Why It Works
- Curing the turkey breast with a dry brine allows the meat to retain moisture.
- Deboning the breast yourself provides bones for a flavorful gravy.
- A bone-free roast is easy to carve and serve.
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.
"You have never had turkey breast this juicy."
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 spatchcocked turkey is the ultimate holiday roast? What gives? Well it's true. A spatchcocked 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: Uneven Cooking
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 (66°C) or so, while leg meat needs to be cooked to 165°F (74°C) 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 (82°C) 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 by 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: Salting and Juiciness
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?
"This linked protein network in turn gives the meat a bouncier, more resilient texture."
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 by 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 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 this mixture 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.
How to Assemble Turkey Porchetta (Turchetta)
Prepare the Breast
You can start with a whole turkey if you want to use the legs for a different preparation, or start with a whole turkey breast. All you'll need is a boning knife and some butcher's twine.
Remove the Skin
This is the most difficult step. The goal is to remove the skin in as large a piece as possible. Work slowly to gently pull away the skin from the whole breast without tearing or puncturing it. You'll probably have to use your boning knife occasionally to help gently pull the skin away from particularly stubborn spots. You should end up with a large piece of skin that is roughly square in shape.
Find and Remove the Wishbone
Next, remove the wishbone by cutting along both sides of each branch of the Y-shaped bone with the tip of your knife. The bone should pull out easily once it's been cut away. You can use a clean dish towel to help get a grip on the bone if it's too slippery. Save the bones for the gravy.
Remove the Wing Joints
Use the tip of your knife to cut through the ball joint where the wings meet the breast bone.
Remove the Meat
Remove the breast meat from the carcass using your hands. I find it easiest to use my fingers to do this, working the meat away from the bone with my fingertips and thumbs. You can also use a knife if you find that easier. You should end up with two large turkey breast halves.
Trim the Skin
Trim off any large pockets of fat from the underside of the skin using your knife.
Ready to Roll
Lay the skin out with the outside down and stretch it as wide as you can.
Butterfly the Breast Meat
Lay one breast half on top of the skin, remove the tenderloin (it should come off with no knife required), and set it aside for another use. Then, using your boning knife, butterfly the thicker side of the breast half and fold it outwards so that the whole breast lies relatively flat. Repeat with the second breast half and you should end up with a relatively even layer of breast meat on top of the skin.
Slash the Meat
Make a series of diagonal parallel slashes about an inch apart in the meat, cutting into the flesh about halfway through, then make another set perpendicular to the first.
Add the Rub and Align the Meat
Rub the prepared cure into the flesh, making sure to get it into all of the cracks. Lay out the meat along one edge of the skin. This is the edge that you'll start rolling from. In the picture below, it's laid out against the right side.
Roll the Turchetta
Start rolling by picking up using the skin to lift up and roll the turkey like a jelly roll. Work slowly to try and keep things as neat and tight as possible. The skin should remain on the exterior the entire time (not rolled in with the meat), which means that as you get to the far end, you'll have to tuck the turkey into the roll and pull the skin over it. Try and get the edges of the skin to overlap as much as possible in order to keep the roll nice and tight. Let the roll rest on its seam while you get ready to tie it.
Tie up the Roast
Tie off the turkey at 1-inch intervals. You can use fancy butcher's knots with one long piece of string if you know how, or just use a series of individual pieces of string laid out at 1-inch intervals and tied using simple granny knots. Tie the turkey along its entire length to help it retain its shape as you cook it. Tie it once the long way, tucking in the edges of the skin to try and keep everything enclosed nicely. For best results, season the turkey skin at this stage and let it rest at least overnight and up to two nights loosely covered in the refrigerator to cure.
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 an instant-read thermometer, of course. (You do have one, don't you? If not, put it on your holiday gift list STAT.)
I cook my turchetta to around 145 to 150°F (63 to 66°C). (Because of the salt cure, it can handle temps all the way up to 160°F/71°C if you are so inclined; just don't take it much above that or risk drying it out.) And since 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).
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 sous-vide, deep-fried turchetta.
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, plus 1/2 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1/4 cup fresh sage leaves
4 medium cloves garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons whole fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 whole bone-in, skin-on turkey breast (about 4 to 5 pounds), patted dry
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 quart low-sodium homemade or store-bought chicken or turkey stock
1 small carrot, roughly chopped
1 large stalk celery, roughly chopped
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Combine 2 teaspoons kosher salt, whole black peppercorns, sage leaves, garlic, fennel seed, and red pepper flakes in the bowl of a food processor. Process until a rough paste is formed, scraping down sides as necessary, about 30 seconds.
Carefully remove skin from the turkey breast and lay it flat. Reserve the carcass for gravy. Using your hands and a boning knife, carefully remove the breast meat from the carcass. Set aside the tenderloins for another use.
Lay one breast half on top of the turkey skin and butterfly the thicker end by cutting through it horizontally with a boning knife, leaving the last 1/2 inch intact, then folding out the flap. Repeat with the other breast half.
Make a series of parallel slashes at 1-inch intervals in the turkey meat cutting about 1/2 inch into the meat. Repeat with a second series of slashes perpendicular to the first. Rub the spice/herb mixture into the meat, making sure to get it into all of the cracks.
Carefully roll of the turkey meat into a tight cylinder, using the skin to completely enclose it. Tie the roast tightly with butcher's twine at 1-inch intervals, as well as once lengthwise. Transfer the roast to a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 6 hours and up to 2 days.
While turkey rests, make the gravy. Roughly chop the carcass with poultry shears or a heavy cleaver. Heat 1 tablespoon canola oil in a large saucepan over high heat until shimmering. Add turkey carcass and cook, stirring occasionally, until well browned, about 8 minutes. Add carrots, celery, and onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes longer. Add chicken stock, bay leaves, and enough water to barely cover bones. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 2 hours. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, discard solids, and spoon any fat off the surface. Return to a saucepan and simmer until reduced to about 3 cups.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and cook, stirring with a whisk, until deep golden brown, about 3 minutes. Slowly whisk in turkey broth. Bring to a simmer to thicken lightly, then season with salt and pepper. Let cool and refrigerate until ready to use.
When ready to cook, adjust an oven rack to center position and preheat oven to 275°F (135°C). Season exterior of turkey lightly with salt and pepper. Heat remaining tablespoon canola oil in a large cast iron or stainless steel skillet over high heat until shimmering. Add turkey and cook, turning occasionally, until well-browned on all sides, about 8 minutes total. Transfer turkey to a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and transfer to oven. Roast until thickest part of turkey registers 145 to 150°F (63 to 66°C) on an instant-read thermometer, about 2 hours. Remove from oven, transfer to cutting board, and let rest for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, reheat gravy. Snip off twine using poultry shears. Carve and serve with hot gravy.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 5 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 15g||19%|
|Saturated Fat 5g||23%|
|Total Carbohydrate 5g||2%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||4%|
|Total Sugars 1g|
|Vitamin C 2mg||9%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|