It’s everyone’s Thanksgiving nightmare. The turkey is ruined. Okay, probably not ruined, but it certainly needs first aid or the biggest eating day in America is going to be the disaster everyone talks about until New Year’s Day. So before you call 911 (or the Butterball hotline) there are a couple of quick tricks that might just save the day.
Toolkit: There are a few things you need to have on hand as part of your turkey emergency kit. These items will be necessary at the last minute so you better make sure you are prepared.
- An accurate meat thermometer
- Lots of heavy duty aluminum foil
- Lots of chicken or vegetable stock (low sodium preferred)
- Spray bottle
- Gravy mixes
Frozen Solid: You can’t cook a frozen turkey. Don’t even think about it. The only effective way to defrost a turkey is by submerging it in cold water. Only cold water will keep bacteria from growing out of control. Now by cold, I mean 40 degrees F. Any warmer and bacteria will grow. Plan on 30 minutes per pound so if you need to get a 22-pound turkey defrosted, you will be eating tomorrow. Since the water temperature can be 40 degrees F, keep it there. Put a thermometer in the water and add warm or cold water to keep the temperature where you want it.
Cooked Too Fast: Dinner is in 4 hours and the turkey is done. Yes, somewhere the math went wrong and you have a perfectly cooked turkey ready way too early. Take the turkey out and wrap it tightly in several layers aluminum foil. Then wrap it in a big towel. If you have one, put it in a cooler. The trick here is to let the turkey hold its temperature without letting it cook anymore. Keep it warm without adding heat. When serving time comes carve and serve.
Won’t Cook: Everyone is ready to eat. Unfortunately the turkey hasn’t broken 120 degrees F. You need to get this bird done now. You have two choices depending on how you are cooking the turkey. One method is to wrap the turkey in foil and turn up the heat to 450 degrees F. for 2-3 minutes per pound of the bird (depending on how far you still have to go. Check the temperature now and see how close you are. Chances are you are pretty close.
The other method to speeding up your turkey is to cut it in half. Right down between the two breasts on the front side and to one side of the back bone on the other side. By separating the turkey into two parts you can reduce the cooking time dramatically. Remember that you will still have to test for doneness (165 degrees F. everywhere). You can take this one step further and remove the legs and wings. Lay everything out so that you expose as much surface to heat as possible and the turkey will cook much faster.
The dreaded dry turkey: We’ve all had dry turkey before. It’s probably the worst outcome for any bird, but one of the hardest to avoid. While this is caused by overcooking the turkey, it sometimes seems that some birds are just made dry. Step one in dealing with dry turkey is to fill a spray bottle filled with warm chicken stock and spray it over the meat as you carve it (its best to keep this secret). The meat won’t be more moist because of this, but it will have moisture on it and the spray will prevent further drying.
Next is the ultimate trick: Gravy. From barbecue sauce to beurre blanc, sauces (of which gravy is one) where invented for one reason and one reason only, to add moisture and flavor to dried out, flavorless meat. Be prepared to make up a lot of good gravy. Also be prepared to do it without the benefit of turkey drippings. Just be ready to make gravy and the second you put down the platter of turkey start offering everyone extra gravy. A good gravy can do a lot to make a bad turkey much better.