The Eating Life: In search of the perfect turkey

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 1:36pm
By Nicki Pendleton Wood, City Paper correspondent
1105 Eating Life turkey topper.jpg

(Illustration by Nicole Dudka)


To see a man who is all about the Eating Life, check out Matt Bolus’ mobile phone.

He’s proud to show pictures of his “babies”: two batches of mead he’s brewing at home, the fig tree cuttings he’s rooting, and the lardo and guanciale aging in his fridge. His calendar is set to remind him that the guanciale will be ready in November, and the lardo — it still has some time to go — can be consumed in April.

Of course, not everyone can get a pig head to make guanciale, but Bolus knew a guy who knew a guy … He also managed to obtain enough animal carcasses to make and pressure-can 21 pints of chicken stock, 20 pints of beef stock and 6 pints of lamb stock.

Clearly he knows how to wrestle a beast, and gets pretty stoked at the idea of jumping into a project.

It’s the same in the kitchen at Flyte World Dining, where he works with chef Matt Lackey. The Matts are hyperconnected with the region’s produce and meat suppliers — the Flyte menu highlights a roster that is a who’s who of Midstate producers.

Every day, suppliers deliver bushels and boxes of ingredients that put even the biggest CSA box in the shade. It’s both thrilling and exhausting to see it pouring in: basketball-size savoy cabbages, dill in bunches the size of a whisk broom, boxes and bins of greens, a half-dozen pie pumpkins longer than your arm.

As I look on during a recent kitchen visit, the Matts — fueled by frighteningly strong coffee — set to the task of building that bounty into something. Menu notes are made. Burners ignited. Tasks delegated and washing and chopping commenced. Ladders are climbed to retrieve cherished bourbon barrel staves for smoking.

By 6 o’clock, that work takes the form of watermelon gazpacho with blue crab and coconut; chanterelles with chestnut pudding; octopus with bok choy; duck leg with chestnuts; and zarzuela with spot prawns, mussels and scallops.

It’s a short leap from this daily Herculean effort to wonder what Bolus plans for his own Thanksgiving beast. When I ask, I assume he’ll answer, “Sous vide.” The man will sous vide anything that stands still long enough. (Sous vide is a method of cooking using airtight bags placed in a hot water bath — the results are remarkably moist.)

It turns out, now the subject is raised, Bolus totally would sous vide a turkey, and it would be amazing.

“You could sous vide it, sure,” he says, and then enthusiastically spins a plan on the spot. “You can’t get the whole thing in a bag, so you’d break it up and do breast and legs separately. You could soak the breast in buttermilk and have sous vide breast. Salt-cure the legs overnight, then cook them in duck fat for a turkey leg confit. Take the skin and cut it into pieces. Boil it with herbs, water and vinegar until the oil comes out, then drain and fry it. You’d have breast, legs and skin separately.”

But at the end of the day, he said, for the best presentation, he’ll grill the turkey this year. “If you want that beautiful turkey on the table, golden and crispy, you’ve got to put it into an oven or a grill. I’m going with tradition over modernist methods.”

Grilling presents Bolus with the kind of project he thrives on. He’s put significant time into honing his technique, so it’s going to be more involved than oiling up the turkey and dropping it onto the grill.

He begins by brining the turkey overnight in a sugar-and-salt solution seasoned with flavor ingredients that catch his imagination and harmonize with the rest of the menu. Then the construction begins.

But first, a little history. On his initial foray into grilling a turkey, Bolus set the turkey on the grill grate, for a fast and hard cook … and the turkey fell apart. He had to use construction gloves to retrieve it from the grill. It tasted great, but the presentation was lacking.

Grilling on the grate has other drawbacks too, he found. The heat rises and is trapped under the lid. The white meat of a turkey cooking breast side up is in a hot zone and in danger of drying out. A turkey on a grill grate must be moved around to prevent burning. And soot on the inside of the lid can end up on the turkey skin.

Bolus went back to the drawing board. He knew he wanted the pan at the bottom of the heat source to put the heat under and around the bird. His solution was to build a masonry-type wall with a whole bag of charcoal briquettes around the inside bottom of the grill. The turkey went into a roasting pan without a rack, was covered with foil and set down into the grill.

He checked the temperature inside the grill every 15 to 20 minutes. The heat level can rise and fall quickly and dramatically. He might add a few charcoal bricks to his wall to raise the temperature, or set the lid askew to lower it. At about 2 hours, he checked the meat’s internal temperature. When it reached 145 to 150 degrees, Bolus added a few soaked wood chips to the briquettes and opened the foil to let the wood smoke flavor the turkey until the meat reached 155 to 160 degrees and the skin was a deep brown, with a smooth, glassy appearance.

The beast was wrestled into deliciousness and was presentable, to boot.

You know as well as I do that chefs don’t use recipes. I’ve turned Bolus’ instructions into a recipe for turkey that may be the best-tasting, best-looking turkey you’ve ever served, good for the holidays or anytime.



Smoke-Grilled Turkey

• A few onions, cut into halves

• 2 heads garlic, separated into cloves

• Orange peel

• Star anise

• Hot red pepper flakes

• Bay leaves

• Thyme

• Szechuan peppercorns

• 5 cups salt

• 3 cups sugar

• 5 gallons water

• (12- to 15-pound) turkey

• Handful of sage sprigs

• Handful of rosemary sprigs

• Handful of parsley

• Handful of thyme sprigs


Combine the onions, garlic, orange peel, anise, pepper flakes, bay leaves, thyme, peppercorns, salt and sugar in a soft-drink cooler or pot large enough to submerge the turkey. Heat about a gallon of the water until it’s hot. Pour it over the ingredients in the cooler. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt. Let the mixture cool. Add the turkey. Cover with cold water. Add a layer of ice. Close or cover the cooler and set it outside. (If the weather outside is warm, you’ll need to replenish the ice occasionally to keep the turkey at a safe temperature.)

Build a wall of briquettes around the inside of a charcoal grill large enough to hold a roasting pan. Light the fire and let the coals burn until they’re very hot.

Drain the turkey and pat it dry. Stuff the sage, rosemary, parsley and thyme into the turkey cavity. Oil the outside. 

(Optional thing you could do at this point: Make a compound butter from a softened stick of butter plus orange zest, salt, parsley and chives. Rub it under the skin of the breast, and on the outside of the turkey. )

Cover the turkey with a layer or two of aluminum foil. Use heavy leather construction gloves to lower the roasting pan into the grill. Let it grill, keeping the temperature around 350 to 400 degrees, for 2 hours. Meanwhile, soak a couple of handfuls of wood chips in water for 30 minutes.

Check the internal temperature of the turkey: when it reaches 145 to 150, drain the woodchips and add them to the fire. Cut open the foil over the turkey and shape it into a barrier between the turkey and the charcoal to protect the skin from ash. Close the grill and let the turkey cook to an internal temperature around 160. (A leave-in probe thermometer is useful for this.)

Take the turkey off the grill and let it rest, uncovered, until you’re ready to carve it. A 15-pound turkey yields enough usable meat to serve 12 people.