Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and if you're cooking instead of eating out on the big day, it's time to talk turkey. Who better to break the bird down than a professional butcher? We spoke to Brent Young at Williamsburg's The Meat Hook, which transforms into a one-stop Thanksgiving shop next week, to get the ultimate turkey tips. And if you're more of a visual learner, stop by the shop all day on November 19 and 20 for free Thanksgiving how-to demos on everything from turkey carving to pie making. Take it away, Brent!
What's your advice for the best way to cook a turkey? The major secret, I believe, is in the brine. We developed a malted turkey brine two years ago when we opened. We were playing around with it and used—because we had so much of the malt from beer brewing at The Brooklyn Kitchen—we started throwing that into different brines. The brine just makes sure that the entire breast is both salty and sweet. The malt in it actually makes sure that the sugars get into the skin and basically you end up with this amazing Normal Rockwell-eque turkey that is super impressive.
As far as flavor, the brine is the way to go. For roasting, just like doing a roast beef or any other large ham or roast, low and slow is the best way to go. I like to brown the turkey off at the beginning so you can start it in a hot oven that is about 375° to 400°. Brown it off and then create a breast shield with aluminum foil that's just going to cover the breast and leave the legs exposed. Then drop your temperature down to around 300° and let it coast at that point. From there it's about 15-20 minutes per pound.
What's the biggest mistake most people make when cooking turkey? I'd say too hot, too long. Take your time with it and don't be afraid to pull the turkey out. When the turkey is done it can hang out for an hour and a half or two hours before you really need to carve it. It's totally fine. It's going to continue cooking and stay warm. You don't have to worry about executing everything right at the exact moment. So don't try to pull your turkey and serve everything all at once. Take your time with it, let it be done. let it rest, finish your sides, let everyone get a fresh glass of wine and then sit and relax.
How can people know how big of a turkey to get? The standard is about a pound per person, and that'll allow for leftovers. So if you have 12 people coming and get a 12 pound bird but leftovers are always good, so getting a larger bird is always advantageous.
What's it like in the shop the week or two before Thanksgiving? How far in advance do you start prepping? Today is the big day. We need to make sure that everything is set and clean and ready every single day in preparation for getting turkeys on Saturday. Once turkey pickup begins then we really don't have time to do anything else.
What exactly happens during turkey pickup? We basically designate an entire zone to turkey, from Saturday to Wednesday. We turn the classroom lab into Turkey Headquarters and make sure that everyone is equipped with proper roasting pans, thermometers and, of course, proper turkeys. So doing that is even completely separate than what's going on in the butcher shop, which is still there for all of your sides and days leading up to and following Thanksgiving itself.
Tell me about your turkeys. Where are they from? They come from Finger Lakes Family Farms in Ithaca, New York, which is a co-op of farmers. One farmer in particular—his name is also Brent—is raising these broad-breasted whites for us. That's the breed. We arranged with him the day after Thanksgiving last year to raise the turkeys for us this year. So we've been with them since they've been hatched. They're pasture-raised, which is something that most Thanksgiving turkeys are not, but they are a very traditional bird breed in that your cooking approach doesn't have to greatly differ than what you've done in the past. You're going to end up with a better turkey, a better tasting turkey, but the brining and roasting will be approximately the same. [Ed. note: The Meat Hook still has a few turkeys available at $6.99/lb, call the shop to reserve a bird now!]
Is there anything that people can do kitchen-wise ahead of time to decrease stress on the day of Thanksgiving? Proper planning. Brining ahead of time is the reason that we make the turkeys available earlier, on Saturday, so you can get your turkey over the weekend or very early in the week and have everything else in your fridge ready to go so that your turkey is brined, you have your vegetables, you have all of your sides already set up a couple days ahead of time. So when it comes to Thanksgiving morning, all you have to do is bring everything out of the refrigerator and throw it in the oven.
I think the biggest tip is to just relax and realize that all anybody wants out of Thanksgiving is some turkey, some stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy. You don't have to wow them with any new culinary creations. We actually heavily advise against it, because if you put oysters in your stuffing as a new twist you're inevitably going to piss somebody off because it's not a traditional thing that they expect. Let your guests bring adventurous things but make sure that your basics are covered—you have your turkey, your mashed potatoes, your gravy and your stuffing. Anything past that is great, but if you take care of those, the pressure is off.