Charlie Mitchell Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mitchell: Traditionalists believe best Turkeys are made from scratch

Think of your turkey as a blank canvas.

That’s kind of what it is, you know.

If a bird is just shucked, cooked and eaten, it will have very little flavor.

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That’s why the “add-ons” or “add-ins” are so important.

At this point it may appear a major mistake has occurred in today’s edition. This is the opinion page. This writer usually delves into arcane topics such as taxes, budgets, public policies, strategies, policy ideas and politicians. (Turkeys of a different sort?)

But Thanksgiving is supposed to provide a respite for us all.

And so we’ll talk about preparing the holiday bird.

First, let’s be traditional.

Nothing against smoked turkeys or deep-fried turkeys or the tur-duck-hen, the latter of which involves deboning a chicken and a duck and stuffing the duck inside the chicken and the chicken inside the turkey.

But real turkey — American turkey — requires a roasting pan and an oven.

For amateurs, there are the birds pre-injected with flavorings and there are injection kits. Lots of people prefer them. Fine. As with the pop-out buttons signalling “doneness,” they provide a bit of assurance to cooks short on self-confidence.

The more adventurous will seek a turkey that was killed, cleaned, washed, packaged and sold. If you’re feeling frisky, buy one and write down the weight. Then begin at the beginning.

“Brining” is one way to add flavor. The thawed bird, with the innards removed, is placed in an ice chest filled with ice, water, lots of salt, a handful of perppercorns and a quart of honey.  Eight hours is good. A whole day is better. The turkey absorbs the sweetness of the honey and the tartness of the salt, and those flavors remain through the cooking process. Keep the lid closed. Don’t let the dog drink the turkey-water.

Regardless of whether brining is undertaken, what’s put in, on and around the bird requires some thought.

The traditional, traditional choices are savory. That means onions, celery and carrots — what French chefs call mire poix.

Some people add a little (not much) garlic. Some people add apples. Bacon is good. Beer is an option.

It really doesn’t matter.

The idea here is to select and infuse subtle flavors, and whatever is chosen will do just that. Oranges can be used. Lemons, too. Each has something distinct to offer, as do spices such as bay, sage and rosemary.

Some people take a shotgun approach and dump a little (or a lot) of everything they can in and on the bird. And, like an artist who just dumps paint on a canvas, they get what they deserve. A more thoughtful, measured blend is best.

The next step is to salt and pepper the turkey and give it an all-over, five-minute olive oil massage. It might take a half-cup or so. Rub it in. Thoroughly. If you feel weird while doing this, that’s natural.

At this point, some people want to talk about stuffing. But that’s a whole different thing and traditionalists cook their turkey and their dressing separately.

So … to the oven. A roasting pan is required. Few people have them these days. No problem. Disposable (recyclable) aluminum versions cost about $2.

Crank the heat up as high as it will go. The instruction books won’t tell you this, but set the dial at 500 degrees and when the oven “tinks” that it’s ready, slide the turkey in — but watch it, closely. It will brown in 20 to 30 minutes and may even start smoking. Don’t worry. You’re sealing in the bird’s juices and getting the aromatics off to a jumpstart. Slow-cooking a turkey in an open pan ends with slices as dry as an all-Baptist county.

Once the bird is brown as you want it to appear when on the serving platter, take it out. Lower the oven temp to 275 or 300 degrees, make an aluminum foil tent for the body and maybe even wrap the legs in foil. Return the bird to the oven, find the piece of paper where you wrote the weight and calculate 15 minutes per pound. (Three hours for a 12-pound turkey.)

Then leave it alone. Don’t baste it. Don’t eyeball it. When time’s up, take it out of the oven and let it sit for at least 20 minutes before applying the knife.

From a blank canvas, you will have created a masterpiece.

Eat it.

Invite compliments.

If you don’t get enough compliments, ask for more.

Then hit the stores for sales, supporting merchants and paying some sales taxes, too.

It’s the patriotic thing to do.

(Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. E-mail reaches him at or send turkey sandwiches to Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182.)