All Photos: Wendy Goodfriend
For as long as I can remember, I’ve played a big role in preparing Thanksgiving dinner for both family and friends. Growing up, we did turkey the way most folks did: stuff it, throw it in the oven, and roast it until the little plastic doo-hickey popped out. As I got older, and my culinary sense of adventure grew and matured, I started brining the turkey. Then one year, this was maybe 10 years ago or more, we got really crazy and threw the brined bird on the grill, slow grill-roasting and smoking it to a mahogany red.
After a number of years on Thanksgiving hiatus (due to the fact that we were traveling abroad), I finally found myself back home last year, and I couldn’t wait to host my first Thanksgiving in our new house.
I decided to take the entire thing on myself, something I’d not done for many years, and I was ready to do something new. So in that spirit, I thought I’d try a whole new and slightly blasphemous approach: I would dismantle the turkey.
This is not a new idea, it was actually suggested to me a few years back by a close friend who is also an amazing chef. The idea is simple. White meat and dark meat simply don’t cook at the same rate, so why not treat them the way they want to be treated? Braise the dark meat until it’s falling-off-the-bone-tender and roast the breast meat just long enough to keep it tender and juicy.
Of course, I’d fallen into the brining camp years ago, but due to the lack of space for putting a whole 15-lb turkey into a vat of brining liquid, I decided to dry-brine the turkey by rubbing each part down with kosher salt and letting it wallow in the salt for a few days.
The results were incredible. Not only was I able to braise the legs early in the day and just warm the meat right before we sat down, but the breast took no time at all – a mere hour – and took up far less oven space than an entire turkey. It was also the very first time that every scrap of dark meat was devoured that very same night, something I’d never witnessed in all my years of turkey baking/roasting/grilling.
So, perhaps it is unthinkable to sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner without the ceremony of bringing a whole golden brown bird to the table and carving it to applause. But if it’s succulent flavor you are after, you really can’t go wrong with this version.
Recipe: Deconstructed Turkey & Gravy
Serves 10–12 with leftovers
15 lb turkey, ideally organic*
2 large yellow onions, 1 diced and 1 cut into large chunks (skins reserved)
4 stalks celery, 2 diced and 2 cut into large chunks (trimmed tops reserved)
About 3–4 tbsp kosher salt, plus more as needed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
3/4 cup dry white wine
4 cups turkey stock or low-sodium chicken broth, plus more as needed
3 tbsp unsalted butter, softened, plus more if needed
1 tbsp thyme leaves, chopped
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
Freshly ground pepper
Using a sharp knife or poultry shears, separate the legs and thighs from the breast and wing section. Remove the backbone and set aside. Rub the leg/thigh and breast sections all over (including under the skin) with kosher salt. Place the turkey pieces on a rimmed baking sheet or in a roasting pan, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 to 2 days. If the turkey pieces don’t fit all on the baking sheet, put the breast section into a deep mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap before refrigerating.
Click on any image to activate the step-by-step slideshow
Meanwhile, to make turkey stock, add the reserved backbone plus the neck, onion chunks and skins, and celery chunks and trimmed celery tops to a stockpot. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat, cover partially, and simmer for about 3 hours. Strain through a fine mesh sieve, let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until ready to use.
To braise the legs and thighs: Preheat the oven to 300°F. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels. In a large, heavy Dutch oven, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the thighs and drumsticks and sear until well browned all over, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a platter.
Add the onion, celery, and carrot to the Dutch oven. Saute, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and simmer about 5 minutes. Return the thighs and drumsticks to the Dutch oven and add about 4 cups of the turkey stock. Bring to a slow boil, then cover and place in the oven. Cook until the turkey is very tender, turning once about halfway through, about 1 hour. Transfer the turkey to a platter to cool. Strain the braising liquid and set aside.
When the turkey is cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the thighs and roughly shred. Return the drumsticks and thigh meat to the Dutch oven, moisten with some of the braising liquid, and set aside until ready to eat (or re-warm the meat in the oven before eating). Reserve the remaining braising liquid to make the pan gravy.
To roast the turkey breast: Remove the turkey breast from the refrigerator about 1 hour before roasting. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Pat the turkey breast dry with paper towels. Spread some of the butter under the turkey breast skin along with the chopped thyme. Spread the remaining butter over the skin, all over the turkey.
Place the turkey breast in a heavy cast-iron skillet just big enough to fit it snugly (I used a 12-inch pan). Place in the oven and roast the turkey breast for about 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375°F. Roast for about 1 hour, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the meat registers 150°–160°F. Transfer the breast to a cutting board and let rest for about 15 minutes.
To make pan gravy, over medium heat, add the flour to the drippings in the skillet, whisking to remove any lumps. Add some butter if you need more fat. Slowly add the reserved braising liquid, stirring, until smooth. Add more broth if needed to thin the gravy slightly. (not pictured)
Remove the breast meat from the turkey carcass, and slice across the grain. Serve with the dark meat and drumsticks, and the gravy.
*A note on the turkey you see in this post: I jumped through hoops to get a turkey for this post, but after one snafu after another I ended up with a very tiny turkey (labeled “petite”) that almost looks like a chicken. This recipe is actually for a 15-pounder, but you can use anything from about 10 lbs up to 15 lbs.