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Thinking Outside the Box - or Oven: 5 Ways to Cook a Turkey

Alternatives to oven roasting your bird include grilling, smoking, deep frying and braising it.

If Thanksgiving is the Superbowl of cooking and entertaining, then the turkey is the football, the center of attention. It is the pièce de résistance, the crown jewel, and it can make or break a Thanksgiving dinner. Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, you can only imagine how many different ways there are to cook a turkey. There are a variety of methods for roasting it in the oven, but if you want to free up space in that prime piece of cooking real estate, your turkey can be grilled, smoked, deep fried or even braised on the stovetop. Here are guidelines for cooking that bird in five different ways for the big day, as well as some extra tips for getting a succulent, flavorful turkey.

OVEN ROASTING
Maplewood resident Rick Rodgers is the author of over 30 cookbooks on a variety of subjects, including the bestseller "THANKSGIVING 101." As you can imagine, this is his busy season, with all sorts of traveling and demonstrating across the country, but I was able to pin him down for a few minutes to get some advice. Luckily, his Web site has some great Thanksgiving recipes. I am especially enchanted by his Spice-Salted Roast Turkey with Sherry Gravy, an alternative to brining.

Rick had some great advice for keeping that turkey breast from drying out while everything else is cooking up to an acceptable temperature. Covering the breast region with aluminum foil will slow down the cooking of that area. You should remove the foil for the last hour of cooking.

In the oven, turkeys are typically best cooked at 325 degrees. The USDA Web site is a good resource for learning how long to cook your turkey, stuffed and unstuffed. Here are their cooking timetables for a 325-degree oven:

Unstuffed

4 to 8 pounds (breast)

1½ to 3¼ hours

8 to 12 pounds

2¾ to 3 hours

12 to 14 pounds

3 to 3¾ hours

14 to 18 pounds

3¾ to 4¼ hours

18 to 20 pounds

4¼ to 4½ hours

20 to 24 pounds

4½ to 5 hours

 

Stuffed

4 to 6 pounds (breast)

Not usually applicable

6 to 8 pounds (breast)

2½ to 3½ hours

8 to 12 pounds

3 to 3½ hours

12 to 14 pounds

3½ to 4 hours

14 to 18 pounds

4 to 4¼ hours

18 to 20 pounds

4¼ to 4¾ hours

20 to 24 pounds

4¾ to 5¼ hours


BRAISING (Stovetop or Oven)
Braising, more typically used for tougher cuts of meat, isn't usually a method adopted for turkeys, but man, oh man, it can work to get you one of the moistest birds around. And since you'll have to take the turkey apart before you cook, you won't have to deal with that task when everyone's banging their forks and knives on the table.

You can braise in the oven or on the stovetop. Sear the turkey pieces in oil in an appropriately-sized pan or pot (you'll want the turkey to fit as snuggly as possible) until browned. Add stewing vegetables and fill up halfway with stock, juice, wine, beer or any combination thereof. If cooking on the stove, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover. If finishing in the oven, it should be covered and placed in 325-degree heat. Either way, you'll get fall-off-the-bone meat and a lovely liquid you can use for all sorts of things—especially stuffing.

GRILLING
I love the idea of grilling a turkey because it frees up the oven for other dishes and utilizes a sizable piece of equipment most of us already have. You can use a charcoal or gas grill. Start with the breast side down and flip it approximately halfway through cooking. You'll want to cook at a medium to medium-high over indirect heat for approximately 11 to 14 minutes a pound, though cooking times will vary depending on weather conditions, especially with a charcoal grill. You won't want to cook your stuffing in the bird, though, since it likely won't reach the right temperature.

SMOKING
Smoking a bird gives it a wonderful flavor—it's also my personal preference and how I'll be cooking my bird this year. The trick is low and slow, as the mantra goes. A settling cooking temperature of 225 to 230 degrees is ideal. You'll want to place it breast side up and smoke it approximately 30 to 40 minutes per pound. Feel free to use any flavor combination of wood chips you like. You'll want to soak them in advance. Water is the norm, but sometimes I like to do mine in apple juice.

DEEP FRYING
A deep-fried turkey is truly a treat, but like most wonderful things in life, it's not always simple to do. Using a deep fryer outdoors is ideal, though you can also use a very large stockpot. I don't particularly recommend doing it inside, though, so I'd recommend doing it outside over a burner, preferably in a sanded area. Safety is key when deep frying such a large item—speaking of which, I wouldn't recommend going above 10 pounds.

To figure out how much peanut oil to use, I recommend setting everything up, putting the turkey in the deep fryer or stock pot and then filling it in with water. Dump the water out and measure it, and then you'll know how much oil you'll need. Once the oil is heated to 350 to 375 degrees, carefully submerge the turkey and fry for three to four minutes per pound. The timing will vary slightly depending on whether you're using an electric deep fryer or a stock pot over a flame.

GENERAL TIPS AND TRICKS
How do you know when a turkey is done? Rick Rodgers suggests inserting your meat thermometer in the meaty part of the thigh, avoiding the bone. You should get a reading of 180 degrees. Don't forget to let your turkey rest after it's been cooked and before you carve it. It will continue to cook a bit in the meantime, though, so be sure to factor that in.

For added flavor and tenderness, I'm a big fan of brining your turkey. I find it leaves you with a much greater chance of success, even if you accidentally overcook it a bit. I love the juiciness you get from a brined bird. Using a meat injector to add marinade to the bird is also great for flavor and tenderness. While I haven't used one myself, I know many people who swear by oven-roasting bags for great texture.

When it comes to stuffing a bird, I don't feel the need to cook my stuffing in the turkey. Instead, I prefer to fill the cavity with ingredients that will add flavor, such as large bunches of rosemary and thyme, shallots, butter (lots of butter!), onions, garlic, oranges, apples, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks or anything else that draws your fancy.

No matter how you cook your turkey, I wish you the greatest of success in the endeavor. And try not to let it get to you too much. If worse comes to worse, you can always just drown that baby in gravy.

Ben Salmon is a former literary agent and the owner of Kitchen a la Mode: Accessories for Cooking & Entertaining in the heart of downtown South Orange.

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