Has this ever happened to you? You spend hours preparing a fabulous dinner for Thanksgiving...everyone crowds to the table...and when the time is right, you carve into the turkey to find it's dry and tasteless? Face it, it can happen to ANY one of us. Roasting a turkey (or ham) isn't always a simple process.
Well, today, I thought I'd go over some of the tricks that can make this a thing of the past, folks. I'll cover both turkeys and hams, although it happens more often with poultry. Why? Simply because turkeys don't have the same texture or fluid content hams do. Poultry tends to dry out easier during long roasting periods.
So...how to counter this? There are several ways to balance the problem, and it will help you turn out the "perfect" bird, virtually EVERY time!!
The three-fold requirements for successful poultry cooking are:
- Choosing a high-quality bird for the method of cooking intended.
- Careful and thorough cleaning and preparation.
- The correct cooking method and attractive service.
Choosing the poultry is of first importance, for the finished bird as it comes to the table can never be of any higher quality than the quality of the original poultry. High quality poultry should be well-shaped, with a broad, full-fleshed breast, and a creamy white or yellowish skin which is glossy, soft, and slightly waxy to the touch. There should be few if any bruises and abrasions, no tears in the skin of the breast, and none in the back that are not sewed up, no broken wings or legs, and practically no pinfeathers. If you've opted for a frozen bird this year (as most of us do), choose one from a quality producer, such as Butterball.
Cleaning and preparing is your next step. Once the bird is completely unfrozen, visually inspect it for any adhering pin feathers, and remove them. Wash the carcass thoroughly with clear water, inside and out. If there is a package of innards, remove them (you have no clue how common it is for people to forget those silly things). These are actually going to help determine how long you need to roast your bird...I'll explain shortly. At this point, if you are planning on brining your bird, do so. For information on how to brine, go here.
Once you have finished your prep work, you need to truss your bird. It's VERY simple to truss a bird, and it really does help keep the parts that stick out (legs, wings) from overcooking. Trussing consists simply of binding the legs and wings closely to the body of the bird so that it will cook more uniformly, brown more evenly and have a more symmetrical appearance than a bird that is not trussed. A sturdy needle (6-8 inch upholstery needle is best) and a strong slender cord about a yard long are the only equipment required. Special trussing needles are also available at most department stores.
- Lay the unstuffed bird on its back with the tail to your right. Lift the legs so the drumsticks make right angles with the body (straight up), and insert the needle into the body, guiding it to come out at the corresponding place on the opposite side.
- Fold the wings to the tips lie under the back, turn the bird around (tail to left). Insert the threaded needle down through the angle formed by the wing at your right; then across the back and up through the angle of the other wing. (You should now have a loop from one leg, through body, around other leg, around wing, under back, around other wing). Tie string ends together; bringing thighs close to breast.
- Stuff the bird (if you prefer...I don't recommend it tho, it's not very safe), lace opening together with toothpicks.
- Tie drumsicks to tail opening, thus closing the vent opening.
- Fold neck skin to the back and tuck it under the cord and the wing tips. Fasten securely to the back with toothpicks.
Let me explain what I said about stuffing the bird. By cooking a bird WITH stuffing, you alter the ability of the bird to cook thoroughly without burning or drying. Heat can't move as freely through the center cavity, which means parts don't reach a high enough temp to be safe. I HIGHLY recommend cooking stuffing or dressing in a separate dish.
So...now we have this pretty bird all ready for the oven, but how long to cook it? Well, here's a little trick that works EVERY time, folks. Remember those innards you pulled out earlier? THEY are going to tell you how long to roast your bird!! Most of us enjoy giblet gravy, so this will just help us along, too. Place all the innards (except liver) into a medium saucepot, cover with water, and bring to a slow boil, covered. Simmer for 2-4 hours, or until the gizzard is tender enough to EASILY poke a fork into it...I mean REALLY tender, folks. Add the liver for about 10 minutes, then remove, let cool, and refridgerate until your ready to make your gravy. REMEMBER HOW LONG IT TOOK THE GIZZARD TO COOK!!! Add 1 hour to that time, and THAT is how long to roast your bird at 300 degrees. So, that means...if the gizzard took 3 1/2 hours, you need to roast your bird 4 1/2 hours. Simple, isn't it? Not sure why it works, but it does...I've yet to dry out a bird using that method. If you have a meat thermomenter, cook it until it reaches an internal temp of 175 degrees at the fattest section of the thigh (make sure you aren't touching bone when you check the temp).
Of course, there are a few other things that can help. Periodically baste the bird, starting halfway through the cooking time, and repeating every 20-30 minutes. Also, if it still seems the legs or wings are getting too browned, simply tent with foil. Some people even turn their bird over halfway through the cooking time, but IF you are going to do that, it's advisable to start off with the bird upside down first, then flip to the back (which puts the breast upwards). This allows for the color we all love to develop. Only flip it once. One more thing...IF you are using a roasting bag, please follow the directions on the bag package for preparing it (most say add a little flour, and cut a hole).
Seriously, if you follow these steps, you'll almost always turn out a wonderful juicy bird. Now, let's turn our attention to hams.
Ham has always been my personal preference for holidays. Yeah, I'll admit it...I've never really been big on turkey. But, since the rules for hams are similar for the rules for turkeys, it's easy to make the best of either one.
Again, the choice of ham matters in what the end product tastes like. Cheap ham, cheap taste. When choosing a ham, you want to look for one that is meaty, and has 1/2 inch or less of fat surrounding the outside. While boneless hams are nice, I prefer a natural bone-in...the bone helps the cooking by radiating the heat to the center. Then of course, you have to choose whether you want a natural or smoked ham. Both cook up well, but natural hams take a little longer to cook thoroughly. I am quite partial to Smithfield hams...they are always very meaty, and just taste scrumptious!! I rarely ever mess with spiral-sliced hams, though...never been too impressed by them, and they are costly, too.
To prepare a ham, you must wash it with clear water, then cut away some of the excess fat (not all...it will help with keeping the meat moist). Using a quality sharp knife, cut lines into the ham, 1 1/2 inches apart, about 1/8 inch deep...first in one direction, then give the ham 1/4 turn, and do it again. This will create a "checkerboard" pattern. If you like, you can stud the ham with cloves where each line intersects...simply press one whole clove into each jointure. Do this to every surface EXCEPT the face (the big flat part). When it comes time to set it up for the pan, I have a great trick. Pull off 5-6 pieces of foil...about 12"x12" square. Ball them up...yeah, just scrunch them up into little foil balls. Place them in the bottom of the pan you're using, then lay your ham FACE side down on top of them. You want the ham to rest on those balls, and not touch the bottom of the pan. Take another piece of foil, and tent the ham with it loosely. This all will enable your ham to cook slowly and evenly.
Ready for the oven? Cooking a ham is pretty much basic math. You want to add about 1 inch of water to the bottom of your roasting pan after you put it in the oven (the foil will keep the meat out of it, but by raising the humidity in the oven, it helps keep the cooking even), then cook it for about 20 minutes per pound at 300 degrees for a bone-in ham. If cooking boneless, I would change that to 25 minutes per pound, but make sure you have a meat thermometer to check the internal temp...you want a ham to reach a minimum internal temp of 170 degrees for safety. If it's bone-in, make sure the thermometer isn't touching the bone when you check. Remove the foil for the last 1 1/2 hours of cooking.
Now, if you would like to glaze your ham, it's really simple. Some hams come with a glaze mix, or you can make one of your own using some of the recipes found here. I highly recommend NOT adding any glaze until the last HOUR of baking, especially if the glaze has a high sugar content. Sugar tends to burn, and burnt glaze is NOT appealing. Rule of thumb...if the glaze contains more than 1/2 cup of any type of sugar, wait until the last hour. Do NOT use the tent when glazing either...you want the glaze to crystalize onto the ham, and the foil will interfere with that.
As for basting, that's up to you. Some people do it, some don't. I don't. I have, but it's not made enough of a difference that I bother anymore. Also, if you are glazing, do not baste once the glaze is on, as it will just wash it off.
I certainly hope these tricks help you turn out the best bird (or ham) your family has ever had. ENJOY!!!