Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Turkey Chronicles: Spatchcocked and Grilled

photo by John Anderson; a spatchcocked turkey hits the grill....

…from my article in
The Austin Chronicle, Nov 17, 2006

While cruising Aw Taw Kaw market in Bangkok on my first trip to Thailand some years ago, I was fascinated by the Thai method of dealing with poultry. If it's not spinning lazily on a jury-rigged rotisserie, then it's butterflied and marinated, stretched flat on a green bamboo frame, and grilled over coals. I wondered why that same process couldn't be done with a turkey, minus the bamboo frame, of course. After all, what could be better for a bird than the succulent kiss of flames?

Those Thai birds were spatchcocked, a British butchery term that came into use in the 1700’s, referring to the removal of the backbone of a bird so that it can be flattened prior to grilling over coals. Capt. F. Grose, in his 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, describes the term thusly: ”Spatch cock, abbreviation of a dispatch cock, an Irish dish upon any sudden occasion. It is a hen just killed from the roost, or yard, and immediately skinned, split, and broiled.” 

Once I grilled the first prototype, it occurred to me that the dynamics of the process cause all portions of the bird to cook evenly. Instead of a huge breast towering above the rest of the turkey, with that portion being the leanest (and driest) part of the bird, it is now safely protected by the much fattier thighs and wings on the outside and is on the same level as the rest of the carcass. It is a form that marries well with marinating, a flat rectangle being much easier to marinate than a large football-shaped object. Trying to determine the estimated cooking time was a crapshoot: I had no clue as to how long it would take but knew that it would be considerably shorter than roasting in an oven.
With that first 12-lb. bird sizzling comfortably on a friend's grill, we began to scientifically test the temperature with an instant-read thermometer every 15 minutes, looking for that magical 150°F reading (the bird will continue to cook slightly as it rests for the required 20 minutes before slicing). The first one we grilled turned out to be perfectly done in one hour and 10 minutes. The next one took five minutes longer, but the grill was funkier and less controllable. The third one took one hour and 15 minutes. Our 14-pounder, which had a thicker breast, took one hour and 25 minutes. A cooking-timing standard had been established.

The Feds recommend a temperature of 185°F to be completely safe. This also guarantees a bird devoid of any moisture, which ensures radically increased gravy consumption out of sheer culinary self-defense. At 145°F, the juices from the thickest part of the thigh will run clear (i.e., not pink) when pierced, which used to be the doneness standard before the advent of digital thermometers. I've found that an internal temperature of 150°F will insure a tender, moist bird with no trace of pinkness.

This method of turkey cooking is loaded with advantages.
Time: Grilling a spatchcocked turkey is the fastest way to cook the bird. Frying only takes three minutes per pound, but it requires about an hour just to get the oil hot enough to cook the thing. Conventional roasting can take as long as four hours, and smoking a turkey will gobble up eight to 12 hours.

Space: Thanksgiving is all about the oven. So much successive baking – pies, cakes, cookies, and oodles of casseroles – is done in ovens that can be stretched to their limits by a large cookie sheet of Tater Tots. Everyone has to compete for valuable oven real estate, and having a huge turkey in there just compounds the problem. Usually the top rack has to be removed to get the bird in the oven, so all other baking chores grind to a halt for the next 2½ to 3 hours. Consider also that it's usually in the 80’s around Thanksgiving in Central Texas, so having the oven on while cooking a bird for hours can really heat up the house. 

Safety: Roasting a stuffed turkey with a cavity full of raw dressing can allow the stuffing and the surrounding meat to sit at the microbial danger zone for too long, and it further increases the cooking time by an hour or so. Consider the Cajun alternative of a huge 60-quart vat of boiling oil with a flammable gas fire roaring underneath it, and you begin to wonder why even more houses aren't burned to the ground every Turkey Day and why more third-degree grease burns aren't reported at hospital ER's all over the South. (Not to mention the problem of dealing with 4 to 5-gallons of contaminated frying oil the next day; it's no surprise that city sewage clogs spike the day after Thanksgiving as thousands of gallons of grease congeal in sewer lines like so many arterial blockages.) Even worse, once it's fried, the turkey's skin and wings are black and inedible.

Social: Normally, the menfolk are huddled around the TV, beers in hands, watching successions of pregames, games, or postgames, while they ignore their families and get wasted. Fewer people in the kitchen are needed, not more, and fewer sloths lounging about underfoot would be a relief for that congestion. What could be better than a herd of guys in their natural element, hovering over a grill and a bed of coals, watching a big, flat bird slowly turning golden-brown. The grilled turkey frees up oven space, eliminates the danger of nasty bacterial growth and boiling oil, and the guys are outside, actively involved in the cooking and not underfoot.

Taste: Every person I've spoken with who has eaten the now-famous grilled spatchcocked turkey has said that it is the juiciest and most flavorful turkey they have eaten. I heartily agree. All birds should be cooked this way.

Here's how to do it:

You want a thawed 12- to 14-lb. turkey, with the wing tips and the backbone removed. You can always get your butcher to take the backbone out, or use a hefty pair of poultry shears, a thick-bladed knife, a bone saw, or a clean Sawzall. Once it's spatchcocked, press it as flat as you can: the flatter the better. It will resemble a large rectangle and will fit into a trash bag for storing until grilling time. Store it skin-side down so that the cut ribs don't pierce the plastic bag.

At this point, you can marinate or brine the bird, pre-salt it, or apply a spice rub. A simple garlicky vinaigrette with herbs such as parsley, marjoram, chervil, thyme, or a bit or tarragon or sage works nicely, as does a bottle of doctored-up zesty Italian salad dressing, for that matter. If you use a rub, use one that has little sugar in it because the sugar will caramelize too darkly on the grill. I've used marinades, rubs, and nothing but salt and pepper, and all three versions are excellent. If you expect a crowd, cooking two small turkeys will work out better than one large one.

Preheat your covered grill to medium-low; you will cook the turkey covered, so it gets some smoke with its grill. You'll need two sets of long-handled tongs to flip this bad boy, which you will do every 15 minutes during the cooking process. Have a cooking thermometer handy so that you can start checking the internal temperature after about an hour and 10 minutes. You want to insert the thermometer probe into the thickest part of the thigh and the breast, without hitting any bone, for an accurate reading. Once it's at 150°F, take it inside, cover it loosely with a piece of foil, and let it rest for 20 or 30 minutes before you start carving; it will stay plenty warm. Total elapsed grilling time: one hour and 15 minutes, give or take.

Mick Vann ©

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