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How to Roast a Bird

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Another part of the big dinner you might want to practice is roasting your main course, part of my series on how to make a Big Holiday Dinner, which is why we’re covering how to roast a bird now and not two weeks from now. 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, well, try this and then practice your gravy.

Whether you’re roasting a turkey, a goose, a duck, or a chicken, how to roast a bird is pretty much the same process. Actually, no matter what you’re roasting, it’s pretty much the same process. I focus here on birds, though, because they’re the most complicated of the process. It’s not that complicated. You prep the birdie, slap it in the oven. It cooks to 167 degrees. You pull it out, let it rest for 20 minutes while you mash the potatoes, finish the gravy and the green beans. Then you slice it in the kitchen, so you can snatch some of the yummy crispy skin first, and serve.

The trick

The trick is roasting the bird so that it’s done at a certain time, such as after all the guests have arrived but before Grandma gets tipsy. Because turkeys, specifically, 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 gets 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 am one of them, except when it comes to turkey. Just try to find a turkey 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 bird 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.

Timing the Roast

I’m demonstrating with a chicken. You may as well try with one even weeks before the big day. Fear not. It is exactly the same process. The only difference between birds is the size. And the first step is to figure out when you need to get the sucker into the oven. I generally roast at 300 degrees, then blast what I’m roasting at the end with high heat. I explain why below. However, I just looked at the U.S. Governments’ Meat and Poultry Roasting Chart. They figure times roasting at 325 degrees.

That being said, any chart or guide is only an estimate. There are a lot of things that can affect how long it takes your bird (or anything else) to cook to however done you like it. Your oven may have a weird hot spot or run cool or extra hot. What you’re roasting may still be icy inside when you put it in the oven and it will take longer to cook through.

Get a thermometer

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 turkeys 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.

I will now share with you the one trick that will guarantee (as much as anything can) that your 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 you can use to roast anything, even vegetables. A blast at the end (rather than the beginning) gives me a lot better control over when the verdamnt bugger comes out. Getting close to dinnertime 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 dinnertime, then blast the bejeebers out of it right before you serve the soup.

How to Roast the Bird

Turn your oven to 300 degrees. You’re primarily cooking the bird or meat long and slow. 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.

How to cook a turkey
Using a small plate on the left, using a rack, to hold the bird up and away from the drippings.

Wash and dry your bird 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 for birds only: slather on some butter all over, then salt and pepper. It’s a holiday and unless you have an exceptionally compelling reason to cut the calories back, it’s worth the indulgence. Just don’t butter any roast that isn’t a bird. 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 it in your hand for a moment, then rub it all over, starting with the breast side. That’s the really meaty side.


Bird Heresy

Flip the bird into the roasting pan, breast side down. What? Am I committing heresy here? Hell, yes. Do I care? No. It’s 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.


Inserting a probe thermometer

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. 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 you 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.

Cutting the bird

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. You can 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 you 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.

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