had never brined anything and just winged it ๐Ÿ™‚ My dad has become the smoked turkey master, and those, while totally black on the outside, are so juicy and flavorful, yum. I managed to buy a pack of giblets and a neck and made the gravy since my parents were planning on any. Can’t remember what kind of turkey but probably from draegers or whole foods.

  9. 9
    Martha goolsby

    I roasted my 14 pound turkey in an open roasting pan. 1 stick butter in cavity. Salt and pepper inside and out.
    450 for 20 minutes and then 300 for 20 min. per pound.
    It was beautifully browned and moist.

  10. 10

    We only cook the breasts!!! No one likes the dark meat.

  11. 11

    When my turkey us finished cooking to soon I have good luck just covering it with aluminum foil then covering it with several towel. You would want to take it out of the oven when it was 5* or so before finished as it will finish cooking. I usually “plan” for the bird to be finished early then I can use the oven for something else. The bird turns out great.

  12. 12
    Lindsay R

    i like buying smallish turkeys because i think they’re easier to keep moist. the smallest i can find is usually a good 12 pounds anyway.
    we’ve had awesome results brining it with alice water’s (chez panisse) recipe:

    then we roast it with wine and butter soaked cheesecloth on it, as seen on martha’s site:

    you end up pouring a whole bottle of white wine over the turkey, and those drippings are DELICIOUS in the gravy.
    (loved that tip you shared to make the roux ahead of time!)

  13. 13

    I am so tempted to spatchcock my Christmas turkey, but really don’t want to experiment on my guests. I guess you can brine one that’s been spatchcocked, but should I? Will I? I do NOT like dealing with the whole big bird and yearn for even cooking and juicy yet not too salty meat. Ever tried it? Would love to hear of experiences other than professional cooks.

  14. 14

    I made my first turkey this year and everyone at the table said it was the best they’d had. Beginner’s luck, perhaps? I think the key was to cook it for a shorter time at a higher temperature. So, for a 12 lb bird, I cooked it at 400-425F for about 2 1/2 hours; I don’t remember exactly (it was in October, being Canadian). I also basted it with a mix of butter and herbs de provence. I considered brining it, but to be honest, it’s not turkey for me if there isn’t stuffing inside of it.

    At the end of the day, I’ll chalk it up to beginner’s luck. (The whole thing was luck, I swear: We had a new puppy and were serving it at my sister in law’s, but made just about everything at our place and transported it. Never again, I swear!)

  15. 15

    This has to be the place to share my turkey triumph this year! I was kind of proud of myself for finallyyyyy making a JUICY turkey- it FELL off the bone- I kid you not! Family said it was the best they’d ever had:)
    I brined the turkey this year.. for 24 hrs. One cup sea salt boiled with 1 gal. water, cooled, then add another gallon – I added fresh rosemary, sage, thyme and a sliced orange. It was a fresh, free-range, all natural turkey (which I think makes a huge difference). Before roasting I added chopped sage and thyme to one cube of room-temp. butter and spread it under the skin- salt and pepper, herbs and sliced orange in the cavity. Roasted for 10 min at 400 , then turned down to 300 in the convection. I made the roux like you said- and watched Alton’s video- no lumps this year!! and it was yummy. Thanks, Jane:)

  16. 16

    Ok – I’m sorry BUT you are planning to cook NO DARK MEAT??? Are we really related? My very favorite thing on Thanksgiving (as I am the one who carves the turkey) is to find the juiciest piece of stuffing taken from the inside of the bird and then dig out the ‘oh so tender’ curved ‘special’ spots on the back right below where the thighs connect and have my own little moment of Thanksgiving heaven. I cannot, and I repeat cannot, imagine cooking only white meat – cooking only dark meat maybe – but never only white!!!

    I guess it’s a good thing there are people passionate about both or duels might break out at the dinner table!

  17. 17

    I tried out the same recipe from Cook’s Illustrated once! It wasn’t for Thanksgiving, but I had never cooked turkey before so I thought I should give it a try.
    I actually only bought a turkey breast, and slow cooked it per their instructions. I was amazed with how moist it turned out! Someday when I have the chance to be in charge of Thanksgiving food I will totally do it this way. The brined turkey idea from laura also sounds fantastic.


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