November 21, 2001, Wednesday


Bringing Flavor to the Bird (Until It Brings Its Own)

By DENISE LANDIS (NYT) 884 words

WHILE some breeders work to restore true flavor to the American turkey, this year most people will have to make do with a standard commercial bird. Here are ways to add flavor.

Under the Skin

Rubbing seasonings under the skin infuses the meat with flavor and promotes a crisp, nicely browned skin. Loosen the skin by gently slipping your fingers between it and the meat. Work your hand back and forth, loosening the skin over the breast, legs and thighs. Seasonings can be as simple as fresh sage leaves or as extravagant as thin slices of truffles. Or you could make a seasoned butter, mixing two to four tablespoons of unsalted butter with complementary flavors like rosemary and garlic, or grated orange zest and fresh thyme leaves. You could also mix a little mustard with olive oil, brown sugar and a bit of bourbon. Some seasonings, like whole cloves, are best inserted into the skin. Slivers of garlic can be tucked into tiny slits made with a knife.
A Bed of Flavor

Aromatics like carrots, celery, scallions, leeks, bay leaves, a head of unpeeled garlic cut in half or peeled shallots can be scattered across the bottom of the pan to impart fragrance and richness to the turkey and to its sauce. Make sure to pour a cup of water over them in order to keep them moist until the turkey begins to release its juices.

Aromatics are not meant to be eaten, but stir the pan occasionally to prevent them from burning. If stuffing is going to be baked outside the turkey, aromatics can be placed in the cavity. Branches of fresh thyme and rosemary are good choices; their strong flavors mellow during roasting, and they will not burn as they might if placed directly in the pan. Along with your herb of choice, place a halved unpeeled onion, a halved head of garlic, a piece of carrot and a stalk of celery with leaves attached. For a mild citrusy flavor, combine halved lemons, a halved onion and bay leaves.

For his own home-cooked turkey, Daniel Boulud, the chef at Daniel in Manhattan, combines coarsely chopped sage, savory, rosemary and orange zest with cracked peppercorns and spreads the mixture evenly over the breast of the bird. The breast is then covered by a fan of overlapping bacon slices, which are trussed to hold them in place. He places neck bones and gizzards in the roasting pan along with diced root vegetables to flavor the pan drippings, to which he adds maple syrup or honey. He finishes the sauce with a touch of cider vinegar.


Submerging the turkey in seasoned water produces moist, flavorful meat but is not something home cooks with a refrigerator full of holiday foods can easily do. You will need a pot large enough for the bird to be submerged in about two gallons of liquid for 24 to 48 hours. The pot (a large stock pot or a plastic bucket) will be heavy, so put it on the bottom of the refrigerator.

Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., marinates organic free-range turkey in well-seasoned brine that includes diced vegetables and seasonings like fennel seeds, coriander seeds and red pepper flakes. A simple variation can be made with 2 gallons water, 3/4 cup kosher salt, 3/4 cup sugar, 2 bay leaves, 1 bunch fresh thyme, 1 halved head of garlic, 5 allspice berries and 4 crushed juniper berries.

Mix the brine in a large pot, and heat it gently until the salt and sugar dissolve. Chill it completely before submerging the turkey. When brining is complete, drain and pat the bird dry with paper towels before roasting.


The most traditional method of flavoring a turkey is to baste it frequently with the juices released during roasting. It takes about half an hour for the fats and juices to begin to drip, so many cooks rub the bird with oil or butter before roasting. About a cup of water, white wine, chicken or veal broth should be added to the pan at the start of cooking. By the time the liquid evaporates, it will be replaced with the fat and juices released from the turkey.

Some recipes suggest brushing the skin of the turkey with marmalade, apple jelly or maple syrup. But save these mixtures containing sugar for a finishing glaze, about 20 minutes before serving, or you may find that the sugar will burn.

The Clock and Thermometer

Nothing robs turkey of flavor like overcooking. A tent of aluminum foil (or a pan lid) placed over the bird about two-thirds of the way through cooking will help keep the meat from overdrying. During the last hour of cooking, check the bird's color, and remove the foil when needed to finish browning.

Do not rely on pop-up timers that come in the bird. Use an instant-read thermometer to determine when the turkey is ready. Opinions on the correct temperature vary: the Department of Agriculture recommends 180 to 185 degrees, tested in the thigh, while many cooking experts say 165 degrees is safe and results in a moister bird.