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Roasting a Perfect Turkey

Fine Cooking Issue 24
Top photo: Alan Richardson. All others: Scott Phillips
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Even the most confident cook can be intimidated by the task of roasting the holiday turkey. After all, it’s hard to get much practice when you only do turkey once a year. But in reality, creating a picture-perfect roast turkey—with crisp skin, moist breast meat, done dark meat, and a panful of good drippings for gravy—is a straightforward affair.

Fresh turkeys are usually superior to frozen, especially the frozen ones labeled “self-basting” (meaning that they’ve been injected with fat and water). If you do buy a frozen one, allow several days to let it thaw in the refrigerator. 

For birds under 16 pounds, figure at least 1 pound of turkey per person. For larger birds, figure a bit less since there will be more meat in proportion to bone.

If you can’t find a good turkey locally, here are some good mail-order sources. Be sure to order in plenty of time.
• d’Artagnan (800/327-8246)
• Murray’s (800/741-3871)
• Citarella (800/588-0383)

What should I do to it, before and during cooking?

The best pan for cooking a turkey is a heavy-duty roasting pan with about 2-inch sides. High sides prevent the lower part of the bird from browning and can make basting difficult. Heavy-gauge metal helps keep the drippings from burning.  

Prepare the bird by cleaning, tying, and seasoning. Remove the giblets from the body and neck cavities and rinse and dry the turkey. If you’re handling a really large bird, you may just want to wipe it down with moist towels rather than wrestle with it in the sink. Once dried, sprinkle the insides with a little salt and stuff the bird if that’s your plan.  

Before setting the bird in the pan, fold the wings back to secure the neck flap (use a skewer or a toothpick if the flap isn’t long enough). Then use kitchen string to loosely tie the drumsticks. Tying them too tightly can prevent the thighs from cooking evenly. Some turkeys come with a metal clasp or a slit in the tail skin to allow you to simply tuck the legs together before roasting.

Get a beautifully brown and crisp skin by rubbing softened butter all over the surface of the turkey. Baste the bird every 30 to 45 minutes with the pan juices. A wide spoon works even better than a turkey baster, especially at the start when there’s little juice. If the turkey doesn’t yield much juice even after an hour, baste it with a bit more melted butter or oil.

Tuck the wing tips to secure the neck flaps.

Cooking time and temperature

Position the rack in the lowest part of the oven and heat the oven. While some cooks like to blast the turkey with high heat (425°F) for 30 minutes and then reduce the temperature, I prefer the simple, carefree method of an even 325°F from start to finish. The high-heat method may shave 30 to 90 minutes off the cooking time, but it’s one more thing for me to remember on a very busy kitchen day.

 Start with the legs pointing toward the back of the oven, since it’s the hottest. If your turkey is large, the hot air may have trouble circulating and may create hot spots. If one part of the bird is browning too quickly, rotate the pan during roasting. Tent the bird with foil about two-thirds of the way through cooking to prevent it from overbrowning.

8 to 12 pounds: 3 to 4 hours
12 to 16 pounds: 4 to 4 1/2 hours
16 to 20 pounds: 4 1/2 to 5 hours
20 to 26 pounds: 5 to 6 hours
* subtract 20 to 40 minutes for an unstuffed bird

Is it done?

The only reliable test for doneness is to check the internal temperature. 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. Insert a thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, without touching the bone. It should read 175° to 180°F, and the juices should run clear. The breast meat will always cook more quickly. If the turkey is stuffed, don’t forget to 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. Let the turkey rest for 20 to 30 minutes before carving.

Use the chart as guide and a thermometer to be sure.


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