Monday, November 14

How to roast a turkey

The other day I was telling a girlfriend about the three meals I'd cooked from an inexpensive turkey I bought (yippee for November turkey prices!). She was surprised that I fixed a turkey on a weekday; I was surprised that she'd never fixed a turkey. I can see how that might happen, though--lots of people travel to their parents' homes for holiday dinners, so they've never had occasion to cook a turkey themselves.

Easy instructions for how to roast a turkey

In talking with several people, I've learned that turkeys intimidate many cooks. We want to serve a turkey dinner that looks like this:
But we're afraid that we'll end up with a turkey dinner that looks like this one from Christmas Vacation:

Turkey is a tasty, economical meat, but it mystifies many cooks, so I thought I'd do a little Turkey 101 here. 

First, you must buy a turkey. A good rule of thumb is to purchase a bird that is 1 1/2 pounds per person (this will provide plenty of leftovers). So if you need to feed 8 people, you'll want a 12-pound bird. If you're just feeding your immediate family, you'll probably just have to buy the smallest whole turkey you can find. Any kind is fine—I've used fresh birds, frozen birds, even go-to-the-turkey-farm-and-choose-a-bird-from-the-flock birds. It's all good. If you select a frozen bird, thaw according to package directions (be sure to keep the bird cold while it's thawing, either by thawing it in the refrigerator over the course of several days or by thawing it in cool water). Remove the neck and the giblets from the bird.

The next step is simple, but it's absolutely crucial to producing the most flavorful, moist turkey: brine the turkey. You don't need a special brining mix or anything fancy. I simply run a quart of hot water in a clean cooler and mix in 1 cup or more of kosher salt and 1/2 cup of brown sugar. If I have orange juice in the fridge, I pour in some of that. You can add other spices if you like. The most important thing is the salt.

Mix everything together well to dissolve the salt and sugar, then add cold water (2-3 quarts should do it) and ice cubes. Now plop your turkey in. Add more ice water if needed to completely submerge turkey and close up the cooler.  For best results, you want it to soak at least 6-8 hours, but it's fine to soak it for a little longer: just keep adding ice if necessary to keep the turkey good and cold. I usually mix up the brining solution the night before I cook a turkey and let the bird soak overnight. (If you don't have a cooler that will hold your turkey, use a bucket or large pot and keep it in the refrigerator.)
Doesn't look too pretty while it's brining, does it?
When you're ready to cook your bird, remove all but one rack in your oven. Move that rack to the lowest position. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Yes, you read that right: you want to start cooking the bird at very high heat.

If you have a turkey roasting pan, now's the time to use it. Or you can use a large baking pan with a wire rack placed in it. Or you can use disposable roasting pans (you might want to use two stacked together, since the turkey is heavy). Believe me, you don't need to spend money on a special pan for cooking your turkey. If you like, spray the pan lightly with non-stick cooking spray.

Remove the turkey from the brine and drain all the briny solution from the bird.  Rinse with clean water  and pat dry with paper towels. (Be sure all the salty water runs out of the cavity of your turkey.) Rub the turkey liberally with oil (I prefer canola). Be sure to coat it all over. I do not recommend stuffing the turkey with anything. Place turkey, breast side up, in the roasting pan. Now, before you put the turkey in the oven, tear off a large sheet of aluminum foil. Fold it over so that you have a triple-thick sheet large enough to cover the top of the entire turkey breast. Place the foil on the turkey breast and use your hand to conform the foil to the shape of the turkey, creating a little foil tent, like this:

Now REMOVE the foil and set it aside; you'll use it a little later.  See how it holds its shape?
Put the turkey in your 500 degree oven and let it roast, completely uncovered, for 30 minutes.

While this part of the roasting is happening, dump out your brining solution and clean your cooler thoroughly. I use bleach to do this.

After 30 minutes, remove the turkey from the oven. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees.  Here's how your turkey will look after just 30 minutes at 500 degrees:

Take your foil tent and carefully put it on the turkey breast. You've already formed it to just the right shape, so you should be able to simply lay it in place. Be careful not to burn yourself on the hot roasting pan. Now stick a meat thermometer right through the foil tent into the thickest part of the turkey breast and put the bird into the 350-degree oven.

Roast the turkey at 350 degrees until the thermometer registers 162 degrees. Depending on the size of your bird, this process will probably take about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. But you can't rely on your timer for this part. You do need one special piece of equipment: a meat thermometer (this is the one I have).* The meat thermometer is the only way to insure that your turkey is done enough without being overdone. (Note: The USDA recommends that you cook turkeys to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. I suggest you remove the turkey from the oven when your thermometer reaches 162 degrees. The internal temperature will continue to rise due to residual heat. If you allow the turkey to reach 165 degrees while it's still in the oven, it will probably reach 170 degrees after you remove it--and at that point, your turkey will be a bit overdone.)

I can't stress this enough: If you don't already have a meat thermometer, you'll want to buy one. There's no need to spend a fortune—some are really expensive, but I think that's unnecessary. 

Remove the roasting pan from the oven. Cover the turkey loosely with foil and allow to rest 15 minutes before carving. I allow mine to sit for 10 minutes, then I lift the turkey out of the roasting pan onto a cutting board or platter. Then I pour the pan drippings through a sieve into a sauce pan. I heat the drippings on the stove top to boiling. While the drippings are heating, I mix a couple of tablespoons of flour with a bit of water in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. When the drippings are bubbling merrily, I use a wire whisk to stir my flour-water mixture into the drippings. Ummmm. . . mouth-watering turkey gravy. A word of caution: if you brined your turkey, your pan drippings will be salty. Be sure to taste the gravy before adding any seasoning. If the gravy is too salty, add more water and cook to reduce. 

Click here for ideas for turkey leftovers!

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  1. What an excellent tutorial!! I have never cooked a turkey (gasp!). But, like you said, we've always traveled for Thanksgiving, and last year my SIL did the turkey when I hosted. :) Saving this!!

  2. You truly are amazing.

    I've done a few turkeys in my day, and the best ones, believe it or not, were the ones done overnight (yes, overnight!) in the oven. They always turn out moist and beautiful.

  3. I have never heard of Brining a turkey...but it makes sense. You did a great job of explaining how to do it. I am allergic to all poultry and eggs, so I don't cook turkeys anymore. We have Prime Rib or Pork Loin Roast. (:>)

    You are such a well rounded person. You are a teacher, a crafty person, a good decorator...A good wife and mother, and a sweet blog friend. I enjoy you so much!

    I hope you will have a blessed Thanksgiving Richella.

    Love, Linda

  4. You did a great job explaining the turkey process. I have been making my own turkey since I moved out of the house 25 years ago. A couple of years ago, I found a Thanksgiving episode on FoodNetwork with Alton Brown. He brined his turkey. So, I looked up his brine recipe and have been making it ever since!! SO GOOD!!! It makes the most moist turkey. :) I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday!

  5. I'm going to print this and put it in my recipe binder. I've never cooked a turkey and really should because I'd love to have the meat to use for all sorts of dishes.

  6. Count me as one of the people who has never cooked a turkey! Great tutorial--you make me want to try it. :)

    When I was growing up my mom always made "a small turkey" for Thanksgiving (which was really a "big chicken"--ha). Later we switched to ham because everyone just liked it better. I have friends who are horrified by this, but my family isn't very traditional that way. We still laugh about the year my mom didn't feel like cooking so we had fried bologna for dinner.

  7. I've cooked a turkey several times. When I'm having family over for Thanksgiving, I have to cook a bigger bird. So, I end up having to get up very early to prepare it and start the cooking process in order for it to be ready on time. It's not hard but it just looks intimidating because of the size. My husband takes over once it's in the oven and he keeps an eye on the temp. Then he does the carving. I'm looking forward to eating another one (that I didn't have to cook) this Thanksgiving!

  8. great idea, thanks for sharing. I have cooked several turkeys but usually with my mom nearby to help.
    Where we live turkey is really expensive as it comes over from Peru, so we only have it on Thanksgiving, but when we are in the US I will consider making it at other times. It is so tasty and leftovers, yum!
    Amy @ Missional Mama

  9. I've cooked a turkey almost every year for the past 25 years, and I still found this really helpful. In fact, I had never brined a turkey until last year when I read your blog and decided to try it. It worked great! Thanks for doing this--I'm keeping it in my inbox until Thanksgiving so I can refer to it.

  10. I must confess, I only buy turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners!! Usually during the year I like to roast chickens.

  11. I {love} the part in Christmas story when the turkey is eaten by the neighbor's dogs and they all just stand there, realizing how MANY meals they won't be enjoying::
    no turkey, hash, turkey pot pie or gallon and gallons of turkey soup....
    Great post. Although I'd encourage you to check the source of your canola oil (it's ususally Genetically modified rape seed oil.) - that stuff can be scary awful -
    I bet butter would taste better anyway..

  12. Add me to the list of people who only make turkey for the holidays. Wait! do turkey burgers count? :-) I am a new GFC and Twitter follower from Hope Studios. Vicky from Mess For Less

  13. Amen and Amen. You might very well be my long lost sister. We brine our turkey every year, and I brine whole chickens the same way before roasting them. Always perfect and moist. I buy 3 or 4 turkeys each November and keep them on hand in our freezer. Thanksgiving Dinner is actually one of the easiest meals to prepare... it is just all about timing.

  14. I SO need this, Richella! I'm doing the turkey this year. I saw brining bags at the grocery store this year, but I may use a cooler. Thanks for the great tips!!

  15. I've never brined a turkey but am going to save this for future reference. Great explanation on the whole process, Richella. I wish my sister-in-law read your blog - this Thanksgiving might resemble National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation more than Norman Rockwell...


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