How to Cook an Early Bird Turkey
In this post, I will reveal the Early Bird Ranch secret to delicious turkeys. Here goes: the big secret is that there is no big secret... if you've got an Early Bird Ranch turkey going to your table, it's going to be delicious, moist, and tender, pretty much no matter what you do to it. But I do have some recommendations to make the bird the stand-out centerpiece of your meal, and to guide folks who are concerned about "messing it up".
Early Bird Turkeys are pasture-raised, which means that they have high quality fat and a more firm texture than a supermarket turkey. But this doesn't mean you need to change much about how you cook your turkey--in fact, it means that your turkey is a little more forgiving than the average bird.
In our house, we cook our turkeys as follows:
1. (VERY optional) Brine the turkey overnight. Brining does not make the turkey salty, it enhances the turkey flavor that's already there, and ensures exquisite moistness. If your turkey is frozen, this is a great way to thaw it fast. If it's fresh, you can add ice or brine in the fridge. There are many online recipes for brines, but we typically keep it simple: water and salt. I use 6 ounces of salt per gallon of water, but you can also just shoot for salty like the ocean, and that's a great approximation. Rinse the turkey before you cook it.
2. Season the turkey under the skin. I usually use a mixture of butter and olive oil with salt and pepper, but there are lots of delicious, more complex options out there. The key is that if you want to flavor the meat (not just the skin), put the seasoning under the skin. To do this, start at the bottom of the breast, right above the cavity, and use your fingers to peel back the skin. Getting it started can be a little tricky, but once you get it started, it's pretty simple to break through the occasional membrane and gently peel it up. You're not taking the skin off, you're getting enough room to slide the seasoning in evenly under the skin.
3. Honest to goodness, I use the butterball website to suggest time and temperature. If all goes as planned, I'll never eat another butterball turkey, but I've had very good luck with their roasting recommendations. Using their time and temperature suggestion, I then cover the turkey in foil (or put the lid on the roaster) and leave it on until about the last 45 minutes to an hour, which I do uncovered so the skin gets browned. I use two methods to tell it's done: First, I wiggle the legs. If they seem loose, I get out the meat thermometer. I shoot for 160, knowing that while the turkey rests, covered for 20-30 minutes before carving, it's going to gain 5-10 degrees.
4. Basting... I follow Alton Brown's recommendation on basting--don't. His explanation is that basting really only flavors the skin, and that each time you open the oven to baste you're losing heat, which lengthens the time required to cook your turkey. All these shifts in temperature and extended time is what's going to dry out the turkey in the first place. So mostly, just leave it alone.
5. Stuffing... Here again, I follow Alton Brown's recommendation--don't stuff your turkey. I know stuffing that's been inside the turkey tastes way better than stuffing just cooked in the oven--so here's the happy medium (and the explanation). If you stuff your turkey, you are rubbing raw poultry all over that stuffing. Which means you need to not only get the turkey to 160, you also have to get the stuffing to 160. And managing that without drying out the breast meat is quite a feat. So instead, cook your stuffing in the oven, but to get that nice inside-the-bird flavor, wait until both turkey and stuffing are cooked, and THEN stuff the bird while it rests. The juices from the turkey will still have a chance to soak in, but you won't have to worry about getting it all cooked to USDA-approved temperatures.
Sorry no pictures this time, hopefully, you've got an Early Bird turkey at home to look at!