Roasting a turkey can seem like a daunting task, but with a little preparation and some easy know-how you can create a stunning, flavourful and juicy show-stopping bird.
Choosing Your Turkey
Plan on 1 lb per person, or more for plenty of leftovers. If you’re feeding a big crowd, consider cooking two medium-sized birds instead of one giant one – the turkey stays moister, takes less time to cook, and you’ll have more turkey legs to go around.
It’s best to order your turkey ahead of time to ensure you get the size you need. Birds range from tiny 4-pounders to 25-lb-plus behemoths, but most markets carry birds in the 8- to 20-lb range. For a smaller crowd, you might try Giada De Laurentiis’ Stuffed Turkey Breast.
Fresh vs. Frozen
If you’re buying an unfrozen fresh bird, don’t get it more than two days ahead of time. Fresh birds are a little more expensive, but you avoid the hassle of defrosting and some claim they taste better, too. Store at 40 °F at the back of your fridge.
Frozen turkeys will keep up to a year in the freezer, but some frozen birds are labelled “fresh” if they have been recently chilled. Pre-stuffed go straight from the freezer to the oven, so you can skip defrosting, which can be a bit of a chore. Never thaw the bird at room temperature, and leave yourself lots of time for this process. You can thaw the bird in the fridge, in a water bath, or use a combination of methods, starting in the fridge a couple of days before the meal, and ending with the submersion method. Don’t use the microwave, which provides uneven and sometimes-unpalatable results.
See more tips on how to shop for the perfect turkey.
When defrosting in the fridge, place the bird on a platter and thaw for 5 hours per pound (10 per kg). Plan on about 3 to 4 days to thaw a 14- to 19-lb (6- to 9-kg) bird.
If you’re using the water bath method to defrost your bird, place the turkey in its original packaging in a sink or large bucket and cover with cold water. You may need to weigh it down with a plate topped with heavy cans to keep it submerged. Change the water every half hour. The turkey should thaw at a rate of 1 hour per pound (2 hours per kilogram).
If you’ve got time, try brining your turkey before roasting. Soaking the bird in salt water for several hours results in a moist and juicy, well-seasoned turkey. For a whole turkey, soak for 6 hours minimum; 12 to 20 hours is optimal. Don’t attempt this with a self-basting or Koshered turkey.
To brine, dissolve Kosher or sea salt in a little hot water, then add to the brining liquid, using a ratio of 1 cup salt to 3.75 litres of liquid. Pour into a brining bag or large, non-corrosive pot, submerge turkey and chill. Before roasting, remove bird from brine and rinse thoroughly with cool water, discarding brine. Pat dry and cook according to recipe.
Remove the bird from the refrigerator about an hour before cooking and bring to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 325° F and move the oven rack to the lowest level.
Brush the skin with melted butter or oil to prevent the bird from drying out and lend a lovely golden colour. Truss the bird, if desired, tying the legs and wings close to the body for a compact presentation. Some cooks feel that trussing takes longer for the legs to cook, resulting in a dried out breast. You can leave the legs untied and just tuck the wing tips under the body, if you like.
Picking a Pan
To catch the juices, make sure your pan is at least 2 inches deep, and lined with a roasting rack to keep the bird above the drippings. But before you pop the turkey into the pan, consider how you’re going to get it out. Commercial turkey lifters are available at kitchen shops, but you can improvise with aluminum foil. Take two 4-foot-long pieces of foil and fold lengthwise into 1-inch-wide strips. Lay strips across a roasting rack in in pan. Place turkey on top, leaving foil to rest on the sides of the roasting pan. Use strips to lift turkey out when roasted.
Some cooks swear their birds are better thanks to near-religious basting rituals. Basting isn’t essential to a terrific turkey, but it does help the skin to brown evenly. Slather the bird with melted butter or pan drippings every 30 minutes or so.
About two-thirds of the way through, or when the skin reaches a light golden brown colour, loosely cover the breast and thighs with foil to prevent over-cooking. Remove foil for the final 45 minutes to turn the skin a lovely caramel brown.
Begin checking for doneness about three-quarters of the way through roasting. Don’t count on pop-up thermometers, which can be unreliable. Proper meat thermometers, an inexpensive purchase at grocery stores and kitchen shops, are more accurate. Insert into the thickest part of the thigh, angled toward the body, without touching the bone.
The turkey is done when a meat thermometer inserted in the inner thigh reads 180° F for a stuffed turkey or 170° F for an unstuffed turkey. The legs should move easily when twisted, and juices should run clear, not pink. Check the stuffing temperature, too — it should reach 165 °F, indicating that the turkey is evenly and adequately cooked through.
Lift turkey onto a carving board. Remove all stuffing to a serving dish, then let the turkey rest for 15 to 20 minutes before carving to allow the juices to redistribute through the meat. Use this time to finish up your side dishes, make the gravy or enjoy a well-deserved aperitif.
Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours of the meal, storing turkey and stuffing separately. Use refrigerated leftovers within 4 days. Stuffing may be frozen for about a month, while meat keeps up to 3 months in the freezer.
See more tips for cooking the perfect turkey.