This Christmas, when my mother-in-law asked me what we should do for dinner, I blurted out, “Goose.” I had no recipe in mind, had no experience cooking a goose, didn’t even know how you’d acquire one. I just knew that goose was at the center of the Old World holiday feast, a fattier, darker, more hallowed precedent to the American turkey, and I wanted one at the center of our table.
What Is a Goose But a Really Big Duck?
I like duck. I love duck. Give me duck l’orange, especially the chipotle-accented one from the Big Yellow Cookbook, and I am a happy person. Give me duck cooked medium rare in a brick oven located in the Millbrook Cafe in Millbrook, NY, sliced and served with Cumberland sauce (that’d be raspberry preserves and horseradish), and I experience gastroeuphoria. Duck fat is the butter of kings, and anyone whose eaten too much of it knows why.
When you buy a frozen duck and, among the loose organs shoved inside, you find a nice fatty liver, it’s like winning a Cracker Jack prize, not the stickers and temporary tattoos of today, but the real plastic compasses and racecars that used to choke kids before they were outlawed. This is the joy of duck, so I figured a goose was just that, x 4. It’s not far from the truth, as you can tell from my in-medias-res glee:
Yet despite the green shit covering waterfront sidewalks from Fort Wayne, IN to Vancouver, WA would suggest, geese are not just anywhere. The ambitious butcher shop at my Whole Foods no longer carries them, and unless you reserved one in advance, you couldn’t get a fresh one at my specialty poultry & fish store either. They did have a frozen one, though, a 14-pounder they were willing to part with for $113. Not only was I gambling our entire Christmas dinner on this unknown item, I was spending more than a hundred bucks for that privilege.
“Don’t fuck it up,” was what I heard in my head, again and again.
In many ways, dealing with a goose is easier than dealing with a duck. You can do 27 different things to duck; you roast a goose.
There are many goose roasting recipes out there, though, so it makes sense to poke around. I used three or four sources, and naturally fudged a lot of it. Here are the ingredients I ended up using, corresponding to the steps I took:
A 14-lb. goose, frozen–don’t forget to thaw that sumbitch out starting a few days in advance
For the Brine
3 cups salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
Herbes de Provence
For the Stuffing
6 slices of bacon
3 stalks celery
8 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 jar of roasted chestnuts
4 cups of cooked wild rice–I used a really nice blend from Lundberg called Black Japonica
1 tsp marjoram
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp herbes de Provence
Note: I based my stuffing recipe off of this simple beauty, Christmas Goose, Dickens Style, ripped from the pages of Yankee Magazine some 19 years ago.
For the Baste
2 cups apple cider
1 cup cider vinegar
Juices from the bottom of the pan
For the Garnish
1 blood orange
And of course I’d make some pate with the liver, but that’s another story.
Nobody could tell me specifically whether there’d be a liver in there, but I figured that would at least cover some of the cost. Goose liver, even from the non-force-fed kind, would be excellent for my French mini-meatloaf, so I was happy to discover, when I first fisted the goose, that the nice big liver was there, intact. So, on the day before Christmas, I set the liver aside, and set about brining the bastard.
Brining Up Baby
My father-in-law is a barbecue meister of the highest order. He spends time on Weber Smoky Mountain smoker message boards, swapping tales of mythical rubs and legendary charcoal-lighting techniques. So when I said I needed a brining bucket, not only did he produce a Home Depot multi-purpose bucket that would do the trick, he made a point of declaring it food safe, and that he’d been all over the internet verifying this fact upside down and sideways. Since I’d already consumed a great deal of meat that he’d prepared in the bucket, I knew he was telling the truth (or that it was too late for us all anyway).
Brining is easy. Jeffrey Steingarten’s technique worked well, counting the gallons as you pour them into the bucket over your bird–cavity side up to avoid an air pocket. Once you know how many gallons of water you have (in my case, 3), you dissolve the corresponding amount of sugar and salt (1.5 cups and 3 cups, respectively) into a little bit of heated water on the stove, then dump that into the bucket. Steingarten says to add flavorings, too. I only halfheartedly dumped in a little herbes de Provence, because I wasn’t yet sure what I wanted, flavor wise, and didn’t want to go too far down the wrong road. Salt and sugar are crucial to brining; I think the rest is marginal.
With bird in bucket on the eve of my roast, I set it in the fridge for an overnight soak.
The Pre-Roast Roast
Duck often gets seared, skin down, before any other cooking. Goose skin is similar, so I knew I wanted to hit it with some heat at the beginning. After I pricked it all over with a fork, like so many sources say to do, I stuck it in a roasting pan and shoved it in a pre-heated convection oven at 375º for 30 minutes. If you’re not using convection, you might go for 400º.
While I pre-roasted my fair fowl, giving it a nice suntan, I made sure to cook the rice and prep the stuffing. You can pretty much guess from the list of ingredients above how that would work, just start with the bacon, add the onion, carrots and celery, soften them up then add everything else, herbs and (cooked) rice last.
After 30 minutes, I pulled my goose out of the oven (and dropped the heat to 350º). Not only had it taken on a ruddier complexion, but it had sweated at least a pound of grease. I don’t know many uses for goose grease, but Dwight Schrute would admonish me for getting rid of a perfectly usable supply, so I poured it off into a bowl. Here you go, Dwight:
I then performed two acts that felt wrong, if not downright depraved.
I cut off half of each wing using kitchen shears. Sure, the goose wasn’t going to be flying anyway, but I felt guilty for the clipping nonetheless.
Using tongs and a large spoon, I got positively proctological on the thing, stuffing it full but loosely with the rice and chestnut mixture. I didn’t truss it up, mostly because everything seemed to be holding fine. Fortunately, hindsight proved it would have been an unnecessary step.
The Long Haul
Back into the oven went my tortured friend, to roast for what all the recipes said would be nearly 6 hours total. Seriously, 6 hours? I couldn’t believe it would take that long, and thank God for my skepticism. The goal was to raise the internal temperature of the sucka to 165º (though honestly I think you could go lower without the risk of poisoning your loved ones). With that target in mind, I set timer for three hours, with the intent of checking the temperature then and determining the remaining cook time.
Real cooking people know that this temperature thing is really important, and that having a real digital insta-read thermometer will save your ass 100 times over. I am late to the party on this, like many other culinary topics, but I did finally toss those silly metal thermometers and get a nice new digital one, this ProAccurate model from CDN.
Besides “prick the skin all over before roasting,” you tend to hear people talking about goose say that you need to baste frequently. My Yankee recipe didn’t say jack about basting, but I forgive them. My baste was hurried but awesome, possibly the biggest reason for the bird’s ultimate success. I filled a bowl with heated spiced cider we just happened to have out in a serving carafe, then suctioned up some drippings from the pan, then poured in cider vinegar, adding a nice acidic razor to slice through the fatty sweetness. I used the baster and a brush, hitting it every 30 minutes or so with a good rinse.
As I watched, though, I got worried. The skin was turning darker, in parts going all the way black. I thought it must be something to do with the sugars in the cider baste, and my main concern was getting another two to three hours of roasting out of the deal, without permanently destroying my $113 bird.
That was the reason why I decided to check the temperature early. After it had been in there for just over three hours (total, including the 30 minute initial sear), I checked the temp, and oh man, I was way the hell over 165º. I was seeing 175º, 180º in places. I was done??? I probed the crap out of that thing, in its farthest reaches, and I couldn’t find a single spot where the temperature was anything but over the line.
So what the hell happened? Why did so many recipes agree on this 25 minutes per pound rule, if I did it in half that? The answer must be convection: I pre-roasted at 375º and roasted at 350º, both on the convection setting. If you have the capability, I recommend it, especially given the amount of time saved. However, if I had fully appreciated this difference in potency, I would have done two things:
1) Dial down the long-haul temperature to 325º
2) Start checking temperature two hours into the long haul
Convection is definitely better, but with great convection comes great responsibility.
So there it was, my goose was cooked, and before any Christmas side dish was started. Once the silky stuffing had been removed, all that was left was the carving, and for that, I turned to a pro.
I know my way around bird anatomy a little more than I did a few years ago, when I was new to whole ducks and chickens. But I am still surprised at how much meat you can extract from something that feels so bony, and how boning and carving techniques really do work, way better than anything you could fake on your own. I’d love to take credit for the way my goose looked, arranged on that platter in the top shot, but I must attribute its aesthetic charm in its entirety to Cat Cora. Well, Cat Cora and the Russian guy who invented Tetris. Here’s Cat’s super helpful (and mercifully short) video on the subject of carving goose:
But How Did It Taste?
It managed to be pretty enough on film, but taken orally it was an even greater success. It’s darker meat, but it’s not the same as dark turkey. It’s more like duck done confit style, a fuller meat flavor that jives with cranberry sauce in ways turkey lovers can only wish they knew. The skin, even when nearly black, was never bitter. In fact, it was tangy and thin without being tough. Everyone gobbled it down.
The funny thing is that it was the stuffing, a simple wild rice and chestnut deal, that stole the whole damn show. I am not kidding, I don’t even like wild rice, but I was spellbound by this drenched goodness. I attribute its success to the basting process, too. I nailed it again and again with my cider mixture, and made sure plenty of meat drippings were going in there. (Note, that’s another great argument for not trussing the mofo up.)
In the end I have very few regrets, but I have still managed to learn from my mistakes and others’ misguidances. When I saw Wes Anderson’s debut film, Bottle Rocket, I wrote in my college paper that I’d love to see what the guy does next. If this goose was Bottle Rocket, I swear to you people, the next goose I cook will be Rushmore.
Here are some bonus goose links:
• Jeffrey Steingarten’s explanation of Goose Brining
• Yankee Magazine’s Christmas Goose, Dickens Style
• Roast Goose with Apple and Walnut Stuffing, with some very helpful roasting advice
• USDA Food Safety holiday meat briefing, with a nice table of safe meat temperatures
• Wes Anderson filmography on IMDB