Talking Turkey

A quick, easy way to prepare a big bird

For the past decade or so, my hubby and I have gone to friends’ houses for the holidays, which means a lot of food and fun without much effort on our part. On the downside, it also means no leftovers, and leftovers are half the point of having the meal in the first place. I roast a turkey for the two of us a couple of times per winter, just so we’ll be able to have turkey sandwiches and pot pies and croquettes after we’ve enjoyed the first roasted meal. (Yes, I know you can buy turkey parts, but it’s not the same.) As the smallest bird is about 12 pounds, that means a four-hour commitment to basting.

Last year, Martha You-Know-Who published a piece about cooking the turkey spatchcocked, which she claimed took only 70 minutes for a 12-pound bird. Spatchcock is a lovely, 18th-century word that sounds naughty but just means “split chicken.” I’d prepared chicken that way — you cut out the backbone, open the bird up like a butterfly, and flatten it so that it cooks faster and more evenly. But a turkey is so much bigger…

A few days later I ran across a video of Mark Bittman (he writes the Minimalist column for the New York Times) demonstrating how he cooks a spatchcocked turkey; he claimed his was ready in 35 minutes. Maybe his oven goes to 900 degrees or something, but I found that hard to believe. Also his turkey didn’t look as flat as I thought it should.

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Still, seeing a spatchcocked turkey twice in one week made me decide to try it. It’s not that difficult to cut out the backbone with poultry shears, although you need strong hands. Once that’s done, you flip the bird over, tuck the wings under, pull the legs out, and press hard to get it as flat as you can (I gave mine a little whack with a wooden mallet). I rubbed olive oil on the skin, sprinkled salt and pepper all over, and cooked it on a rimmed baking sheet in a 450 degree oven, as Martha instructed.

My 12-pound turkey took an hour and 25 minutes, but my oven is temperamental. (The turkey should register 160 degrees in the thigh.) When it was done, we let it rest for 15 minutes, as usual. The skin was wonderfully golden and crisp, but the most remarkable thing was how juicy the breast meat was — something that’s hard to achieve when you cook a turkey the traditional way, no matter how diligent you are about basting. Another plus for those of us with normal-sized ovens: because the turkey’s flat, you can fit in another rack for a pan of roasted vegetables and a casserole of dressing. My one complaint was that because commercially raised turkeys aren’t very flavorful, I missed the boost the bird gets from an aromatic stuffing. I think it’s better to use a big roasting pan and put the spatchcocked turkey on a rack with some onions, garlic, herbs, and a little wine underneath.

Experiment. It’s easy, and although a flattened bird may not do as the star of a Norman Rockwell-style holiday feast, it makes turkey into an easy, inexpensive winter dish. You can check out Martha’s step-by-step tutorial here.

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