Let's talk turkey! How to cook a turkey breast in a slow cooker. How to cook a whole turkey or a turkey breast the day before. How to make turkey gravy and turkey stock. How to cook turkey giblets. Plus lots of tips for cooking a Thanksgiving turkey.
People are beginning to plan their Thanksgiving menus. I can tell: already people are poring over the collection of Thanksgiving vegetable recipes at A Veggie Venture, especially the World’s Best Green Bean Casserole, the traditional holiday casserole, except updated with fresh green beans and fresh mushrooms.
The traditional Thanksgiving meal has many moving parts. It’s not hard to cook, it just takes planning and plotting. This morning I saw a supermarket ad, a full Thanksgiving dinner (turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce and rolls) for eight for $8 a plate. That’s a bargain, I understand its appeal.
Still, isn’t there a psychic pleasure in cooking special family meals ourselves? For the next few weeks, my aim is to offer up simple Thanksgiving recipes to give cooks new confidence to tackle the Thanksgiving meal.
First up, the turkey. It’s oh-so-easy to cook a turkey breast in a slow cooker. I’m newly in love with a programmable slow cooker, especially the ‘keep warm’ setting that turns on automatically once the food is cooked.
But more than that – this is the real magic – the breast may be cooked and sliced the day before, then warmed in the microwave before serving. It works for whole turkeys too, a trick I learned from my mother many years ago, and produces moist, flavorful turkey while avoiding all the kitchen mess just before serving. Neatniks will love this!
HOW TO COOK A TURKEY THE DAY BEFOREFor many reasons – convenience, timing, clean-up – some cooks prefer to cook the turkey the day before serving. Trouble is, turkey meat is just so moist and flavorful straight off the bird. My mother taught me this microwave trick, I remember it working like a charm.
Cook the turkey the day before, in the oven, in the slow cooker, or however suits. Find a microwave-safe dish that’s small enough to fit into the microwave but large enough to hold as much turkey as will be needed for serving. Place a small microwave safe bowl or ramekin in the center. Carve the turkey, slicing for servings. Arrange the meat in the dish around the bowl. Overlap the slices but don’t pile them higher than the rim. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Before serving, fill the small bowl half full of water and reseal the plastic wrap (a tight seal is needed, you might need to replace the plastic wrap). Place in the microwave and heat on high until the meat is heated through, how long will vary depending on your microwave, how much meat there is, how cold the meat is before going in. Leave the plastic wrap over the turkey until just before serving, so the meat stays hot, then lift off and remove the water bowl to serve.
Before starting, make sure that the turkey breast will fit inside your slow cooker, preferably without touching the lid. If it doesn’t, cut the ‘breast’ (which is actually both breasts) in half and cook them one at a time. For a rough guideline, a six-pound breast barely fits into a six-quart slow cooker.
What are giblets? Giblets are the turkey’s heart, liver and gizzard. In a whole turkey, you'll find the giblets in a small paper bag inside either the neck end or the 'other' end, be sure to check both, one will hold the turkey neck. A turkey breast package may or may not include giblets. To cook the giblets, cover all but the liver with a little water and simmer gently for 30 minutes for a flavorful stock that makes great gravy. If you like, chop up the cooked giblets and put them into the turkey stuffing. Since there's just one small liver, cook it in a little butter until just barely cooked and eat right out of the skillet. Cook's treat!
Measure the thyme leaves into your hand, then rub between your fingers over the skillet to release the oils.
If needed, brush up on how to safely handle meat.
SLOW COOKER TURKEY BREAST
Time to table: 3 – 7 hours
Serves: Varies with breast size, allow 1/2 pound uncooked weight (including bone) per serving
- 1 turkey breast, skin on, bone in, about 4 – 5 pounds, thawed
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 ribs celery, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
- 1 quart chicken stock, preferably homemade chicken stock
Remove the sack of giblets (see TIPS) from inside the turkey. Rinse the breast inside and out under running water. Pat dry with paper towels.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil on medium high until shimmery. Add the breast, letting cook on all sides for 2 – 3 minutes a side until golden. Transfer to the slow cooker, breast side down if possible, on its side if needed.
In the same skillet, add the onion, celery and garlic and cook until just golden, stirring often. Stir in the thyme and pepper. Stir in the chicken stock. Pour over top of the breast.
Cover and cook on Low for about 6 hours or on High for about 3 hours, until a meat thermometer inserted into the meatiest part of the breast registers 165F.
Transfer to a platter, cover breast with foil while making the Turkey Gravy. (Not making gravy? Let the turkey rest for 20 - 30 minutes before slicing.) Slice and serve.
After serving, ‘pick the turkey’ by cutting or tearing off as much meat as possible. Use the carcass to make Turkey Stock.
Time to table: 20 minutes
Makes about 4 cups
- Hot liquid from slow cooker (or 4 cups Homemade Chicken Stock or 4 cups chicken broth)
- 4 tablespoons flour
- Salt & pepper to taste
Transfer the liquid from the slow cooker (if you like, add the stock from cooking the turkey giblets too) to a large pot and bring to a boil on medium high. Place the flour, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. A tablespoon at a time at first, add about two cups of the liquid to the bowl, stirring to incorporate each addition before adding another. Slowly whisk the broth-flour mixture into the pot. Return the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Reduce the heat and let the mixture simmer until the desired thickness is reached.
HOW TO MAKE TURKEY STOCK
Even when the turkey meat is gone, the carcass will yield wonderful stock. If you don’t have time to make stock right away, throw the carcass into the freezer for a day or two. Otherwise, put the carcass, a rib or two of celery, a carrot or two and some onion wedges onto a baking sheet and put under the broiler – yes, the broiler. It will take about 10 minutes for the carcass and vegetables to brown. Don’t be afraid of a little burn, either, it really adds flavor. Transfer the carcass and vegetables to a stock pot (or even back into the slow cooker on high) and cover with water. Add a bay leaf and about five peppercorns. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to maintain a slow simmer for about an hour. For the 30 minutes, skim off and discard the gunk that accumulates on top. Turn off the heat, let cool, then strain through a colander and discard the solids. For extra-clear stock, strain through cheesecloth one or more times. Two cups at a time, transfer to quart freezer bags. Label and freeze for using in soups, stocks, sauces and more. (For more tips about making turkey stock, see my cooking lesson for Homemade Chicken Stock, it's filled with tips and techniques.)
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