Every year, I pull out my giant roasting pan (with fitted rack) and thus begins the annual ritual of cooking a giant turkey for Thanksgiving. What kind of turkey did I make last year? How did I cook it? Though I consider myself a fairly well-seasoned cook, learning how to cook the perfect turkey is something I take care to re-learn every year.
So, where to begin?
A few preliminary questions I always ask:
1. How big does my turkey need to be? I usually estimate about 1 pound of turkey (factoring in the carcass as part of that weight) per person.
2. What kind of turkey? Like a lot of poultry these days, there is quite a variety of turkeys (all raised in different ways, fed different foods) to choose from. You know, this is a difficult question to answer. I don’t think I have ever cooked the same turkey two years in a row. I love Heritage brand the most, but those types of birds are raised in such a way that the meat is leaner and can be slightly tough. I also love a good ol’ supermarket turkey. I say, whatever suits your personal taste.
3. Now, for the most important question of all, how to cook it?
I like to preheat my oven to 500 degrees F while I prepare my stuffing and get the turkey “oven ready” for roasting. After emptying the cavity of the innards (and reserving the gizzard), I wipe the inside of the bird with an absorbent kitchen towel. When I was growing up, my mother would always simmer the gizzard in stock on top of the stove as the turkey roasted in the oven. I found this pot of stock offered the promise of delicious gravy and distracted me from how much longer the turkey had to go in the oven before we would be able to sit down and eat. Season the inside and outside of the turkey with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. (Note: If you prefer to use kosher salt, please count about 1 teaspoon salt per pound of turkey.) Fill the cavity with stuffing and truss the turkey loosely with string. Though many recipes suggest tucking the wing tips under the string, I like to leave them loose so they get nice and crispy as the bird roasts. Melt about one stick of butter and rub it all over the outside of the bird.
4. What kind of roasting pan is best? One that holds the turkey squarely with a little extra room. Using a fitted rack inside the pan is also important — this will permit the heat to circulate as it roasts. As a precaution, lightly oil the rack so the turkey has no chance of sticking. Place the turkey breast side up in the center of the pan, and put the pan into the oven. After 15 minutes of roasting at 500 degrees F, lower the oven to 350 degrees F and cook, undisturbed, for an hour. Open the oven door and use a large spoon (or turkey baster) to gather some of the drippings and baste the breast meat. Lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees F and cook for another hour. If the skin on the breast meat gets too dark, lightly oil a piece of tinfoil and “mold” it over the breast meat to prevent the meat from over browning during the remainder of the cooking time.
5. How do you know when the turkey is done? I am not a fan of plastic “pop ups” or thermometers you leave in for the entire cooking time. I simply take the temperature of the thigh meat and cook it to 155 degrees F. If you don’t want to use a thermometer, simply cut an incision by the thigh meat. The juices should run clear (meaning no blood). When you remove the turkey from the oven, the “carry over” cooking should finish the bird, leaving it still juicy but thoroughly cooked. I always say, if underdone, you can always put it back in the oven for a few additional minutes. If the bird is overcooked, however, there is no way to repair the situation. My grandmother insists that good gravy can fix most problems.
Let the bird “rest”. This is so important. Place a baking sheet fitted with a layer of tinfoil or parchment. Use a few oven mitts (and the help of family friend) to transfer the turkey to the baking sheet. Place the turkey breast side down on the sheet. The breast meat is always dry because there is less fat than in the thighs. By allowing it to rest breast side down, the juices are forced to flow through the white meat as it rests. It’s like creating a makeshift internal basting system to moisten the white meat. Make your gravy using the pan drippings and stock. Place the bird, upright, on a platter. Remove and discard the string. Remove the stuffing. Carve and enjoy.
Get Alex’s No Lump Gravy recipe.
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