Even though we can now buy turkey parts-breasts, thighs, and wings-at the supermarket, most of us still associate turkey with the whole roast bird served on holidays. And for many cooks, roasting a turkey is the only time they desperately reach for a cookbook for guidance on temperature and timing or turn to their grandmother's foolproof recipe for stuffing.
Turkey worries cooks for three reasons: they want to know when it is done, how long it is going to take to cook, and how to make good stuffing and gravy. Five Tips for a Successful Roast Turkey 1. LEAVE THE TURKEY OUT OF THE REFRIGERATOR BEFORE ROASTING
If you leave a turkey, or any roast, out of the refrigerator for about 3 hours before roasting, it will cook more quickly and evenly (see Letting Roasts and Steaks Sit at Room Temperature). If you put an ice-cold bird into a hot oven, the outer part of the breast will overcook and dry out before the inside heats through. 2. DON'T STUFF THE TURKEY
While this may sound heretical to some, stuffing a turkey can make cooking the turkey to the optimum temperature difficult. In order for the stuffing to reach a safe temperature, say, 145°F, the bird has to be considerably hotter, which means it will probably be overcooked. Stuffing can also be a health hazard if doesn't reach a sufficiently hot temperature, or if it is allowed to sit in the bird too long before it reaches the temperature that kills any bacteria. If you insist on stuffing the turkey, allow your bird to come to room temperature, and then stuff it just before it goes into the oven. Otherwise, the stuffing sits in the bird at a temperature that can favor the development of bacteria. Stuffing also absorbs juices from the turkey that would otherwise drip down onto the pan and provide flavorful gravy.
If you want to serve a stuffing, cook it in a separate roasting pan next to the turkey. Don't roast it in the same pan as the turkey, or it will absorb the juices you need for the gravy. Remember, the less stuffing, the more juices you will have for a flavorful gravy. If you want a flavorful stuffing, spoon gravy over it at the table. 3. DON'T USE A ROASTING RACK.
A roasting rack keeps the turkey above the roasting pan and will cause the juices to burn. A better trick is to put the giblets in the roasting pan and set the turkey on top of them. They will cook (you can chop them up for the gravy; see Roast Turkey and Gravy) at the same time they prevent the turkey from sticking to the pan and the juices from burning. 4. COVER THE BREASTS WITH ALUMINUM FOIL
For the turkey to get hot enough at the point where it cooks last-at the thigh joint-the heat has to be given plenty of time to penetrate through the breast and thigh. To keep the breast meat from drying out, cover the breast loosely with a triple-thick sheet of buttered aluminum foil. This insulates the breast, slowing down its cooking so it doesn't dry out. 5. CARVE THE TURKEY AT THE TABLE
Many people have forgotten the old-fashioned ritual of carving at the table. Carving a big turkey makes a meal festive, a little more formal, and memorable. Carve the bird on a deep platter to catch juices. Be willing to be embarrassed the first few times, until you get the hang of it.
Roast Turkey and Gravy
When buying a turkey, buy at least a pound per guest and ideally a bit more so you will have leftovers. Unless you are stuffing your turkey, count on roasting about 8 minutes per pound. This is faster than most recipes recommend, but keep in mind this is based on the turkey being at room temperature before it goes in the oven.
The amount of juices you get for making gravy will depend on how long you cook the turkey and whether or not it is stuffed. If you don't overcook the turkey, you may find yourself with relatively few juices with which to make a jus or gravy, giving you two options: If you have few juices to work with, you will need to caramelize the juices before you make the gravy. If the bird has been cooked longer and released more juices, you can pour the hot juices and fat into a glass pitcher or degreaser, spoon or pour off the fat, and then make the gravy as shown.
MAKES 12 MAIN-COURSE SERVINGS WITH LEFTOVERS
One 20-pound turkey with giblets, rinsed under cold running water
and patted dry
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups chicken broth or more as needed
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Season the turkey on the inside and outside with salt and pepper. Place the giblets in a roasting pan just large enough to hold the turkey and set the turkey, breast side up, on top of the giblets in the pan. Take a sheet of aluminum foil about 24 inches long and fold it to create a triple thickness. It will need to be vaguely trapezoidal to cover the breast and not the thighs. Smear one side with the butter and place it, buttered side down, over the turkey breast. Tie the drumsticks together tightly with kitchen string.
Put the turkey in the oven and roast until well browned, about 1 hour. Remove the foil. Roast the turkey until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the meat between the thigh and the breast reads about 147°F. Remove the turkey from the oven, lift it out of the roasting pan, cover loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest in a warm place for at least 20 minutes before carving.
While the turkey is resting, make the gravy. Remove the giblets from the roasting pan and set aside. Look in the roasting pan to see if the juices have caramelized. If they have, the bottom of the pan will be coated with brown and a layer of clear fat will be floating on top. If they haven't caramelized, you will see brown liquid combined with the fat. The mixture of fat and juices may even be cloudy, meaning the juices have emulsified with the fat, which you want to avoid. If the juices haven't caramelized, put the roasting pan on the stove top and boil the juices until they caramelize on the bottom and separate from the fat, and then pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat. You now have a roasting pan with a layer of caramelized juices and a little fat. Sprinkle in the flour over medium heat and stir in for 1 minute. Whisk in the chicken broth, stirring over medium or medium-high heat until the gravy thickens as much as you like. Strain the gravy into a new saucepan and set over low heat. If using the giblets, strip the meat from the neck and chop it along with the heart, gizzard, and liver. Add the chopped giblets to the gravy, and transfer the gravy to a sauceboat.
Carve the turkey and serve with gravy.
Excerpted from Chicken and Other Poultry: James Peterson's Kitchen Education by James Peterson. Copyright © 2012 by James Peterson. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.