Roasting is the most conventional of the turkey cooking methods and probably the easiest to screw up; I’ve eaten some really gnarly, dried-out turkey in my day. Nothing’s worse than a slab of desert dry, tough-as-nails breast meat; no amount of gravy can do it justice. To remedy the problem, pre-salt the bird, inside and out, to increase the moisture-holding properties of the cells in the meat, making it juicier after it’s cooked (a similar but more effective principal as brining). Take a cue from our Asian pals and adopt the method of air-drying the carcass to tighten the skin, so that it separates from the meat and gets crispy and golden brown when roasting. Start the cooking process with a bird that isn’t ice cold, straight out of the refrigerator. Don’t stuff it, so that the meat cooks evenly inside and out; cook your stuffing in a casserole (much more control and much safer). Check the temperature using a digital thermometer and remove the bird at the right temperature, keeping in mind that most ovens are not properly calibrated. Lastly, let it rest before slicing, so that the proteins cool and stabilize, and the juices are retained inside the meat.
Purchase 1 to 1½ pounds of uncooked whole turkey per person. For every pound of bird purchased, expect slightly less than a half pound of cooked meat yield. For a large group, the turkey will taste better and be juicier if you cook two smaller birds instead of one large bird. When thawing a frozen bird, allow 24 hours of refrigerated thawing every 4 to 5 pounds, and do not include the roasting day in your calculations. At 350°F, figure 13 minutes cooking time per pound. If any part of the turkey is getting too dark in the roasting process, cover it with foil to prevent additional browning. Take the bird out at 160 to 165°F, keeping in mind that it will continue to cook after removal from the oven. Measure the temperature by inserting a digital thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh and the breast, making sure you don’t hit any bone (which will read hotter than flesh). Pierce the thickest part of the thigh with the tip of a sharp knife: the juices should run clear with just a slight trace of pink.
12-14 # turkey, fresh if possible, giblets removed, rinsed and dried
2 Tbl Kosher salt
2 tsp medium grind black pepper
1½ to 2 cups of turkey or poultry stock
Rub the carcass inside and out with a mixture of the salt and pepper. Place it on a rack inside a pan and let it air-dry, uncovered, in the refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours. Bring it out of the refrigerator a couple of hours before you plan on cooking it. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Tie the ankles of the drumsticks together with twine and tuck the ends of the wingtips underneath the shoulders (this is called “akimbo”, oddly enough). Place the turkey on a rack inside a roasting pan large enough to allow basting access. If the sides of the pan are too high, it can prevent even browning.
Pour the turkey stock into the bottom of the roasting pan and place the pan on the lowest shelf of the oven, lowering the temperature to 350°F after you shut the door. Total cooking time will be 2½ to 3 hours, depending on the oven and how often you baste. The pan should be rotated 180 degrees halfway through the cooking process, at about an hour and a quarter into the process, to ensure even cooking. Baste the bird liberally with pan drippings every 30 minutes.
You will smell the turkey when it is getting done, but start checking for doneness a little before you expect it to be finished. Pierce the flesh and look for clear juices with a trace of pink, and use the instant-read thermometer to confirm a 160-165°F internal temperature. Remove the bird from the oven, tilt the bird to get all of the cavity juices into the bottom of the roasting pan. Place the turkey on a carving board and tent it loosely with foil for 20 to 30 minutes, while the gravy is being finished (see previous blogpost on making stock and gravy).
Use a very sharp knife so that you get clean cuts, and a carving fork so you don't burn your hand. Place the turkey with the legs facing away from you. Cut the skin that connects the leg to the body, cutting as close to the leg as possible. Using the hand or a towel, push down on the leg until the thigh joint pops out of socket, cutting through that socket joint to separate the leg quarter from the body. Lay the thigh quarter flat on the board, locate the joint between the thigh bone and the drumstick, and cut down through that joint, separating the thigh from the drumstick. Repeat with the other side. Holding the drumstick vertically by the ankle, cut next to the bone in thick slices, around the drumstick. Bias-cut (cutting against the grain of the muscle) those slices into serving-sized pieces. Lay the thigh skin-side down and fillet the thigh bone from the meat. Turn it over and bias-cut the thigh into serving sized pieces.
Remove the wings by cutting through the ball joint on each side. Portion the wings by cutting through the two remaining wing joints. Making a slice along one side of the breastbone, and stabilizing the carcass with the fork on the side opposite the cut, start slicing down against the frame towards the wing ball socket, pushing the entire side of the breast away as you cut down. Make a final cut along the base of that breast section to remove the breast from the carcass. Place that side of the breast skin-side up on the board and bias-cut the breast into serving-sized pieces. Repeat with the other breast. Arrange the dark meat and white meat on a platter and serve.
Many folks associate brining with turkey roasting and it does make for a juicier turkey, because the salt relaxes the muscle fibers, making them able to absorb moisture. One problem with brining is that it definitely makes the meat juicier, but it dilutes the flavor of the bird (while salting does not). Never brine a Kosher or self-basting turkey, they have already been salted. Always use Kosher salt, not iodized salt.
1 cup coarse Kosher salt
1 cup sugar
2 gallons of cool water
12-14 # turkey
Whisk salt and sugar into water until completely dissolved. Place the turkey in a thick plastic bag, and the bag inside a plastic container that will contain any possible leaks. Pour the brining solution over the turkey inside the bag and make sure it reaches all portions of the carcass. Seal the bag and refrigerate 8 to 14 hours. Drain thoroughly, rinse with cool water, drain, and pat dry before roasting. You can add any seasonings or herbs you prefer to the brining solution.
Mick Vann ©