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I received this note from one of my favorite people last week:
I learned last night that my sweet husband has invited five of his (giant) football linemen over for Thanksgiving, since they all live far away and can’t go home for the holiday. I’m all for this – I’m delighted to be anybody’s adopted mom on Thanksgiving – but I’m a little concerned about logistics.
We have a head count of about 18, which for all practical purposes is more like 25 since many of our guests will be starving (did I mention giant?) teenage boys. I have one oven, and I think I jammed a 20- or 22-pound bird in there last year. I’ve always found bigger birds to be a bigger pain, because they get super done on the outside but are still pink and poisonous on the inside. I could probably throw one bird in my mom’s oven and one in mine, but I’m wondering if it makes more sense to cook one whole bird and a couple of extra turkey breasts, which I could theoretically do the night before. What would Doni do??
Here’s my response:
I consulted with one of my favorite cooks, son Joe, and we both agree that brined and spatchcocked turkey is your best bet. You basically are breaking down the birds, which you can roast in the oven in shallow baking pans.
Actually, the more accurate term is butterflying, a method achieved that sounds a bit violent: remove the spine and crack the breastbone, so the whole bird is basically flattened. Without the backbone, and the crushed breastbone, it knocks off precious oven-space-saving inches from the height of the turkey, which is really just wasted space inside anyway. The resulting collapsed bird may look weird, but I believe the taste and tenderness are superior.
In fact, when I visited the Czech Republic a few years back, we American arranged for and prepared a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, all cooked, roasted and baked on a tiny range.
We brined and spatchcocked the poor skinny European bird that looked like it had a touch of scoliosis. You can find a goose for a holiday meal, but turkeys are impossible to find for sale in most parts of the Czech Republic.
This one was bought from someone’s farm. I have to say, it was one of the best turkey dinners ever.
While I realize the whole-bird in the oven thing looks very Norman Rockwellish, let’s face it; nobody puts the bird on the table for a photo when everyone’s sitting there, because all the hacking and slicing happens in the kitchen, and besides, the breast meat always gets dried out while the thighs are coming up to temperature.
I’ve included a link about temps, as well as a Bon Appetit tutorial about spatchcocking.
If you truly want the traditional Norman Rockwell version, you could always do one picture-perfect old-fashioned bird on one rack, and a tray of the spatchcocked turkey below on another rack. It is a juggling act because you’ll have other dishes that need the oven, but hopefully you can have those (dressing, for example) made in advance, and brought to room temp an hour or so before, covered with foil and popped in a hot oven while the turkey is resting and being sliced.
Another thing, if you can get a turkey cheap before Thanksgiving. (I just got one Monday at the Churn Creek Road Grocery Outlet for $10 off the $19.99 price tag, if I spent $30, which, a few days before Thanksgiving was simple to do. So I got an 18-pound turkey for $9.99. Score!) Where was I? Oh yes. So you buy, spatchcock and roast a turkey a few days before Thanksgiving, which is good practice before the big day, anyway. Use that bird just for gravy, which you’ll make ahead and have in the fridge at the ready so you’re not messing with making gravy at the last minute, which is a royal pain in the middle of Thanksgiving chaos. (You cut up the meat and have it in the freezer for soup later. Or make sandwiches for those hungry football players.)
My friend proclaimed me a holiday genius (I’m really not), and said there was a bonus. “My sons will think “spatchcock” is pretty damn funny.”
So true. Speaking of spatchcock sounding funny, and because I know someone’s going to ask, no, I don’t have a definitive answer to the most pressing question: Why is this butterflying method called spatchcocking? However, according to Oxford Dictionary it’s of Irish origins: ” . . .to spatch the cock to dispatch the chicken . . . ” which really doesn’t clear up thing for me any better, unless the cock is the cook, but there you go.
But in case my friend chickens out on the spatchcocked turkey, here are some other solutions:
• Order some already made grocery-store-roasted turkeys, wrap them in foil and keep them in an ice chest until carving time. (Yes, ice chests keep hot things hot, too.) There is no shame in doing this. I still remember the Thanksgiving when I was going to school when I bought a boxed holiday dinner from Safeway – turkey, dressing, rolls, cranberries, mashed potatoes, gravy and even pumpkin pie. My kids said it was one of the best Thanksgiving dinners ever.
• Buy multiple turkey breasts and roast them on a cookie sheet. (But I kind of hate this idea, because breast meat is so dry and boring. I heard a woman at a luncheon yesterday talk about how she was going to roast their turkey breast in a crock pot, and I nearly cried. But that’s just me. More power to you if roasted turkey breasts are your favorite.)
• Spatchcocked turkey. See? We’re back to that again. One more thing I want to say about spatchcocking is that it’s not just for turkey, but any poultry. It shortens the cooking time, saves space in the oven, and also makes sure the meat cooks more evenly, avoiding letting the breast meat dry out as it’s waiting for the dark meat to come up temperature. That makes for a more juicy turkey, sadly, a term that’s not often used (honestly) to describe a Thanksgiving turkey.
Plus, spatchcocking is not just for turkey, but any poultry, from huge turkeys to tiny Cornish game hens.
Really, once I learned the art of spatchcocking, I’ve never roasted a whole bird with that gaping cavity again.
I hope my friend tries spatchcocking, and not just because it’s fun to say.