In the weeks before Thanksgiving, the myriad methods for prepping and roasting the holiday turkey are a common topic of friendly debate in kitchens, offices and bars throughout Brooklyn. Some of us stick with family approaches handed down through the generations, while others flirt with different techniques showcased on cooking channels or in magazines, talked up by friends, or overheard on subways and sidewalks.
We didn’t want to add any frivolous advice to the never-ending debate this late in the game, so we went straight to the pros: We asked Brent Young of The Meat Hook in Williamsburg to drop some turkey knowledge on us.
NonaBrooklyn: Brent, first things first…what’s the best way to pick your Thanksgiving turkey?
Brent Young: Picking a turkey comes down to two things: choosing the right size and choosing the right type of turkey.
Picking the right size is easy. It depends on the size of the crowd you’re cooking for. The general rule is a pound per person assuming you want leftovers…and you always want leftovers.
In terms of types or breeds of turkeys, you can go with a traditional domesticated breed, or with a heritage breed or wild turkey. You can get heritage breeds from independent farms and it’s a really cool idea. What we’ve found is that a lot of people love the idea of heritage or wild breeds, but end up somewhat disappointed in the turkey. That’s not because of the quality of the bird…it’s just because they’re trickier to cook – they require a lot more care.
We’re getting all-natural, pasture-raised broad-breasted white turkeys from Pennsylvania this year – your basic go-to turkey in terms of breeds – because they’re easier to cook well in a Thanksgiving setting.
OK, so once you’ve made your pick, how do you prep your bird?
We recommend to everyone that they brine their turkey. We’ve done a LOT of experimenting to find the best way to cook a turkey, and we’ve found over and over that the brine is key. A brine is one of the simplest things in the world but it also intimidates people for some reason. A lot of turkey recipes can be very involved, but we tell people that it’s as simple as placing the bird in salt water in a bucket for two or three days before cooking. That’s it. It gets a little tricky in Brooklyn or Manhattan because apartment sizes and refrigerator sizes can make finding the space to refrigerate a turkey in a bucket of salt water for a couple of days a little tricky, but if you can make it work, it’s the best way to go.
Brining is even more important for heritage and wild turkeys – if you’re going that route, it’s almost essential.
Any favorite brines that you recommend?
One brine I like to use is salt water, brown sugar and a little bit of holiday spice…little bit of clove, little bit of cinnammon. Not so much that you really taste it…it just gives a hint of thanksgiving flavor.
We also make and sell a special barley brine that I came up with last year. We were a roasting a lot of turkeys last year, figuring out the right temperatures and stuff so we could give people recipe cards with their Thanksgiving birds. We sell home brewing supplies and we were just figuring out the best roasting temperatures and times and stuff. So we were brining all these turkeys and I thought, you know, we sell homebrewing supplies, why don’t we try using some beer barley in a brine to see what happens? We gave it a shot and we started just coming out with the most absolutely gorgeous, Norman Rockwell-style turkeys you’ve ever seen. I don’t know what the science is behind it, but that specific brine just ends up creating the most spectacular color and flavor. It really brings out a mahogany tone in both the taste and the look of the bird.
So that discovery was just a result of playing with brine?
Yes, it and really worked out. REALLY worked out.
OK, so we’ve picked our bird, prepped it…how do you cook it?
With any roast, it’s better to brown at the beginning of the roasting process, and to then lower the temperature and slow things down. You don’t want to cook any roast really slow and then try to brown it at the end because if you’re a few minutes off and you crank up the temperature at the end you can easily take a very tender breast and make it seize right up. So brown first, go nice and slow afterwards and let the turkey rest before carving it. The turkey needs to rest for at least 15 minutes but it can easily hang out for a half hour to 45 minutes and still retain the temperature. So let it hang out before you slice into it. The meat will be much better if you let it rest for a half hour to forty five minutes.
One tip that we’ve found to work really nicely comes from Alton Brown – he recommends creating a foil shield for the breast – after browning the turkey at the beginning of the cooking process, you cover just the breast with foil to keep it from drying out when you reduce the temperature and start the slow roast. That’s really important particularly for wild and heritage birds too.
Any tips for those who opt for heritage breeds or wild birds?
They just requires more care. The difference is in the body structure. Those types of turkeys tend to have stronger muscle structure and smaller breasts, so you really need to approach them differently.
In terms of prepping, we always recommend brining, but as I said, it’s even more important with heritage and wild turkeys. Brining will help the meat retain more moisture.
Cooking those types of birds can be more like braising short ribs than cooking a porterhouse. You’ve got to be gentle and take your time for it to work out right. Any time you’re cooking a turkey you want to really protect the breast meat so it doesn’t dry, and that’s even more important for the heritage and wild varieties.
We’ve also found that heritage and wild birds lend themselves really well to breaking them down rather than cooking the whole bird at once. You can brown the breast meat and the legs, then remove the breast meat and braise the legs for a really long time. You add the breast back in at the very end and let it cook just until it’s done. If you do a heritage or wild bird this way the leg meat just pulls apart and the breast meat is super-tender. That approach gives you that kind of ethereal experience of what grand turkey really tastes like.
The problem is that most people want to do a whole bird, especially on Thanksgiving. Breaking it down results in great turkey, but it doesn’t have the presentation that a lot of people like.
Tell us more about the turkeys you’re bringing in this year.
I mentioned that they’re broad-breasted whites, your typical Thanksgiving breed. We go with that variety because we think they just meet most people’s needs best at Thanksgiving.
The turkeys are raised by a cooperative of Amish farmers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The turkeys are all natural. They eat certified organic feed, and live outside roaming the pastures. They’re raising 250 turkeys specifically for us.
Do you have any turkeys still available?
Yes – we have about 30 still available. We’re still taking orders. People can just call the shop to reserve one. As long as we have birds, we’re selling birds.
Anything else special for Thanksgiving at The Meat Hook?
We’re going to go all-out with our sausages. Everyone seems to have a different idea of what sausages they want around Thanksgiving, and we like making sausages so we’re really going to go nuts for that. We’re also working with Matt Tilden at Scratchbread. He’s doing a stuffing for us and we’re doing a sausage for him. We’re also going to be making cornbread, gravy and stocks….we’re doing fresh hams, smoked hams and country hams. We’ll have ducks too, and we’re offering DIY kits for Turduckens.
We share our space with The Brooklyn Kitchen and they’ve got all the supplies you could possibly need, from roasting pans and brine injectors to trussing needles and anything else.
We’ll be turning the big room that we usually use for events into a full-on Thanksgiving expo. We’ll have all our Thanksgiving stuff in that one room, so you won’t have to search for anything – you’ll be reminded of everything you’ll actually need right in one spot.