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Bird, deconstructed: Cooking turkey in parts ensures tender meat, richest gravy

The turkey deconstructed. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

The turkey, deconstructed. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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ROASTING IT WHOLE

So you’d rather stick with roasting the whole turkey?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Butterball swear by the classic open-pan method — roasting the unstuffed bird in a shallow pan at 325 degrees, until the breast measures 165 degrees and the thigh measures 180 degrees. About two-thirds of the way through, Butterball suggests tenting the breast lightly with foil.

Chicago chef Allen Sternweiler, who prefers cookng a turkey in parts, isn’t opposed to roasting it whole, either (and stuffed, for that matter, though the USDA isn’t keen on that part).

Sternweiler’s way: Roast the stuffed bird breast side down at 300 degrees. In the last 15 minutes of cooking, crank the oven to 450 degrees, flip the turkey breast side up and finish cooking.

Many chefs, Sternweiler included, recommend pulling the bird out when the meat measures 155 degrees. As the turkey rests for a good 20 minutes out of the oven — an essential step — the internal temperature will rise to 165.

However you choose to roast, the key tool here is a meat thermometer.

Janet Rausa Fuller

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Updated: January 23, 2012 4:35AM



Scrap the fantastical scene running through your head of carving the giant turkey at the table.

For fall-off-the-bone dark meat, succulent white meat and unparalleled gravy, cook the turkey in parts this year.

You lose the carving photo opp, but “the payoff is tremendous,” says Allen Sternweiler, the chef and owner of the recently opened Butcher and the Burger, 1021 W. Armitage.

You think restaurants do the Normal Rockwell thing and roast their turkeys whole? Nope. In the kitchens of the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons Chicago, which combined will feed about 1,300 people on Thanksgiving, chefs break down the birds before cooking them, says spokeswoman Terri Hickey. It enables them to do all sorts of cheffy things, like debone the legs and thighs and turn them into a roulade.

The home cook need not get so fancy (and, in fact, could be spared from breaking down the turkey himself by buying turkey parts, or having the butcher break it down). The current issues of Cook’s Country and sister mag Cook’s Illustrated offer very manageable recipes, the former for turkey parts roasted a day in advance and reheated on Thanksgiving, the latter for braised turkey parts.

The logic of going piecemeal is simple: White meat cooks more quickly than dark meat on the whole bird, so when the breast is done, the legs aren’t quite. And when the legs are done, the breast is dry.

Even the Butterball sages, who year after year advocate a simple, open-pan, whole turkey roasting method but experiment with various techniques in the name of a better bird, are down with the cut-up-and-cook approach. This year, the assignment for Butterball test kitchen staffers was just that — to remove, stuff and roll the breast meat, and roast the rest of the parts separately.

“We’re also seeing that butterflied turkeys, turkeys cut in half — that’s an awesome way of cooking it,” says Mary Klingman, director of the Downers Grove-based Butterball Turkey Talk-Line.

One chef’s approach

Sternweiler has honed his method since 2002, the year he got married and the first time he ever cooked a turkey at home. It takes some effort. If the side dishes mean more to you than the starring protein, it may not be for you. Then again, it may just convert you.

You begin the day before the holiday. Home cooks with decent knife skills and a very sharp knife can start by cutting off the wings, legs and breast. Slather the legs, thighs and breast with salt, peppercorns, garlic, olive oil and herbs such as sage or thyme; let them sit in the refrigerator overnight. (Or, buy bone-in parts and, while you’re at it, ask the butcher for extra turkey bones or chicken bones.)

With the wings, neck, giblets, backbone and, if you’ve got them, extra bones, make stock. Put all the pieces in a pot with aromatics — celery, onion and carrot, but also whole heads of garlic, skins on and cut in half, mushroom stems, herb stems, bay leaves and peppercorns — and enough water to cover. Simmer away for 3 hours.

“You’re not going to extract any more out of those bones after 31/2 hours,” Sternweiler says. Strain, cool and refrigerate the stock.

On Thanksgiving morning, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Take the legs and breast out of the refrigerator and let them come to room temperature.

Brown the legs on the stovetop in a roasting pan with olive oil and butter. Remove them, then add a few handfuls of chopped carrots, celery and onion and a teaspoon of salt. After caramelizing for 15 minutes or so, deglaze with a bit of white wine.

Add the legs back in with the stock from the previous day. Bring to a simmer, cover and place in the oven to braise for, again, roughly 3 hours. (This is for a 16-pounder; figure a little less for a smaller bird, longer for a bigger bird, but really, there’s no need to worry about overcooking the leg meat.)

“Essentially, you’re making a double turkey stock,” Sternweiler says. And extremely tender leg meat.

Remove the legs and strain the stock, leaving a pile of mirepoix and just enough stock to slick the bottom of the pan. Turn the oven up to 350 degrees.

Lay the legs back down in the pan, skin side up, place the breast on top and roast for about 11/2 hours, or until the breast hits 155 degrees. It will reach 165 degrees, the target temperature, out of the oven, Sternweiler says.

Meanwhile, reduce the rest of the stock in a saucepan. Sternweiler likes to whisk in a few pats of butter and chopped parsley before serving. To go further, whisk some flour into buttermilk, then whisk that into the jus. Gravy, baby.

“Honestly, I don’t know how the hell you’re going to make a better gravy or au jus,” Sternweiler says.

Let the meat rest for 20 to 30 minutes before slicing, says Sternweiler. While you’re at it, add any accumulated juices from the resting turkey into the now-concentrated jus.

And if you still crave a camera-worthy moment? Carve the breast, now textbook-tender, at the table.



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