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The Basics: Roasting a Turkey

Thanksgiving is in a week, and if you’re planning on hosting a traditional dinner, then I imagine a roasted turkey is on the menu. If you have no experience in cooking a whole turkey, then I imagine it can seem like a daunting task to the neophyte.

Today I’m going to help you put your fears to rest and share with you my own wisdom in cooking such a large bird, based on my own experiences. Roasting a turkey isn’t very difficult, but it’s a task involving solid time management. More than anything, always keep in mind the time needed to thaw a frozen bird, and the time to roast it.

Let’s get started shall we?

First things first

If we’re going to roast a turkey, then you’ll first need one. If you have not purchased one, then I would suggest first contemplating the size based on how many guests you plan on having. A small turkey (4-12 lbs) would feed 6-8 people, while a larger one would feed up to 12. While a big, grandiose bird would look amazing on a table, smaller turkeys will give more tender meat, thus I’d agree with experts that it’s better to cook two small turkeys if you’re really in need of a bigger one.

If you’re feeding even less people, ask yourself if any of them really like dark meat. If the answer is no, then consider just cooking a turkey breast/body, basically a turkey with no legs, thighs, or wings.

Beyond the bird, there’s also the question of select kitchen gear needed for this task. A roasting pan is essential, or some large pan that can hold the turkey and allow you to roast it over long periods. If all else fails, then seek out a disposable one. You should also make sure your pan has some kind of “rack” or setup so the bird isn’t touching the bottom of the pan. the idea is not to have your bird burned on the bottom as you cook it. If you have no setup, then simply cut and lay out a layer of carrots and celery on the bottom of the pan, it’ll add flavor and handle your needs.

You’ll also need a baster, which looks like a big eyedropper. It’s necessary to spray the juices on your bird as you cook it, so it’ll stay juicy. A meat thermometer will also prove handy in checking for doneness, but check first if your turkey comes with a pop-up indicator. Lastly, you’ll need a carving knife and a good board to carve the turkey on.

Don’t overlook the thaw

Probably the biggest mistake most people make in roasting a turkey is in overlooking the time needed to fully thaw a frozen bird. I speak from experience when a friend gave me a partially frozen turkey and expected me to cook it by evening. I managed to pull it off, but my results were not as spectacular as they could have been.

The ideal way to thaw a turkey is to place it in a pan and keep it in the refrigerator. By this method, you’ll need a full 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey.  So a 12-pound bird would need roughly 2 1/2 to 3 days.

Now if you don’t have that kind of time, then try a cold water thaw. This is a technique I often use to thaw frozen chicken. First, make sure your turkey is in a leak-proof plastic wrapping or a bag. Fill a large stock pot or bigger container with cold tap water, and place the frozen turkey into it, changing the water out every thirty minutes. The bird will defrost more quickly this way, roughly 30 minutes per pound.  So that 12-pound turkey would only need six hours.

If you’re even more pressed for time, then you could also try defrosting the turkey in a microwave (if it’s big enough). Last resort would be to cook a frozen bird, but it will still take more time than a thawed one, and lots more care in the process.

Prepping the turkey

With your bird fully thawed, we’re ready to prep it for the oven. If you happen to have an extra day with a thawed turkey, consider brining it in advance. If you read our look at brines versus marinades, then you’ll get an understanding of how to brine poultry. It’s an ideal method to ensure a tender, juicy meat, but I’d only suggest this if you have the time.

Before you consider a brine, check the packaging of your turkey. For all you know, the butcher might have brined the bird for you. Look for any indication that the turkey was placed in a saline solution, salt water, or something along those lines before freezing. If you see it has been, then you shouldn’t need to brine unless you wish to infuse more flavors.

Now if you choose to brine, you could submerge the unwrapped turkey in a mixture of 3/4 of a cup of salt per one gallon of water. A large stock pot could work depending on the size of your bird. Feel free to add any seasonings or aromatics to the brine as you see fit, and leave the turkey to soak at least eight hours in the refrigerator. You can also try what’s known as a dry brine, which is sealing the turkey in a plastic bag with salt and seasonings. I will cover dry brining in detail at another time.

When you’re ready to roast, set up your turkey in your roasting pan and brush it with a light coating of oil. This will help make a golden skin. Pour 1 to 2 cups of water into the bottom of the pan, as it’ll serve for moisture in roasting and basting.

In the oven

Now we’re ready to put the turkey into the oven. Again, it is important to plan ahead and allow plenty of time for you to fully cook your bird so it’s ready in time for dinner. In an ideal world, you should have your oven set to 325°, and allow 1 hour for every 4 pounds of turkey you’re roasting.

That would mean a 8-pound turkey would need roughly two hours (give or take some time), and a 12-pound turkey would need three hours. Now these times are not set in stone, but more to estimate how much time you’ll need. You should more trust a meat thermometer to measure doneness over approximated times.

If you’re estimated time seems too long for your needs, then try raising up the temperature to 350°, which then means 1 hour for every 5 pounds of turkey. You could even try 375° or 400° for more speed, but I’d advise you to watch your bird closely, as higher temperatures mean you have more chance to burn, unevenly cook, or dry out your turkey.

I’ll also add if you stuffed your turkey (as opposed to making a separate dressing), then allow an extra 30 to 60 minutes in the total cooking time.

Don’t forget to baste! This is key to maintaining the moisture. Remember that water I instructed you to put into the bottom of your pan? You would take your baster, collect up some of the water and juices, and spray them all over the turkey. You should do this every thirty minutes. A timer on hand will help you keep track.

As you approach your final half-hour, start checking the internal temperature with a meat thermometer. You’ll want to check a breast and one of the legs, as they often will cook unevenly. If you see your breasts are near done, but the legs aren’t, place some aluminum foil over the breasts to keep the oven from overcooking, and thus give the dark meat more time. Make it a point though to continue basting all the turkey regardless if you need to cover up part of it.

Finishing up

When your turkey is fully roasted and out of the oven, give it at least 30 minutes to rest. Like any cooked meat, resting will help maintain the final juiciness, as well as make it easier to handle and carve.

While many movies paint a lovely vision of carving a turkey at the table, I’d advise carving the turkey in the kitchen before serving. Despite letting the cooked bird rest, juices will still escape, and could make a big mess as you’re cutting. Unless you can keep it contained, save yourself the misery of a juicy mess by carving beforehand.

If you’ve never carved a cooked bird, I’d suggest starting by removing the legs, and then cutting the body right down the middle to separate the breasts. From there you can remove the breasts and then the wings. After the parts are separated, you can cut them up into servings and plate them.

And that’s that! You’ve hopefully wowed your loved ones and become a master of the turkey, thus ensuring you’ll be doing this year after year (regardless if you wish to). If you have further questions, please post them as comments.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tags: turkey, roasting, Thanksgiving, tips, advice

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