Steps for creating a bacon-blanketed turkey
I usually cook an 18 – 20 lb. turkey. Not because I have a huge family, but because I like Thanksgiving leftovers. I always buy a fresh, never frozen turkey of the best quality I can afford. If you buy a frozen turkey, you need to get it in advance and leave plenty of time for thawing. You can do a computer search for the proper method. My methods below are for a big bird, but easily adapt to a smaller one.
What you’ll need:
- A large plastic bag
- A platter or pan that fits the turkey in the fridge
- Kitchen twine
- A roasting pan that fits the turkey (and fits in your oven. Check. This is important.)
- A probe-style meat thermometer
- A turkey
- Lots of kosher salt
- 1-1/2 pounds bacon
- 1/2 pound butter
- Fresh herbs: sage, thyme, oregano, parsley, marjoram, rosemary
- Roasting vegetables: carrots, celery, onions, leeks, apples
Step 1: Brine your bird
I dry brine my turkey for a juicy bird. I used to wet brine, which involved removing drawers from my fridge and stuffing turkey into a large stockpot full of salted water. That is a lot of trouble. Here’s my easy solution that makes for a lovely moist turkey.
Start the brine 2 to 3 days before Thanksgiving. Remove all the interior parts from the bird. Discard them or use them for stock, or the giblets for gravy. Wash the bird well, inside and out. Place the bird in a great big plastic bag. Cookware stores sell fancy “brining bags” but a cheap browning bag from the grocery works just as well, or a big Ziplock bag. Go to town rubbing kosher salt all over the gobbler, inside and out. Use a lot of salt. Wash your hands. Tie the bag closed and place it on a platter or pan and put it in the fridge for up to two days. I do this on Tuesday, butter it up on Wednesday for cooking on Thursday. Thoroughly wash the sink you rinsed the turkey in. Right now.
Step 2: Butter and herb rub
Now we work on the flavor and added juiciness. I tinkered with this recipe for many years, until I hit on just the right method. I have always rubbed butter on roasted chicken or turkey, or covered it in bacon to keep the bird moist. For a big mama gobbler, I double down.
In a food processor, blend together 1/2 pound raw bacon slices, 1/2 pound butter and generous handfuls of fresh herbs. I like a lot of sage, some parsley, oregano, thyme, marjoram and maybe rosemary. A packet and a half of “poultry herbs” works well. Blend all this until you have a smooth paste. You can make this ahead and store the bacon butter in an airtight container for up to five days.
We eat our big meal at 1 o’clock, so I like to have everything ready to go in the morning. I prepare my bird on Wednesday evening and refrigerate it. I have a timer feature on my oven that lets me start preheating before I want to wake up, so the oven is ready for the bird when I stumble out of bed.
When you are ready to prepare the turkey, bring the bacon butter to room temperature. Take the turkey out of its salt bag and give it a good rinse. Place it breast side up on a large platter or pan that will fit in the fridge. Wash the sink you rinsed the turkey in. Now. If your turkey comes with a pop-up timer, remove it now. It’s useless. Wash your hands, remove your rings and watch and gently separate the skin from the flesh. Lift the skin by the cavity and gently slide your hands under the skin. It will pull away from the flesh. Keep going to get the skin opened up all the way to the neck and over the legs. Try not to tear the skin, but don’t fall apart if you do. It’s not a big deal. Now take big fistfuls of butter and rub it up under the skin and over the flesh. Use about 3/4 quarters of the bacon butter under the flesh. Pat the skin down and press the butter into a pretty even layer under the skin. Rub the remaining butter over the outside of the bird, paying particular attention to the legs, which will not be covered by the bacon blanket.
Step 3: Create the bacon lattice
There is nothing like presenting a beautiful bird to your guests at Thanksgiving, and if I may say so, this is a stunner. But the bacon is not only decorative, it amps up the juiciness of the meat and flavors the juices for the gravy. I use thick cut bacon, the best I can find. I don’t use any kind of artificially flavored bacon. My big babies use about a pound of bacon.
I think the picture really says it all. I weave the bacon strips into a lattice. It’s kind of like making those construction paper place mats from kindergarten. Lay one strip crosswise over the breast, then one lengthwise. Keep going, folding up the strips already placed to fit the new ones under. The bacon will shrink when you cook the bird, so place the strips close together and use as many as you can fit. Tie the legs of the bird together with kitchen twine. When you’ve got the bacon all woven, wash your hands thoroughly, put the bird in the fridge, and collapse on the sofa.
As I said, we do the meal for lunch, and I am not a morning person, so I do as much ahead as possible. With the turkey ready to go and the oven heated to 450 degrees F., I get ready to roast. Remember, remove one rack and place the other in the right position to fit the pan with the bird. You don’t want to get everything hot, then have to move things around. I like good, flavorful juices from the bird to add to gravy. That really is the only thing that makes gravy worth serving. My roasting technique creates good juices.
Step 4: Roast the bird
Line the deep roasting that fits your bird with several layers of foil. It never makes clean up a breeze, but it helps. If you have a rack that fits a deep roasting pan, great. I use a grid that is technically a cooling rack. No rack, nor problem. Just set the bird on the vegetables as follows. Cover the bottom of the roasting dish with a thick layer of aromatic root vegetables. Whole vegetables, don’t peel or chop, just remove the paper from onions and the tops from carrots. I use carrots, celery, leeks, onions, and a couple of apples cut in half.
Stuff an apple and an onion into the cavity of the bird. Tuck some fresh sage leaves and any other herbs you have around the bird. Place the rack over the vegetables if you are using one, don’t worry if it’s wobbly, or just put the bird on the vegetables directly. Take a piece of foil and mold it to make a shield to cover the bird if it starts to brown too much later. Remove the molded piece of foil to a safe place. It is really hard to properly cover a hot turkey in a hot oven.
Roast the turkey at 450 degrees F. for 30 minutes, then turn the heat down to 375 degrees F. for the rest of the cooking. I highly recommend that you make the small investment in a probe meat thermometer, one with a probe to stick in the turkey and a long cord that plugs into a counter unit. Gently stick the probe into a thick part of the breast, carefully sliding it between an opening in the bacon blanket. Make sure you don’t’ go so deep you hit the bone. You want the turkey to be cooked to 165 degrees F. I usually set the thermometer to 155 degrees F., remove the turkey from the oven and cover the whole pan with foil. I let it rest until it reaches 165 degrees F. If the turkey and the bacon start to get too brown before the meat is cooked, cover it with your prepared foil armor.
Generally, you need about 15 minutes cooking per pound of turkey. For a 20 lb. turkey, I go 4 to 4-1/2 hours. Leave your self some wiggle room, the turkey will happily wait under its warm foil wrap. Your guests are not likely to be so patient.
Now we have our beautiful cooked turkey. Remove the bird to carving board (preferably one with a well to collect juices). Allow some time for your guests to ohh and ahh and admire your bird. Then let the designated carver ohh and ahh and admire your bird. Then let the designated carver go to work. Pour the juices from the roasting pan into a measuring cup, or one of those neat gravy separators if you have one. Let the juice settle for a bit, skim off the fat, and add the delicious juices to your gravy.