I don't suppose I need to tell you that more turkeys head off to that Great Turkey Farm in the Sky on Thanksgiving than on all the other days of the year combined. A lot of people even use the terms “Thanksgiving” and “Turkey Day” interchangeably.
And I don't suppose I need to tell you either that many of these birds are sacrificed in vain. They live their brief lives only to wind up as dried out, overcooked burnt offerings lying like bricks of shoe leather-covered sawdust on platters adorning holiday tables while diners politely nibble on their desiccated flesh and pretend to enjoy it for the sake of the occasion.
But it doesn't have to be that way. A moist, succulent, delicious turkey can grace your holiday table if you will simply bard your bird.
I know what comes to most minds when the word “bard” is used, but the culinary application has nothing to do with Shakespeare. Not that The Bard didn't have a few things to say about culinary matters that could be appropriate for the holidays: “He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his.” – Henry IV Part I: act 2, scene 1. Or perhaps, “Eight wild boars roasted whole at breakfast, and but twelve persons there; is this true?.” – Antony and Cleopatra: act 2, scene 1.
But the barding that will save your bird from an ignoble fate is actually an old cooking technique with which Shakespeare may well have been familiar. It's been around for a long time, but has only recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity.
If you think it's easy to overcook a turkey now, imagine cooks of yesteryear who contended with ovens that lacked temperature controls. And had you told your great-grandmother that she could take a turkey's temperature by sticking a metal probe in its thigh, she would likely have questioned your sanity. Ovens with adjustable temperatures were a nineteenth century innovation generally attributed to French chef Alexis Benoit Soyer and oven thermometers were not introduced until the early years of the twentieth century. Instant-read and digital probe thermometers came about quite a bit later.
So, with no reliable means to gauge or regulate cooking temperatures, how did old-fashioned cooks manage to produce moist, tender turkeys? One method was barding.
Barding involves preparing a cut of meat for roasting by covering it with strips of fat. The fat of choice is almost always some form of bacon.
You can bard almost anything. Even the cheapest cuts of meat will benefit from the application of bacon, and the more expensive cuts – bacon-wrapped filet mignon, for instance – will be that much more delectable. But barding works particularly well on poultry.
You know how a nice, well-marbled steak will cook up so tender that it practically melts in your mouth? You can thank the marbling for that. Sorry, Health Police, but fat makes the culinary world go 'round. The application of heat to the muscle tissue of animal flesh – in other words, meat – leaches out moisture and, with it, flavor. Layers of fatty tissue surrounding lean muscle tissue impart necessary moisture and flavor to the meat. Naturally lean meats – like turkey – don't have these fat deposits to draw on and so they tend to overcook and dry out much more quickly than their fattier counterparts.
Barding uses fatback to put the fat back. (Cute little play on words there, huh?) By covering lean meat with strips of fatty meat, the fat renders out of the fatty meat during cooking and is taken in by the leaner meat, resulting in an increase of both moisture and flavor.
As I said, bacon is usually the fatty meat of choice. Some people use fatback or salt pork and that's fine. Bacon is just more readily available and easier to work with.
While I usually advocate buying the more expensive, higher quality cuts of bacon for everyday consumption, when it comes to barding, cheaper is better. While you certainly could bard your bird with premium Oscar Meyer Center Cut bacon at about five bucks a pound, you'd be far better served by picking up some two-dollar store brand. Why? For the same reason I wouldn't actually eat the two-dollar store brand – it's mostly fat. But that's what you want in barding, so buy the cheap stuff. In the end, you're not going to eat it, anyway.
Be careful of flavorings in the bacon you use. A good, ordinary smoke and salt-cured bacon will add a wonderfully rich, slightly smoky flavor to your turkey. You can try to soak or boil the salt and smoke out of the bacon before you use it, but you really don't need to. If you've purchased appropriately cheap bacon, it's all fat and practically no flavor to begin with. Avoid overly smoked or salted bacon and stay away from strongly flavored product like applewood or maple. Think cheap. Lots of fat. Thicker cut bacon is good. More fat.
Ready to bard? Okay. We're going to assume you've already washed and dried your turkey and made all your other preparations with aromatic vegetables and herbs and seasonings and butter and such, and the prepared bird is now sitting in a roasting rack set in a roasting pan, ready for the trip to the oven. Here comes the fun part: lay strips of bacon across all exposed parts of the bird, taking special care to layer the breast and thighs. Just do it to it. It's cheap bacon, remember? Don't cheap up on using it. It's not like you're going to cook it for tomorrow's breakfast. I hope. Now, you don't have to shingle it or double-layer it or anything. Just make sure you get good coverage all over the bird. A 12 to 16 ounce package of bacon should be about right.
Some folks like to make sure the bacon stays put and so they use butcher's twine to tie it in place. Extra work as far as I'm concerned, but it's your call. And, I must say, I've yet to figure out the people who advocate placing a layer of cheesecloth over the bacon. Why would I want cheesecloth to absorb all my bacon fat and why would I want to fool with removing a layer of greasy cheesecloth from my turkey. Maybe that's just me, but, as I always say, I'm entitled to my opinion – and so are you. :-)
There are those who gild the lily by putting strips of bacon in the cavity. Some people do it, some people don't. The point of the whole exercise is to get some fat and moisture into the skin and outer layers of the meat. If you want to throw some bacon inside, too, go for it. It certainly won't hurt.
I read one turkey “expert” who called for applying the bacon to the bird under the skin. I had to read that one twice. While I can see the logic, I can't justify the hassle.
Now you're ready to head for the oven. No need to fiddle with the temperature. Barding doesn't make any difference in cooking time or temp. But here's where it gets a little choosy. There are several schools of thought regarding how long to leave the bacon in place.
The school I attended – with great success – calls for tenting the barded bird with foil for about the first hour of the cooking process, or until the internal temperature reaches somewhere between 140º and 150º. (I'm going to assume you know about cooking a turkey until the internal temperature reaches 165º as measured by a probe or instant-read thermometer inserted into in the innermost part of the thigh – away from the bone – and the thickest part of the breast.) Then you remove both the foil and the bacon and continue to cook uncovered, basting at regular intervals.
My hero, Alton Brown, says basting is wasting. He reasons that since turkey skin is darn near impermeable, there's no sense in trying to get flavorful liquid through it. You're just opening the oven door and letting heat escape unnecessarily. But just because he's my hero doesn't mean he's always right. In my school, basting doesn't have as much to do with trying to get flavor through the skin and into the meat as it does with trying to get crispiness and color to the skin. So I say, take off the foil and the bacon and baste away.
Another method involves replacing the bacon with a fresh layer after an hour's cooking and leaving the new layer in place all the way to the end, removing it just before you serve. Not so much. I think you're crossing the line here from a moist and flavorful bird to a greasy bird that tastes like bacon. I wouldn't do it.
Nor would I roam the halls of the school that says to leave the bacon in place until about the last fifteen minutes of cooking. Same thought; maybe too much of a good thing. Of course, if you're employing a cooking technique that will rocket your turkey's internal temperature from around 145º – the point at which I like to remove my bacon – to 165º in those last remaining fifteen minutes, well...I really don't want to know what you're doing.
So in summation, barding is basically a great technique for naturally self-basting your turkey, keeping it moist while adding a rich flavor element. The age-old method has fallen out of favor in our cholesterol-conscious, fat-phobic modern era, but, as is so often the case, there's a lot to be said for the old-fashioned ways of doing things. Try it and you'll find that barding is one of those things about which you can't say enough.
Buon appetito e buone festi!