What Being a Butcher Taught Me About Cooking Turkey
Illustration by Adam Waito

What Being a Butcher Taught Me About Cooking Turkey

There’s way too much pressure put on Thanksgiving, and people freak out about cooking turkey. But it can be dope if you just take the time and do it well—here's how.
November 17, 2016, 8:00pm

Jocelyn Guest is one of the badass butchers and co-owners of NYC's White Gold, a butcher shop and restaurant on the Upper West Side. She's screwed up her fair share of Thanksgiving turkey, so you don't have to.

People get freaked out when it comes to cooking a turkey. When you only cook something once a year, you never really get used to it, and you're probably cooking it while hanging out with people you only see once a year; there's just way too much pressure put on Thanksgiving. It's one of those things: We make turkey because it's what our parents did, and what our grandparents did—there's no real rhyme or reason. But I think turkey can be dope if you take the time and do it well.

I like a heritage bird, because I'm about that dark meat life. It's a little gamier, and it's definitely not for everybody—if you want more white meat, a whole Norman Rockwell situation, then go for a broad breasted bird.

When it comes to buying frozen turkey, you never know if a turkey has been defrosted and refrozen, and that's what screws you. If you can get one fresh, then you should do that—you won't have to take up space in your fridge thawing it. Plus, you only do this once a year, so you may as well get the fresh bird.

When it comes to the cooking, turkeys aren't really that forgiving. It's not like a stew that you can just put on and go drink a bunch of beers and watch a movie and it'll always be fine. A turkey takes more TLC. Brining is always a virtually painless fix for whatever bird you're cooking—I'm a wet brine person. It might not be better than a dry brine, necessarily, but that's how my mom did it. It's a much bigger pain in the ass than a dry brine, because you have this enormous turkey and you have to dunk it in a bunch of liquid and make space for it in your fridge. But I do think it makes the bird a little juicier. I've been going rogue with my wet brine in the past few years... I used to just do water, sugar, salt, lemon, rosemary, black pepper, but lately, I've been doing a fish sauce, cinnamon stick, and star anise situation that I really dig. If you just let it chill in the brine for 24 hours and then take it out overnight and let it dry, you're pretty much good to go.

If crispy skin is your main goal, though, go with a dry brine. You can get a crispy skin with a wet brine, but you have to stick it in the fridge and let it dry for at least 12 hours so all that moisture gets out. If it's still a little wet, the skin won't crisp up.

Truss the bird. That's important. If you get all the extremities close to the cavity, it'll cook evenly. I think spatchcocking is great too—it's faster, and the skin game gets upped a bunch. You can sear the hell out of the skin and then flip it and roast it. It just depends, again, if you want that Rockwellian tableau or not. It also depends where you fall regarding stuffing the bird.

READ MORE: A Visual Guide to Making Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

Stuffing is my main thing at Thanksgiving. I'm all about stuffing—the more aromatics you put in the stuffing, the more flavorful the meat will turn out. My mom always makes a big skillet of cornbread, and we usually add half hot Italian sausage, half sweet Italian, sundried tomatoes, and fresh herbs and stock. Watch out, though. Stuffing can be a bitch, because it temps weird—it can make it more difficult to cook the turkey through without drying it out.

Overcooking also comes from people's fear of making their relatives sick, so they keep pushing it. If you overcook the turkey, you're kind of screwed—there's no putting toothpaste back in the tube. But I do think gravy covers all manner of sins. Speaking of gravy, I blend the turkey's giblets into my gravy.

Oh, and you've gotta eat the oyster. It's that little knob of meat right near the hip joint, and it's awesome. People always leave it on the carcass, but that's the best bite—the cook should get that. When I'm carving the bird, I never let it leave my sight.

RECIPE: Crispy Brined Turkey with Truffle Butter

I've had two big turkey fuckups—they were great ideas on paper, but the execution was lacking. One year, I pureed bacon and put that under the skin, which was actually an enormous fail. The skin turned out incredible, but it didn't give the bird as much flavor as I wanted. Another year, I tried to cook a turkey like a Peking duck. Not great.

I think when you mess up, you have to get your friends more drunk; then you're good to go. Realistically, If you have super strong appetizer game and keep the drinks flowing, you can take it easy.

As told to Becky Hughes.