Delta Pillowcase Turkey

(Photos by Caroline Allison)

A surprising secret family recipe that puts an end to dry turkey

From deep-frying to brining to injecting, these days someone’s always crowing about new tricks for the perfect Thanksgiving bird. But Chef Elizabeth Heiskell, lead culinary instructor at the Viking Cooking School in Greenwood, Mississippi, and coauthor of the cookbook  Somebody Stole the Cornbread from My Dressing, relies on a family secret passed down from her grandmother—and it involves, well, bedding.

“My grandmother is one of the best cooks I have ever been around,” Heiskell says. “She is also a perfectionist.” Frustrated that her turkeys always seemed to come out of the oven just a little too brown or a tad too dry, Heiskell’s grandmother, Barbara Stott, came up with her own solution. Her method: wrapping the bird in a pillowcase saturated with red wine and chicken broth. (At the time, the pillowcase was likely made of muslin, an absorbent and porous fabric, though in today’s world of synthetics, make sure you go with 100 percent cotton. And be sure to thoroughly saturate the cloth.) By wrapping the turkey in a case, Stott was able to trap moisture and add flavor (see recipe below). And a very tasty family tradition was born.

And because no turkey is complete without gravy, see Heiskell’s Million Dollar Gravy recipe below.

Delta Pillowcase Turkey

1 turkey (12–15 pounds)
2 cups red wine
6 whole peppercorns
2 tablespoons parsley
3 sticks butter
4 strips smoked bacon
1 ½ cups chicken broth
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon thyme
salt and pepper

Wash turkey and remove giblets, neck, and anything else in it. Dry the bird. Coat it with 1 stick of softened butter, and liberally salt and pepper the entire bird. Cut a white cotton sheet or pillowcase into a square big enough to wrap the entire turkey. Using a “V” shaped rack and roasting pan, place the cloth over the rack and put 4 strips of smoked bacon on the cloth. Place the turkey breast-side down on top of the bacon, and fold the cloth up over the turkey so it is fully covered. Completely saturate the pillowcase and turkey with the red wine and 1 cup of chicken broth. This is very important! Then add the peppercorns, parsley, bay leaves, and thyme to the bottom of the roasting pan. Place the turkey into a 500-degree oven and roast for 20 minutes.

In a sauté pan, melt 2 sticks of butter with 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper and ½ cup chicken broth. After the turkey has roasted 20 minutes, liberally baste the turkey with the butter mixture. Again, make sure the entire cloth around the bird is saturated. Turn the oven to 300 degrees and continue roasting until a meat thermometer registers 170 degrees in the breast and 180 degrees in the thigh. Baste the turkey every hour with pan juices, making sure the pillowcase remains saturated. If the pan dries, pour in equal parts red wine and chicken broth. Fifteen to 20 minutes before roasting time is up, remove the cloth and flip the turkey over so that the breast side is up. Brush the breast with melted butter so the skin will crisp and brown. Once the turkey is ready, remove the bird to a warm platter.

Million Dollar Gravy 

From: Somebody Stole the Cornbread from my Dressing 
By Elizabeth Heiskell and Susanne Young Reed

2 cups juices from the turkey pan
2 tablespoons softened butter
salt and pepper to taste
red wine if needed
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Strain the juices left in the roasting pan. If necessary, add enough red wine to make at least 2 cups of liquid. Then pour it back into the pan. Place the pan over medium heat and use a wooden spoon to scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Blend softened butter and all-purpose flour to make a paste. Whisk into roasting pan and bring to a simmer. Continue to whisk until thick. Taste to adjust salt and pepper.