Sohla El-Waylly is known for her popular YouTube videos for "The New York Times" and for her new show on History channel called "Ancient Recipes with Sohla."
El-Waylly joined Al Roker on his new podcast, "Cooking Up a Storm with Al Roker" to show him her way of doing a Thanksgiving bird. Her recipe for Herb-Roasted Turkey and Honey-Thyme Gravy is, indeed, a game-changer.
And while her spatchcocked bird — meaning that it is split open with the backbone removed so it can be cooked flat— does not look like the traditional version of turkey you're used to seeing on the Thanksgiving table, when you taste how juicy it is, you'll be a convert.
Her technique includes dry brining the turkey. "It sounds a lot more complicated than it is," she said. "You're just going to sprinkle salt and whatever else you want on there. And then what happens is, as it sits in the fridge, the salt on the surface of the turkey is going dissolve and it creates a really concentrated brine, with just the salt and the turkey juices, that then gets sucked into the turkey."
Next, three cool things happen, the first being that it will season the turkey and make it delicious. "But it also breaks down some of those muscle fibers, creating a bit of a gel," says El-Waylly, so that the turkey gets really tender and juicy and there's less worry about overcooking it. "It's just going be a bit more forgiving," she says.
"The best part about the dry brine is it's going dry out the surface of the skin and break down the fat, so you get really crispy skin."
To make this recipe, you'll need a 12-14 pound turkey and woody herbs such as sage, rosemary and thyme. (If you have more people coming and need a bigger turkey, El-Waylly suggests getting two turkeys for this recipe.)
While Sohla and Al spatchcock the turkey, they talked some turkey about cooking, traditions and the "lie" we all believe about cooking the bird.
What's the one mistake people make when it comes to the turkey?
I think cooking it whole and putting stuffing in it, trying to get that picture-perfect turkey. The stuffing dries it out because all of that flavorful turkey juice just gets absorbed into the stuffing. And then when you cook it whole, it doesn't cook as evenly. When you flatten out your turkey and spatchcock it what happens is the legs end up getting more heat because they're on the outside of the pan. So they end up cooking a little bit longer. They get tender, more rendered, and we can protect the delicate breast meat. When you cook your turkey whole, the breast is getting all of the heat, and it gets dried out.
Do you have to have a fresh turkey, as opposed to a frozen turkey?
I think the quality of the turkey you start with is really important. I try to get a heritage breed but those turkeys are pricey, so just get what works within your budget.
I feel like, a lot of times, the turkey ends up being the most disappointing thing on the table. You know those turkeys that have the thermometer in it that pops? Those are a lie. They only pop when the turkey is so overcooked it's like cardboard. Don’t waste your time with that.
What are your Thanksgiving memories from growing up?
Thanksgiving's my favorite day of the year, genuinely. My family is Muslim, so we didn't grow up celebrating Easter or Christmas or even New Year's because my parents worked a lot. Thanksgiving was the one thing that we did that other people did that made me feel like I fit in. When you're a kid, that's all you want.
When my parents first came to America, my mom worked at a factory. And one of her co-workers really helped us learn about American cuisine. So she would have my mom over, and they would just cook together. So one Thanksgiving they cooked the whole meal together, like super traditional, classic American stuff. The boxed stuffing, the gelatin pudding pie. Everything was from a box, but it was delicious. I loved the green bean casserole with the soup from the can. We did all the classics. And that was the meal that we had almost every single year. I loved it because I loved feeling like everyone in the country was doing the same thing.
It's a nondenominational holiday. And this country's got so many different cultures and religions, we're not usually celebrating all together. So I just love that we're all celebrating together.
Growing up, what was your favorite dish for Thanksgiving?
100% stuffing from the box. I love it. It's perfect. And when I make stuffing now, I try to make it taste like stuffing from a box. I'll get fancy bread from the farmer's market, but then I'll cut it up into tiny cubes and season it up to taste just like the boxed one It's, like, high/low, that kind of situation.
How did you come up with the idea of putting honey into your gravy?
Well, on my kitchen counter, my core spices are salt, sugar, MSG, pepper, and honey. The honey gives it a nice body. Honey has a little bit of natural acidity. So it kind of perks things up. And there's that sweetness.
But you saw, I didn't go overboard. It's just a couple of teaspoons. And it really just mellows out all the flavors. Sugar is really important in savory food, the same way you add a pinch of salt to dessert. It just helps everything liven up. You've got to have balance.
You've talked about setting intentions behind anything that you eat. What does Thanksgiving mean to you from an emotional place?
Having a meal is the most important thing to me. That's really where I feel like you can connect with anybody. I didn't have the closest relationship with a lot of people in my family, because my family's very conservative and I'm less so. But the one place where we could all agree and have a good time and come together was around a meal. And that's why I think of Thanksgiving as a holiday that celebrates the meal more than anything else. There's no gifts. There's no religion. It's just, "Let's celebrate what it means to gather around a table." So that's why it's so important to me. Especially last year, we weren't able to celebrate with family. It was just me and my husband. But it was still great because we still set the table, and sat down with all of that emotion and all of that intention. And it was still an amazing holiday.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity — for the full conversation, listen to "Cooking Up a Storm with Al Roker" wherever you find your podcasts.