Roast, fried, brined, grilled…how do you cook your turkey? I have compiled a dozen tips for a perfect bird, regardless of your recipe. Remember that there is a lot of video on this site to provide audio-visual aid.
1. A fresh bird is best. I’ll say this until I am blue in the face. They just taste better and you get to skip the hassle of defrosting. If you haven’t started defrosting the turkey by now, you must get a fresh bird anyway. They aren’t that much more expensive than a frozen bird. My local supermarkets have stacks of fresh birds for sale without preordering, even organic ones.
2. Buy the best bird you can afford. I have cooked generic supermarket birds (all-natural, without any yechy injected flavorings) and they are delicious. I usually buy an organic bird (vegetarian feed and no antibiotics but not necessarily free-range which can be a meaningless term) because I like the firmer texture and richer flavor. I have had bad results with heritage birds because their ugly skin and gamey taste turned off my dinner guests.
3. Invest in a solid roasting pan and rack. Flimsy aluminum foil pans reflect the heat away from the bird, and make a lousy utensil for stovetop gravy-making. Invest in a solid three-ply pan and it will last for a generation or two. I do prefer a flat rack to a U- or V-shaped one, as the bird sometimes conforms to the curved shape of the rack and rolls during carving. (The things you learn when you roast a few hundred turkeys over the years!)
4. Brining is a headache. Another of my “broken record” beliefs about cooking turkey is that brining sucks. All you do are doing is adding salt water to your food. If you want to try it to form your own opinion, use this recipe. However, you get better results with the dry salt method. I promise.
5. Prep the bird without string. Trussing is overrated. You want the bird to be nicely shaped, which you can do with a few deft moves. Does your turkey have an oven-proof plastic or metal hook at the bottom of the body cavity? Do not remove it! This “hock lock” is there to hold the drumsticks in place, so slip the ends of the legs into the holder. Alternatively, the processor may have left a band of skin to hold the drumsticks. If you have neither, tie the drumstick ends together with kitchen wine or even unwaxed dental floss. Tuck the turkey wing tips behind the shoulders so they are akimbo. This gives the bird a wider surface at the upper back so it sits flat on the platter and prevents rolling during carving. The “wing tuck” may be hard to do with big birds, in which case, just tie the wings in place next to the body with a loop of string or floss. If you have stuffed the bird, don’t bother to sew the opening closed, and just cover the exposed stuffing with a piece of foil.
6. Don’t baste too often. All basting does is help brown the outside of the turkey, which is nice, but the bird browns even when I forget to baste. Once every 45 to 60 minutes is enough. Two caveats: Be sure you have liquid in the bottom of the pan to baste with. Add any turkey fat pulled from the tail area to the pan so it can render into a basting liquid and add flavor to drippings for gravy. Also, baste quickly so the temperature doesn’t drop from the open oven door.
7. Stuff if you want to. The secret here is to fill the turkey with freshly made, hot stuffing. Never use ice-cold stuffing that has been refrigerated overnight, as it will never heat up to the safe 160F eating temperature. To save time, sauté the vegetables and other ingredients tonight, let them cool, and store in zip-tight bags until tomorrow morning. Just sauté them in the morning to heat them up, and add the cubes and broth. Always be sure the vegetables and meat for the stuffing are cooked and not raw. The stuffing will only heat inside the bird, and not actually cook.
8. Be flexible with your cooking time. There are almost countless variables that affect the cooking time. How cold was the turkey? (Rinse the turkey well under lukewarm water or let stand for 1 hour before cooking to take the chill off.) How often do you baste? Is your oven temperature accurate? (Use a thermometer!) Did you stuff the bird? How hot was the stuffing? Do NOT be afraid to adjust the temperature up or down 25F to get the turkey to cook more quickly or slowly.
9. Use the right tools. These are a heavy roasting pan with a flat rack; an efficient baster; a digital thermometer (I like the ones with the probe on a cord that allows you to see the temperature without opening the door); and a sharp carving set.
10. Use the foil-on-the-breast method to keep that area moist. Rub the bird with softened butter first—I use a stick (4 ounces) regardless of the size because I want lots of melted butter in the pan for gravy drippings. Season the bird with salt and pepper (herbs and spices, especially paprika and garlic powder, tend to burn). Simply cover the breast (not the wings or legs) with foil. This deflects the heat away from the breast so it cooks at a lower rate than the rest of the bird. During the last hour of your estimated roasting time, remove the foil and baste a couple of times so the pale breast skin browns. That’s it. It works.
11. Take an accurate temperature for doneness. Never trust the pop-up indicator that comes with some turkeys, as it can get glued shut from the turkey juices. To use your meat thermometer, insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh (the meaty area underneath the drumstick joint), not touching a bone. The probe sensor (usually an indentation about 1/2 inch from the actual tip of the probe) should be centered in the muscle, not too close to the skin, nor too far into the body. Move the meat
12. Let the turkey stand for at least 30 minutes before carving. During cooking, the juices are forced from the outside to the inside, and they need time to redistribute themselves. Do not cover the bird or worry about putting it in a warm place. It takes a long time for a 175F, 20-pound turkey to cool down! Once, I had to let a turkey stand for 1 1/4 hours before carving, and it was still piping hot. Check out my video on carving. (Scroll down the page...it's there.)