Holidays / Thanksgiving / Thanksgiving Recipes / Brown Paper Bag Turkey

Brown Paper Bag Turkey

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Shared by Amanda and Jane Dell for Jewish Food Society
Recipe Roots: New York City

“I can’t remember a Thanksgiving where the Dells didn’t make the turkey,” explains Amanda Dell, the Jewish Food Society’s program director. Her family has made the same turkey recipe in her grandmother’s Bronx apartment, in her parents apartment in Manhattan and later in their New Jersey home, a family vacation house in the Poconos, and in Amanda’s apartment in Stuy Town in Manhattan’s East Village.

One year, her parents Jane and Larry roasted the turkey and pushed it downtown to a relative’s apartment in a shopping cart. Jane can’t remember precisely why. “Maybe their oven wasn’t working,” she says. “That was rough.” But the bird made it.

The Dell family recipe forgoes the pesky requirement of basting a turkey repeatedly over hours of roasting. Instead, the bird is dressed and placed into a label-less paper bag that’s coated inside and out with oil. Then, the bag is pierced with small holes at the top to let out the steam and tied shut at the end of the bird with an oil-soaked piece of string. The result is “fabulous, crispy on the outside and very moist on the inside,” says Jane, and the bird releases just enough juices into the pan to make gravy.

No one is certain where the recipe came from — a magazine or a friend seems likely, say the Dells. But, it became part of the holiday tradition in the 1950s, when Jane’s mother Bertha, who was known as Bertie, started to make it in her Bronx apartment. “Once she started doing it, it was a revelation,” Jane says.

Bertie in Prospect Park, 1939.

“My mother liked to keep the family together,” she adds. Her parents emigrated from Poland with Bertie’s mother Ida arriving at Castle Garden, the point of entry for immigrants arriving in New York before the opening of Ellis Island in 1892. The family assimilated, moving away from religious practices, “but they kept some of the traditions,” Jane says, and lived in a Jewish, Italian, and Irish neighborhood near Fordham Road. “My mother [she liked] the Jewish style of cooking.” There was schmaltz on hand in the kitchen, superb potato latkes, and chopped liver.  

Bertie loved to cook, when her daughters were little, she would take Jane and her sister on a bus to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx to grocery shop and host family dinners. As the girls got older, Bertie took a job as a secretary for the Secret Service department of the IRS. Still, “My mother really made an effort, especially for Thanksgiving,” Jane adds. But, despite her love of cooking, Bertie “didn’t really share her [culinary] secrets all that much.”  

Somehow, the technique of roasting a turkey in a bag was passed down — as was the custom of changing up nearly every other dish on the table. Al, Bertie’s brother, who is now 97-years-old, explains: “The stuffing was always different every year. There was sausage stuffing, cornbread stuffing, and I think there was wild rice involved in one stuffing with apricots.” Other sides over the years included Bertie’s chopped liver, which made an appearance on the family Thanksgiving table from time to time, says Jane.

Family photo from cousin Arthur’s Bar Mitzvah, Queens, 1956. Jane is seated (front row all the way to the right) with Bertie seated directly behind her.
Family photo from cousin Arthur’s Bar Mitzvah, Queens, 1956. Jane is seated (front row all the way to the right) with Bertie seated directly behind her.

In recent years, Amanda has taken on the role of Thanksgiving host, as she lives closest to Al, who is always included in the holiday festivities. “I really…wanted to host, so that I could take some of that [work] off of my parents,” she says. “I felt happy…that I could step up as an adult daughter that could host…I felt very proud to do that.”

She’s given the family holiday menu a more modern and seasonal spin, adding greenmarket salads inspired by London-based Israeli chef and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi, roasted delicata squash, and courtesy of her cousin, cranberry cornbread, to the menu. This year, there may be chopped liver as well. And, of course, at the center of everything, will sit Bertie’s turkey.

Bertie’s Brown Paper Bag Turkey

Photos by Penny De Los Santos

Serves: 10-12
Time: 30 minutes active + 2 hours to bring turkey to room temperature + 2 ½ -3 hours cooking time

1 – 12-14 lb. turkey, brought to room temperature
1-2 cups of canola oil
Kosher salt (~¼ cup)
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted*
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Large brown paper shopping bag without any ink or writing**

1. Before getting started it is a good idea to make sure that your turkey fits properly in the brown paper bag you have chosen. This is easier and much less messy when your turkey is still in its package. The turkey should slide easily into the bag and be able to gather and be sealed at the open end of the bag.

2. Two hours before you are ready to cook the turkey, remove it from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature.

3. Preheat the oven to 375°F.

4. Roll up your sleeves and get ready to get messy! Starting with the outside, completely saturate the paper bag with the canola oil – inside and out. This is best done over or even in the sink, if large enough. The entire bag should look wet, but there should be no pools of oil anywhere. Let the bag sit while you prepare the turkey so that you can make sure that every nook and cranny is completely saturated with oil before adding the turkey. This is very important!

5. Remove any giblets from the cavity and discard or reserve for stock or gravy. Season the entire turkey generously with salt (about 1 teaspoon per pound is a good guideline) rubbing it all over the outside and inside of the bird. Don’t be shy. Really get in there.

6. Using your hands, rub the turkey all over with the unsalted butter and then with the olive oil.

7. Tie the legs of the turkey together with kitchen twine. Slide the turkey inside the paper bag (you will likely need backup for this step) and place the bag on top of a wire rack set in a large roasting pan. Gather the paper bag at the top to close and tie it together with kitchen twine to secure.

9. Punch 8-10 small holes in the top of the bag with a knife to allow for steam to escape.

10. Place the turkey in the oven making sure that the oven rack is low enough to accommodate the bag and is not making contact with any of the heating elements inside of the oven. Roast for 2 hours, then cut the top of the bag open to allow for additional browning. Roast for 30-45 minutes more until the juices run clear between the leg and thigh or an instant read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165°F. *Please note that this is a rough estimate of the amount of time that it will take to cook a 12-14 lb. turkey at 375°F. The final cooking time will depend on many factors including the size of your turkey and the temperature of your oven. A thermometer is the most foolproof way to not overcook your turkey. The important thing here is to cut the bag open when you think you have about 30 minutes of roasting time left so that the bird can get nice and golden and crispy during the final moments of roasting.

11. Let the turkey rest for at least 30 minutes before transferring to a cutting board and carving.

*If keeping kosher, simply substitute the butter with 8 tablespoons of high quality extra virgin olive oil.

**Paper bags large enough for your turkey can usually be found at your local hardware store or on Handled bags are ok too! Just remove the handles before getting started.

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