We’re coming down the wire for my series on how to cook your own delicious Thanksgiving Dinner, even if you’ve never done it before. We started with Getting Organized, added a Checklist, then looked at the tools and other things you might need, and last week looked at the trickiest part of the meal, The Gravy. If you’ve been following the series, then you’re already practicing your gravy technique. If you’re new, there’s probably still time. This week it’s how to cook a turkey.
It’s all about The Bird. Roasting a turkey is pretty easy. You prep the birdie, slap it in the oven. It cooks to 165 degrees. You pull it out, let it rest for 20 minutes while you mash the potatoes, finish the gravy and the green beans. The you slice it in the kitchen, so you can snatch some of the yummy crispy skin first, and serve.
The trick is roasting the turkey so that it’s done at a certain time, such as after all the guests have arrived but before Grandma gets tipsy. Because turkeys are so big, they take a lot of time to roast. Not to mention ovens get cranky and depending on how cold your bird is before you put it in, it may take more or less time to get cooked all the way through. And you want it cooked all the way through because undercooked poultry is icky and because it can transmit salmonella, which is no fun at all.
I shoot for a slower cooking time – it’s easier to adjust for the timing of your meal. And it’s a much bigger problem if your bird is done too soon. Holding it in the oven or reheating it can dry it out and that’s not tasty. If it does happen to you, don’t despair. That’s what gravy is for. Just go ahead and slice the bird up and put it in a roasting pan or oven-safe dish, and cover it tightly with foil. Turn the oven to warm and if you can find the room (and you should, since the bones will be mostly gone), slide a pan of water on the lowest rack in the oven or on the floor. This will keep things somewhat moist.
A lot of folks recommend brining, and I used to be one of them. Until I discovered just how freaking hard it is to find a bird that hasn’t already had salt and other flavors injected into it. If your local turkeys are unbrined and you do want to, there are plenty of recipes out there on the Internet. But it is an extra step, plus the hassle of finding room in the fridge. Unless you’re in a part of the country where it’s below 40 degrees at night, in which case, a cooler on the back porch, securely closed, will probably do just fine and keep things perfectly safe. And speaking again of safety, you really want to make sure you clean any surface the raw turkey has come into contact with, and that you wash your hands before touching anything else. It’s a bit of a pain, but better than making your guests sick.
One note – because the stores hadn’t gotten their turkeys when I did the photos, I’m doing the demonstration on a chicken. Fear not. It is exactly the same process. The only difference is the size. And the first step is to figure out when you need to get the sucker into the oven. You’re going to be roasting it at 300 degrees, so figure it’s going to take 15 minutes for each pound of bird you have. I have a 12-pounder, so that’s 12 times 15, which is 180 minutes, divided by 60, equals three hours. You have a 20-pounder, that’s 20 times 15, which is 300 minutes, divided by 60, and that’s five hours. You want dinner at three. Bird goes into the oven at 10 a.m.-ish. If you’re going to stuff your bird (which I do not recommend because it takes longer and it’s harder to tell if the stuffing got cooked all the way through), then figure 20 minutes per pound.
It’s okay if the bird goes in a little late. Because I haven’t shared with you the one trick that will pretty much guarantee (as much as anything can) that the birdie will come out when you want it to. You’re going to blast it with high heat at the end of the cooking cycle. I learned this from watching Alton Brown’s Good Eats show on making turkeys, and I forget why he likes it. But I think it makes the skin crispier to blast at the end and I know I get a lot better control over when the verdamnt bugger comes out. Getting close to dinner time and the thermometer in the bird hasn’t crept past 100 degrees? Start blasting. Things cooking a little too fast? Turn down the heat until closer to dinner time, then blast the bejeebers out of it right before you serve the soup.
Which brings me to another major point – you will need at least an instant read thermometer. If you rely on the little pop-up that some birds come with, you will get over-done, dried out bird. Also, you won’t be able to tell when to turn the heat up. I like a probe thermometer, because you stick it in, put the bird in the oven and it stays. The wire drags out of the oven to the read out, but you can see exactly where your bird is at any time. And you can use it for any roast, meatloaf or even bread that you put in the oven.
Now, turn your oven to 300 degrees and prep your roasting pan, which means finding something to keep the bird above the fat and other goodies that drip to the bottom. This allows air underneath the bird and it doesn’t get so greasy. Or so I’m told. If you don’t have a rack, a small plate turned upside down will do just fine.
Wash and dry the turkey both inside and out. This is one of those rare occasions when a paper towel really does the job better than anything else.
Now, you want to season the skin. You can use oil, with salt and pepper and/or other seasonings, use only plenty of salt and pepper, or my fave: slather on some butter all over, then salt and pepper. It’s Thanksgiving and unless you have an exceptionally compelling reason to cut the calories back, it’s worth the indulgence. Do cut off the half stick of butter before you use it because you’ll just contaminate the whole stick and butter ain’t that cheap. All you do is scoop up a chunk of butter, warm in in your hand for a moment, then rub it all over, starting with the breast side. That’s the really meaty side.
Then flip the bird into the roasting pan, breast side down. What? Am I committing heresy here? Hell, yes. It’s like I said in one of my earlier posts, that image of everyone ooing and ahhing at the perfectly browned bird? It’s a terrible way to roast a bird. All the juices drip into the back, which you don’t eat. Roasting a bird breast down doesn’t give you the pretty presentation, but all those lovely juices drip into the breast and helps keep it moist and delicious. I know which I’d rather eat. And you’ll be slicing this sucker in the kitchen to further spare you the embarrassment of doing a bad slicing job. One other benefit of roasting the bird on its breast, you don’t have to tie it up (even if you do stuff, which I do not recommend), nor do you have to worry about putting foil on the wings so they don’t get over done. No, as you see in the photo below, the wings tuck in very nicely on their own, as do the legs.
Do remember, however, to butter the backside of the bird, and generously salt and pepper it.
Insert your probe in the breast, away from any bone. Folks say put the probe near the thigh. I always hit a bone or the cavity and my bird ends up underdone, which is bad. If you plan to roast to 165 degrees, then everything gets done, but not overdone, and carryover heat (that final bit of cooking that gets done outside the oven while the bird is resting) takes care of the rest.
Set your probe thermometer to 140 degrees, or plan to check the turkey about every hour it’s in the oven. Put it in a 300 degree oven, but don’t stress if your forgot to turn it on earlier. Just turn it on now. It’s not going to hurt anything. That bird is going to be cooking a while. In an ideal world, you’ll be cooking it until the internal temperature hits about 140 degrees (about the time the hors d’oeuvres are set out), then blasting it with high heat until the internal temp reaches around 165-167 degrees. As noted above, if it’s cooking too fast, turn the oven down and check again in another half hour or so. If it’s cooking too slowly, give it about 15 to 20 minutes, then start blasting. And by blasting, I mean turning up your oven to its highest heat, around 500 degrees. Do keep an eye on things. My oven takes freaking forever to get to 500 degrees, even when it’s been cooking at 300 degrees. You may want to turn your oven on before Thanksgiving and see how long it takes to get to 500 degrees. It should only take about half an hour for the blast phase, but again, you can’t cook by numbers. Watch the birdie.
Oh, look. It’s done. You’ve strong-armed the bugger out of the oven. Now, using a couple sets of tongs and/or some long forks, pull it from the pan and set it on a cutting board (we like to put our cutting board on a half-sheet pan to catch all the juices) and cover with foil to keep warm while it rests. Now, we like our wooden cutting boards. We clean them with extremely hot water and a little bleach after every use and rinse them again. There are those who say that’s still not enough – and if you have someone among your guests with a compromised immune system, it may not be. You can also use a plastic cutting mat. One other note, you may want to cook some broth in that messy roasting pan, scraping all the bits off the bottom and sides, then pour everything into a jar, which you’ll put in your fridge once it’s cooled. It may be too salty for the gravy, but just salty enough to perk some up or for extra gravy later. Or you may have to toss it. But your roasting pan will be a lot easier to clean.
Now, to the cutting (and let’s thank my Beloved Spouse for demonstrating this part). First your remove the legs, separate the drumsticks from the thighs, and set them on your serving plattter, cut the meat off the thighs. Remove the wings next.
Cut the bird vertically along the breastbone, then cut the slices of breast meat from the front to the back. Repeat on the other side.
Seriously. That’s it. Serve the turkey forth, sit down and drink a big glass of wine. You’ve earned it at this point.