If you're intimidated by the idea of cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving, whether because you're new to the job or because you never do it more than once a year and don't really remember the process, here's the secret: it really isn't hard.
If you roast chickens, you already know what to do, because it's exactly the same for the big bird as it is for the smaller one. It'll just take a bit longer. So, relax (have a glass of wine if that's what it takes) and just allow yourself plenty of time.
And keep in mind that a lot of ordinary people have been doing this well for a very long time. If they can do it, so can you.
Helpful information:Get over the notion that it has to be magazine-cover perfect. Those perfect cover shots are usually touched up anyway. It doesn't matter if the skin tears or if the browning isn't even. All that really matters is how it tastes.Nobody has to see what it looked like when it came out of the oven: if you've failed to produce a cover-worthy bird, just carve the thing in the kitchen and put it on a platter with lots of parsley.Choose a smaller turkey. Monster birds with breasts so big that they could barely stand up in the barnyard are far too unwieldy for the average cook, never have as much flavor as a smaller one, and are a lot harder to cook evenly. If your crowd is large, cook two small birds or roast a breast alongside the whole one.Nowadays almost all turkeys seem to come with a pop-up "thermometer." Here's what to do with it: Pull it out and throw it away. If you wait for that thing to pop, I can guarantee that your turkey will be overcooked and dry.Fresh or frozen? Some argue that fresh birds might taste better and aren't subject to the inconsistencies of the grocer's freezer case. Some argue that frozen turkeys encounter less bruising and therefore have better texture. I'm staying out of it.What you want is an "all-natural" bird that hasn't been injected with basting solution. Also avoid "self-basting" birds, which are injected with a water-based solution of salt, fat, and God knows what else.Prepping the frozen bird: Thaw in the refrigerator, allowing at least 24 hours for every 4 pounds. Leave it wrapped, set it in a rimmed pan to control dripping, and put it on the bottom shelf. Make sure it's completely thawed before you cook it.If you've bought a frozen turkey and have been safely thawing it but find that it still isn't thawed by Thanksgiving morning, unwrap it, remove the neck and giblet packet and completely submerge it in cold salted water (1 tablespoon kosher salt per quart). Salt speeds up the thawing, keeps it juicy, and helps prevent bacterial growth. Never do this with warm water to try to speed it up; it's inviting spoilage. Cook it as soon as it's completely thawed.Brining a turkey will make it more tender and juicy, but it can be an unwieldy undertaking. It's easiest done in a plastic brining bag, available at many supermarkets and kitchenware stores. Follow the directions that come with the bag and don't try to adapt a cookbook brining formula to the bag.A few years ago dry brining became fashionable. Why we allow such ridiculous oxymorons into print is beyond me. Brining by definition is a wet process. Dry brining is a dry-salt curing process that's more accurately called "corning." Salt and spices are rubbed into and often under the skin and the bird is refrigerated at least 12 hours. Pre-mixed kits for this process are available in specialty grocers. I've never done it, so if you try it, follow the directions on the packaging.Whether you've begun with a fresh or frozen bird or have brined or dry-salted it, let it sit at room temperature for at least half an hour before you cook it. Yes, the USDA tells us to keep it cold until the moment it goes into the oven, but that's actually dangerous. If it's refrigerator cold at the start, it won't cook evenly.To stuff or not to stuff: Stuffing adds flavor and is especially moist and delicious since it bastes in the roasting juices, but it also slows down the roasting and can make the meat dry. I prefer to fill the bird's cavity with moisture-rich vegetables and herbs and then cook the dressing separately, which gives me the best of both.If you choose to stuff the turkey, heat the stuffing in a large skillet before putting it in the bird and get it into the oven the moment it's stuffed. Never stuff and refrigerate it. That creates the perfect bacterial incubator and insures that the stuffing won't cook evenly. Allow an extra 15-30 minutes of roasting time.Loosely spoon stuffing into the turkey to give it room to swell. Let it remain in the bird for 15 minutes after cooking, then remove all of it to a serving bowl.Roast at a high temperature, beginning at 450-500 degrees F. for 20 minutes to sear the outside, then reduce the temperature in stages (see Damon's Favorite Roast Turkey, following). This makes a mess of the oven, but it's worth it.Roast the bird mostly breast down. This makes it automatically "self-basting". Start it breast up, rub well with fat after it is seared, and turn it breast down until it is nearly done (150 degrees on a meat thermometer), then turn it breast up to let the skin crisp and brown during the last bit of cooking.Have trouble turning the bird? Thickly rub the breast with butter and, after searing, cover only the breast with buttered heavy-duty foil. (Thanksgiving guru Rick Rodgers suggests covering it with butter-soaked cheesecloth and then foil.) Uncover the breast for the last 20 minutes of roasting to brown the skin.Testing for doneness: Use a reliable instant-read thermometer, available at any kitchenware store. Insert it into the thickest part of the inner thigh without touching any bones. It's safely done at 160 degrees, overdone at 170. If the bird is stuffed, the center of the stuffing should register 165 degrees. To test without a thermometer, pierce the thigh: the juices should run clear. If they're red, it's not done. If there are no juices, you're doomed: it's overcooked. Make lots of gravy.Completely cover any leftovers and refrigerate them promptly, but let them cool first. Don't tightly cover and refrigerate hot food. That's inviting spoilage.Use common sense: After handling raw poultry, immediately wash your hands and scrub cutting boards, knives, and other tools with detergent or disinfectant before they touch anything that won't be - or already is - cooked.
Damon's Favorite Roast Turkey
Serves 8 to 12 (with plenty of leftovers)
1 small young fresh turkey, weighing about 12 (and no more than 14) pounds
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
4 large sprigs fresh sage, or 1 tablespoon or so crumbled dried sage
1 large onion, peeled and cut lengthwise into wedges
2 large or 3 medium leafy ribs celery, cut into 1-inch lengths (leave leafy tops whole)
1. Remove neck and giblets from cavity of turkey and use (except for liver) in broth pot (this can be done a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate turkey until ready to cook, but let sit at room temperature 30 minutes before cooking). Position rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 500 degrees F. Wash turkey inside and out with cold water and wipe dry.
2. Rub cavity well with salt and pepper. If using fresh sage, put in cavity with onion and celery, if using dried sage, rub into cavity before adding onion and celery. Close with trussing needle and twine or small metal skewers. You may tie legs together or not. Rub bird with butter. Put turkey breast up in close-fitting heavy-bottomed roasting pan fitted with buttered rack. (If you don't have rack, rub pan bottom thickly with butter and put turkey directly on pan.)
3. Roast in lower third of oven 20 minutes to sear skin. Rub with more butter and turn breast down. (Use oven mitts and tongs if needed - it may not yet be too hot to handle.) Pour in enough broth or water to cover pan by 1/4-inch.
4. Reduce heat to 400 degrees and roast, basting occasionally if liked (it isn't necessary) about 1 Â½ to 2 hours longer, turning breast up for last 15 minutes, baste well, and roast until skin is brown and turkey is done. If skin is browning too fast, reduce heat to 375 degrees. To test for doneness, see notes above. Add more broth to pan as needed to keep roasting juices from drying out.
5. Remove turkey to a warm platter, loosely cover with foil, and let rest no less than 15 and up to 30 minutes before carving.
Pan Gravy Plain and Fancy
What's turkey without gravy? A sad thing, that's what it is. Madeira adds a mellow richness to turkey pan gravy, but it's also good without it.
The pan juices from Roast Turkey, left in the roasting pan
1 cup Madeira and 2 cups turkey broth or 3 cups turkey broth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Cooked liver from the turkey (see broth recipe), chopped (optional)
1. Pour off but reserve pan juices. Let juices settle and spoon off all fat (or use a degreasing pitcher to separate). Put roasting pan over direct, medium high heat.
2. Add Madeira or 1 cup broth and bring to boil, stirring and scraping to loosen cooking residue. Let boil 1 minute and add broth. Bring to boil and cook until liquid is reduced by half, about 5 to 8 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add reserved pan juices and bring to simmer. Simmer until lightly thickened, about 2 to 4 minutes. Add liver if using and let heat through. Turn off heat and swirl or whisk in butter until incorporated. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve passed separately.
Note: if you like flour-thickened gravy, allow about 3 tablespoons instant-blending flour (such as Wondra brand). Put 3 tablespoons fat from top of pan juices or 3 tablespoons butter in roasting pan after removing roasting juices. Warm over direct medium heat and then stir in flour (I use a flat whisk for this). Stir or whisk until the flour is toasty but not browning, about 1-2 minutes. Slowly whisk in liquids, bring to a simmer, stirring or whisking constantly, and then reduce heat to steady simmer. Simmer until sharp alcoholic aroma of wine has evaporated and flour has lost pasty raw taste. Add liver if using and let heat through. Taste and adjust seasonings and if liked, whisk in 2 tablespoons butter.