It’s not often that a headline reduces me to a frothing rage monster first thing in the morning. But Slate did it. Never Thaw Your Butterball broke me like a New Year’s resolution. It got worse when I realized its author, Faith Durand, has written award-winning cookbooks and is the executive editor of The Kitchn, my third-favorite online recipe source right behind King Arthur Flour and America’s Test Kitchen. That made me tilt my head like a confused border collie, which dripped rage froth all over my desk. Gross, I know. But somehow still less appalling than the idea of hucking a fully-frozen turkey into my hot oven it’s Walt Disney’s cryogenically preserved head.
Durand’s site and books are full of top-rated recipes and helpful tips. It’s a solid source for novice or experienced home cooks. But my knee-jerk reaction to the thought of cooking a frozen turkey can best be summed up as “Hell no.” I understand it’s possible to cook a frozen turkey past the point where salmonella and other food-borne illnesses are a concern, and my aggressive response was more measured by the end of the article. But it’s also possible to cook a ribeye in the microwave. That doesn’t mean you should. And to her credit (maybe?) Durand doesn’t try very hard to sell it.
I tried out this no-thaw bird on my cookbook club a few nights ago, just to see how it went over. My friend Logan took a bite and pronounced that it “just tasted like turkey.” Which, let’s be real, is all one can ever hope for from turkey, and it’s good enough for your Thanksgiving table, where everyone came for the side dishes anyway.
“Just tasted like turkey” may be the best real-world example of damning with faint praise that I’ve read. I understand why many people don’t care for Thanksgiving turkey. Many of them are terrible. I have relatives who couldn’t cook a decent turkey with a gun to their head, as local newspapers reported after the terrible Hilltown Thanksgiving Tragedy of 1997. Many supermarket turkeys are over-processed and low quality, hamstringing home cooks before they even get out of the gate. But the solution is not to give them another way to cook a mediocre bird! There’s already a name for mediocre turkey: chicken. It’s also cheaper and easier to cook. Or, wild idea: get rid of the bird entirely! No federal law requires you to cook poultry. Swap it out for ham, fresh pork, or beef. Skip the main protein entirely and use kitchen scraps to make a delicious poultry gravy for stuffing, mashed potatoes, and other essential side dishes. You can do the same using a $5 rotisserie chicken. Replace the entire menu with pie! Why half-ass a turkey when you can whole-ass something else?
It doesn’t help that so many home cooks can’t be trusted to safely cook a frozen turkey. Durand goes the extra mile when it comes to instructing readers on food safety, but every Thanksgiving, overconfident cooks reduce their homes to ashes while deep-frying Thanksgiving dinner. Most don’t own a meat thermometer — that’s what the little plastic popper is for. And an extra 50% roasting time means hours more in the oven when other things need cooking. Frozen birds going in mean a lot more over- or undercooked birds coming out. If the choices are salmonella, dusty turkey, or just thawing the bird ahead of time, I know which I’m picking. I also don’t love the idea of cooking the giblets bag inside the bird for 4 hours. There’s no way that lends itself to good eats.
If you’re bothering to roast a whole turkey, and especially if this is the one time of year that you do, it’s worth doing right. That doesn’t mean you need to use an intricate, weeklong process or work yourself into a nervous breakdown to achieve culinary perfection. All it takes to cook a quality turkey is a little respect for your main course. Your unused oven is a ready-made icebox, and as long as you don’t need it for 24-48 hours you can thaw the bird in there. Or use a cooler if you need to pre-bake some dishes. Throw a few unused towels over the cooler to create even more insulation. Give yourself time to appropriately dry and season the bird, which means finish your prep work ahead of time. If it came pretreated with saline solution, skip the brining stage. Season liberally. There are recipes for fantastic spice, herb, and citrus combinations all over - including The Kitchn!
Outside of an absolute emergency, though, there’s no need to cook a frozen bird. The turkey deserves better. You deserve better. The folks staffing emergency rooms deserve better. Cook it right or don’t cook it at all. We can always have more pie.