Feeding 32 for Thanksgiving: Mama's Chinese Spiced Roast Turkey with Szechuan Peppercorns

By Charleen - November 24, 2019

Every couple of years, it's our turn to host my husband's giant family Thanksgiving celebration -- a two-day eating and games extravaganza dating back to 1950. Roasting a small preview turkey helps to generate drippings to support 15-20 pounds of mashed potatoes and ensure enough leftover turkey for the requisite Friday turkey noodle soup. I also enjoy the chance to get in a little experimentation, and to enjoy the luscious crisp fresh-from-the-oven turkey skin without distraction! 

When I was growing up, my mother always made Chinese roasted duck for Thanksgiving, complete with little meatballs added after the duck fat rendered, tender but crisped on the outside. When her American-born children asked for turkey instead, she adapted her procedures to slow roast the much bigger bird. This resulted in a tender, delicious meal that she preferred cooking, as there was much less fat to be handled, but we lost the little meatballs in the process...
My Māmā 媽媽 would dry roast coarse salt with whole peppercorns in a skillet until the salt started to brown and the peppercorns could be crushed easily with the back of a spoon. This was rubbed over the turkey, inside and out. The salt/peppercorn mix was also rubbed over the neck and innards, which were nestled inside the cavity overnight with a good amount of ginger, garlic and scallions to "pull out" any bad odors. In the morning, the pan was cleaned and dried, the innards wrapped in foil, and the breast rubbed with toasted sesame oil before roasting. The technique that she used basically amounted to dry brining the bird for 12-24 h prior to roasting. I later discovered that the drippings produced the most delectable gravy with no additional seasoning needed.
The 10-14 pound turkey is my favorite size for roasting. Over the years, I have experimented with techniques such as placing ice packs on the breast while the turkey warmed for 60-90 minutes on the counter, and measuring both breast and thigh temperature during roasting. It was difficult to get the ice to stay on, and the breast still cooked faster than the thigh.
This year, I was looking through photos and remembering how perfect the skin is fresh out of the oven, only to lose that perfect crisp, melt-in-the-mouth texture by the time the carved meat is served. I decided I would experiment. I would quickly strip most of the skin off right when the turkey came out and place on a dry plate the way they do with Peking duck. The skin can then be cut up and served separately from the meat.
I also experimented with using half black peppercorns and half Szechuan peppercorns. Szechuan peppercorns are the classic ingredient in Chinese five spice powder. However, until 2005, it was not allowed to be imported to the United States. Thus, my mother substituted black peppercorns, but always commented that the flavor was not the same. Szechuan peppercorns add a distinctive tingling or numbing sensation that produces the Má 麻 part of the famous Málà 麻辣 flavor (numbing and spicy) that characterizes Szechuan cuisine. These are now readily available from Penzey's spices, but the best quality Szechuan peppercorns can be mail ordered from the Mala Market. They carry three different varieties and their stock is freshly dried from the current year's harvest.

Finally, I realized that allowing the turkey to warm up from the fridge on the cold roasting pan would mean that the dark meat would stay cold until the pan warmed up. I decided that I would move the turkey onto parchment paper on a rack, upside down, so that air would circulate better across the thighs and back, while being more restricted on the breast. I also tucked the foil wrapped neck and innards against the front of the breast to further insulate it. My hope was that this would result in the dark meat being warmer than the white meat when it entered the oven. I planned to roast for about 2/3 of the time upside down, before flipping the bird over. I had tried this once before to the detriment of the turkey appearance, because some of the breast skin stuck to the rack -- hence the parchment paper.

This technique worked perfectly! Although there were some unattractive indentations on the breast when first flipped using a wooden spoon and hot mitt, by the time the turkey was done, these marks were gone and the top of the turkey was browned as nicely as the bottom. As you can see below and from the temperature graph for the 22 pound turkey on Thanksgiving day, the breast stayed cooler than the thigh through the whole roasting process, and the skin was beautifully browned and crisped all over for both the small and large turkeys.
Breast temperatures stayed below thigh temperatures during roasting even after turkey was flipped. After resting 15 min, all probe temperatures converged around 160°F. 
I removed the skin first, and laid it out so it would not get soggy. After a 10-15 minute rest, the breast meat was removed, and sliced so it would begin cooling and not overcook. Then all the dark meat was removed, and the bones and drippings were placed in a 6 quart instant pot.
My husband declared this the best turkey ever. After roasting, the bite from the Szechuan peppercorns mellows to the extent that you do not realize they are there. No single spice grabs center stage, but the whole mixture simply serves to enhance the turkey and drippings.

After dinner, I added water to the bones, neck, heart and gizzards in the Instant Pot to between the 2/3 and 3/4 marks. It was cooked on the soup/stock setting at high pressure for 1 h, and then left for 1-2 h to naturally release. I could not believe how good the stock smelled. I strained the stock into a bowl, returned the bones to the Instant Pot, and refrigerated both stock and bones.
After scraping the turkey fat off the top, the gelled stock was scooped into a tupperware and frozen for later use.
After a day in the fridge, I discovered that the stock had turned into a lovely amber gel, and the semi-solid fat could easily be scraped off the top. Furthermore, in contrast to the bland, mushy texture of the meat left on the bones after making stock in a crockpot, the meat clinging to the bones after the Instant Pot stock cycle still had a nice roasted flavor and texture. After snacking on several of the leg bones, I put more water into the Instant Pot for stock extraction #2. While this was not as flavorful as the first round, I boiled off half the volume and found that it was still better than commercial stock.

The preview turkey not only yielded one delicious dinner, but also I now have a container of frozen white meat, frozen dark meat, about 2 quarts of a rich brown gelled turkey stock and 2 cups of a lighter turkey stock, which I added to the fresh drippings on Thanksgiving day for a large pot of gravy.

In a few days, I will be repeating these steps with the largest fresh turkey I could order, plus a 9-10 pound turkey breast.  Click this link for more make ahead tasks:  cider-baked mashed sweet potatoes, roasted brussels sprouts and butternut squash glazed in cinnamon-maple syrup, brown and wild rice for the stuffing, and browned butter bourbon spice cookies.

Update after Thanksgiving:  

This recipe and roasting technique worked perfectly when scaled up for the 22 pound turkey. I used 4 Tbs kosher salt, 1.5 Tbs black peppercorns and 1 Tbs whole Szechuan peppercorn. When allowing the turkey to warm up from the refrigerator before placing in the oven, I kept the breast on ice packs on the cold broiler pan, and placed the foil wrapped neck and gizzards against the chest.
The turkey was roasted breast side down on a rack on parchment, and 2/3 of the way through cooking, I got my husband's help to flip the bird and remove the parchment. The skin came out lovely and the breast stayed cooler than the thigh and back for the entire roasting time so that each type of meat was ideally cooked. Click here for Thanksgiving photos and tips that set the stage for some fantastic leftover turkey dishes.

Now on to the turkey recipe...
Mama's Chinese-spiced Turkey                                            November 21, 2019

1 12-14 pound turkey, fresh or thawed
3 Tbs kosher salt
1 Tbs black peppercorns (e.g. Penzey's India Tellicherry)
1 Tbs whole Szechuan peppercorns
1 inch segment of fresh ginger root, sliced
3-4 cloves garlic, sliced
3-4 stalks of green onion, partially crushed using back of knife
Chinese sesame oil (toasted brown or black)

Night before cooking.
1.       Place two dish towels on a pan or platter large enough to hold the turkey.
2.       Rinse turkey, inside and out. Gently shake dry and place on dish towels. Remove neck from cavity and rinse. Remove gizzard pack from neck cavity, and rinse contents. Place on dish towels.
3.    Add salt and black peppercorns to the skillet and heat over medium-low heat, shaking pan occasionally. When you can smell the black pepper, add the Szechuan peppercorns. Continue heating while using a large metal ladle or spoon to smash open the peppercorns. Remove from heat to a small bowl when most of peppercorns are smashed and salt is starting to turn light brown.
4.       Use fresh dish towel to pat turkey dry and transfer to a dry broiler pan. When salt mix is cool enough to handle rub several tablespoons inside the main cavity and the neck cavity, focusing on the side against the breast. Rub remaining salt mixure on all surfaces of turkey, neck and organ meats.
5.   Place ginger root, garlic and scallions inside main cavity along with neck and organ meats.  Place broiler pan in the refrigerator, uncovered so skin can dry.

About 1.5 hours before cooking.
6.       Bring turkey out of refrigerator. Lightly grease roasting pan and V-rack. Place a sheet of parchment paper on the rack.
7.     Pour some sesame oil into small bowl, and rub over turkey breast.  Place turkey breast side down on parchment paper in rack, and allow to warm for at least 1 hr.
8.      Preheat oven to 350°F.
9.      Insert temperature probes into thigh and breast on the same side, and place turkey into oven.
10. After 30 minutes, turn oven down to 325°F. (Surface temperatures will be >140°F by then).
11.   After another 80 minutes, remove from oven (close oven to keep heat in). Insert a strong wooden spoon into the cavity and carefully rotate turkey onto its back using a hot mitt to help. Lift one side of the turkey and pull out parchment paper. Remove gizzard foil pack to plate.  Return turkey to oven.
12.  Remove from oven when the breast reaches 155-160°F and the thigh reaches 165-170°F. Use an Instant Read thermometer, as sometimes the probes get stuck.
13.  Immediately pull off turkey skin, and place on platter to cool.  Allow turkey to rest 10-15 minutes before carving, beginning with the breast. Spoon some pan juices over breast and cover before carving dark meat.
14.  Bones, gizzards and any parts you do not want to serve should be placed in a crock pot or Instant Pot for turkey stock.

To make pan gravy.
15.   Pour drippings and any juices accumulating from carving into a gravy separator.  Add a cup of water and a tsp of vinegar to roasting pan and heat on stove top, scraping turkey bits and the fond until it dissolves.  Strain into gravy separator.
16.  Taste and add more water if it seems too salty. Estimate the number of cups of liquid (aqueous) that you have. For every cup of liquid, you will need 2 Tbs. of fat and 2 Tbs. of flour.
17.   After fat rises, remove the tablespoons needed, plus one or two extra. To prevent gravy clumping, be very careful not to include any non-fat liquid.  If you do not have enough turkey fat, use melted butter.
18.  To make the roux, heat the turkey fat/butter in a saucepan.  Add flour and cook until flour reaches a bit darker than the final desired color for your gravy.
19.  Slowly whisk in the liquid, and cook stirring until gravy has achieved desired thickness. If it gets too thick, you can add a bit of warmed water.  If it does not thicken enough, prepare additional roux and add to gravy.

Click here for my wild rice stuffing/dressing recipe that complements these Chinese-inspired flavors with prosciutto, dried mushrooms, and hazelnuts.

Please enjoy the recipe and share what you think. Click here for a Printer formatted version.
🐾 The "fresh" turkeys sold at most grocery stores are below freezing temperatures, as "fresh" is defined as a turkey that has never gone below 26°F. A 20 pound fresh turkey still needs to rest for up to 2 days in the home refrigerator (below 40°F) before roasting.

🍃 Use clean dishtowels instead of single-use paper towels. The dishtowel absorbs a lot more water. Plus, it is easy to wash in hot water with your next load of laundry!

🐾 Don't trust the pop-up turkey indicator that comes in the breast. They frequently fail to pop up. The Range or Range Dial probes that connect to the iPad or iPhone work better, but my older red Range probe seemed to stop working after I flipped the turkey. I use the Thermapen Instant Read thermometer for final assessment of doneness. 

🐾 This frozen 13.25 pound turkey was allowed to thaw undisturbed in the refrigerator from Sat mid-day to Tues evening, before being rinsed and dry-brined until the next day. It was placed in the oven around 2:40 pm, flipped at 4:30 and done at 5:30. 

DID YOU MAKE THIS RECIPE? Please post comments below or photos to Instagram, Facebook or Twitter

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  1. I'm going to make this delicious turkey for our Thanksgiving! Thanks for writing it all down.