Sunday, November 20, 2011

BRFoodies Thanksgiving Jive Turkey

Thanksgiving, one of the very best holiday meals predicated upon great meat; foul or poricine. The premise of this blog has morphed over time, but the basic idea of being a place for me to track my favorite methods and recipes is rock solid. Time to talk some turkey! (Credit for the photo above goes to Kelly Spell- thanks for letting me steal this from Facebook )

A group of my friends (going by the self assigned moniker of @BRFoodies- see also the Tumblr blog) decided to beat the staid, stuffy, family traditional Thanksgiving by doing one of our own. We would take on courses in pairs and serve small (yeah right) portions while watching the Louisiana State University and Mississippi State University football game.

I took on the turkey. I’d been toying with the idea of cooking turkey sous vide ever since I watched this video and it’s sequel from Grant Achatz. Chef Achatz (you might have heard about this award winning chef and his battle with tongue cancer) just says screw the hassle of Butterball buttons, foil over the breast, carving complexity, and Aunt Millie’s gripes about how you cooked your bird. I agree. Thanksgiving should be about good friends, family, great food, booze, and football. I’ve seen too much T-day drama. I once saw a frustrated man slam dunk, a turkey carcass in dishwater out of frustration about criticism over his carving technique. I’ve seen people resort to buying turduckens to throw unfamiliar guests off kilter so they would be less able to complain. That kind of hassle is for the birds.

I’ve cooked chicken breasts sous vide before, but never a whole chicken. I picked up a chicken from a local grocery store, then disassembled it into breasts, legs, and wings. Bagging the chicken into my new favorite sous vide bags, Ziploc Vacuum Freezer bags, I added some butter, poultry seasoning, and some beer. Plopping the bags into a pot with water at 165F for about an hour and a half, I was able to produce a decent result. Even more exciting was the idea that I should smoke the bird before hand. Several times I’ve smoked turkeys for thanksgiving and really enjoyed it. Foul is an easy match for apple wood. So onto the grill for an hour’s smoking and then into the bag. Because I’d now dispatched several chickens, I also added some rendered chicken fat to the sous vide bags. If one was so inclined, it could almost be called a confit. This made for an awfully tasty chicken.

My attention now turned to brining. Grilling, smoking, or even roasting foul of any kind can dry the meat. We’ve all had chalky turkey breast. The kind of turkey that requires gravy and a mouthful of water to lubricate your throat enough to eat safely. Brining works by osmosis, that dreaded high school biology term, salt pulls more water into the muscle fibers. More water in the meat before cooking means more water in the meat afterwards. Brining can also help impart flavors to the meat. Again, I love paring apple and chicken or turkey. Soy sauce, beer, orange juce are also possible brine liquids. I'd be careful of liquids with lots of acid as you wouldn't want to cook the meat like is done with ceviche. Pork and beef can also be brined. Plenty of people also believe that brining makes a difference when cooking competition ribs. Cooks Illustrated does a great job describing brining methods, they also make the important point that not all kosher salt measures the same. I brined two chickens in water, apple juice, and unrefined sugar from a sugar mill in New Iberia Parish following the measurements Cooks Ilustrated suggests. I smoked both chickens for about two hours before placing them in a cooler for later. My friend Jay D. Ducote (you really should check out his blog) finished cooking them on his truly awe inspiring drum/keg grill and smoker for the famed Ford Family Tailgate before the LSU Western Kentucky game. I thought they were pretty damned tasty. They also come out a gorgeous lacquered brown.

These two important processes tackled I bought the turkey a week before our feast and waited for it to thaw (18 pounds of turkey, please come by and help me eat it all. I have so many leftovers). I decided to smoke the turkey first to impart that great apple wood flavor and then sous vide the turkey to give it some more flavor from the chicken fat, more apple juice/cider and beer. While the turkey thawed I picked up another turkey thigh to try the sous vide to see how much time it would require. I managed to fall asleep on the couch as it cooked, so it was in the bath for something like four hours. Way too long. Fortunately when sous vide-ing something this doesn’t make a difference, so long as the temperature doesn’t rise too far, the item cooked can’t be overcooked. The problem; however, was that the skin was, well, rubbery and unappetizing. If you’ve watched the You Tube videos of Chef Achetz mentioned earlier you’ll know that he pan fried each of the cuts before serving to make the skin golden and more crisp. I did this and was able to get the skin more to my liking. I also tried using my little crème brule blow torch (‘cause who doesn’t invent excuses to play with a blow torch) and found that the skin does turn, but not before fat explodes out from under the epidermis.

The day of reckoning arrived Friday. I began late that afternoon by preparing the brine, making sure to boil the liquid to be sure that the salt and sugar were completely dissolved. I then cooled off the brine, dumped it and the turkey into a kitchen garbage bag, and put that into a cooler with ice. It is important to keep the turkey cold, just as if you were storing it anywhere else uncooked. Saturday morning came around and I prepared my Weber kettle grill for smoking. I’ve talked briefly about this before, but I wanted to show you a picture of my setup. The pan below the grate (those are wood chips soaking before I get things going) is generally used to catch fat and hold water. The water’s purpose is twofold; to evaporate keeping the meat from drying out (alongside the brining) and to help moderate the temperature in the grill. The water boils off slowly taking extra energy from the fire, but if the fire goes out, it releases heat already stored. The foil covered bricks reflect heat back to the fire, and their mass helps moderate the temperature, and most importantly they help keep my coals in place. The thing sticking out of the grill lid vent is a candy thermometer I use to monitor the temperature inside the grill.

After smoking the turkey for about an hour and a half I pulled it off the grill and disassembled the bird for sous vide. I put the breasts in their own bags, then paired the wings and thighs in two other bags along with about a tablespoon of butter, a tablespoon and a half of chicken fat, an ice cube of apple cider, and a quarter cup of apple juice, beer and, cider mix that I’d made earlier. I could have frozen the mixture if I’d thought about it before hand. The advantage of freezing the liquids is that it makes pulling vacuum on the sous vide bags easier. As you use the Ziploc hand pump, or some home use vacuum bag machines, liquids can come out of the bag and into the pump. This makes a mess and can foul the pump. As the bag heats up, the frozen liquids thaw, it just means that the bath takes a little longer to come to temperature. Speaking of temperature, the new FDA suggested cooking temperature for all parts of the turkey and for chicken is 165 Fahrenheit (oddly enough, Fahenheit is also the name of a Chinese boy band- look it up). My sous vide set-up is VERY rudimentary (shown here used to cook some chicken). Anyone with a stove, a really good candy thermometer or oven remote thermometer and a freezer bag can do this. I have a pot of water on the stove and I check the temperature every so often with a decent remote oven thermometer I got as a gift a while ago. If the bath is too cool, I turn up the burner a bit and wait. If it is too hot, I add ice cubes to the bath. There are much nicer ways to do this, sous vide appliances can range from $300, immersion circulators like those seen on TV cooking shows are easily $1,000, and there are DIY kits that you can get for less than $200. I let the turkey bathe for about three hours before I pulled it out. I let it rest for a fifteen minutes while I set up my frying pan. I then placed each piece into the pan to brown the skin as much as I could.

Think that was enough steps? Was that easier than the standard roast turkey? Yeah, way too complicated. But I will say this: it was nice to have a smoked turkey that wasn’t dry. It tasted delicious. I’d sous vide another turkey again. I’d smoke a turkey again. But not unless someone very special asks nicely with some sort of bribe am I likely to do that again. It was a stunt. A show-off. Something to wow my foodie friends and a way for me to flex my cooking muscles. Which, along with the good friends, football, and booze, was all part of BRFoodiesThanksgiving anyhow.

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