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Spatchcocked, Dry-Brined, Organic, Heritage: That's Our Turkey

Note: Sick of the holidays already? Try our bracing annual remedy: How To Put The "Happy" In The Holidays.

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What made our turkey wonderful this year? I'm here to dish.

Since most of us roast turkey only once a year, each opportunity amounts to a memorable experiment. Our experiment seemed portentous this year because it involved a heritage bird. I wanted to honor this bird and its beautiful provenance as I prepared and cooked it. I could find little information about whether to salt or brine a heritage bird before roasting. Not to spoil the plot by announcing the ending early, but we had success, relying on little more than salt, time and a few fresh herbs.

Fresh sage from the Campsie garden. For many, sage "tastes like Thanksgiving."

Here's the summary. We bought an exquisite 10.3 pound (certified) organic (certified) heritage breed turkey from nearby Elmwood Stock Farm (acclaimed by Cook's Illustrated). We dry-brined the bird, spatchcocked it and roasted it with fresh herbs tucked under its skin. That's a lot of foodie jargon. I'll explain.

Ambi and Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm. Photo by Sarah Jane Sanders.

Provenance

We are incomparably lucky to live near Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County, Kentucky. We eat from its goodness year-round. Ambi and Mac Stone and their family feature prominently in Classic Kentucky Meals, my book about Kentucky farms and food.

Elmwood's family of farmers raise certified organic vegetables, fruits, and animals. The farm produces heritage breed turkeys as well as more familiar broad-breasted birds, all on exquisite Bluegrass pasture and organic grains. Turkeys are a particular farm favorite, requiring and receiving close attention across a long breeding and growing cycle.

Listen as Elmwood's Mac Stone talks about raising turkeys on the pre-Thanksgiving edition of Hot Water Cornbread: Kentucky Food Radio.

With all the care that goes into raising such a fine turkey, when I receive it, I view it as a trust. The beautifully raised bird deserves all the good attention and good cooking I can muster.

Mac Stone holds the grass that makes all the difference at Elmwood Stock Farm. Photo by Sarah Jane Sanders.

Heritage Breed

Because we eaters like turkey breast as well as extremely cheap food, commercial turkey producers use selective breeds and industrial scale methods to yield turkeys with unnaturally large breasts, so large that the turkeys cannot do normal turkey activities, like fly and breed. So large that multitudes of other issues arise. See here and here.

When we eat heritage breeds of turkey, we are enjoying the goodness of turkeys that farmers bred for flavor decades before the commercial turkey production system came along. Here's how Elmwood describes heritage breeds (I added the links):

HERITAGE Breed -- A heritage turkey is not one particular breed, but made up of a group of breeds. At Elmwood, we care year-round for our own breeding flock in order to raise Narragansett (the oldest known American turkey breed), Slate turkeys (found on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste that promotes the survival of near-extinct foods), and a few Bourbon Red turkeys (named after neighboring Bourbon County KY).

Some characteristics that distinguish these very rare Heritage turkeys from the standard broad breasted variety are slower growth, more proportionate breasts to legs, and the ability to naturally breed. There is a better balance between the dark meat and white meat, which means roasting a bird to perfection is much easier, and the meat has a richer flavor.

Heritage turkeys will never be as large as broad breasted turkeys, though they eat certified organic grain and graze our grass and legume pastures, resulting in the healthiest, most flavorful, best turkey you will ever taste. 

Turkeys in tall grasses at Elmwood Stock Farm. Photograph by Sarah Jane Sanders.

Preparation

Isn't it great when something hard and messy—brining a turkey—turns out to be less effective than something simple—salting the turkey days in advance, known as "dry brining?" Trusted sources (see here) suggest that wet brining adds liquid (but not flavor) and makes turkey's texture spongy. So we went with dry brining. I sprinkled about 3 tablespoons of salt and lots of ground pepper on all outside surfaces of the bird two days before roasting. No baking powder. No rubbing salt below the skin. The bird then rested uncovered in the refrigerator, patiently waiting the big day.

Spatchcocking

Perhaps spatchcocking—a form of butterflying the bird—should have preceded dry brining, but I did the cut-and-flatten deed just before roasting. I choose spatchcocking in order to avoid over-cooking any part of the turkey, since this technique opens the bird out so all parts roast more evenly. This pre-roast cutting also reduces cooking time dramatically.

I needed stronger kitchen shears, but managed. I tucked sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary and fresh sage leaves under the skin of the breast, thighs and drumsticks. Here's the bird, ready for the oven.

RoastiNG

I took the salted turkey out of the refrigerator a little more than an hour before roasting. As the oven preheated to 400 degrees F, I did the spatchcocking. Then in my largest roasting pan, I made a comfy bed of cleaned carrots, celery, lemon wedges, thick-sliced onions and fresh herbs, and settled the opened-up turkey on the veggie base skin side up. Into the oven! After 30 minutes—I used a timer—I turned the oven temperature down to 350, brushed the bird all over with melted butter, and continued roasting. I repeated the butter baste one more time in the 110 minutes before both breast and thighs, at their deepest points, reached 165 degrees F.

The drumsticks cooked more quickly than the breast. For future birds, I plan to turn the breast toward the hotter back of the oven.

When heritage birds first came on the market, some cooks believed they had less fat and so should be roasted at a lower temperature to avoid toughness. As it turns out, Mac Stone notes that heritage birds can have higher fat content than commercial birds. Bonus: Elmwood birds live on organic grass and grain, making every molecule of that fat good for us.

Because our bird was small, and because we were in no hurry, I chose slightly lower temperatures than I saw in some recommendations for standard spatchcocked birds, which recommend starting at 450 degrees for 30 minutes, and then reducing to 375. (Old standard advice about standard turkeys typically advises an even lower roasting temp of 325 degrees F. )

The results of all these choices? Richly turkey-tasting turkey, infused with a touch of salt and light herb flavors. Moist and tender. So delicious I would like Thanksgiving to happen again next week.

One downside of the relatively quick cooking time is that the veggies underneath the turkey barely have time to soften, and certainly do not get deeply caramelized. Pan drippings were minimal. Perhaps more flavor stayed inside the turkey itself. In any case, with stock made from the neck, giblets and backbone, quickly reduced as the finished turkey rested, we made a credible gravy.

And Then?

What to do after the feast? Share or hoard your leftovers, whatever your conscience allows. Finish them off in four days. I recommend lots of winter salads.

Most important, make broth. Put all bones and scraps in your largest pot, cover with water, add a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, and simmer for up to 24 hours. (If your turkey's bones become available across several days of eating leftovers, collect them in a large sealed container in the freezer until you have them all. Then make broth.) Add aromatics like onion, celery, carrots and bay leaves to the cooking water if you like. But you don't have to. I never do. Do not add salt. You can salt to taste later.

The resulting broth will be good for you and good for cooking. Cool, strain, freeze, and use. And thank the turkey, the farmers and The Great Mystery all over again.

Sponsors included in this post: Elmwood Stock Farm. Thank you! Readers, if you like Savoring Kentucky, do business with our sponsors, all of whom support the earth, community and an equitable local food economy in extraordinary ways.

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