As Thanksgiving Approaches, A Guide to Starting the Turkey

brine and break down the turkey before cooking it

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The end of November means Thanksgiving is here. It also means extended family visiting, a quickly emptying wine rack, tricky side dishes, missing recipes, and an intimidating-looking bird to cook. Fortunately, you’re not the first person to go through the holiday. Here are a couple of handy tips to start that turkey off right.

Close up of man cutting Thanksgiving turkey with knife
For family and friends who celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s time to make turkey preparations as the end of November draws near. Photo by Sean Locke Photography / Shutterstock

Managing a 20-pound bird carcass is a daunting task even before you reach in and pull out the items in the cavity where the stuffing will be going. The turkey typically needs a lot of preparation time before going in the oven, depending on the cooked results called for by your recipe. If you’re open to some new cooking suggestions, the task of preparing the bird can be made easier—then you can get back to more important things like visiting with friends and relatives.

To Brine or Not to Brine

“Brining a turkey is highly debatable,” said Sean Kahlenberg, Chef-Instructor at The Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, New York. “The biggest setback is, of course, the skin—the skin is not crispy anymore once you brine the turkey; that [amount of] moisture inside the actual protein is always going to come through to the skin, and not have a crispy skin. [But] I think it’s a good tradeoff with the moisture that you actually capture in the breast of the meat with the legs and the thighs.”

Chef Kahlenberg recommends making two and a half gallons of brine but starting with just one gallon of water seasoned with sugar, salt, and Dijon mustard. “What I see most people do, which I find very interesting, is that they make their brine, bring it to a boil to dissolve all the sugar and salt, and they go put this entire pot in ice water or let it sit outside if it’s cold, depending on the weather, for it to cool down,” he said. “It takes maybe five or six hours for the brine itself to cool down and a very easy way to fix this is to make your two and a half gallons of brine with only half the liquid. This way the brine has the strength you want, and then once the sugar and the salt is dissolved, just add the rest of the water in the form of ice and then your brine is instantly cold and can be used straight away.”

Remember when dissolving the sugar and salt that the brine needs to reach a temperature of 185 degrees.

Breaking a Turkey Down before Cooking

Despite what we see in Norman Rockwell paintings and on TV commercials, there’s something to be said for breaking a turkey down before it gets cooked. Chef Kahlenberg likened it to a cow, whose different muscle groups need to be cooked at different temperatures at different times.

“The leg, the thigh, and the breast are very different types of meat and really cook at a different rate, at a different level,” Chef Kahlenberg said. “The advantage of that is it takes up less space in your oven.”

His recommended order is to remove the neck first, followed by the giblets. Giblets work well in a sauce, though it’s fine not to use the liver if you’re not a fan. Chef Kahlenberg said that with some turkeys, there’s such little meat in the wings that it’s best to use them in the sauce instead of as meat.

He was also quick to mention that when removing the legs of the turkey, it’s best to turn it on one side, remove the oyster muscles for later use and break the hip bone. “Breaking the hip bone out of its socket and then running the knife down the spine, I [get] my leg and thigh,” he said.

Chef Kahlenberg said the important part of separating the leg meat from the thigh meat is finding the joint. The leg meat should stay on the bone and can go directly into the brine. However, he said, thigh meat is very hard to carve, so it’s best to remove the thigh bone, which can be added to your sauce later. The same goes for the thigh cartilage. Finally, the thighs can be tied together with chef netting.

All the meat should sit in the brine for 24 hours. After that, it’s just a matter of going in the oven for the right duration at the right temperature. Chef Kahlenberg recommends cooking most of the turkey at 265 degrees for three hours, plus an additional hour to rest. However, the legs and thighs should only cook for a maximum of two hours so they don’t dry out. Just be sure to check their internal temperature with a thermometer and make sure they reach close to 170 degrees internally.

Chef Sean Kahlenberg contributed to this article. Chef Kahlenberg is a Chef-Instructor at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Hyde Park, New York, where he also earned his AOS in Culinary Arts. Additionally, he is a Certified Hospitality Educator.