An easier, and juicier, way to roast turkey

Sear the turkey in a hot pan before roasting to ensure an evenly roasted bird.
Sear the turkey in a hot pan before roasting to ensure an evenly roasted bird. NYTimes
Splaying the turkey is easier, and requires less strength, than spatchcocking.
Splaying the turkey is easier, and requires less strength, than spatchcocking. NYTimes
Use a paring knife to cut the skin that connects the legs to the body.
Use a paring knife to cut the skin that connects the legs to the body. NYTimes
Press down and pull the thighs till you hear them pop out of their sockets and lie flat.
Press down and pull the thighs till you hear them pop out of their sockets and lie flat. NYTimes
Splaying a turkey this way helps the dark meat cook better.
Splaying a turkey this way helps the dark meat cook better. NYTimes

NEW YORK - (NYTimes) There's an age-old problem with roasting a whole turkey. How do you cook the dark meat to juicy tenderness without desiccating the white meat?

Theories abound, and I've tried most of them, like attaching ice packs to the breasts to slow down the cooking or cutting out the backbone and flattening the bird (a technique known as spatchcocking).

They all work to some degree, but they require far more effort than I'd like to invest on the most cooking-intensive day of the year.

  • SPLAYED TURKEY WITH HERBS 

  • INGREDIENTS 

    1 5.4kg turkey, giblets and neck removed and saved for stock

    2 tbsps coarse kosher salt

    1 1/2 tsps black pepper

    Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

    1 bunch lemon thyme or regular thyme

    10 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

    2 fresh or dried bay leaves

    2 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil, more for drizzling

    Dry white wine, as needed, for the pan

    1 large onion, halved and sliced 3/4-inch thick (not thinner, or slices may burn)

    METHOD 

    1. Using a sharp knife, cut through the skin that connects legs to the breast on both sides of the turkey. Press down on thighs until they pop out of the sockets and the legs lie flat.

    2. In a small bowl, stir together salt, pepper and lemon zest. Smear mixture all over turkey, including inside the cavity. Pat herb sprigs and garlic all over bird. Stuff bay leaves into cavity. Refrigerate, uncovered, overnight or for up to 2 nights.

    3. Remove turkey from the refrigerator 1 hour before you want to roast it. Remove all but the top rack from the oven. (You can remove that, too, but if you leave it in, you'll be able to roast something else at the same time as the turkey.)

    4. Heat oven to 232 degrees Celsius. Take all the herb sprigs and garlic cloves off the surface of the turkey and stuff them into the cavity.

    5. Place a large, empty heavy-duty roasting pan on top of the stove, across two burners if possible. Heat up the pan for a minute or so, until the pan is quite hot. Add the oil, let it heat up for a few seconds, then add the turkey, breast side up, so the legs are parallel to the short sides of the pan and have room to flop open. Press down on the splayed legs so they touch the bottom of the pan. Let turkey sear for 5 minutes, pressing down on the legs occasionally.

    6. Pour enough wine into the bottom of the pan to reach a depth of 1/8 inch. Scatter onions around turkey and sprinkle them lightly with salt. Drizzle turkey and onions with a little oil.

    7. Transfer pan to oven, setting it directly on the oven floor (not on a rack). Roast for 30 minutes.

    8. Reduce heat to 176 degrees, give the onions a stir, and if the bottom of the pan is dry, add a splash of wine to moisten the onions.

    As the turkey continues to cook, occasionally check the onions to make sure they don't dry out or they may burn, adding wine as needed.

    Roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh (but not touching the bone) reads 73 degrees and the breast meat reaches at least 71 degrees, about another 40 to 65 minutes depending upon your oven and the pan you use.

    Transfer turkey to a cutting board and let rest for 20 minutes before carving. 

So for my Thanksgiving turkey this year, I decided to try something new. I took my cues from a much smaller bird: the humble, amenable chicken.

Like the turkey, the chicken has the same white/dark meat divide when it comes to cook times. To compensate, I often splay the chicken's legs, then sear the bird in a very hot pan before putting it into the oven to roast.

The dual strategy of splaying the legs to allow more hot air to circulate around them, combined with the initial searing, gives the dark meat a head start before the breast hits the heat of the oven. You get an evenly roasted bird, with silky, juicy white meat and perfectly cooked dark meat. And you get it fast, or at least faster than roasting it whole.

Would the same technique work with a fowl three times the size of your average chicken?

The answer was a resounding yes.

Unlike spatchcocking a turkey, which requires a certain amount of skill and strength, splaying is a cinch. You can use a paring knife to cut through the skin that connects the legs to the body, then just press down and pull on the thighs until you hear them pop out of their sockets and lie flat. Easy.

All of this is pretty much my standard technique for a splayed chicken, swapping in a roasting pan for a cast-iron skillet. But for the turkey, I made an important tweak to help the dark meat reach even greater succulence: After searing, I poured wine into the pan to braise the legs.

As with a chicken, you'll need to get the pan blazing hot before searing the bird. I used a standard heavy-duty roasting pan, removing the rack and heating it on my stovetop before putting in the turkey. To encourage the legs to flop open, I pressed down on them so they made firm contact with the pan. You'll likely hear some wild sizzling when the damp bird meets the hot metal; that's a good sign.

If you haven't had a braised turkey leg, you may not know that braising is truly a magnificent way to cook one. Unlike chicken, turkey legs have a lot of connective tissue, which can make them tough. The liquid in a braise softens these sinews.

Splaying allows the legs to lie flat while the breast rises regally above them, which means you're able to add wine and onions to the bottom of the pan without them touching the breast. So the legs can braise while the white meat roasts to crisp-skinned perfection - at the same time, in the same pan.

You can use any liquid here for braising: wine, cider, beer, stock, diced tomatoes, even water. But a combination of wine and onions imbues the meat with a heady, savory character. Just be sure that the onions are thickly sliced, no less than three-quarters of an inch, otherwise they could burn to a sooty mess on the bottom of the pan.

When properly cooked, the onions caramelize into the wine and turkey drippings, giving you a gorgeous oniony jus. You can use this jus to zip up your gravy. Or use it instead of gravy. It's so tasty and rich, it can stand alone.

For seasoning the turkey, I like the dry-brine method, patting a mix of salt, herbs and aromatics onto the turkey a day or two before roasting. I also like to leave the bird uncovered in the fridge so the skin can dry out a bit, which makes it extra-crunchy after roasting.

Along with the recipe for an herb-imbued turkey, I've also given a couple of flavor variations. In one, I use orange zest, chili powder and sage leaves to season the bird, then drape it with thick-cut bacon.

And in the other, fennel seeds, rosemary and garlic flavor the turkey, then the whole thing gets doused in anchovy butter and showered in grated Parmesan, which browns gloriously in the oven's heat.

These variations may be outside the box. But then again, so is roasting a splayed turkey.

How to splay a turkey 

1. Use a paring knife to cut through the skin that connects the legs to the body. 

2. Press down and pull on the thighs until you hear them pop out of their sockets. 

3. Press until the legs lie flat.