It's Thanksgiving planning time and Alton Brown, host of Food Network's Next Iron Chef, wants to prevent you from making a dry, forgettable turkey.
He insists taking a bite of turkey should be followed by exclamation points. "You should be like, 'Oh, my dear Lord, WOW! That's turkey!" Brown tells NPR's Melissa Block, host of All Things Considered.
Try Brining. Brown says he goes back and forth between wet brining and dry curing. "Brining definitely adds a lot of juiciness, moistness and it protects against overcooking a great deal because it kind of changes the cellular makeup of the meat and superloads it with moisture," says Brown. "Dry curing can kind of do the same thing, but it's more about intensifying the flavor."
To brine his turkey he uses a drink cooler — the cylindrical orange kind — parked in the garage for a few days. "I find that it only gains a couple of degrees during that time," he says.
Most good brines come with at least one ice option, he says, and sometimes he brines frozen turkeys. "I'll build the brine, stick a frozen turkey in there, cover it and leave it in there for like a week. I've never had it get over 40 degrees," he says.
As for the brine, Brown's is a "balanced equation of sugar and salt dissolved in water with at least a minimum amount of seasoning."
Stuffing A Bird Is Evil. Brown says cooking a turkey with stuffing is just a bad idea.
"If you're going to cook stuffing inside a turkey, you're basically creating an edible envelope for the stuffing," he says. "It's now about the stuffing because you need to make sure that stuffing gets above the instant-kill temperature for salmonella." Getting the stuffing to reach this 165 degree mark usually means overcooking the meat, Brown says.
He suggests cooking the stuffing separately and putting it in the turkey just after it comes out of the oven. The juices will still drip into the stuffing this way.
Brown has a very secret method of pulling this off so none of his guests know the stuffing was cooked outside the bird. He cooks the turkey with an old can inside it with both ends cut out of it, making it easier to funnel the stuffing inside.
And then as the turkey rests, he browns the back end of the stuffing with a blow torch.
Do Not Baste. Basting the skin is not necessary to flavor the meat. You'll flavor the skin, but you'll also let heat out of the oven each time you open it to baste. "That means the bird is going to be in there for a longer time cooking, which means it's going to dry out more," Brown says.
Another method for quick cooking is called spatchcocking, which involves cutting out the backbone of a bird with a big pair of shears. The bird is then flattened out in a pan like a butterfly. Roasting this way takes less than an hour because you're doubling the surface area.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. It's planning time, that time of year when we're thinking about the Thanksgiving table, debating whether marshmallows absolutely need to be on the sweet potatoes, whether we can flout tradition and spice up the green bean casserole just this one. And, of course, it's when we get ready to rumble with the turkey. All this week, we'll be asking chefs for some Thanksgiving meal tips and today we start with that big bird.
Here to help is Alton Brown, host of the "Next Iron Chef" on The Food Network. His mission, to convince me that the way I cook my turkey is wrong.
ALTON BROWN: First off, I know I will not be able to convince you that you're doing anything wrong because that's how it is with turkey. Turkey is a very emotional thing and you only do it one day a year, typically, or a lot of people do. So I know I'm not going to convince you.
BLOCK: But I don't know. I mean, I'm never so completely wowed by my turkey. I think I'm persuadable.
BROWN: All right. Because you should be wowed. You should be like, oh, my dear Lord, wow, that's turkey.
BLOCK: I can't believe that's a turkey. Well, let's start with brining. You are a briner.
BROWN: I go back and forth between wet brining and dry curing. Brining definitely adds a lot of juiciness, moistness and it protects against overcooking a great deal because it kind of changes the cellular makeup of the meat and superloads it with moisture. Dry curing can kind of do the same thing, but it's more about intensifying the flavor.
BLOCK: I've always been a fan of brining, except I couldn't figure out how I could get the turkey and the brine into the refrigerator.
BROWN: You know, I don't even worry about that anymore. I use a drink cooler, you know, like the kind you see on the back of work trucks, you know. It's kind of like a big cylinder, they're usually orange. And I build my brine in there. Because my brine usually calls for ice and then I just dump the turkey in there and park it in the garage for a few days. And I find that it only gains a couple of degrees during that time.
BLOCK: So even outside, not refrigerated, you're not worried about what might happen to that turkey.
BROWN: No, because most good brines come with at least one ice option. All of mine do. I build mine with ice. And sometimes I'll even brine the turkey frozen. I'll build the brine, stick a frozen turkey in there, cover it and leave it in there for like a week. And I've never had it get over 40 degrees.
BLOCK: Well, what do you put in your brine?
BROWN: Well, it's almost always a balanced equation of sugar and salt dissolved in water with at least a minimum amount of seasoning. A lot of people put a lot of herbs inside theirs or they might use a little bit of vinegar or some apple juice to add a little sweetness. But technically, all you really have to have is salt and water.
BLOCK: Okay. Well, here's a place where you and I part ways, Alton, and that's that you say that stuffing in a bird is evil. Why?
BROWN: Yeah, stuffing's evil. Stuffing's evil because - here's the thing. If you're going to cook stuffing inside a turkey, you're basically making an edible envelope for that stuffing. It's now about the stuffing because you need to make sure that that stuffing gets above the instant-kill temperature for salmonella because you can't have salmonella in a bird, especially in the interior cavity.
So now we've loaded that up with a bunch of dense bready stuff, right. Okay. Well, now we've got to wait for that dense bready stuff to reach at least 165 degrees. Well, guess what's going to happen while that's going on. You're going to overcook the bird. So you're really now cooking the stuffing and sacrificing the bird to get the stuffing right.
And you don't want to mess around with that because if you cook the bird to a proper doneness, but you don't get that stuffing to at least 165 degrees, well, some people might have some discomfort afterwards.
BLOCK: That's a bacteria factory right there, huh?
BROWN: That's - I mean, if I was bacteria and I was in the house, that's where I would want to be. I would want to be in the stuffing at your house.
BLOCK: Lucky me.
BROWN: Now, I like stuffing, too, but what I do is I cook the stuffing separately and then I put in the bird after the bird's done.
BLOCK: But it doesn't get all nice and wet and have all those juices from the turkey.
BROWN: Actually, it will. It will if you rest the bird with the stuffing in it. So what I do, I kind of have a secret method, which is that I have this can that's from an old can of beans. And I've cut both ends of it out and I insert it into the turkey and I cook the turkey so - with the can inside of it. And then, as soon as I get the turkey out, I put all the stuffing into it using the can as like a giant funnel.
And I pull the can out and I let the turkey rest so it's giving up all of its juices to the stuffing. And I usually let my turkey rest at least a half an hour. So no one has caught me at it yet because the coup de gras is that I take a blow torch and I brown the back end of where the stuffing is sticking out and no one's ever caught me. No one has ever caught me doing this.
BLOCK: But if they're listening now, your secret is out.
BROWN: Well, it was going to happen sooner or later. It's worth it to prevent salmonella in your household.
BLOCK: Okay. Well, here's another place where you and I part ways, Alton. And that's that I come from a family of basters. And you say, do not baste.
BROWN: If I could invent a small robotic, I don't know, insect of some type that could be inside the oven during the cooking time to baste the bird, then I might change my mind. But I kind of doubt it. Here's the thing. Why do you baste your turkey?
BLOCK: So it'll look great on the outside and so it will absorb flavor into the skin.
BROWN: Okay. What is the purpose of skin?
BLOCK: Because it's delicious.
BROWN: No. I mean, a more - physiologically. What does skin do? When you get into the shower, does the shower water soak into you?
BLOCK: No. It protects what's inside.
BROWN: No, no. It keeps you - it keeps the outside out. Nothing penetrates the skin. Okay, the basting does not go into the bird. It doesn't. All it does, and you got it right first, is yes, you can flavor the skin. That's all you're going to do. There is no penetration of that baste into the meat because skin was invented and has evolved as it has to keep stuff out.
So what you're doing is you're flavoring the skin. Okay, that's fine and that's good. But every time you open the door, you're letting out heat. And that means the bird's going to be in there for a longer period of time cooking, which means it's going to dry out more. I want to get that thing in and out as quickly as possible. I want the thermal trip that bird takes to be as short a time as possible so I can preserve moisture on the inside.
So what do you want to do? You want to cook - you know what you should do, is you should just take the skin off the turkey, wrap it around your stuffing and just cook that (unintelligible) 'cause then you would have the perfect skin and you would have really, really great stuffing because both of things profit at the detriment to the bird.
BLOCK: So you - I'll take this under advisement, all of this.
BROWN: No, you won't. No, you won't. I can hear it in your voice. You're completely - you're a traditionalist and I'll tell you something. If the tradition means that much to you, don't change it. Don't let the fact that thousands of people have come up to me on their knees after Thanksgiving and thanked me sobbing for saving them from another dry turkey. Forget about that. Forget about that.
BLOCK: Do you eat turkey at other times of the year?
BROWN: I do. I'm a huge turkey fan, in fact. I bet I do a whole turkey 20 times a year.
BLOCK: No kidding.
BROWN: I usually spatchcock them. Have you ever spatchcocked a turkey?
BLOCK: I don't even know what that is.
BROWN: It's the fancy word for butterfly. And what you do is you cut out the backbone with a big pair of shears or a really big knife and you flatten the thing out like a big old butterfly and you put it into just a big pan, a big roasting pan flat. And you'd be surprised how quickly a turkey will cook when it's flattened out like that because you're doubling the surface area.
BROWN: It's called spatchcocking. And you can do it, a whole turkey will be done in an hour, under an hour, if you spatchcock it. Spatchcock. Fantastic word.
BLOCK: I learned a new word today and that's always a good thing.
BROWN: And you can use it for other things, too. It's great to say, if you don't get out of my face, I'm going to frickin' spatchcock you, I swear.
BLOCK: I might try that.
BROWN: People will back off 'cause it's like, whoa, I don't know what that meant, but I don't like the way it sounds.
BLOCK: Alton Brown, it's great to talk to you. Thank you so much and Happy Thanksgiving.
BROWN: You are very welcome, ma'am.
BLOCK: He ma'am-ed me, Audie.
CORNISH: I know. That's so wrong.
BLOCK: That's celebrity chef Alton Brown. You can find more of his turkey techniques at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.