My turkey set my oven on fire, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
This was the first Thanksgiving we would have all three grandchildren at the table. I couldn’t wait for the photo op: pulling the magnificent gobbler out of the oven and proudly setting it before three wide-eyed, smiling grandchildren. This year, however, the photo didn’t happen.
I have been cooking Thanksgiving turkeys off and on now for over 40 years. And since this was the first Thanksgiving I’ve been fully retired, perhaps I was feeling a little bored and ready for some adventure. Plus, having just subscribed to the New York Times Cooking website, I was also wanting to get my money’s worth. Their turkey expert recommended that I spatchcock the bird. And while this sounded a bit profane to me, (something that might have evoked a brief thrill back when I was 17), I figured that if the New York Times Turkey Expert was recommending it, it must be okay for the children to see. After all, the NYT has long been the place that gives us "all the news fit to print."
To spatchcock the bird is to, “…remove the backbone and flatten it out.” The NYT video looked easy. The woman picked up a pair of scissors, and alternating sides, quickly snipped out the backbone. She was working on a 14 pound turkey. After removing the bone, she flipped the fowl over on its back and started pressing on its breast, like she was giving it CPR. She then tossed it in a big plastic bag full of buttermilk and let it sit for 48 hours. When it came time for baking, she took the turkey out, scraped off the buttermilk, put it in a roasting pan, and let it bake for 90 minutes. In the end, the whole thing looked a tasty golden brown. And then she started eating it, right on the video, and told us it was the best turkey she’d ever had. I decided right then and there: I was going to treat my family to a buttermilk-brined-spatchcocked turkey!
My first mistake came in the supermarket. I purchased a 22 pound turkey, eight pounds larger than the video recommended. (In my defense: all they had left were the gigantic turkeys.) It may not seem like an extra eight pounds makes much of a difference, but to spatchcockers and women wondering how much their newborn will weigh, it does.
I got the scissors out and tried to snip, just like the woman in the video. Nothing snipped. I got out my sharpest knife and made it halfway up the backbone and then stalled. In the end, I got out a meat ax, which I’ve never used, and just hacked away, trying not to knock the bird off the counter.
When it came time to turn it over and press on the breast, it wouldn’t flatten out. Some creative ideas came to mind, involving the use of my car and the driveway, but I am a peaceful man, and I was exhausted from the violence I’d already inflicted on the turkey. (Please do not send this post to your vegan friends and relatives!)
Finally I stuffed the bird into a big plastic bag, poured half a gallon of buttermilk over it, and deposited it in the refrigerator. It brined for 72 hours.
On Thanksgiving Day, I took out the turkey, scraped off the buttermilk (just as the video taught), and looked through my cupboards for a pan big enough to roast it. In its spatchcocked state it was nearly two feet wide and over a foot long, barely fitting into my oven. I put it on a flat cookie sheet, the largest pan I had, and tried to rig up some aluminum foil to catch the drippings. Still, the legs stuck out over the edge of the cookie sheet.
The baking went well for about ten minutes. That’s when the leaking started. It turns out that turkeys leak in the same manner as people do, down the leg. If you are a person, your leak ends up in your shoe. But if you are a turkey who happens to be too big for your pan, nothing catches it. It puddles at the bottom of the oven and catches fire when you open the door.
I didn’t know that before, but now I do.
We shut the oven off, went to the Meijer Store (open on Thanksgiving Day) and bought the biggest, deepest pan we could find. When the oven cooled down, we removed the turkey, completely cleaned the oven bottom (and sides, and door, plus the floor and the cupboard below the oven) and started the whole thing over again, in a new pan.
The ruckus didn’t seem to bother the grandchildren. By the time we got the turkey baked, however, I was in no mood to get a picture of it. But I will say this, it was the best tasting turkey I’ve ever done. And I’ll do it again next year…probably. But without all the drama.