Recipes for the birds

Every chef has an idea of how to cook the perfect roast turkey, but some are more unorthodox than others, writes Gillian Rhys

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 December, 2012, 9:59am

Turkey, it is universally acknowledged, is one of the trickiest meats to cook properly. A lean bird, it's easily overcooked. The trick is to ensure that the legs are cooked enough but the breast is not dried out - a seemingly impossible task. The addition of stuffing or forcemeat can throw the cooking times off completely (and send health and safety experts into apoplexy). Yet turkey is the dish of choice for much of the world when it comes to Christmas lunch.

Most top chefs will attempt to dissuade you from choosing turkey for Christmas, recommending goose - a richly flavoured, fatty bird - instead. Those chefs who deign to talk turkey seem to make their cooking methods as complicated or outlandish as possible, perhaps as a way of punishing us for choosing it.

Take Heston Blumenthal. His tip for a moist turkey is to brine the poultry by submerging it in 10 litres of saltwater for between 12 and 24 hours. But then the fun begins.

You'll need to soak the turkey in cold water for an hour, during which time you should refresh the water every 15 minutes. Following this, Blumenthal says you should alternately place the turkey in a large pot of boiling water and then a pot of ice cold water. Twice. Only then are you ready to begin the cooking process.

Set the oven temperature at a low 60 degrees Celsius and cook the turkey until the internal temperature of the bird has reached 60 degrees (according to Blumenthal this should take six to eight hours; you'll need to use a probe thermometer to check).

Twenty minutes later the turkey should be taken out of the oven and left to rest for one hour. It will look pretty pale and unappealing at this point because of the low heat, so Blumenthal suggests frying the whole bird in a pan on a high heat until it's browned all over. But it's not over yet. He says to use a baster to suck up the pan juices and inject them into the turkey, just below the skin, at several points. Got all that?

For reference, the Culinary Institute of America's well respected book The Professional Chef recommends an oven temperature of 175 degrees for most of the cooking time, followed by a shorter blast at 180 degrees to crisp the skin.

Blumenthal's is one of several of his turkey recipes that might be labelled "difficult" or "challenging". The chef tests his recipes in a lab, thus ensuring the turkey is completely cooked through. If you do not have access to a lab you may want to give these methods a miss.

US-based French chef Jacques Pepin suggests steaming the turkey for 45 minutes before roasting it. This, he believes, will keep the flesh moist and the skin crisp - and is inspired by Chinese cooking methods.

So far so sensible, but you will need a gargantuan pot to fit the turkey into in order to steam it. The pot may cost as much or more than the bird itself. Is it really worth the investment for something that comes once a year? And where will we store the monster in our tiny kitchens for the other 364 days?

None of this is as extreme as the deep fried turkey - a cooking method that could literally burn your house down. The National Turkey Federation of America advises against trying to deep fry a turkey of over 6kg due to "the obvious safety concern of lowering and lifting a big turkey into a vessel of boiling oil".

If you find, inexplicably, you have a lot of time on your hands on Christmas Day or have a staff to match Downton Abbey you could follow Joel Robuchon's method for cooking dinde de Noel. Place the turkey in a 200 degree oven and cook for 40 minutes resting on its side, then 40 minutes resting on the other side, then 10 minutes on its back and finally 10 minutes on its breast. Apart from the time this will take when you're meant to be preparing other dishes, you'll need luck to turn a heavy, sizzling hot bird inside a cramped oven.

But that's child's play compared with British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's 10-bird roast created by stuffing an 8kg turkey with ever decreasing bird sizes of goose, duck, mallard, guinea fowl, chicken, pheasant, partridge, pigeon and woodcock.

Or a farmer in England who came up with a behemoth (not to mention grotesque) 48 bird creation. The True Love Roast, created by Anne Petch of Heal Farm in Devon, weighed more than 25kg.

The frankly Frankenstein roast contains 12 varieties of bird for the 12 days of Christmas: turkey, goose, chicken, pheasant, partridge, pigeon, squab, Aylesbury duck, Barbary duck, poussin, guinea fowl, mallard and quail with herb and fruit stuffings.

"It takes about 45 minutes to build the roast. However, it takes at least three hours before that to bone the birds and another couple of days to make all the stuffings," says Petch. It takes more than eight hours to cook and you'll need an industrial oven for the task.

Although there's something distinctly undignified about stuffing birds inside one another, British supermarkets clearly think jumping on this Tudoresque bandwagon is a good idea. In recent years several have come up with three-bird roasts for Christmas. What's worse, they brought the southern US phrase turducken to a much wider audience. That's turkey stuffed with duck stuffed with a chicken breast. So if you're feeling very Henry VIII and want to try the multi-bird roast yourself, there's a recipe on The Food Network website for a boneless turkey stuffed with boneless duck stuffed with chicken. Be warned, the recipe states that roasting time for the turducken is 12 hours and preparation time is five to six hours. "Adding music and your favourite beverage will help," the Food Network says, encouragingly.

Sometimes chefs attempt to persuade us to change the very look of a turkey. The stunning Modernist Cuisine cookbook features a turkey that's more of work of art than a dish. A turkey wing (but only the "middle" part) is cured in salt and sugar for 24 hours then cooked sous-vide for 12 hours at 136 degrees. Once it's cooled, it's dusted in potato starch and pan-fried.

In another show-stopping move, British television presenter Stefan Gates suggests gilding a turkey with gold leaf. Using 23 carat loose leaf edible gold, Gates says you'll need one booklet of 25 80mm x 80mm sheets to cover a 4kg bird. You also need to let the turkey cool for an hour before applying the gold leaf.

Pepin and his erstwhile partner in cooking, Julia Child, once showed how to construct a "boned, stuffed, roasted turkey roulade" for Christmas. The turkey was deboned, although its legs were left attached, and the skin filled with the turkey meat and sausage stuffing in what Pepin unappetisingly described as "rearranging nature". The strange shape caused Child to exclaim "it looks like a sausage with legs".

At least it had legs. On one food magazine I worked at, Jamie Oliver created the recipes for our Christmas lunch. Oliver had the idea of taking the legs off the turkey to cook separately thus avoiding the breast overcooked/legs undercooked conundrum. The food editor was thrilled but the editor less so. She yelled: "You can't put a legless turkey on the cover!"

The turkey stayed in the picture. Along with a caption explaining what it was.