With Thanksgiving upon us, I’ve been getting a lot of calls and emails about turkey. Maybe it’s usual holiday jitters or the anticipated awkwardness of sharing a kitchen with assorted family members, but I find that even the most confident and cavalier cooks can balk a bit when it comes to the big November feast. I know it happens to me. So to fend off any turkey-roasting anxiety, here are my top 6 tips for getting it right.
1. Buy a good turkey – and preferably a modest sized one.
This may take some advance planning, and, depending on where you live and shop, your may have many or few options. Without being too prescriptive here, I invite you to define what a “good turkey” means to you. In other words, don’t just reach for the cheapest, largest bird you can find, but instead consider the inherent quality of the turkey. For myself, I prefer turkeys from small-scale farmers who I know raise their poultry with an eye towards good taste and humane animal practices and not from a large-scale industrial operations that merely wants to raise the biggest, fattest birds they can manage. For the best-tasting bird, consider seeking out one of the old-fashioned heritage breeds that are (thankfully) making a real resurgence (examples include American Bronze, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Narragansett, and White Holland).
A secondary advantage of heritage breeds is that they don’t grow to the gargantuan size of commercial breeds, and that is a good thing. The average turkey sold today (at Thanksgiving) is close to 28 pounds, and while such a bird will feed an army, it is nearly impossible to cook evenly. The bigger the turkey, the longer it takes to cook and the more likely it is to dry out. You will get much better results roasting a moderate-sized turkey; I look for something in the 12- to 16-pound range. If you have a very large gathering, simply roast two smaller birds. I know this may sound radical, but it makes a huge difference in time, texture, and flavor, and you get the bonus of more legs and wings and crispy skin to go around (and two carcasses for even better day-after turkey soup).
2. Presalt the turkey.
Presalting is the key to a juicy bird. One to two days before Thanksgiving, remove the giblets from the turkey (saving them for later if you like). Then pat the turkey dry with paper towels. Measure out about 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt per pound of turkey (if you have a 10 pound turkey, you’ll want 5 teaspoons kosher salt, for a 15 pound bird, it’s 7 1/2 teaspoons, and so forth; then simplify your life by converting teaspoons to tablespoons. Hint: There are 3 teaspoons to every tablespoon). The best brand of kosher to use is Diamond Crystal, because it has no additives, and the large, flakey crystals dissolve readily. If you use another brand, such as Morton, cut back the amount of salt by a smidge.
Sprinkle the measured amount of kosher salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper (and any other seasonings you’re partial to) liberally all over the turkey, spreading a little in the cavity and being sure to season the back, the breasts, and the meaty thighs. If you’ve never pre-salted before, this may look like too much salt, but it’s not. As the turkey sits in the refrigerator, the salt will gently permeate the meat, improving the water-holding ability of the muscle cells so that, when cooked, the meat stays juicy yet does not become overly salty. Arrange the salted turkey on a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet, and refrigerate uncovered (this dries the skin, which helps it turn crisp during roasting) for one to two days. When you pull the turkey from the fridge after its salt treatment, the skin will be taut and dry with no trace of salt–and ready to crisp up nicely in the oven. (There is no need to rinse or wipe off the turkey.)
3. Don’t stuff the turkey.
As much as I appreciate the comforting flavor of stuffing cooked inside a turkey, the stuffing actually compromises the quality of the finished bird. By packing the cavity with a dense bread (or oyster or sausage) stuffing, you prevent the oven heat from circulating inside the turkey and thus slow down the cooking, so the exterior ends up cooking more rapidly than the center leaving you with dried-out breast meat and undercooked dark meat. As much as traditionalists don’t want to hear it, an unstuffed turkey roasts more quickly and evenly. Also, there’s the food safety dilemma: Stuffing packed into the bird will not cook through to a safe temperature until the rest of the turkey is overdone. My solution is to bake the stuffing separately in a baking dish, which makes it technically a dressing.
4. Let the turkey sit at room temperature for a while and preheat the oven.
I like to let the turkey sit at room temperature for anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours before roasting. This helps it roast more evenly. Heat the oven to 450 degrees (or 425 degrees convection), and when you’re certain that it’s fully pre-heated (an oven thermometer is a good way to be sure), arrange the turkey breast-side up in a sturdy roasting pan outfitted with a roasting rack. Pour about 1 1/2 cups of turkey or chicken broth into the bottom of the roasting pan (this will give your pan drippings a boost), and slide the turkey into the oven. Immediately lower the oven heat to 350 degrees (or 325 degrees convection). Roast, rotating the pan after about 1 1/4 hours and covering the breast with foil during the last 45 minutes if it seems to be getting too dark, for 2 1/2 to 3 hours for a 13 to 14-pound (or 12 to 13 minutes per pound). If desired, baste by spooning the pan drippings over the breast every 45 minutes or so.
The turkey is done when the juices from the thigh run mostly clear with only a trace of pink and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the meaty part of the thigh registers about 170 degrees. Make sure the thermometer doesn’t hit bone and that the probe doesn’t go all the way through so that it’s reading the temperature of the oven air. It’s a good idea to take the temperature in a few spots to get an accurate reading.
5. Rest the turkey after roasting.
When the turkey is done, grab both sides of the roasting rack with oven mitts to lift and tilt the turkey, and let the juices pour from the cavity into the pan. Set the turkey in a warm spot (and on a tray or cutting board to catch any drips) to rest for at least 30 minutes and up to an hour. (If it’s drafty, loosely tent foil over the top.) It would be impossible to overstate the importance of letting the turkey rest after roasting and before carving. During roasting, the juices in the poultry continually migrate toward the surface. Once roasting stops, the juices eventually stop moving and redistribute themselves evenly throughout the roast, but this takes time. If you cut into the turkey before it’s had a chance to sit, you will be treated to a dry bird, no matter how perfectly you timed the roasting. Plus this resting period gives you plenty of time to tend to the gravy and side dishes, because we all know that Thanksgiving is really all about the trimmings.
The "outlaws" take a moment to admire the roasted turkeys (and to let the birds rest before carving).
6. Relax. It’s only a turkey.
Even if you decide to ignore all my other suggestions, please heed this one. In my experience, the best part of Thanksgiving is when we all pause to appreciate our good fortunes. The turkey is merely the centerpiece, but the day is much more about gathering families and friends around the table and sharing a familiar feast.
Wishing you a delicious and convivial holiday!