Every year, on the fourth Thursday of November, I embark on a solemn mission. I don't mean a trip to grandmother's house for Thanksgiving dinner. This is the day I renew my quest for the perfect turkey. Being the professional cook of the family and within my circle of friends, I inevitably am allotted the task of preparing the turkey. In my ceaseless search for the perfect bird, I don't believe I have ever cooked a turkey the same way twice.
What is so hard, you may ask, about cooking a simple turkey? The difficulty lies in the bird's anatomy. A turkey possesses three very different types of edible parts: the white meat, the dark meat, and the skin. Each needs a different cooking method to produce the best result.
The white meat requires a gentle heat to cook it, without leaving it dry and stringy. On various occasions I have remedied this dryness by placing butter, bacon or salt pork beneath the skin.
The dark meat needs prolonged cooking to soften the tendons in the drumsticks. Being well marbled, it can stand higher and longer heat without drying out.
The skin (my favorite part) should be as crisp as cellophane, as salty as chips, and as peppery as pan-blackened fish. The best way to achieve this is to crank the oven up so high you can actually hear the skin sizzle.
If you stuff the bird (and I prefer to bake the stuffing separately) you encounter a whole different problem: how to cook the stuffing without overcooking the turkey.
The first time I cooked a turkey, I religiously followed the recipe in "Joy of Cooking." This was back in my college days, before I attended cooking school. I didn't realize you had to defrost the bird first, so dinner was delayed beyond midnight.
The next time I cooked a turkey, I had just returned from cooking school in Paris. I wiggled my hand between the skin and flesh of the bird and inserted thin strips of pork fat and fragrant, black shavings of truffles. The bird was delectable, but my roommates nearly lynched me when they got the bill for the truffles.
The next year, I contrived to divide and conquer the bird. I removed the legs, gently roasted the breast, and braised the thighs with vegetables and wine. This dismembered bird, tasty as it was, was visually underwhelming. I learned that Thanksgiving simply isn't Thanksgiving without a whole turkey centerpiece.
One year I attempted a high-heat method propounded by a local television chef. I heated the oven to 500 degrees, ready to cook the bird briefly but intensely. A thick coil of smoke set off our fire alarm, and we were forced to end the experiment prematurely.
Another year, using a hypodermic needle, I injected the bird with brandy and melted butter. We had to designate a safe driver before we dared to eat it.
I was about ready to try the "blanket method" I heard about from a friend in Oregon -- you swaddle the gobbler in a wool blanket while you bake it -- when my new electric smoker, a Brinkmann Smoke 'N Pit, arrived. Approximately the height and shape of R2D2 from the movie Star Wars, it had a short, stubby cylindrical body and a tightly fitting lid.
Smokers such as the Brinkmann combine two venerable cooking techniques: smoking and steaming. In electric smokers, the bottom of the cylinder is equipped with a heating element. On top of that rests a metal pan holding wood chips or sawdust. Above the wood pan is a large metal bowl that holds water, wine, or marinade. Above that is a rack to support your turkey, trout or ribs.
Here's what happens when you plug it in: the liquid in the bowl gently simmers, so the turkey both bakes and steams. The steam combines with the wood smoke and bastes the bird with a perfumed marinade. The juices from the bird drip back into water pan, creating a flavorful base for the gravy.
Purists may object to the convenience of an electric smoker. For them there are charcoal-fired models. They work essentially the same way except that in place of the electric coil is a pan that holds charcoal. The charcoal fire must be adjusted so that it provides low heat for a period of hours, which is less trouble than it seems since the smoker is nearly closed and the fire is usually content to glow along without either flaring up or going out.
Either way, what results is a self-basting turkey that is not all shot up with polysyllabic chemicals. The toughest bird leaves the smoker fork tender -- including white meat -- and the steamy cooking environment minimizes shrinkage. The rustic taste of the smoke harmonizes with the comforting flavor of turkey.
But the best part about cooking turkey this way is that it's absolutely effortless. You put the bird in and forget about it until you're ready to eat. Because it provides such a low, moist heat, overcooking a gobbler in a smoker is almost impossible.
There's one small problem with smokers -- they don't crisp the skin. To compensate, I like to place the bird in a hot oven or under the broiler for 20-30 minutes before it's served to brown the skin.
Tips For Smoking Turkey Use hardwood chips for flavoring. My favorites include hickory, alder, aspen, walnut, cherry, maple and mesquite. Do not use soft woods such as fir or pine, which produce unpleasant-tasting resins when burned.
Soak the chips before you burn them. This slows down the combustion time. A half cup of chips will do.
While you can use plain water in the steaming bowl, you'll get tastier results with stock, wine, beer, spices and vegetables, or a combination of all of them.
Meat cooked in a smoker retains its pinkness, even when it's done. When the turkey is cooked, the bone will wiggle in the joint, the juices will run clear, and the internal temperature will reach 170-180 degrees.
SMOKED TURKEY WITH MADEIRA GRAVY (Serves 10 to 12)
This recipe is for an electric smoker. If yours is charcoal-fired, you will need somewhat more steaming liquid and a longer smoking time.
1 small onion
2 stalks celery
2 cloves garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
FOR THE STEAMING LIQUID:
1 medium onion
2 branches celery
3 cups water
1 cup Madeira
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs or pinches of thyme
4 sprigs parsley
Turkey giblets, chopped roughly
TO FINISH THE GRAVY:
1/2 cup chicken or turkey stock (or as needed)
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup heavy cream
A splash of Madeira
Remove the giblets from the turkey. Cut the vegetables into 1-inch pieces. Salt and pepper the cavity. Rub the skin with cut garlic and lemon. Place the vegetables inside the cavity. Liberally sprinkle the skin with salt and pepper.
Prepare the steaming liquid: cut the vegetables into 1-inch pieces. Combine the remaining ingredients and the giblets and place them in the steaming bowl. Place the wood chips in the wood pan, and the steaming bowl and turkey in the smoker. Smoke the bird for 5-8 hours, following the instructions of your particular smoker. Cooking times will vary from model to model: mine takes 6-7 hours. You can smoke the turkey 3-4 hours ahead, turn off the electricity, and leave the bird in the smoker until you're ready to brown the skin.
To make the gravy, strain the liquid from the steaming pan into a large measuring cup. Add enough stock to obtain 2 1/2 cups. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring steadily, until the roux is lightly browned. Off the heat, add the stock and cream. Return the gravy to the heat, and bring it to a boil, whisking vigorously. Reduce the heat and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Add a splash of Madeira to pep up the gravy and salt and pepper to taste.
Just before serving, place the bird in a preheated 450 degree oven (or under the broiler), and bake the bird for 15-20 minutes, or until the skin is brown and crisp. Carve the bird and serve the gravy on the side.