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The Food Lab: How to Make a Turkey Porchetta
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Behold! The Mighty Turchetta!, King of the Thanksgiving roasts. Gentle and benevolent ruler of the holiday table, fair in his judgment and ample in his juiciness. If ever you sat down on the third Thursday after the first Monday in November and could not think of a single thing for which to give thanks, I implore you to place one of these guys on your table this year. Simply put, that problem of yours will disappear. This isn't a roast for celebrating with; this roast is a celebration in itself.
Exactly what is a turchetta? It's a turkey breast prepared in the manner of a traditional Italian porchetta. The breast meat gets butterflied and laid out perfectly flat, then slashed and rubbed with a curing mixture flavored with black peppercorns, sage, garlic, fennel, and red pepper flakes. It's then rolled up tightly in its own skin, allowed to cure, and then gently roasted. The end result is a stunningly geometric roast that arrives at the table deep golden brown and crisp. Because it's 100% bone-free, it's a snap to slice into identical serving portions, each one coated in crisp skin and brimming with juicy, perfectly seasoned meat. You have never had turkey breast this juicy, and that's a guarantee.
Now, now, I know what you're thinking. Didn't I already come out last year and say that a spatchcock turkey is the ultimate holiday roast? What gives? Well it's true. A spatchcock turkey is the absolute best way to cook a turkey. If (!) your goal is to get the best return on your time investment—that is, excellent results with nearly zero effort.
A turkey porchetta, on the other hand, is the recipe for you if your final goal is best-possible-eating-experience-who-gives-a-damn-how-much-work-it-takes. I'm not going to lie: this is not a recipe for beginners. You need some reasonably good knife skills, you need to be good at butterflying meat, you'll need to use butcher's twine, and above all, you'll need a fair amount of patience. But if you come along with me for the ride, I promise that you (and more importantly, your Thanksgiving guests) will be rewarded with the best turkey you've ever tasted. Here's how it works.
The Problem with Turkey
My family long ago ditched the traditional whole roast turkey approach to Thanksgiving. There's a big problem with turkey, and it lies in the fact that breast meat withers and dries when you take it much past 150°F or so, while leg meat needs to be cooked to 165°F in order to be palatable. Compounding this problem is the fact that in their natural state, turkey breasts project far above the legs in a roasting pan, causing them to cook even faster.
The result is that by the time your legs reach the requisite 165°F, sections of the breast will have soared all the way up to 180°F or beyond. It's almost as if turkey breeders have custom-designed a bird to be prone to overcooking and drying out. Pass the gravy please.
There are a few solutions to this problem. The easiest I know of is to surreptitiously replace the turkey with a whole suckling pig. I tried this one year and would've gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for my meddling sister who pointed out that turkeys don't have curley-cue tails.
Since then, I've resorted to spatchcocking the turkey—I.E. removing the backbone and laying it flat. This exposes the legs to more heat, allowing everything to cook at the same pace and resulting in much crisper skin, along with juicier breast meat.
The other alternative—and the one we're going with today—is to just separate the darn thing and cook the legs and breasts independently. That way you can maximize the potential of each.
Now you could simply roast the breast whole (and I've got a great recipe for that), but even then, you run into problems of uneven cooking: the breast is much skinnier at one end than at the other. A turchetta solves this problem. By removing the breast halves, seasoning them, then rolling them up in their own skin, you end up with a perfect, evenly-cooking, bone-free cylinder that's a snap to carve and serve.
But before we get there, we've got a few other tricks up our sleeves.
A Part of the Cure
My mom is one of those people who is particularly sensitive to sodium intake and often requests that I make low sodium versions of certain dishes for her. I usually happily oblige, but on some occasions, I regretfully tell her that it's simply not possible. Sausage, meatballs, and cured meats are the most frequent cases. Why can't you simply make a salt-free sausage or turchetta? Won't it be exactly the same other than the saltiness?
The answer is no. Beyond simple flavoring, salt plays an important chemical and physical role in cured meats by both increasing their juice-retention capabilities, and altering their texture. With a sausage, salt causes the protein mysosin to dissolve, allowing bits of meat protein to form tighter bonds with each other. This linked protein network in turn gives the meat a bouncier, more resilient texture, and allows it to retain more moisture as it cooks. That's why sausages have such a pleasing snap and are consistently juicier than an intact piece of meat.
With turkey, salt applied in the right way can have an equally profound effect. The most frequent way we see salt applied to turkey is with a brine. By soaking the turkey in a salt water solution overnight, you dissolve some muscle proteins in just the same way you would with s sausage. This allows the turkey to absorb some of the salty liquid, and more importantly, it causes it to shrink less upon cooking, retaining more juice in the end.
An even better alternative to brining is dry-brining—that is, rubbing the turkey with plain salt and letting it rest at least overnight. Initially, this salt draws some moisture out of the turkey via osmosis. The salt then dissolves in this moisture creating a very concentrated brine that then acts to dissolve muscle proteins and slowly works its way back into the meat. You end up with turkey that has the same moisture-retaining properties as a wet-brined turkey, but with none of the flavor dilution that comes along with traditional brining.
With a turchetta, we go one step further.
Rather than simply using a basic salt rub, we add a few herbs and aromatics to the mix. Sage, fennel seed, red pepper flakes, garlic, and black peppercorns are the traditional porchetta mixture, and it works for turkey as well, though you can go with a much simpler mix of straight up salt, pepper, and garlic if you prefer to let the natural flavor of the turkey speak for itself.
The more important step is in how this mixture is applied.
By butterflying the breast halves and deeply scoring them with a sharp knife, we're able to work that curing mixture deep into the meat, helping treat its muscle protein from the inside, and resulting in a cooked turkey breast that has the juiciness of a Christmas ham.
Salt does take a bit of time to work its magic. Six hours is sufficient, but up to two days is even better, which is good news if you're the type who likes to work ahead and minimize fuss on Thanksgiving day.
With a large, exposed roast like, say, prime rib, I like to roast low and slow first, followed by a blast at high temperature to crisp up the exterior. This minimizes the amount of overcooked meat on the exterior, while still allowing for a great golden-brown crust.
With a turchetta, I still go for a low oven temperature to get the most even cooking possible, but I wondered if the layer of insulating skin that surrounds it, along with the long salt cure, would preclude the need to move the sear to the end of cooking. I tried roasting my turchetta using both methods—sear at the beginning and sear at the end—and found that it made very little detectable difference at all.
On Thanksgiving, I like to keep last-minute fussiness to a minimum, particularly when I'm trying to frantically gather folks around the table and cook at the same time, so I'll be searing my turchetta before it goes in the oven. A cast iron skillet is the fastest and easiest way to do this.
How do we know when it's finished roasting? Why, with our Splash-Proof Super-Fast Thermapen, of course (you do have one, don't you? If not, put it on your holiday gift list STAT).
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I cook my turchetta to around 145 to 150°F (because of the salt cure, it can handle temps all the way up to 160°F if you are so inclined; just don't take it much above that or risk drying it out), and because we're cooking it so gently, it requires minimal resting, to boot.
This thing comes out so ridiculously juicy that a gravy is almost redundant. Then again, you've got yourself a whole turkey breast bone to work with here, so making a quick gravy definitely doesn't hurt. For meat this juicy, I like to keep my gravy nice and thin, so that its flavor doesn't get muddied with too much flour.
Like I said, this is not a particularly easy process, and if you plan on making one (or two if you have more than a half dozen mouths to feed) on Thanksgiving, I strongly suggest you give it a practice run first (cold turchetta makes awesome sandwiches). Check out the step-by-step slideshow for a more in-depth look at the process, or jump straight to the recipe with the link below.
And wait, did I say that this was the best-possible-eating-experience-who-gives-a-damn-how-much-work-it-takes? That's a lie. That would be the sous-vide, deep-fried turchetta. Stay tuned.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.