How to Roast a Turkey

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Thawing

By law, “Fresh” Turkeys are chilled as cold as possible without freezing before delivery to us. This can result in a firm, cold turkey ‘crusted’ in ice. These turkeys will keep nicely in your refrigerator for several days. If you’ve ordered a very large bird, it may be too firm to cook without additional thawing. In that case, your turkey will easily soften by merely submerging the turkey, in its bag, under cold running water.

If you have a frozen bird, place it in a container in your refrigerator. To speed thawing, remove the giblets from the body as soon as the bird is pliable enough. Allow 24 hours thawing time for every 5 lbs of turkey.

Preparation

Remove turkey from the bag. Remove neck and giblets from the body cavity. The FDA recommends against rinsing the bird with cold water – studies have shown that it causes the spread of bacteria without offering any benefits. Pat cavities lightly with a towel. If cooking right away, rub body and neck cavities with salt if desired, and stuff loosely, if at all. Truss neck cavity with skewer and truss legs. (Some Diestel turkeys have a nylon loop wedged into the main cavity that serves as a truss for the legs – pretty nifty! It’s oven-safe up to 450º.)

Brining

Brining your turkey is a great way to season the meat as well as help maintain a moist turkey. This method will work for any lean cut of meat.

There are two brining methods. The first, made popular a few years back by Harold McGee, Alton Brown and other food celebrities, is wet brining. In this method you submerge the turkey in a brine made of water, salt and sugar and let it sit in the fridge for 8- 12 hours. The result is a delicious, moist turkey. But the process is a lot of work and it can be a bit messy.

The second method is a dry brine, which is basically a salt rub. The benefit of this is that there is no water so you don’t need to find a container large enough that you can submerge your turkey or worry about disposing of the brine in a safe way. You can do this method with any meat, with the exception of fish. If you are roasting beef, salting the meat and letting it sit in your fridge uncovered overnight will result in a nice crust similar to dry aged beef but without the hassle.

Stuffing

We like to cook the stuffing separately, which allows the turkey to cook faster. You can prepare the stuffing ahead of time and store it in a separate bowl in the refrigerator.

If you do stuff, don’t put stuffing in the bird until your oven is preheating! Stuffing ahead of time provides a wonderful incubation environment for bacteria. Stuffing will expand while cooking, so don’t overstuff. Prepare about ½ to ¾ cups of stuffing per pound of turkey. If your recipe makes more stuffing than the bird will hold, place the remaining stuffing in a covered baking dish and bake in the oven during the last hour so before the meal.

To get the stuffing to a safe temp inside the turkey usually means overcooking the turkey. You may not think to temp your stuffing, but the raw turkey juices that drip into the stuffing at the beginning of cooking need to get to 165° to be considered safe, the same as the turkey. The best option is to put the stuffing in a stuffing bag and microwave it for about 6 minutes. This will give it a head start and it will be more likely to get to the proper temperature.

A note about thermometers: While you can absolutely roast without a thermometer, you will have much better results with one. It is always very discouraging to out your holiday turkey only to discover at the table that the center is raw. A probe thermometer is particularly helpful as you can leave it in the meat and the temperature readout stays outside the oven. This means you don’t have to open the oven, which leads to a temperature drop and a longer, less even cooking time. However an instant read probe thermometer is also a great help.

Roasting

More often than not, you will end up with a much moister piece of meat if you roast at a low temperature. High temperatures, while they are great for browning, tend to lead to a dry piece of meat since the outer layers will get to the correct temperature well before the interior. A better method is to roast at a moderate to low temperature for a longer time then turn up the oven a bit before your roast reaches proper temperature.

Before placing in the oven, always remember to pat the surface dry before seasoning. This can be as simple as salt and pepper or a more complex seasoning blend. To add some extra richness, combine the spices or herbs with butter or oil (example recipe follows).

For stuffed turkeys, and all turkeys over 14 pounds, place turkey, breast side up, on a rack in a shallow roasting pan and roast at 325˚. If the bird is browning too quickly, cover loosely with foil. Remove the foil during the last half-hour or so of roasting to finish browning. Smaller unstuffed turkeys may benefit from being roasted breast side down for the first third of the cooking time. Turn turkey breast side up to finish roasting and brown the skin.

You may baste with butter or turkey juices every ½ to ¾ hours. Many professionals (including Alton Brown and your Teaching Kitchen staff) believe that this does not improve the appearance of the bird, and opening the oven frequently extends the cooking time.

Turkey must be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. Older recipes may call for roasting to higher temperatures, which can result in a dry bird.

Broad breasted Diestel turkeys should roast for approximately 18 minutes per pound stuffed, or 16 minutes per pound unstuffed at 350˚. Heritage turkeys cook more quickly – 16 minutes per pound stuffed or 14 unstuffed. Once you’ve computed the time, use your meat thermometer to start checking for doneness one hour before you expect the turkey to be done.

6-10 lbs.

1 ½ - 3 hours

18-20 lbs

4 - 4 1/2 hrs.

10-12 lbs

3 - 3 1/4 hrs.

20-22 lbs.

4 1/2 - 5 hrs

12-14 lbs.

3 1/4 - 3 1/2 hrs.

22-24 lbs.

5 - 5 1/2 hrs.

14-16 lbs.

3 1/2 - 3 3/4 hrs.

24-26 lbs

5 1/2 - 6 hrs.

16-18 lbs.

3 3/4 - 4 hrs.

26-28 lbs

6 – 6 1/2 hrs.

After roasting, allow the turkey to rest, covered, for a full 30 minutes before slicing. You have to make the gravy anyway!

Cooking Turkey Parts

The beauty of buying turkey by the piece rather than the whole bird is the ability to cook each section according to its nature – something that anyone who’s ever eaten dry-as-dust breast meat will appreciate!

Turkey parts may be patted dry, and roasted as is. They benefit from brining, just as most poultry does, but they’re considerably easier to fit in the fridge! A dry spice rub or a marinade will also add tons of flavor without much extra work.

In our opinion the easiest way to cook the bird is to roast all of the pieces in a 300°F oven on a couple of rimmed baking sheets fitted with a rack. Pull out the breast when it reaches 145° (tent it with foil to keep it warm) and the legs/wings when they hit 165°F. About 15 minutes before you're ready to serve, increase the heat to 500° and put everything back in to crisp up the exterior. All told, roasting should take less than 2 hours for a 12 to 15 pound bird, which is significantly less than it would take if the bird was left whole. Miss the flavor the turkey drippings give to the stuffing? Place the breast on top of the pan of stuffing to roast. Once the breast is done, return the pan to the oven until it gets to temp. Still cook the legs on a pan so you have drippings for gravy though.

Basic Wet Brine for Turkey

1 cup kosher salt

1/2 cup brown sugar

about 40 sage leaves

4 quarts water

Mix all ingredients together in a large pot. Bring to a boil and stir until everything is dissolved. Cool. Add 16 cups of cold water. Submerge in brine in a non-reactive (plastic) container in the refrigerator for about an hour per pound. Before cooking, rinse turkey well under running water and pat dry. (In this case you do rinse, to remove extra salt. Be sure to clean the sink carefully afterwards.)

Basic Dry Brine for Turkey

1 Tbsp of kosher salt per 4lbs of meat

2 Tbsp chopped fresh herbs (optional)

Two days before you want to roast your turkey, rub the bird all over with salt (and herbs if using). Be sure to get some under the skin and in the cavity. Place the bird in a large brining bag and set in your fridge. The second day, flip the turkey over to help evenly distribute the seasoning. By the time you are ready to roast, the salt should have all dissolved. Remove the bird from the fridge and pat dry before placing in the oven.

Very, Very Basic Pan Gravy

Roasting pan with drippings

A few tablespoons of butter

2- 4 Tbsp flour

About 4 cups chicken or turkey stock

A sprig or two of sage

Salt and pepper if needed

Once you have removed the turkey from the oven, transfer it to a cutting board or plate. Place the roasting pan over two burners and turn them to medium heat. If there isn’t a good amount of fat in the pan, add some butter. Stir around the drippings, scraping up any stuck on bits. Sprinkle over the flour and stir in until the flour is toasted light brown. Whisk in a cup of stock and stir until smooth. Slowly add the rest of the stock and the sage, whisking the whole time to avoid clumps. Bring to a simmer and cook until thickened. Season to taste.

Butter Herb Rub

This is best used on turkey parts that are sitting on top of stuffing. If using on a whole turkey, make sure to put chopped veggies and some wine in the roasting pan to catch the butter. Otherwise it will smoke and burn.

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) butter, divided

1/2 cup finely minced parsley leaves

1 tablespoon finely minced fresh thyme leaves (or 2 teaspoons dried thyme)

1 tablespoon finely minced fresh sage leaves

1 tablespoon finely minced fresh rosemary leaves

2 medium garlic, minced or grated on microplane (about 2 teaspoons)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Rub all over under the skin.