Talking turkey: best to chop, fry or soak?

November 03, 1999|By Rob Kasper

NOW THAT IT is November, the nation is asking, "How are we going to cook the turkey this year?" OK, maybe not the entire nation. Would you believe half the nation? How about a handful of serious fans of the big bird, including yours truly?

Even before the Halloween candy pile has disappeared -- by the way, the Tootsie Rolls were especially good this year -- my thoughts turn to turkey. What can be done, I ask myself, to deliver that traditional feeling of stuffed-bird bliss that comes from a proper Thanksgiving feast?

This year, I am considering three possible turkey treatments: chopping off the legs, deep-frying the bird or soaking it in salt water.

Julia Child suggests chopping off a raw bird's legs. She advocates attacking the turkey's appendages with a cleaver in several of her cookbooks, including her recent effort with Jacques Pepin, "Julia and Jacques, Cooking at Home" (Knopf, 1999).

The theory behind the surgery is that the legs and attached thighs can be cooked separately when removed from the turkey. This preparation eliminates the usual problem of the legs drying out while you wait for the rest of the bird to finish cooking.

The technique also calls for removing the thigh bones and filling the thigh cavity with stuffing. I applaud the idea of sticking stuffing in new places.

There are two drawbacks to chopping off a turkey's legs. First, it requires handling sharp implements early on Thanksgiving morning. The surgery has to be performed before the bird goes in the oven. Some of us can barely hold a cup of coffee early in the morning, let alone wield sharp steel.

Second, once a turkey's legs have been cut off, the remaining body looks a little weird. One Thanksgiving, when I got up early and chopped off the turkey legs, members of my family complained at dinner that the legless bird looked mutilated. These sentimentalists said that the Thanksgiving turkey should look like a Norman Rockwell painting, not like a project from a poultry anatomy class.

After that stinging criticism, I stopped chopping turkey legs. But this year, I might give it another try. Maybe if I lean the severed legs against the cooked bird body, I can fool my family into thinking they are looking at a Rockwell.

The next possible turkey treatment, deep-frying, is appealing as long as the frying is not done in my house. Cooking a turkey in hot oil requires a lot of heat and a lot of oil, and can make a major mess. Then, once the bird is done, you have a vessel of hot oil on your hands. Unless someone can scare up a heretic or two that needs frying, there is not much demand for a pot of boiling oil.

But the flavor of a deep-fried turkey is good. The meat is moist, and the skin is crisp. If I choose to go the deep-fried route, I will engage the services of a professional turkey fryer. One such pro is Willie Pearson, who, along with his family, operates Willie P's Deep Fried Turkey in a commercial kitchen set up in a wing of his Northwest Baltimore home.

The other day I called Willie P's (410-542-7910) to make sure he is still frying. I was told the price this year is $2.25 a pound, and Nov. 15 is the cutoff day for ordering a deep-fried Thanksgiving bird.

The other turkey method, soaking in salt water, then roasting it, is a technique I found in a cookbook, "The Perfect Recipe" by Pam Anderson (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). In a brief telephone interview, Anderson told me that soaking the raw turkey in a brine made with kosher salt and cold water produced the best bird out of 40 turkey-cooking procedures she tried.

"Brining draws out the blood, giving the bird a clean, fresh flavor," she said. "At the same time, the salt water permeates the bird, making each bite, rather than just the skin, taste seasoned."

The length of the soaking session varies with the amount of salt used, she said. For 2 cups of kosher salt dissolved in 2 gallons of cold water, a 14-pound turkey spends 10 to 12 hours in the brine. When the amount of kosher salt is doubled to 4 cups in 2 gallons, the soaking time is cut to four to six hours. Once the soaking session is over, the bird is rinsed under cool, running water, then roasted.

The salt-water bath intrigues me. But trying out a new turkey-cooking method on Thanksgiving is risky. So, I will practice the salt-water bath technique on a chicken. Anderson told me that a 4-pound chicken should soak in 2 cups of kosher salt and 1 gallon of water for two hours.

I'll see what happens. The best thing about worrying early in November about how to fix the turkey is that I've got several weeks to try new methods before deciding how to handle this year's bird.

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