Saturday, November 26, 2011

Whole Turkey (Deconstructed)

Sous Vide Details: Cook turkey dark meat at 176F for 8-10 hours, cook turkey white meat at 145F for 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours

Ingredients, Serves 4 - 6:
  • 15 lb whole turkey (organic or natural works best)
  • Your favorite poultry herbs (I love rosemary, thyme and sage)
  • 16 oz duck fat
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Brine (needs to be done the day before cooking):
    • 1 gallon vegetable stock
    • 1 cup kosher salt
    • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
    • 2 tablespoon peppercorns
    • 1 gallon iced water
    • 1 clean 5 gallon bucket with two bag liners
I LOVE Thanksgiving!  To me, giving thanks for my family through a wonderfully cooked meal is a perfect way to celebrate.  I've been cooking Thanksgiving dinner for as long as I can remember and have tried many recipes, although they all have involved cooking the turkey whole in the oven and doing all sorts of gyrations during the day to keep the breast moist and not over-done.  This usually meant opening up the oven many times to "baste" and "tent" and "re-read" the always foggy meat thermometer, which actually also prolonged the cooking time!  I thought of this "dance" as my badge of honor as a chef!

Well, this is my first Thanksgiving as a Sous Vide chef so I wanted to "change it up".  One of the important aspects of turkey is that the bird is actually made up of two types of meats: white meat and dark meat.  In the ideal world, the two types of meats should be cooked at different temperatures and for different amounts of time because they are completely different in fat and muscle composition.

With Sous Vide, cooking the white meat and dark meat separately at different temperatures and times is a snap!  The only difference is the "whole turkey" concept has to be "deconstructed" before cooking, not after.  That was fine with me since you do it the day before cooking the turkey, which is a "less stressful day" so you can take your time.

One note from the "Planning Department":  Remember that a frozen turkey takes a "LONG TIME" to thaw in the refrigerator, which is the safest way to thaw the bird!  DO NOT THAW ON THE COUNTER TOP!  You will be creating a perfect breeding ground for bacteria like Salmonella!  So the most important timing aspect of Thanksgiving turkey is buy it early so you have time to thaw it.  For a 15 lbs turkey, mine took 4 full days in the refrigerator (could have actually taking a 5th day) to thaw it out.  Add to that the preparation need the day before Thanksgiving and you really need to be thinking of purchasing your turkey 5-6 days before Thanksgiving!  That would be Nov 18th.  Put it on your calendar!

The day before Thanksgiving is the start of your sous vide turkey experience!  First, you want to prepare the turkey brine.  Brining is a method that uses osmosis to infuse the turkey meat with salt which causes it to retain more moisture during the cooking process.  Start by combining the vegetable stock, salt, brown sugar, and peppercorns in a large pot and bring to a boil.  Then remove from heat and cool to room temperature and then refrigerate.

When the brine goes into the refrigerator, you can start on "deconstructing" the turkey.  There are several videos on youtube that show you how to separate a chicken into pieces (click here for one example) and that is the same basic process for your turkey.  Here are the steps:

  1. Place the turkey on its back (breast up) with one leg nearest to you.  Taking a sharp knife, slice the skin between the leg and the body exposing the thigh.  Stay as close to the leg as possible leaving most of the breast covered with skin.  Keep cutting the skin and eventually the meat while prying the leg and thigh away from the body.  Holding the thigh firmly, pry it down until you hear the "joint" pop. You should see the joint.  Work your knife to separate the thigh from the body at the joint.  Do the same for the other leg and thigh.  
  2. Now we want to separate the legs from the thighs, If you place the thigh on the cutting board, skin side down, you will see a fat line across the leg/thigh joint area.  This is your "cut line".  Slice the fat line with your sharp knife and it should split the leg from the thigh right at the joint!  Taking a sharp knife, slice the meat away from both sides of the main thigh bone until you can get your knife "under" the bone.  Insert the knife end from one side of the bone to the other and slice the meat away from the bone, removing the bone from the thigh.  Do the same with the other thigh.  Place the legs and thighs in a large pan.
  3. Next are the wings.  grab the wing near the body and pull it away from the body exposing the skin.  Slice through the skin near the body.  Again, hold the wing firmly near the body and pry it down, popping the joint.  Use your knife and carefully cut around the joint until you separate the wing from the body.  Do the same with the other wing.  Place them both in the pan with the legs and thighs.
  4. Now, we separate the body.  On both sides of the body where the legs connected to the body, there are "sideways Vs" which you use as a guide to cut from the bottom of the "V" towards the neck of the turkey.  You are "splitting" the body in half, separating the back of the turkey from the breasts.  When you have cut both sides to the backbone, you should be able to take grab the breasts in one hand and the backbone in the other and pry them "open", like you're "splitting a wishbone"!  This exposes the joints near the neck.  Take your knife and working carefully, separate the joints and meat and cut through both sides of the backbone.  The back should separate from the breasts at this point!  Place the back in the same pan with the legs and wings.
  5. Now we separate the breasts.  Place the breasts, skin side down, on your cutting board.  Using a meat clever make a small chop cut right in the middle of the collar bone between each breast.  This should allow you to pry both breast downward, cracking the breastbone right in the middle.  There is a heavy breast bone that you want to remove before actually splitting  the two breasts.  Using your knife, slice the membrane on each side of the breastbone, exposing it and then using your fingers, pry the breastbone out.  It will look like a "mini dagger"!  This is somewhat tough, but stick with it, you can do it!  Now you can take your clever or sharp knife and split the breasts in half, separating them.  Place them into a separate pan.  You did it!!!!
Now, line your 5 gallon bucket with two plastic bags and take your brine solution out of the refrigerator and pour it into the bucket along with a gallon of cold water.  Place all the turkey parts into the brining solution along with some ice.  The solution needs to be below 40F.  Place the bucket somewhere cool/cold (I placed mine outside).  You need to brine the turkey for roughly 7-10 hours.  When done, take the turkey meat out and thoroughly wash the meat under cold water.  Pat dry.

Now you're ready for seasoning and bagging the turkey.  Liberally salt and pepper all the meat to taste.  Place the dark meat in separate bags from the breast meat.  Depending on your bag size, you can either place all the separate pieces of meat into separate bags or place multiple pieces in single bag.  I have large bags so I places both legs into a single bag, both thighs in a single bag and both wings into a single bag.  Everything else went into separate bags.  Add your favorite herbs into each bag.  I used rosemary, thyme and sage.  Be careful not to over do the herbs, remember, with sous vide, the herbs concentrate in the bag.  I used only a few twigs of each herb in each bag.  Then place equal amount of the duck fat in each bag.  Duck fat gives the turkey a nice "depth" in taste. Vacuum seal each bag.  Make sure the sealing area of the bag is "clean and dry".  Use a paper towel if you have to.  This will allow the bag to seal properly.  When done, your turkey should look like this:

Turkey dark meat all bagged up and ready to go!

Turkey breasts all bagged up and ready to go!

Now here's where your first major decision point comes in.  Are you a morning person or not???  Do you have two water baths?  Since the dark meat takes 8-10 hours to cook, you have to decide whether you're going to cooking it starting Thanksgiving morning (really early) or start it the day before Thanksgiving at night and then re-therm it right before searing and serving.  Well... what are you???  I'm a morning person!  So I decided to get up at 5AM (which I normally do) and start the dark meet on Thanksgiving day so I didn't have to re-therm it.  If you're not a morning person or if you only have a single water bath, you need to start cooking the dark meat the day before Thanksgiving.  I would figure out when you're going to wake up on Thanksgiving day and subtract 10 hours and that is your start time for the dark meat!  So if you get up at 8AM, then start the dark meat at 10PM the night before.  Pre-heat the water bath to 176F and drop all the dark meat into the water bath.  Make sure you have a large enough water bath so that the meat will cook evenly.  Also since you are cooking at a high temperature, you might need to place a plate on top of the bags so that they don't float out of the water since some air (through steam) might accumulate inside the bags.  If you started the night before, you will need to pull the dark meat out on the morning of Thanksgiving and quick chill them in an ice bath for 45 minutes and then place the bags in the refrigerator.  You will re-therm them later.  Here is my dark meat cooking away:

About 4 hours before dinner time, you can start the white meat.  Pre-heat the water bath to 145F and drop the white meat in.  Here's my turkey breasts cooking away:

If you need to re-therm the dark meat, about an hour before the white meet is done, heat up a large pot of water to 145F, using a thermometer to track the temperature.  Drop the dark meat in the pot for 45 minutes to re-therm it to temperature.

When the white meat is done, remove all the bags, one by one, and open and using paper towels, pat the meat dry.  Pre-heat your broiler.  Place all the turkey meat that has skin on a broiling pan, skin side up.  Sear the turkey for approximately 3-5 minutes.  Be careful since you don't want to over cook the meat, since it is already cooked!  Don't sear any meat that doesn't have skin since all you're going to do is over cook the turkey meat!

When searing done, slice the breast, plate the turkey and enjoy!!!!!!!!!

Thanksgiving was a wonderful feast again this year, only better!  The white meat was so tender and moist, it was almost unbelievable!  I actually think I liked the white meat better than the dark meat and I'm a dark meat lover!  Once again, Sous Vide brought a truly transformative culinary experience to our home!  Can you say "Turkey for Christmas??"

Check my other blog entries for the other dishes in this picture!


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