You know, back when turkey became the expected Thanksgiving treat, people actually cooked it more often than they tend to do these days. Sure, a lot of us have some turkey on hand in the freezer much of the time, often in the form of either ground meat, sausages, bacon, or small medallions that can be quickly cooked any night of the week for dinner.
But how many of you out there have cooked an entire turkey at any time of the year other than Thanksgiving? It’s a heck of a lot of food for a modern family, and besides we are taught from childhood that it’s a process fraught with the potential for disaster.
Consequently, we find ourselves nervous when faced with cooking a fifteen or twenty pound bird, and it winds up becoming something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We assume it’s beyond us, and we find ourselves unprepared when the big moment comes. Lack of preparation is a huge part of kitchen failure. Knowledge is power, whether you’re talking about the boardroom, the bedroom, the closet or the oven.
So for those of you about to cook your first turkey, or those of you who haven’t done it for a while and are feeling rusty, here are a few useful tips that should help you produce a bird that is tasty and moist.
Leave yourself plenty of time for thawing a frozen turkey. Turkey will thaw in the refrigerator at the rate of approximately five (5) hours per pound. That’s right, hours per pound. If you find yourself rapidly approaching the time you need to start roasting and still in possession of an ice block of bird, move the turkey to the kitchen sink. Cover it in cold water and change the water about every half an hour. That brings the timeline down to about thirty (30) minutes per pound. Do not attempt to speed things up from this. At that point you’re courting spoilage. Salmonella is not a welcome table guest. Better to have to wait an extra hour or two for dinner than spend your holiday suffering from food poisoning.
The right pan makes a difference. A good roasting pan large enough to hold a whole turkey is a great investment even if you don’t ever cook a turkey in it. You can use it to roast other meats and vegetables, make lasagna and other baked, layered one-dish meals (shepherd’s pie, anybody?). Besides, if you are going to cook a turkey, a too-small pan can spell disaster. You’ll want something about two to three inches tall so you can keep the juices in the pan, but no taller so as not to keep the dry heat from crisping the turkey skin. You’ll want strong, stationary handles and sturdy construction. After all, you don’t want to finish cooking an eighteen pound masterpiece only to find that a too-thin pan has burnt the bottom or that the super-cool movable handles decide to move at a key moment when you want them to stay put. If all you’ve got to work with is those disposable aluminum trays from the grocery store, at least use two at once. It’s not an ideal solution, but it will do in a pinch.
If you’re putting stuffing in the turkey, wait until just before roasting to fill the cavity. Many people prefer to cook the stuffing separately from the bird, either for health concerns, so that vegetarians at the table can share in the treat, or because they think it has a nicer consistency that way. I still stuff because I like the way the stuffing and turkey suffuse one another with an extra layer of flavor. Besides, I think it’s fun to dig out the stuffing. In the end, to each their own. But if you are going to stuff, stuff safely. You can make your stuffing ahead of time (assuming your recipe deals well with that), but don’t put it in the bird until you’re just about to put it in the oven. Stuff loosely, and cook until the stuffing reaches between 160 and 165f on the thermometer. Again, safe food handling trumps everything when feeding a crowd.
Trussing is optional. Trust me on this. If you’re worried about trussing because you’ve never done it before, just recognize that you have the option to leave that step out of any poultry roast. I have never trussed a bird in my life, and they’ve all turned out just fine. In fact, there’s a school of thought that trussing the bird can make it more difficult for the heat to properly distribute in the inner portions of the legs and wings, meaning that you have to cook longer, thus almost guaranteeing dried out white meat. I don’t know if this is an accurate theory, but I can tell you that I have never trussed a turkey and I have never served a dry turkey. Food for thought.
Unless you brine, baste often. I’ve never brined a turkey. I honestly have no tips or tricks on that. But I swear by my own method of keeping turkey moist while it cooks. Heat equal amounts of unsalted butter and olive oil in a small sauce pan until the butter melts. Leave it on the lowest possible heat on the burner and baste the turkey with this mixture every twenty minutes to half an hour. Be liberal with this concoction. Not only does it keep the meat moist, it also imbues it with a sinfully luscious flavor. Oh, and be sure to roast the bird breast down. It makes a difference.
You know the turkey is done when the thermometer tells you it’s done. For safe eating, the dark meat will need to reach 170f. Don’t fudge this. Get a good, accurate, instant-read cooking thermometer and use it.
Let the meat rest before you carve. Once you take the bird out of the oven, transfer it to the platter and cover it tightly for about ten or fifteen minutes with aluminum foil. Meat carved too quickly after cooking can dry out when the juices run too freely.
Relax. If the turkey turns out a touch dry or everyone has to wait another half an hour because it’s just not getting to the temperature it needs to be, it’s not the end of the world or proof that you’re an incompetent cook. It’s just something that happens. A little gravy or cranberry sauce will make the drier bits of meat go down just fine, and a short wait for Thanksgiving dinner only whets the appetite more. Besides, there are few greater party killers than a panicky host/cook telling everyone how badly the food turned out. Serve it with a smile and offer up gravy. Everything will be fine.