November 15th, 2021

camp cook

How to Make a Spatchcocked Turkey

'Tis the season when, all across the land, people who don't cook much (or at least, entertain much) feel obligated to attempt the gigantic holiday feast for the family gathering. For Thanksgiving, serving turkey is almost morally obligated. There are lots of online and broadcast resources to talk you through this challenge. This post is my contribution to the lore.

The essential problem with cooking a turkey is getting it done. You are attempting to heat a cannonball all the way through to the center. That can take a long time. Making it worse is the difference in cooking time between the dark meat and the white meat. By the time you've got the dark meat thoroughly cooked (and safe temp is 165 degrees F or better in the thigh), you may well have rendered the white meat as dry as an old asphalt shingle.

Spatchcocking the bird changes the surface-to-mass ratio of the object to be cooked. Now, instead of a cannonball, the center of which must be reached by the heat, you have an irregularly shaped pot roast. This allows you to cook at a higher heat for a shorter amount of time, while still getting your dark meat safely done and leaving your white meat juicy. It's easy. But first . . .


Step One: Thaw Your Bird

Most turkeys are sold frozen. Solid. Surface-to-mass ratio comes into play here, too. The thicker an object is, the longer it takes heat to reach the center, which means not only cooking heat but ordinary household warmth. Thick things take a long time to thaw. The bigger your bird, the more time it will take. That twenty-pounder you fetched home will probably take at least two or three days on the countertop, and to be safe, you probably ought to keep it in the fridge, which will make it three or four days. To avoid Big Day Trauma, I'd transfer the Main Event from the freezer to the fridge on Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving Day. If you forget, are there any ways to hurry up the process? Well, yes, but they're a pain. Whatever else you do, get the bird thawing early.


Step Two: Getting Everything Ready

Preheat the oven to the desired temperature. Depending on size of the bird, I roast somewhere between 425 and 450. The last turkey I cooked was a prehistoric monstrosity, so I started it at 450.

While the oven is preheating, get out all the stuff you'll need to work on this bird. I like to wear gloves when working with poultry, but whether you do it bare-handed or with your digits sheathed, it's going to get messy. Having everything you need right there when you start means you don't have to go rooting around for stuff in drawers and cabinets with turkeyfied hands (or having to constantly wash them).

You will need: one large roasting pan; aluminum foil; heavy butcher knife or kitchen shears (I use garden pruning shears dedicated to the kitchen); gloves (optional); stockpot (optional); paper towels; cutting board; oil (I prefer olive oil); and seasonings to your taste (I use salt, pepper, and rosemary).


Step Three: Preparing the Monster

Start by removing any extraneous plastic embedded in your bird. This includes the plastic handles some birds have attached to them, the things that hold the legs tight against the body cavity, the useless little pop-up thermometer some birds come with . . . You only want to cook the meat, not plastic or wire.

Next, remove the neck and giblets, which you will find stuffed into the body cavity. (You would be surprised how many people don't know these things are there, and cook the turkey with them still in.) The giblets -- heart, liver, etc. -- are in a little paper bag. Put these things aside. (If making stock at the same time, throw them in the stockpot now.)

Now you're ready to spatchcock the bird, which means removing the backbone. Flip the bird over on its breast and cut through the ribs just outboard of the backbone all down one side. Then do the same on the other side. Remove the backbone and put aside (or in the stockpot). This is hard work. Those ribs are sturdy -- and they're sharp. While you're at it, cut away the wingtips and any other globs of fat or skin that aren't serving any purpose. Put these aside (or in the stockpot).

Time to practice your CPR. Flip the bird over so the breast is facing up and place your hands in CPR position right on the breastbone. Thrust down, hard, so that you hear something crack. You're trying to get this hunk of meat as flat as you can.

Rinse the bird with water and pat dry with paper towels. Slather it all over with olive oil. Season on both upside and downside with salt, pepper, and rosemary (I use leaf rosemary, dried or fresh, not ground). Place it in the pan, breast side up. Arrange legs so that everything is as splayed out and tucked down as you can make it. I like to add a little water to the pan to start the cooking process -- no more than a quarter- to half-cup. And now you're ready to start the bird cooking.


Step Four: Now We're Getting Somewhere

Cover and seal the pan with aluminum foil and place in the oven. Let it cook, covered, for one hour. At the end of this time, remove the foil. The turkey will look pale and unappetizing, but its insides are well on the way to done. By removing the foil, you are going to finish the bird and let the skin brown nicely.

The turkeysaurus I last cooked was so big, I turned the heat down to 425 when I uncovered it, since it would need another hour and half to cook thoroughly. A medium turkey can be done in as little as one additional hour. When you reach the time you think it's done, check it by inserting a meat thermometer into the chunkiest part of the thigh (without hitting a bone). It should read at least 165 F. (Mine usually hit 185-190.)

Remove the turkey from the oven. Be careful, since there will probably be a fair amount of juice in the bottom of the pan! (Sealing the pan in the first stage of roasting produces this juice, which the bird then braises in, pot roast style.) You may extract the bird now or let it sit in its juice. Before carving, let it rest for at least a half an hour; forty-five to sixty minutes is better. If you cut into it when it first comes out, all the internal juices will run out, and it will be dry and unappetizing. Resting allows for both carryover cooking and the redistribution and stabilization of internal moisture.


Step Five: Making Stock

If you want to make a fantastic turkey stock, you can do that while everything else is going. Just put the back, neck, giblets, and other discarded parts in a stockpot. Add a large onion (quartered), a couple of carrots, and a quantity of celery. Throw in a bay leaf or two for good measure. Add as much water as your stockpot will hold and simmer for 1-3 hours.

If you wait till the next day, you can throw the whole leftover carcass (scraps and bones) in the stockpot, too, which will make the stock even richer.

When you get tired of simmering the stock, put a strainer in a funnel and fill quart jars with the stock. Cool and store in the fridge. Use in making soups, stews, and all kinds of other things.


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And there you have it! Enjoy!