Turkey, the main dish of most traditional Thanksgiving dinners, is something many of us cook only once a year. For this reason, a refresher is always useful. We consulted chef, cooking teacher, and turkey expert Rick Rodgers for pointers. Author of Thanksgiving 101 and The Turkey Cookbook, among 25 other cookbooks, Rodgers has cooked more than 1,000 turkeys, by his own estimate.
Although it often causes stress for novice cooks, roasting a turkey is essentially the same process as roasting a chicken, only on a larger scale. Just follow a few guidelines, and the turkey will be the standout of your holiday meal, be it your first or your fiftieth.
Buy the Right Bird
We favor fresh turkeys over frozen because we prefer their texture, flavor, and moistness. But there are other considerations. You can also choose among organic, heritage-breed, and free-range birds. "I find fresh organic birds have richer, more natural flavor," Rodgers says. "It's always my first choice. Every time I serve one, my guests always remark, 'So this is what turkey is supposed to taste like.'" Rodgers adds that minimally processed supermarket brands are also good choices.
Heritage breed turkeys, such as Bourbon Red and Narragansett, have stronger-flavored meat than their hybrid counterparts. Rodgers recommends serving these pricey birds to adult gatherings since the strong flavor may not appeal to children.
Fresh organic turkeys can be considerably more expensive than mainstream frozen ones, and heritage breeds are most expensive of all. In the end, Rodgers advises, "go with your budget."
Bags and Brining
In our roundup of turkey techniques, we haven't included two popular approaches: oven bags and brining. Rodgers says in his experience, oven bags have produced disappointing results. "Sure, the meat is tender, but the turkey steams, and it tastes more like stew," he says.
Brining, too, has been unsatisfactory for Rodgers. The process requires a method of holding the turkey in a chilled, salted marinade for 12 to 24 hours. Rodgers places the turkey in a double layer of oven bags, covers it in brine, then places the sealed bag in an ice chest and adds ice packs. Still, he considers the procedure cumbersome. More importantly, "it changes the flavor and texture of the meat too much," Rodgers says. "Brining doesn't make the turkey juicier; it's salty water you're tasting." Nevertheless, we have had success with brined turkeys in the past.
A fundamental piece of turkey-roasting equipment―sometimes overlooked, often with disastrous results―is a high-quality, thick-construction roasting pan with solid handles. Some models may cost $150 or more, but you can find a suitable roasting pan for about $40. (Measure the pan before purchasing to be sure it fits comfortably in your oven.)
Lesser vessels, particularly disposable aluminum pans, can't compare, Rodgers says. "A lot of people don't set themselves up properly with a roasting pan and end up with turkey on the floor," because disposable roasting pans aren't sturdy enough to support a heavy bird, he says.
Rodgers prefers roasting pans with nonstick surfaces, which he feels are superior for making gravy. Some might argue that nonstick surfaces don't properly develop browned bits while cooking on the stove top, but Rodgers counters that when the dark-colored nonstick surface is surrounded by heat in the oven, it helps the roasting juices caramelize, leading to richer gravy. The roasting pan should also be equipped with a sturdy wire rack, which allows hot air to circulate beneath the bird and keeps it from sitting in its drippings.
A good meat thermometer is another essential tool. Rodgers suggests using a digital probe thermometer with a readout that stands outside the oven, so you don't have to open the oven door to check the temperature (each time you open the oven door, the temperature drops 25° to 50°). Rodgers cautions against relying on pop-up thermometers that come with turkeys, as basting juices can glue these gadgets shut. Use them as a backup only, he says.
Rodgers recommends using a bulb baster to moisten the turkey skin as it roasts. Because we call for discarding the skin before serving, basting merely serves to enhance the appearance of the turkey if you bring it to the table. While basting will help brown the skin, the liquid will not penetrate the skin into the meat.
Also important: an oven thermometer. "Oven temperature can fluctuate enormously," Rodgers says, noting that although your oven dial is set at 325°, for instance, the actual temperature may be significantly higher or lower because oven settings become uncalibrated over time. With an oven thermometer, you achieve the desired oven temperature accurately and with confidence by adjusting the setting accordingly.
Store and Handle Correctly
Buy a fresh turkey no more than two days before cooking. If you choose a frozen bird, allow 24 hours defrosting time for every five pounds. Defrost the turkey in the refrigerator, never at room temperature, which would allow harmful bacteria to grow. Be certain that the turkey has thawed completely before roasting, or the meat will cook unevenly. Whether fresh or frozen, keep the turkey in a shallow pan in the refrigerator to catch any drips.
The United States Department of Agriculture no longer calls for rinsing whole turkeys before roasting. Rinsing turkey in a sink can be an unwieldy process and is likely to splash water and spread bacteria. Rodgers notes that rinsing merely refreshes the bird; only cooking to a proper temperature can kill harmful bacteria.
To guard against cross contamination, wash knives or cutting boards that have come in contact with raw turkey before using them again. Similarly, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw turkey so you don't potentially spread bacteria to other food.
The basic challenge with turkey (and poultry in general) is that white meat cooks faster than dark. Rodgers mitigates this problem by covering the turkey breast with foil for most techniques (except for high-heat roasting, since the turkey cooks so quickly). The foil deflects the heat and slows the cooking time for the breast.
We present five techniques for turkey. Our Classic Roast Turkey is slow-roasted at 325° for about two and a half hours. (Because of such variables as actual oven temperature and how cold the turkey is when it goes in the oven, cooking times are approximate; rely more on your meat thermometer, Rodgers cautions.) Fresh herbs in the body cavity help flavor the cooking juices, while Make-Ahead Gravy provides the finishing touch. The Classic Roast Turkey is a favorite of Rodgers, who regularly teaches this method in his holiday cooking classes.
High-Heat Roast Turkey cooks at 450° and takes about an hour and a half. A high-quality, heavy-duty roasting pan is imperative for this method in order to insulate the drippings and make them less likely to scorch, Rodgers says. He also suggests cleaning the oven beforehand to prevent excessive smoking and, because turkey tends to splatter when cooked at high heat, a follow-up cleaning afterward.
With the Turkey with Sausage, Apricot, and Sage Stuffing, you fill the cold bird with freshly made, warm stuffing and roast immediately. For food safety reasons, never use chilled stuffing or refrigerate a stuffed bird overnight, and don't overstuff the bird, because the stuffing will expand from the moisture, and the bird could split open from internal pressure. This dish should finish cooking in about four hours, longer than an unstuffed turkey.
Apple-Grilled Turkey is a delicious option for people in warmer climates or die-hard grillers. Indirect grilling and applewood smoke give the turkey an attractive exterior and smoky flavor.
Provençal Turkey Breast is ideal for a small gathering with a preference for white meat. This dish also saves time―it cooks in about an hour and 20 minutes.
Rest Before Carving
Let the turkey rest for at least 30 minutes before carving. If you carve too soon, juices will flood out and you'll be left with dry meat. Resting allows the juices to settle, resulting in moister turkey. While half an hour may seem like a long time to let the turkey stand, "believe me, it won't cool off," Rodgers says.
When it comes time to carve, make sure that the carving knife is sharp. Rodgers says that inexperienced carvers may want to slice the bird in the kitchen, to avoid the gaze of a tableside audience. First, remove and discard the skin. Remove the thigh quarters by cutting through the joint where the thigh attaches to the body. Then cut through the joint that attaches the leg to the thigh. Serve these pieces whole, or cut meat away from the bone, depending on demand for dark meat. Carve white meat by slicing parallel to the breast, or cut the breast off entirely and then slice it crosswise.
The United States Department of Agriculture recently lowered its recommended safe minimum internal temperature for poultry from 180° to 165°. Also, the USDA advises keeping the bird in the oven until it has reached 165°, rather than pulling it from the heat five or 10 degrees earlier and letting the temperature rise as it rests. "That's because we're just not sure how much the temperature will rise," says USDA meat and poultry hotline manager Diane Van.
Still, Rick Rodgers recommends cooking the turkey to 180°; he feels dark meat might be tough if cooked only to 165°. We find cooking turkey to 165° yields juicier white meat than higher temperatures. "If consumers cook to higher temperatures for taste, that's their choice," Van says.