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You've got this! Roast a perfect turkey.
Everything you need to know about roasting a juicy, tender turkey — from buying and brining, to carving and making delicious homemade gravy.
Let me apologize now, there’s a lot of info in this newsletter! But it’s all essential- and in one spot so you can reference it. In fact, as special gift for you, I will send you a downloadable PDF with this and more info, plus some recipes for roast turkey, gravy, stuffing, and leftovers! Just comment below with your email (or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Getting back to the turkey. When you make a certain dish frequently, you usually get pretty good at it. Most of us have at least a handful of dishes—pasta, pork chops, brownies—that we can whip up without more than a glance at the recipe. But what about a dish you only make once a year? A dish that a roomful of people who’ve come to visit are very hungry for? A dish that’s symbolic of family tradition? A dish that may weigh 24 pounds in its raw state? Yikes. Even an experienced cook can get hung up on pulling off the perfect roast turkey, complete with stuffing and gravy (lump-free, of course).
So, here’s the info you need to make sure your turkey comes out perfect!
Which Bird to Buy
In the past, turkey almost always meant a frozen Butterball, but today (thankfully) there are lots of options for your holiday bird. Frozen turkeys are still readily available, and they’re usually the most economical choice. The trick with a frozen bird is to allow enough time for thawing; otherwise, you’ll be in big trouble when it comes time to roast. For food-safety reasons, thaw your bird in the refrigerator, not on the counter, and allow two to three days for large turkeys—an overnight stay in the fridge is not going to do the trick.
Fresh turkeys are a wonderful choice because they tend to be more moist and juicy.
Whether frozen or fresh, I recommend you avoid buying the “self-basting” turkeys, which are injected or marinated in a fat and broth solution to add moisture. You should be the one to decide what seasonings go into the turkey and there are plenty of good, easy ways to add flavor and moisture to your turkey.
In the fresh category, you have more choices and the labeling can get confusing. Natural means the bird has been minimally processed and no artificial ingredients or colorings have been added; the term does not refer to the way the bird was raised. Free-range, according to USDA standards, simply means that the birds have access to the outdoors, but what’s more important than access is how crowded their conditions are, which is hard to tell from a label. Certified organic tells you a bit more: The birds had access to the outdoors, no antibiotics, and 100% organic feed. And just so you know, no poultry is allowed to be given hormones, organic bird or not.
Kosher turkeys are an interesting alternative to a regular mass-produced turkey. They are available both fresh and frozen, are grain-fed, free-range, given no antibiotics, and they’ve been brined in a salt solution as part of the process required for getting the kosher label.
Premium and heritage birds are where the prices really go up, but for the most part, so does the quality and flavor. These are birds that have been raised to give them superior flavor and texture; generally, they’re fed a diet that doesn’t contain animal by-products, they’re free-range, antibiotic free, and allowed to grow more slowly in order to develop fuller flavor. Heritage birds are from traditional breeds thought to have wonderful eating qualities. They’re grown on small farms, and many breeds are being saved from extinction by the heritage programs. They have smaller breasts but richer tasting meat.
How Big of Bird?
The next big question for the cook is “how big?” Any size turkey is likely to be bigger than just about anything you’re used to cooking, and Thanksgiving usually means a crowd. Plus leftovers are a must.
Use this handy chart to figure how how big of turkey to help you figure out the size that gives you number of servings plus the amount of leftovers you’re looking for.
Next, think about what size bird you can actually accommodate. Once you get over around 16 pounds, you’re dealing with a bruiser, and you need to make sure you have a pan that’s large and strong enough to hold the turkey and that the bird and your pan will actually fit into your oven (and that you, or someone in your household, can lift the darn thing). Once it’s in the oven, you need at least 2 inches of room around all sides of the pan to allow for proper heat circulation (otherwise the times listed in our charts won’t be accurate). And remember that a turkey is dome-shaped, so it will need headroom in the oven.
Smaller birds fit in the refrigerator better and are easier to handle. If you’re hosting a big crowd and have two ovens, consider roasting two smaller birds instead of a large one.
To Brine or Not to Brine
Who hasn’t had the disappointment of dry white meat? Turkey is fairly lean, the breast meat even more so. The long roasting times needed to get succulent but cooked thigh and leg meat can be brutal for the delicate breast.
There are lots of strategies to deal with this challenge: The position in which you roast the turkey, compound butters slathered under the skin, foil tents, and brining. The later means you make a simple salt-water solution—usually flavored with other seasonings such as spices and maple syrup—and soak the bird in it for 12 to 18 hours. The bird pulls in the liquid, which moistens the meat as it cooks and adds extra flavor. Note: Do not brine a kosher turkey, as it has already been through this process.
How to Brine
Make a basic brine: In a pot that holds at least 6 quarts, combine 1 cup kosher salt, 1/4 cup sugar, and 2 quarts cool water. Put the pot over high heat and stir occasionally until the salt and sugar dissolve. Remove from the heat and let cool. Stir in another 2 quarts water and chill in the refrigerator. To jazz up the flavor, you can add herbs and spices, a little flavorful sweetener (like honey or maple syrup), or replace some of the water with another liquid like apple cider or coffee. Just remember that when you add sugar in any form, theturkey will brown faster.
Soak the turkey in the brine: Remove the neck, giblets, and tail (if present) from the turkey; reserve them for making turkey broth. Discard the liver. Rinse the turkey well. Double up two turkey-size oven bags and then roll down the edges of the bags a bit to help them stay open. Put the bags in a heavy-duty roasting pan and put the turkey, breast side down, in the inner bag. Pour the brine over the turkey (have someone hold the bags open for you, if possible). Gather the inner bag tightly around the turkey so the brine is forced to cover most of the turkey and secure the bag with a twist tie. Secure the outer bag with another twist tie. Refrigerate the turkey (in the roasting pan, to catch any leaks) for 12 to 18 hours.
Rinse, dry, and you’re ready to roast: When it’s time to cook the bird, remove it from the brine (be careful, because the cavity may be full of liquid), rinse it under cool water, and dry with paper towels. Now you’re ready to follow the rest of your recipe.
Note: The brine provides just about all the seasoning you need, so be judicious about adding any further seasonings. Always taste first when making sauces with pan drippings, which tend to be quite salty (if using canned chicken broth as part of the gravy, be sure to use a low-salt one).
A roast turkey wants to flop a bit, legs splaying out to the sides, cavity gaping. For many cooks this is not a problem at all and in fact lots of people feel that the bird cooks more evenly when it’s not trussed, because the hot air can reach the inner areas of thigh and leg. When a bird is tightly trussed, you increase the density of that hard-to-cook dark meat and it’s going to end up taking longer to cook to temperature.
But if you want your bird to look a little better-behaved, loosely tie the ends of then drumsticks together, leaving a bit of space between the legs and body, but preventing them from doing the splits. You should tuck the wing ends under the bird in any case. Or you can go ahead and truss in a more traditional manner, tucking the wings under the bird and running twine from the drumsticks around the body, snugging the legs in tight.
Nurture the bird during roasting
Different cooks have different philosophies on how much fussing you should do as the turkey actually roasts; some say close the oven door and forget it, others recommend numerous interventions during the roasting time. There are a few constants, however. First, even cooking is critical, so rotate the pan a few times during roasting.
Making Sure the Turkey is Done
So the moment of truth has arrived—time to take the turkey out of the oven and present it in all its glory. Or is it? Figuring out when the turkey is done is one of the most difficult and anxiety-producing moments of the Thanksgiving ritual.
Even if you use the same recipe you’ve always used, every Thanksgiving is a bit different: what temperature was the turkey when it entered the oven, how packed is the stuffing, if it’s stuffed at all, how well does the pan conduct heat, how accurate is your oven?
But getting well-cooked dark meat and tender moist breast meat is indeed possible, if you use a couple of our tips.
First off, calculate how much time is needed for your size of bird. Here’s a handy chart, it’s for roasting at 325F; for higher temperatures, take off about 30 to 90 minutes total cooking time.
Second, be sure you have an instant-read thermometer, which can be bought for only a few dollars at any cookware store. This isn’t the big dial with the thick spike that your parents may have used, but rather a slender probe that’s easy to insert and gives you a temperature reading within seconds. Checking that the dark meat is done (170°F) is key; unfortunately, the breast meat has to stay in the oven as long as the rest of the turkey, so here are a few tricks you can use to keep it from drying out:
• Rub plain or seasoned butter under the breast skin. The butter will baste and flavor the meat as it cooks.
• Start the turkey breast side down. You’ll need a rack, but it’s worth the investment. As the turkey roasts upside down like this for the first hour or so, it bastes itself. The rack may make a few marks on the skin, but they’ll disappear as the turkey finishes.
• Give the bird a rest before carving. This allows the juices to redistribute. Don’t worry about the turkey cooling off too much; just make a tent out of foil to conserve heat. And you’ll need time to make gravy anyway.
• Wiggling the leg to see if it’s loose will give you an indication that the turkey is ready, but unfortunately, by the time the leg is truly loose, the turkey is sadly overcooked. The only reliable test for doneness is to check the internal temperature. Stick an instant-read thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh, without touching the bone. It should read 170F, and the juices should run clear when you remove the thermometer. The breast meat will always cook more quickly. If the turkey is stuffed, check the stuffing’s temperature as well: It must be at least 160°F. If the turkey is done before the stuffing, take the turkey from the oven and scoop the stuffing into a casserole to finish cooking on its own.
For some, the gravy is the best part of Thanksgiving. Made by thickening the pan drippings and turkey broth with a roux (a mixture of flour and fat), gravy is pure essence of turkey. It’s easiest to make it right in the roasting pan, but if your pan isn’t flameproof, use a saucepan instead. After you pour off the liquid drippings from the roasting pan, pour some of the broth into the hot roasting pan and scrape with a wooden spoon to capture any cooked-on drippings.
You’ll need about 1/3 cup gravy per person. For each cup of gravy, use 1 cup of liquid, 1 tablespoon fat, and 1-1/2 tablespoons flour. For example, to make 12 servings of gravy, use 4 cups liquid (turkey broth plus defatted pan juices), 4 tablespoons fat, and 6 tablespoons flour. If you don’t have enough broth and pan juices for the amount of gravy you need, add homemade or low-salt canned chicken broth to make up the difference.
Favorite Find: Gravy Fat Separator
A fat separator is a handy tool for degreasing the pan juices from a roast. There are dozens of models, most of them variations on the same design: a cup with a spout at its bottom that allows you to pour the juices and leave the fat in the cup. The downside is that there’s always some fat in the spout that gets poured out with the juices.
This model, the OXO Good Grips Good Gravy 4-Cup Fat Separator has solved that problem by eliminating the spout. The juices drain from a hole in the bottom of the cup, which is opened by squeezing a lever in the handle. It also includes a strainer lid, which we wish were deeper. That said, it’s still the best fat separator I’ve tried.
• Since the knife will have little contact with the work surface, you can carve on a platter, which does the best job of retaining the juices, or on a cutting board with a moat around the edge. Sometimes the juices overflow a moat, so lay a towel under the board or put it in a rimmed baking sheet before you begin. If you carve on a platter, you’ll still need a cutting board for the legs.
• You need enough space for your bird, the cutting board, and a serving platter or a stack of dinner plates. If the table is cramped, set up a separate carving station; a small, sturdy folding table covered with a tablecloth works well. Or carve in the kitchen and arrange the slices of turkey on the serving platter.
• Use a long, sharp carving knife or a chef’s knife. A large fork helps keep the bird in place, but a regular-size fork will do in a pinch.
• Don’t carve more than you need for first helpings. It’s better to carve again when it’s time for seconds because the meat will stay moister and warmer on the turkey than it will on a serving dish.
Some of My Favorite Thanksgiving Recipes
Cranberry Relish with Pecans, Orange and Ginger
Roasted Green Beans with Garlic and Lemon
Candied Sweet Potato Casserole
Easy Roasted Delicata Squash
Quinoa-Stuffed Acorn Squash
Pecan Pie Brownies
Pumpkin Pie Cheesecake
Pecan Pie Bars
You’ve got this! Happy Thanksgiving!
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