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Best bird

Alongside chef Anthony Caturano, it takes time - slow, careful, meticulously gauged - and a gentle knife at the end

By James H. Burnett III
Globe Staff / November 23, 2011
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SAUGUS - During a marathon turkey session in his home kitchen here recently, Anthony Caturano addressed how not to butcher your bird. That is, not just how to carve the majestic centerpiece of your holiday table, but its proper preparation and cooking.

It is arguably the most important lesson of the Thanksgiving meal, considering the bird Ben Franklin wanted to be our national mascot is the main staple of the feast.

Caturano, chef and owner of Prezza restaurant in Boston’s North End, which he opened in 2000, likes to take things slowly. He brines his poultry, which makes the bird moist, and after a long soak in a seasoned mixture, he roasts or smokes the bird. As a chef, he cannot help noticing how other cooks treat the bird, and believes that even though Americans often cook them incorrectly, “We love our turkeys!’’

He is right, of course. According to the National Turkey Federation, turkey consumption in the United States has increased 102 percent since 1970, with the average person eating 16.4 pounds in 2010. And 244 million birds were raised nationwide this year, presumably many in anticipation of Thanksgiving.

But hosts and their guests complain that the bird takes too long, and while you are waiting for the dark meat to cook through, the breast dries out. It shouldn’t, says the chef. “We ruin our birds by rushing,’’ Caturano says. “The key, or one of the keys, is giving the bird enough time at each stage of preparation to accomplish what you want.’’ On this day, Caturano, an accomplished multitasker, talks as he works.

Stage one is the brine, a mixture that starts with water, lots of sugar and salt, and plenty of seasonings and herbs. The bird is soaked in it for one to three days before cooking. “Brining is the easiest way to ensure that however you want your bird to be seasoned, that taste saturates the entire bird,’’ Caturano says. “Use whatever you want, but remember you have to marinate the turkey long enough to spread the flavor.’’

Caturano’s brine consists of brown sugar, fresh thyme, basil, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, garlic, whole cloves, and pink peppercorns. Soaking time for his turkey, just over 13 pounds, is 24 hours.

He’s making two birds. One will be roasted, the other smoked.

“I can’t emphasize enough that you have to get the temperatures right and the timing right for the outcome to be a perfectly moist turkey,’’ Caturano says. “Three hundred twenty-five degrees is standard unless you have an especially large bird. The duration again depends on the weight of the turkey. We’re going to roast this bird for about three hours. But that’s not straight time in the oven, that’s why you need your most important tool to be [top] quality.’’

That tool? A meat thermometer. But not just any instant-read thermometer. Caturano uses a digital thermometer to monitor the bird’s temperature throughout the roasting process. The thermometer has a probe that goes into the thigh and is connected to a digital display that sits outside the oven, allowing the cook to monitor the bird’s temperature in real time, as it rises.

Caturano says that internal heat in the bird lets it continue cooking for about 30 minutes after it is removed from the oven. Keeping that in mind, he roasts the bird for about 2 1/2 hours, then removes it from the oven, wraps it tightly in foil, and lets it sit at room temperature for another half hour. The skin loses some crispness, but the meat comes out perfectly.

The second bird is a bit simpler to cook, though the timing is slightly longer. At 13 pounds, this bird will take 3-3 1/2 hours on a charcoal grill. He says a real smoker is preferable for the task. “With all the cooking methods, temperature is important to moisture, but with some [methods], placement is also an issue,’’ Caturano says. “Smoking is one of those.’’

Proper placement for smoking a turkey means the grill cannot simply be loaded with ordinary charcoal briquettes and the bird slapped on top. “If you do that, you risk cooking the outside and one side of the bird too quickly, before the inside is done,’’ Caturano says. “So the trick is to push the charcoal to one side of the grill and place the bird on the opposite side, so the heat and the smoke envelop the bird.’’

Caturano is no briquette snob, but you have to ask yourself what flavor of smoke you want blanketing your turkey. “I personally prefer a more natural taste,’’ he says. “That’s why I always use wood charcoal, a nice hickory.’’

As the bird cooks on his deck, hickory aroma, reminiscent of a campfire, drifts through the open back door.

But even with perfect temperatures, perfect timing, and perfect seasonings, a Thanksgiving turkey can still be ruined by poor carving, a task that too many people overthink, Caturano says. “Keep it simple.’’

He uses a Shun 10-inch slicing knife. The bird is sitting on a board. “First remove the legs, cutting them off cleanly at the thigh. Then following the rib cage, cut the breasts on both sides, using the center bone as a guide. Slice the breasts however thinly or thickly you like them, and display them. And the meat on the legs can be pulled off or scooped off with a spoon. That’s possible if the bird is tender and juicy - and it will be if you remember the cooking time before and after the bird comes off the heat.’’

So while cooking that turkey may seem monumental, it’s more likely to be your anxiety that is getting in the way, and that you want to please the hungry diners at your table. Remember Caturano’s basic rules: Be creative with seasonings, be sure the bird gets a long enough soak in the brine, let the cooked bird rest for half an hour, and carve it properly.

“Follow those steps and you can be sure you’ve taken good care of your turkey,’’ says the chef, as he stands over a picture-perfect platter of succulent meat.

James Burnett can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com.

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