Photo by Travis Rainey, Food Styling by Tiffany Schleigh
Thanksgiving is the one day of the year where home cooks are tasked with perfectly orchestrating an elaborate meal so it all hits the table at the same time. Besides being stressful, this task can be outright impossible given the limitations of how much your oven can hold. Between the sweet potato casserole, stuffing, and green beans, there is a physical limitation to how much your oven can handle; not even taking into account how much the cook can emotionally handle.
But there are things you can do to make the meal less stressful, most notably prepping as much as you can in advance. For casseroles or other items, this is fairly intuitive: You just build the whole casserole in the dish, then cover and refrigerate until it’s ready to bake. But for the star of the show, the turkey, figuring out how to cook it in advance can prove perplexing: If you roast your turkey the day before and simply reheat it in time for Thanksgiving dinner, you run the risk of serving a dry bird with flabby skin. But by rethinking how you roast your turkey in advance, you can cook it ahead of time while still maintaining a moist interior and crispy skin. The secret? An old-school French technique involving parchment paper.
Cooking en papillote is a traditional cooking method in which various ingredients (mainly proteins; largely fish) are cooked inside a parchment paper pouch. This method of cooking locks in moisture, creating a sauna for proteins to steam in that infuses them with both moisture and flavor. While not typically used to cook turkey, this technique is the secret to prepping turkey in advance. If you’ve ever heard of people roasting their turkey “inside a bag,” this technique is not far off.
For my make-ahead turkey recipe, I decided to ditch the whole bird and opt for two skin-on, boneless breasts and two bone-in, skin-on turkey legs instead. This will not only save you precious fridge space (a hot commodity during the holidays), but also make carving the bird significantly easier. You can typically find these in the poultry section of most grocery stores or at many butcher counters.
The first step is seasoning the turkey with plenty of paprika, maple syrup (for sweetness and shine), garlic powder, salt, and pepper, and baking it enclosed in parchment paper pouches (aka the en papillote part). You’ll also throw in a few cut oranges, onions, and thyme. The benefit of the parchment paper pouch is twofold: For starters, it creates a tight seal that locks in the moisture. The juices from the oranges combine with the butter and turkey drippings to gently cook the meat, self-basting along the way. This also promotes a more even method of cooking, creating a barrier between the hot oven and the skin so the turkey is less prone to becoming dry on the outside before fully cooking in the center.
This step can be done several days in advance, and the turkey can be stored in the refrigerator kept in the parchment packets on the sheet pans tightly wrapped in plastic wrap. The butter combined with the turkey drippings keeps the turkey moist, preventing it from drying out in the fridge. If you are strapped for space, feel free to consolidate both packets onto one sheet tray if needed.
Then, the day of the big meal, you can call upon your prepped turkey packets to make life easier. As cocktail hour winds down and people start to settle into their dinner chairs, you’ll brush the turkey skin with oil and pop it into the hot oven to finish. This final roasting step will crisp up the skin and remelt the butter so it moistens and warms the turkey.
The turkey isn’t just as good as a freshly roasted bird. It’s actually far better than most. The meat is moist and tender, perfectly contrasting the shatteringly crisp, deeply tanned skin: A true show-stopper. You can spoon the melted butter that pools on the sheet trays over the sliced meat and serve the roasted oranges and shallots alongside for a festive presentation. So do yourself a favor and prep your turkey in advance; because Thanksgiving is plenty stressful and anything you can do to set yourself up for success is a smart idea.
Make-Ahead TurkeyJesse Szewczyk
Originally Appeared on Epicurious
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