Friendsgiving 101: Hosting, Roasting and How to Survive Cooking Your First Whole Bird

Because there are some mistakes gravy can’t cover up.
Publish date:
November 19, 2014
cooking, holidays, Thanksgiving, Turkey

Friendsgiving is about a lot of things. Good times, good wine and the chance to really enjoy the holiday without the added pressure of fending off Aunt Rita -- who after a couple glasses of Chardonnay just has to remind you how fast your eggs are dyin'. In short, it's great.

Once you've settled on a guest list and finally convinced your friends that no, we don't need 8 different types of roasted, marshmallow-studded sweet potatoes, it's also often about cooking a turkey. Which as host, is now your job; the provider of the protein.

Now, riddle me this. Have you ever cooked a turkey before? What's the deal with brine? And how, in the name of everything holy, do you calculate the time needed to actually roast this behemoth? Well, worry not; because if you can cook a chicken, you can cook a turkey. That's just what we're going to do.

Step One: Don't Freak Out.

Everyone starts at the beginning. There was once a time when I burned pasta. I know -- water, starch, how hard can it be? But it happened and I learned. Same as what we're doing today, learning.

Step Two: Assemble Your Tools.

1 3-4 lb roaster chicken

1 Tb kosher salt

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp rosemary

1/2 tsp sage

1/2 tsp thyme

1/8 cup vegetable oil

1 wire rack

1 rimmed baking sheet

Length of kitchen twine

1 meat thermometer

Step Three: Get Your Bird.

You want to buy a typical roaster, anywhere from 3 - 4 lbs. It'll run you about $7-15 and is a smaller investment than a turkey. Air-chilled if you can swing it, organic, free-range, whatever floats your boat and is available. Without getting into farm-raised politics, just get the chicken that's right for you, same with your potential turkey.

For the big day, usually calculate about 1 lb of turkey per person. It sounds like a lot, but after cooking, it comes down to about 1/2 lb/pp -- and hello leftovers. If you're going the frozen route, just remember that thawing a large bird can take a few days. So you want to put that puppy in the fridge and let it come up to temp gradually, in a food safe manner. That's key.

Step Four: Prep The Poultry.

Unwrap and confront. This is going to get intimate. There will be massaging. Place your chicken on cutting board and check it out. Remove the giblet package if there is one -- hint: it's in the cavity. Reach up in there and pull it out. Set it aside -- then take your paper towels and pat 'er dry.

Step Five: To Brine or Not to Brine

Real talk: Brining is the it method for making sure poultry comes out tender and juicy. To understand how brining works, we've got to get a little science-y. To be blunt, meat is muscle. Muscle is made up of fibers, long ones. And when these fibers are heated, they contract. When you bite into a piece of desert dry turkey, or chicken in this case, those fibers have been contracted to a point where all the juices have leeched out and you're left with something sad and stringy.

Brining counteracts this. By submerging your poultry in a salt bath of herbs and delicious spices, you're introducing the process of osmosis; where your turkey gets plumped up on tasty brine and therefore stays moist during the cooking process. But there’s a down side. While your turkey might be exceptionally moist, it’s also going to lose some flavor. Not to mention the fact you’re going to need a space to store a large, salty bucket of turkey water for a least a few hours, or at most overnight. Yet there’s an easier way.

Solution: We Dry Brine.

You heard right. Instead of submerging the bird, diluting its flavor and dealing with an unwieldy storage container, we’re going to keep things neat. As the salt works its way into the meat it forms a small amount of concentrated brine all on its own. This in turn, loosens up the muscle fibers as it works and re-works its way in and out of the poultry.

To do this, take your salt, herb mixture and baking soda mix and massage away. The baking soda sounds a bit weird, but it’ll help with the browning process in the end. Get it all over, wings, legs, back, on and under the skin. Don't get squeamish, if the skin is stuck take a small sharp knife and work it free. Being not to tear or totally detach it. It's best to let the now salted chicken rest overnight in the fridge, loosely covered in plastic or a tea towel. But if you’re short on time, a few hours works as well -- which is what I did in this case.

Step Six: Remove The Brine.

After your set amount of time (3 hours -- overnight) carefully rinse your fowl. I'm usually against rinsing -- because salmonella, sinks and splashing are my nightmare --- but you need to remove that excess salt. So go about it carefully. Once rinsed, pat your bird dry and place on a wire rack set over a sheet pan. The rack allows heat to pass under your bird, like a v-rack in a roasting pan, but since I don't have one, this cookie rack does just fine.

Step Seven: Prepare To Cook.

Personally, I go the oil route. While butter seems like the best choice, it's really nothing more than a surface treatment. It doesn't get into the turkey and tends to impede browning. Save it for the gravy. So on your now dry bird; rub it with a little oil, on and under the skin, and a little cracked pepper and extra herbs. You can stuff your bird with some aromatics if you're feeling fancy -- i.e., onions, carrots and celery, but it's not totally necessary.

To keep things tidy, we're also going to truss. Don't panic. A little string, a little tuck, and you're good to go. Take a piece of baking twine and cross those chicken legs. Tie them together securely. Bend back the wings and tuck under the tips so they don't burn and wrap the whole thing up with a second piece of string that ties back by the cavity. Place on the baking sheet and pop in the oven at 325.

Step Eight: Watch and Wait.

A chicken will take about 1.5 hours to cook at 325 degrees. On the big day, with a 10-14 lb turkey, expect to wait closer to 3-4 hours until done, so plan accordingly. If you have a meat thermometer, now is the time to use it. While the USDA recommends a higher cooking temp out of concern for health and safety -- and not getting sued -- cranking your chicken/turkey up until it's 180 degrees inside will generally kill all of the effort we put into brining.

When your temperature registers 165 degrees at the thickest part of the thigh, or deepest poke of the breast, you’re generally fine. Just make sure you’re not hitting bone when you poke the fowl, which can throw the temp a little off.

Step Nine: Remove and Rest.

Once you've hit that magic temperature range, carefully remove your bird from the oven and set aside. Carry over cooking will continue to raise your bird's internal temp, so there's really no more room for concern. Give it about 20 minutes of uninterrupted admiration, pour yourself a celebratory glass of wine and admire. You did it, you really did.

Step Ten: Carve and Enjoy.

Carving itself isn't hard. You just need a sharp knife, a fork and some patience. While I'm not going to get into it here, there are about one million video tutorials online that will show you the ropes step by step. So there you go, one great, big, beautiful roasted chicken that you made all by yourself.

Discovering talents you didn’t know you had is part of the magic of the holidays…although it also helps when you have a group of friends that don’t judge you for cooking a turkey with the giblet pouch still tucked inside. We all make mistakes. But that’s part of the fun of it. Good friends, great food and the best chicken ever? Welcome to the new world of Friendsgiving, but this time, just a little more stress-free.