Much as I love to cook, I was delighted not to have had to lift a finger this past weekend, which turned out to be a long succession of fabulous meals. I ate full turkey dinners no less than twice, each its own little culinary masterpiece. The first was traditional: an oven-roasted bird with a white bread and sage stuffing (and secret special ingredients I swore not to reveal). The second was how shall I say, nouveau: a mesquite-gilled turkey with corn bread and pecan dressing on the side. Good thing I didn’t bring a belt.
Funny how many times I’m asked to declare an allegiance to a particular turkey-roasting technique. And more than that a stuffing (or dressing). White bread or corn bread? In-the-bird or out-of-the-bird? It’s no wonder why, what with a trendy new turkey technique being unveiled every other year now. The early nineties was the debut of the deep-fried turkey (in fact turkey deep fryers are still one of the best selling items at Wal-Mart this time of year). After that grilled turkey was all the rage. Three years ago it was all about brining, which of course meant that this year the New York Times had to tell everyone to dispense with the fancy stuff and roast their birds the old-fashioned way.
But that still left the big question: to stuff or not to stuff? Certainly stuffings have gotten a lot of bad press the last several years. Me, I think it’s because newspapers and magazines fear being sued over food poisoning should they print a stuffed-bird recipe (though it’s true that salmonella is a much bigger problem now than it used to be). Alton Brown famously declared “stuffing is evil” on his Thanksgiving special a few years back, earning him the enmity of turkey lovers everywhere (which may be why he eventually recanted and devoted an entire show to poultry stuffings).
But while the newspapers, magazines and television shows may debate the topic endlessly, real bird-cooking pros know that there’s nothing quite like a good stuffed turkey. It’s not because the stuffing itself turns out so rich with flavor (though it does), nor is it because the stuffing passes some of its own flavors on to the meat (though it does). There’s something about the bird itself that’s superior. The meat is a little firmer and a little more flavorful, the skin a little crispier. Why?
It all has to do with heat, my friends. It’s true that un-stuffed turkeys cook faster, and this is seen as desirable by moist meat fanatics. Faster cooking means less time for the breast meat to dry out in the oven. Though for my money you can push the whole moisture idea too far. A long-brined, fast-cooked turkey can end up so moist it’s almost watery. No, you need not blast a bird with heat to make it juicy. Slow roasting will do the job just fine, as long as you don’t overcook it.
Which brings me back to the heat thing. The great chefs of old didn’t stuff birds just because they liked to eat the fruits, vegetables, other birds, herbs, breads and whatnot they put into them. They stuffed them to slow down the cooking, because stuffings keep heat from invading the bird from the inside and cooking the meat. Why? Because the longer a bird cooks the more fat melts off from under the skin (where most bird fat resides). And that is a good thing from the standpoint of texture. It gives you that crispness and firmness I was talking about, plus lots of good concentrated meat flavor.
So regardless of how you feel about stuffing, whether you want to eat it or not, it still pays to stuff your turkey. If not with bready things, then at least with some quartered onions or apples (or both) and herbs. While I love to be a contrarian and buck the “experts” like the New York Times, this time they really had it right.