You’re Invited to a Holiday Feast

By Lori Hutzler Eckert

Let’s talk turkey. After all, it is the official entrée of the holidays. A roasted turkey has taken top billing at festive celebrations from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day for centuries, becoming synonymous with holiday celebrations.

However, how to properly prepare, cook and serve this most revered of birds is still a bit up in the air, with opinions varying on all counts. Heated debates have evoked varying methods from grandmothers to celebrity chefs, promising secrets for the best way to cook a turkey. But this year, some top Emerald Coast chefs are weighing in with their own seasoned advice

Safety First

Buying your holiday bird has never been so easy – or confusing. Between free-range, organic, farm-fresh and frozen, the choice is more about what fits your lifestyle. Whatever your option, it is important to remember that a frozen turkey should be cooked within a year of freezing and a fresh turkey should be purchased no more than two days prior to cooking.

The next step – and arguably the most important one – is preparation. While not part of the whole traditional Norman Rockwell picture, taking safety precautions against food-borne illnesses is a necessary measure that is all too often ignored in the home setting.

Chef Sarah K. Schreifer, owner of Sarah K.’s Gourmet in Destin, stressed the risk of cross contamination while cooking turkey.

“Certainly, you do not want the turkey juices to come in contact with anything else in the kitchen,” she said. “Any time you touch the turkey, you should wash your hands with warm, soapy water. And any utensils or cutting surfaces used for the uncooked turkey should not be used for other foods without disinfecting them first. You just do not want to take that chance.”

Schreifer, who prepares a variety of holiday meals to go at her Destin business, added that the turkey should be thoroughly washed, including the cavity. She suggested drying the inside of the turkey as well, which will allow the bird to cook more evenly, especially if you choose to stuff it.

The Heat is On

Once you have thoroughly cleaned the turkey and your kitchen work surfaces, it’s time to get cooking. To oven-roast a turkey correctly, Schreifer said the oven should be set for approximately 350 degrees. Any lower than 325 degrees, the turkey will not cook evenly.

The conventional minutes-per-pounds method is outdated and unreliable. A precise way to ensure that a turkey is done is by using an instant-read meat thermometer. But test the turkey in the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh and the wing to verify that it is done. The temperature of the bird should reach 165 degrees in all three locations, and the juices should run clear.

And with all the talk about correctly cooking a turkey over the last few years, a more common problem has evolved – overcooking. Remember when you were growing up and the turkey was in the oven from morning to noon? Today’s turkeys often are younger and more tender, requiring less cooking time than was the case 10 or 15 years ago. If your recipe is several years old, take this difference into account.

Another way to avoid overcooking is to cook the turkey in two sections. Jim McMannis, executive chef at Rutherfords 465 restaurant at Regatta Bay, said that “a lot of people check the turkey by the doneness of the thigh, but by then the breast is overcooked.”

McMannis, who cooks about 150 turkeys during the holiday season for serving at the Destin restaurant and its catered events, suggested removing the breast once it reaches the optimal temperature to avoid drying out the white meat.

“Then you continue to cook the legs and thighs – you just leave them attached,” he said.

McMannis recommended thinly slicing the breast meat and placing it back on the turkey for the presentation.

Schreifer and McMannis suggest waiting at least 10 to 20 minutes after removing the bird from the oven before carving it, to allow the juices to set. And although carving at the table is the traditional ideal, it often is easier to slice the turkey in the kitchen and present it on a garnished tray, which is equally impressive.

Remains of the holiday

A general guide to planning what size turkey to prepare is to allow between eight ounces to one pound of pre-cooked turkey per person. But you may want to by a larger bird if your family enjoys the leftovers almost as much as the celebratory meal.

The day after Christmas or New Year’s is perfect time for a bowl of thick, rich turkey and vegetable soup, or creamy turkey salad on a roll, or even spicy turkey gumbo.

Leftover turkey can go almost anywhere cooked chicken can in a recipe, so be creative and enjoy your holiday feast a second time around with friends and family in a variety of ways. But don’t forget to save a sampling for the best holiday dining tradition of all – a midnight snack featuring a cold turkey sandwich