After examining a couple dozen recipes for roast turkey, it’s clear there’s an obsession with the breast. At all costs, in the end, it must turn out tender and moist. Some cooks’ advice:
Rub the turkey with melted butter or olive oil.
Wrap it in cheesecloth soaked in melted butter or olive oil.
Tent the bird with foil.
Roast it breast side down.
Baste the breast.
Never baste the breast.
As with most anything done in the kitchen, overweening is its own destroyer. Too much attention easily slinks into too little achievement.
I roasted four (sí, cuatro) turkeys to prepare for — and to discover — my message to you this Thanksgiving, and here it is:
Just roast the dang turkey as a whole and everything will be fine — mammaries included.
However, some things do matter. Funny, but the most important is so small: Have a good food thermometer. If your oven has an in-house thermometer and coil, you’re ahead of the game.
When the thick, meaty part of the thigh meat reaches 165 degrees, take the turkey out of the oven and let it rest 30 to 45 minutes. The turkey will continue to heat up, oddly enough, but just right, and the juices will redistribute in a happy way.
Everything else is just gravy. Here are the details:
If frozen, either thaw the turkey in the refrigerator or in cold water. In the refrigerator, in a shallow pan lined with paper towels, allow one day thaw time per 4 to 5 pounds of frozen turkey. (A 15-pound frozen turkey will take four days to thaw. In other words, plan ahead.)
In cold water, changed every half hour, with the turkey in its wrapping and breast side down, allow 30 minutes per pound. So, using this method, a 15-pound bird will take about 7 hours to thaw. (Again, plan ahead.)
A turkey is thawed when the breast meat is as soft but as springy as the web of flesh between your thumb and first finger; you can feel no ice crystals inside the cavity; and you can wiggle the legs in their sockets.
Don’t let a thawed turkey sit around on the kitchen counter; keep it in the refrigerator. But take it out of the refrigerator an hour or so before it goes into the oven.
Unless you’re after extra leftovers, allow one pound of turkey for each person eating meat at the table. Remove the neck and giblet bag from their cavities and begin making a stock with all the parts (minus the liver, which I throw away); you’ll be in good stead for extra liquid come gravy-making time.
Tie the leg ends together with kitchen twine or tuck them under the skin flap, then tuck the wings back and under the bird.
As to the faddish process of brining turkeys, no worries, but a question: If nearly all frozen turkeys sold today come “pre-brined” (check the small print about the percentage of added broth or other liquid that the turkey already contains), then why is there any need to rebrine (or, indeed, over-brine) the turkey?
A simple, but often overlooked, way to crisp the skin is to dry off the turkey, in and out, with paper towels before placing it in the roasting pan. Sure, rubbing softened butter or olive oil on the breast helps brown that part of the turkey, but dry skin underneath still crisps more. (Plus, the fats stick to dry, rather than slip-off-wet, skin).
If the roasting pan doesn’t have a rack, make a simple one using coils or rings of rolled-up aluminum foil. Likewise, a “lifter” made of a few strands of kitchen twine, laid underneath the turkey before roasting, can help later remove the bird from the pan.
Some important don’ts: Don’t rely on the pop-up button that comes with many turkeys. It raises its head at about 180 degrees internal temperature, and from the breast meat no less. By then it’s too late. “Tender and moist”? No way.
My considered advice is don’t stuff the turkey. Cook your dressing outside the bird in a casserole dish. Cooking the stuffing through is just one more temperature ball to juggle. When it reaches 165 degrees, chances are high that some of the turkey meat (yes, the breast) may be beyond redeeming.
Strong advice here: Baste at most once an hour, when you rotate the roasting pan to ensure balanced oven heat. Basting over and over is foolish; the skin will brown anyway without it; and the constant opening of the oven door wreaks havoc with steady roasting and, especially, proper timing.
Some folks begin cooking the roast at 425 degrees for 30 minutes, then lower to 325 degrees. (The idea is to head-start the crisp and browned skin.) Some stay with 325 degrees throughout. I tried both methods and the results were identical.
Some folks tent the breast with aluminum foil two-thirds of the way through roasting; others leave the bird be the entire time. (The idea is to not overcook the breast meat.) I tried both methods and, again, the results were identical.
Roasting times will vary, of course, based on these following balls in the air: your oven’s personality (its constancy of temperature; any hot spots; whether or not it’s convection), the weight of the turkey, and at which temperature(s) you roast what’s in it.
At a steady 325 degrees, a 10-18 pound thawed and unstuffed turkey takes 3 to 3 1/2 hours roasting; an 18-22 bird 3 1/2 to 4 hours.
What matters, at all costs, in the end, is that when the thick, meaty part of the thigh meat reaches 165 degrees, take the turkey out of the oven and let it rest 30 to 45 minutes out of the oven.
Then carve. (Watch my video for tips on that.)
Reach Bill St John at email@example.com