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12 Turkey Cooking Tips from Real Chefs

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When it comes to cooking a juicy, flavorful turkey, America’s chefs aren’t afraid to fly in the face of tradition. Here are a few of their top suggestions worth trying this holiday season.

1. BUY A FRESH TURKEY.

Most home cooks opt for a frozen turkey, but chefs like Sara Moulton recommend buying fresh. The reason: Muscle cells damaged by ice crystals lose fluid while the turkey thaws and roasts, making it easier to end up with a dried out bird. For those who stick with a frozen turkey, make sure to properly thaw the bird—one day in the fridge for every 4-5 pounds.

2. BUY SMALL.

Idealizing the big, fat Thanksgiving turkey is a mistake, according to numerous chefs. Large birds take more time to cook, which can dry out the meat. Wolfgang Puck recently told Lifescript he won’t cook a bird larger than 15 pounds, while Travis Lett, head chef at Gjusta in Los Angeles, recommends going even smaller and cooking two or three 8-pound birds.

3. BRINE THAT BIRD.

Brining a turkey adds flavor, and it allows salt and sugar to seep deep into the meat, helping it retain moisture as the bird cooks. You can opt for a basic brine like the one chef Chris Shepherd recommends, which calls for one cup sugar, one cup salt, five gallons of water, and a three-day soak. Or, try something less traditional, like Michael Solomonov’s Mediterranean brine, which includes allspice, black cardamom, and dill seed. One challenge is finding a container big enough to hold a bird and all the liquid. Chef Stephanie Izard of Chicago’s Girl and the Goat recommends using a Styrofoam cooler.

4. OR, TRY A DRY BRINE.

If the thought of dunking a turkey in five gallons of seasoned water doesn’t appeal to you, a dry brine could be the ticket. It’s essentially a meat rub that you spread over the bird and under the skin. Salt should be the base ingredient, and to that you can add dried herbs, pepper, citrus and other seasonings. Judy Rogers, chef at San Francisco’s Zuni Café, offers this dry rub recipe with apples, rosemary, and sage. In addition to a shorter prep time, chefs say a dry brine makes for crispier skin and a nice, moist interior.

5. BRING THE TURKEY TO ROOM TEMPERATURE.

Don’t move your bird straight from the fridge to the oven. Let it sit out for two to three hours first. Doing this, according to Aaron London of Al’s Place in San Francisco, lets the bones adjust to room temperature so that when roasted, it "allows the bones to hold heat like little cinder blocks, cooking the turkey from the inside out."

6. CUT UP THE TURKEY BEFORE COOKING.

This might sound like sacrilege to traditional cooks and turkey lovers. But chefs insist it’s the only way to cook a full-size bird through and through without drying out the meat. Chef Marc Murphy, owner of Landmarc restaurants in New York, told the Times he roasts the breast and the legs separately, while chef R.B. Quinn prefers to cut his turkeys in half before cooking them. Bobby Flay, meanwhile, strikes a balance: "I roast the meat until the breasts are done, and then cut off the legs and thighs. The breasts can rest, and you can cook off the legs in the drippings left in the pan."

7. COOK THE STUFFING ON THE SIDE.

Many chefs these days advise against cooking stuffing inside the turkey. The reason? Salmonella. "With the stuffing being in the middle, a lot of blood drips into it and if everything in the middle doesn't come to temperature then you're at risk," Chef Charles Gullo told the Chicago Tribune. TV host Alton Brown echoed this advice, and writes that it’s very difficult to bring the stuffing to a safe 165 degrees without overcooking the bird.

8. BUTTER IT UP.

No matter if you’ve chosen a dry brine, a wet brine, or no brine at all, turkeys need a helping of butter spread around the outside and under the skin. Thomas Keller, founder of The French Laundry, recommends using clarified butter. "It helps the skin turn extra-crispy without getting scorched," he recently told Epicurious.

9. USE TWO THERMOMETERS.

A quality meat thermometer is a must, chefs say. When you use it, make sure to take the temperature in more than one spot on the bird, checking to see that it’s cooked to at least 165 degrees through and through. Also, says Diane Morgan, author of The New Thanksgiving Table, you should know the temperature of your oven, as a few degrees can make the difference between a well-cooked bird and one that’s over- or under-done.

10. TURN UP THE HEAT.

If you’ve properly brined your meat, you don't need to worry about high heat sucking the moisture out, chefs say. Keller likes to cook his turkey at a consistent 450 degrees. This allows the bird to cook quickly, and creates a crisp shell of reddish-brown skin. Ruth Reichl, the famed magazine editor and author, seconds this method, but warns that your oven needs to be squeaky clean, otherwise leftover particles could smoke up.

11. BASTE—BUT DON'T OVERDO IT.

Spreading juices over top the turkey would seem to add moisture, no? Not necessarily. According to chef Marc Vogel, basting breaks the caramelized coating that holds moisture in. The more you do it, the more time moisture has to seep out of the turkey. Also, opening the oven releases its heat, and requires several minutes to stabilize afterward. It's not really an either/or prospect, chefs agree. Best to aim somewhere in the middle: Baste every 30 minutes while roasting.

12. LET IT REST.

Allowing a turkey to rest after it’s cooked lets the juices redistribute throughout the meat. Most chefs recommend at least 30 minutes’ rest time. Famed chef and TV personality Gordon Ramsey lets his turkey rest for a couple hours. "It may seem like a long time, but the texture will be improved the longer you leave the turkey to rest," Ramsey told British lifestyle site Good to Know. "Piping hot gravy will restore the heat."

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
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Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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