What I’m about to tell you might not make much sense. Stay with me. My goal is for you to enjoy the tastiest Thanksgiving turkey ever. In fact, the cooler method I use to ensure my holiday turkey is almost fall-off-the-bone delicious can be used for just about any light-skinned bird, wild or domestic.
It doesn’t matter how you cook your turkey. Whether it is smoked, fried, grilled or roasted, placing a brined and cooked bird in a cooler for a couple of hours will result in a more moist, flavorful and delicious bird than if you go from the oven, grill or fryer to the table.
Yield: 1 turkey
Prep time: 20 minutes + brining time
Cook time: 2-3 hours
- 1 gallon water (or more depending on the size of your turkey)
- 1 cup kosher salt (or ¾ table salt)
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 trussed turkey
- 2 onions, cut into wedges
- Chopped celery
- Chopped carrots
- Chicken broth
- If you have time, brine your turkey. Combine one gallon water with one cup each kosher salt and brown sugar. You will have to heat some of the water in a pan and stir in the salt to dissolve it. If all that is on hand is table salt, reduce it to 3/4 cup or your brine will be over-salted. Soak your turkey in the brine, refrigerated, for 12 to 24 hours. Remove turkey from brine, set aside.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Prep your veggies. Cut a couple of onions into wedges. Chop up some celery and carrots.
- Place the brined turkey in a well-greased pan, breast side down, and use the onion wedges, carrots and celery as chock blocks to keep it from pitching to one side or the other. This will also add flavor to the pan drippings.
- Once your turkey is nestled comfortably in the pan, place into oven, uncovered, for 2 to 3 hours, depending on the size of the bird. Let your meat thermometer, not the clock, determine how long the bird will cook.
- After an hour or so, add about 1/2 inch of chicken broth to the pan, cover with foil and return to the oven. Check the temperature at the thigh in about an hour or so. When it reaches 165 degrees, the important part happens … Wait, 165 degrees? Notoriously inaccurate domestic turkey pop-up timers do their thing at 185 degrees. I know, I know. Just trust me on this. We’re not done yet.
- Place the turkey, again breast side down, into the smallest clean cooler in which it will fit. If you have to squeeze it in a little, that’s okay. Minimal air space is the key. If the cooler is a tad too large, place foil over the bird and a clean towel or two over the foil as an insulator. Pour a cup or so of the hot pan drippings over the bird, close the lid and forget about it for two hours. Go ahead and re-read the last sentence. Two hours.
Our instincts tell us the formerly hot turkey will cool down as it sits in a cooler for two solid hours. Not so, as long as the air space is minimized and nobody opens the lid to make sure it is still hot. Think of the cooler as Pandora’s box. Open the lid and bad things will happen.
- After two hours have passed, and assuming you resisted temptation, the turkey will not just be warm when you open the cooler – it will be screaming hot. Take care as you remove the turkey by the legs. They may come off in your hands.
Moist Meat or Crispy Skin?
The only downside to this method of fool-proof tender turkey is that the skin will not be crisp. If you must, place the bird on its back and roast in a preheated 500- degree oven for 20 minutes or so to crisp up the skin. Personally, I’m willing to sacrifice crispy skin for better tasting meat, light or dark.
Stuffing Your Turkey
If you must stuff your birds, do so during the last 30 minutes of cooking. A stuffed bird requires oven heat to get past the stuffing to cook the inside of the breast. It encourages overcooking. Placing a few fresh herb sprigs, a slice of onion and a little garlic will help season the drippings, but I’m not convinced that it adds too much flavor to the cooked bird.