Food Republic’s column Ask Your Butcher seeks to answer FAQs in the world of butchery. Ethically minded butcher Bryan Mayer has opened butcher shops and restaurants, and has trained butchers in the U.S. and abroad. He helped develop the renowned butcher-training program at Fleisher’s. Today, he consults with farmers, butchers, chefs and anyone else who will listen. In each column, Mayer tackles a pressing issue facing both meat buyers and home cooks. This week, Mayer has some advice for those of you procrastinating about Thanksgiving cooking: Don’t panic!
This week’s column isn’t for the planners out there. You folks are covered. You started asking your butchers sometime right after Labor Day when you could order your turkey, what sizes would be available and whether there would be any sides, giblets, gravy or stuffing offered. No, this isn’t for you. This is for the dawdlers out there, watching countless replays of the new Force Awakens trailer instead of planning for the most food-focused holiday we have. Of course, Thanksgiving is more than that, or at least should be. But no other holiday drives people to fits of insanity quite like Thanksgiving. I’ve seen grown men break down in tears when they find out their 18-pound turkey is 18 and a half pounds and now won’t work for their brown-bag turkey. Note: Please don’t ever do this — brown paper bags were never intended as cooking utensils. I’ve seen arguments over what the appropriate size turkey is for five people. Note: It is most definitely not 25 pounds! And I’ve seen bidding wars break out over the last turkey in house.
With the alternative being buying a lesser turkey — maybe even a Butterball (gasp) — things start to look pretty bleak a few days before the holiday, especially if you’re looking for the great flavor of a pasture-raised turkey. And I know you are. While I could try to convince you that turkey was most certainly not the centerpiece of the first Thanksgiving and maybe doesn’t need to be yours, either, we all know you’re not going to cook venison, goose, duck, lobster or any other more traditional meats. I’m here to tell you that things are going to be okay. We butchers are quite experienced at remedying such calamities. Trust us, have a bit of an open mind and accept the fact that there might not be a whole turkey on your table. Remember, this is your fault. But we’ll fix it!
It’s no secret that we are a white-meat-loving society. Whether it’s the color of the dark leg meat (which means it’s flavorful), the supposed toughness or the fact that it looks like, well, a leg, who knows? Most butchers I know will break down whole birds for customers looking to celebrate the holiday in a more controlled fashion. Their restraint is your victory. And around this time, there always seem to be a few odd breasts around. The preparation for a turkey breast is quite simple: Season and bake. We’re looking for an internal temp of 150°F, which should take a little more than an hour in a 425°F oven. With the reduced cooking time, you’ll have more than enough left over to prepare the “traditional” sides and keep the libations flowing. You’ll want to keep those traditionalists happy.
Let’s start with a simple herbed butter recipe that should keep you stocked for a bit. You definitely don’t need the whole stick for one meal!
1/2 cup grass-fed unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/4 cup finely chopped mixed herbs (basil, thyme, sage, parsley, dill, chives, tarragon, oregano, marjoram or rosemary — whatever you’ve got handy or want)
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- In a bowl, combine all ingredients until herbs are distributed evenly. Using a piece of waxed paper or parchment, shape into a cylinder and seal ends by twisting. If you prefer, you can use a small bowl or ramekin, but you’ll need to cover that with waxed paper or parchment as well. No need to chill immediately as you’ll be using it, but you can go ahead and chill the leftovers.
- Note: If you plan on brining or dry-brining, you can eliminate salt from the herbed butter.
For the turkey:
1 (preferably bone-in, skin on) or more 5-pound, fully pastured turkey breast
Salt and pepper
- Preheat your oven to 425°F. Carefully separate the skin from the breast, forming a pocket.
- Carefully rub 3 tablespoons (or more if you’d like) of your herbed butter under and over the skin of the turkey breast, taking care not to tear the skin. Make sure skin is covering as much of the breast as possible. We’re looking for maximum skin coverage.
- Place turkey breast in a casserole dish and cook for roughly 1 hour and 20 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer reads 150°F at the thickest part of the breast.
- Remove breast from oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes. But wait! Don’t discard all those pan juices. I’m sure you’ve got some stuffing going. Take those drippings and pour them onto your stuffing while it bakes, for even more flavor.
Turkey Breast Porchetta
Okay, so maybe showing up to the table with a plain old turkey breast is highlighting the fact that you messed things up. Well, turkey breast porchetta is the best intentional mistake you had no idea you know you made. Or is it the best unintentional mistake you know you made? Whichever it may be, it’s awesome. It requires a bit of knife skill, as the breast will need to be butterflied, but your butcher will be more than happy to help with that. And it requires a bit of trussing skill, which we’ve covered here before. That’s it. Brine with your choice of seasonings, give it a quick sear and bake away. I like to dry-brine my turkey porchetta much in the same way I would dry-brine something like pork belly. It helps to break down some of the muscle proteins and retain water while adding flavor, which is perfect for a quick overnight cure.
Hot tip: For even crispier skin, add a little baking powder. Like the chicken breast above, you’re looking for an internal temp of about 150°F. This will take a bit longer to cook, but at roughly two hours in a 275°-300°F oven, we’re well below whole-turkey times here.
1 or more (bone out, skin on) fully pastured full turkey breast.
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup rosemary
¼ cup thyme
¼ cup sage
½ cup anise
3 cloves of garlic
Salt and pepper
- Have your butcher debone and butterfly your full turkey breast (or give it a try yourself). Make shallow slices across the butterflied breasts and then another series perpendicular, allowing for your spices to penetrate the meat and making it even easier to roll. Lay the butterflied breasts on top of the skin.
- Grind rosemary, thyme, sage, anise and garlic and evenly distribute across the breasts.
- Carefully roll the breast into a tune, making sure the skin covers the entire outside portion.
- Using a continuous-loop knot, tie your roast so that it maintains an even, uniform shape.
- Place on a plate in your fridge and allow to cure overnight.
- When you’re ready to cook, preheat your oven to 275°-300°F and lightly season the porchetta with salt, pepper and baking powder for extra-crispy skin. I like to use a cast iron skillet so I can go right from searing to oven. Heat your olive oil over high heat.
- In a cast iron or other oven-safe pan, sear the exterior of the porchetta for roughly 2 minutes a side. I like to divide it up into 4 sides to make things easier. So 8 minutes or so altogether.
- You can take your pan and toss the whole thing in the oven, but for a more all-around, crisp exterior, you’ll want to use a wired cooking rack in a deep baking sheet or casserole. In just about 2 hours, when your instant-read thermometer reads 150°F, plus a short rest of 10 minutes, you’ll be ready to slice and serve.
Braised Turkey Legs
So far, this column has been a bit one-sided in favor of white meat. I’ve seen way too many turkey legs (along with their winged companions) relegated to the stockpot in the back of the kitchen, never fully realizing their potential as a Thanksgiving centerpiece — let’s change that. Braising makes so much sense for a holiday like Thanksgiving. I defy anyone to withstand the tempting smells of slow-cooked meats, bubbling away, slowly, in wines and sauces! Besides, not to get your hopes up about the last two recipes, but you’ll probably have an easier time finding legs, and you’re going to need to braise them. It’s foolproof. A little more prep time is involved here, but it’s nothing you can’t handle at this point. Sear both sides, cook your veggies and reduce your wine, add back your legs with some turkey stock, and braise away! All that residual liquid left over after you’re done cooking becomes a rich, velvety sauce with just a bit of butter and flour.
At least 2 whole (thigh and leg) turkey legs, skin on
Your standard mirepoix of 1 medium onion, 1 large carrot and 1 large celery stalk, all roughly chopped
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
3 sprigs of fresh rosemary
2 cups of (preferably dry) red wine
1 quart turkey or chicken stock
Salt and pepper
Keep in mind that this recipe is easily doubled or tripled. Just get yourself a larger, deep cooking vessel.
- Preheat your oven to 275°-300°F.
- Liberally season your turkey legs with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in a deep-sided cast iron pan or skillet. Once your oil is hot enough, carefully add your legs, skin-side down, and don’t move them for about 10 minutes. Flip them and cook for another 5.
- If things start to get a bit smoky, just pull the pan off the heat for a moment. Once your legs are sufficiently browned, remove and place them on a plate. Place your pan back on the heat, add your mirepoix, rosemary, thyme and garlic and cook until browned, roughly 8-10 minutes. Now we’re ready to add that wine. Bring to a boil, and reduce by half.
- Pour in your stock, add a bay leaf or two and back in go the legs. You’ll want to leave about half of the skin side exposed. Not fully submerged.
- Toss the pan into your preheated oven, uncovered, and allow to cook for roughly two hours. You’ll know it’s done when it’s fork tender and you see the meat pull away from the leg (the tibia). That’s it.
- But hang on, don’t let all that good braising liquid go to waste. You’ll want to strain it, removing all the solids and skimming off excess fat, if you care to do such things.
- Melt a couple of tablespoons of butter in a pan over medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons of flour and mix until golden brown in color. Slowly add back your strained cooking liquid, bring to a boil and cook until it reaches your desired thickness.
Whole Turkey (Spatchcocked)
There is the slightest of chances that you might be able to score a whole turkey. That turkey will most probably be huge. Like, ridiculously huge. No worries, as we’ll cover what to do with all those leftovers soon enough. While you may think you’ve struck gold by scoring a whole bird, I want you to listen very closely: Don’t even think about cooking it any other way than spatchcocked. We’ve covered all the reasons why spatchcocking is the way to go: Increased contact with the cooking surface results in a much more even and faster cooking time, crispier skin and juicier meat. Do you need any more reasons? Removing the backbone is a simple task for you or your butcher, and that’s about all the prep you’ll need, short of seasoning and preheating your oven. 450°F for 2 to 2½ hours, or until your breast reads 150°F and your leg is at 165°F. You can dry-brine this if you’d like, but it’s not necessary. A bonus here is that you’ll have not just the neck, but also the back for making gravy.
1 whole, fully pastured bird (it’ll probably be a big one)
Salt and pepper
- We’ve been through this before on a much smaller scale, with chicken. It’s just as easy with a large bird. Have your butcher remove the spine and backbone. You’ll want to reserve that later for stock.
- Dry-brining this bird is the best way to go. So take about ½ cup of kosher salt and a couple of tablespoons of baking powder, mix them together, give that bird a good rub and place in your fridge overnight.
- Preheat your oven to 450°F and place your turkey on a wire rack in a broiler pan. Hot tip: I like to add a little water to the bottom of the broiler pan to keep the pan drippings from smoking out the house.
- Pat your turkey dry and tuck those wing tips underneath the breasts toward the back. Press down on the breast, making sure the bird is as flat as possible, give it a liberal rub with a tablespoon or two of olive oil and into the oven it goes. Make sure to set the racks to the appropriate height in your oven. Somehow, I always seem to forget to do that. That’s it. See you in two hours, or somewhere around there. We’re looking for 150°F from the breast and around 165°F or slightly higher in the leg.
You’ve saved Thanksgiving! Now let’s try and be a bit more proactive for the rest of the holiday season, what do you say?