9 Truths About Turkey Roasting
Let’s dispense with the regular turkey gobbledygook that permeates the media at this time of year and get down to basics: You’ve got a big, raw bird sitting in your fridge, a bunch of guests coming with holiday-high expectations in tow, and you need help. Sure, you may have heard all kinds of rules, lore, and even a few horror stories, but here’s what you really need to know to successfully roast a turkey on Thanksgiving.
1. Don’t Wash the Turkey
This directive alone will probably shock you. And it holds true for chicken, too. Would you believe it comes directly from the super-cautious folks at the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a division of the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)? They’ve been advocating sparing your birds a bath for several years.
Here’s why: The moment you run water on your poultry, you start spewing a mist of unwanted pathogens all over the sink and nearby items, such as your dish rack, where clean plates and flatware are probably air-drying. You probably think you are washing bacteria off the bird–but you aren’t. Instead, the easiest and most effective way to eliminate bacteria is to kill them in the heat of the oven. So get that bird onto the rack in your roasting pan, and then dry it inside and out with paper towels. Or if you’re brining your bird, put it directly into its salt bath (more on that next).
And don’t forget to wash every surface the turkey or its juices might have touched. Use hot soapy water, and it doesn’t hurt to follow up with disinfectant. When that’s done, wash your hands well with warm soapy water. Pretend you’re a surgeon prepping for an operation, and scrub both sides of your hands and under your nails.
2. Brining Is Strictly Optional
Brining the turkey was all the rage a while ago, and it still has a devoted following, particularly among those who have the space–preferably a second refrigerator–and a container large enough to immerse the turkey in a liquid brine. Fashions in brine recipes come and go, of course, but if you’d like to try brining, this basic formula will always do the job: For a 12- to 14-pound turkey, stir together 8 quarts water with 2 cups kosher salt in a 5-gallon bucket lined with a large heavy-duty plastic garbage bag and soak your raw turkey, covered and chilled, overnight (10 hours).
By contrast, Nathan Myhrvold and his Modernist Cuisine team are fans of injecting the brine directly into the flesh, because they’ve found it prevents the rubbery skin that can result from wet brining.
Molly Stevens, multiple-award-winning cookbook author, prefers dry brining, which involves rubbing the turkey with liberal amounts of kosher salt and letting the bird air-dry in the refrigerator. Stevens likes to leave the turkey uncovered on a rack in a shallow pan (or if it will be sharing the fridge with lots of other ingredients, loosely covered with plastic wrap) for at least eight hours and up to two days. For a 13- to 14-pound turkey, Stevens recommends sprinkling a total of 2 tablespoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt–slightly less if using Morton’s–all over the outside and inside of the turkey.
Despite the benefits of dry brining–a technique I, too, support–it still requires valuable real estate in your refrigerator at a time of year when you probably don’t have a cubic inch to spare. (Dry brining takes less space than wet brining, but more than if you didn’t brine at all.)
Besides, if you want to enjoy the benefits of brining without any fuss, buy a kosher turkey. It’s been salted ahead of time as part of the koshering process. By all means do not brine a kosher bird, and ease up on any added salt whenever you use a kosher bird.
3. Consider Deconstructing Your Turkey
If presenting the traditional entire turkey on a platter is a significant part of your holiday ritual–and the meal unthinkable without it–then keep on doing it. But if moist breast meat and perfectly cooked dark meat is more important to you than that brief tabletop cameo of the whole bird, then take a tip from chefs, who’ve figured out how to produce serving after serving all day long on Thanksgiving: Roast your turkey in parts, the white meat separately from the dark meat. Buy just the parts you like, or, if you buy from a butcher, specify that you’d like your turkey broken down into breast, thigh, and drumstick pieces in advance. (Get the remaining parts from the butcher, too, for use in soup.)
Divide the white and dark parts into their own pans and roast on different racks, switching the position halfway through. This allows you to remove the breast when it’s done and let the legs cook longer. The breast meat is moist at 165°F, but the dark meat is better when cooked to a minimum of 170°F, and as high as 185°F if you like yours well done, when the meat practically falls off the bones.
4. Your Oven Needs Plenty of Time to Heat Up
Avoid surprises and help keep your cool by making sure your oven is as hot as it should be. If you don’t already have a good-quality oven thermometer, now is the time to invest in one. Your oven may beep or buzz to indicate it’s supposedly reached the temperature you set it for, but don’t rely on that signal alone. Oven temperatures can actually vary quite a bit (as much as 50 degrees from the number on the dial or panel), so you still need to use an independent and reliable oven thermometer to verify the temp before you put in your turkey. If you already use one of these thermometers, you’ve probably noticed that it takes a lot longer than, say, 10 minutes to heat your oven; it may be more like 20 to 30 minutes before the oven thermometer indicates that the target temperature actually has been reached.
So don’t rush it. And if your oven has a preheat setting, avoid it, and heat the oven on the bake setting instead. Why? The preheat setting in some ovens turns on not only the bottom flame or element (the one used for baking and roasting) but also the broiler at the top. This may make the oven heat up faster, but after the target temp is reached and the broiler switches off, the accumulated heat in the oven’s upper reaches will likely burn the top of your bird.
5. Don’t Stuff the Turkey
An unstuffed turkey cooks more evenly, and faster, than a stuffed turkey, because there’s air circulation within the cavity. Stuffing the bird also poses significant food-safety challenges. The major problem is that the center of the turkey–where the stuffing is soaking up all the juices–is the last place to reach the food-safe temperature of 165°F. That means the meat will be fully cooked before the stuffing’s done, leaving the stuffing unsafe to eat–unless you roast your turkey until the center of the stuffing registers 165°F, at which point the breast meat will be overdone and dry.
Besides, there’s a purely practical reason not to cook your stuffing inside the turkey: The cavity is simply too small to hold the quantities of stuffing that everyone craves, so you’re going to have to cook extra anyway. Simplify by cooking all the stuffing in one pan. It’s so much easier and safer, and I find the results far superior to stuffing cooked inside the bird. We recommend a shallow baking pan, which provides a large surface area on top for plenty of crusty bits while allowing the rest to remain moist and tender.
If we can’t dissuade you from stuffing the bird, we urge you to roast the turkey just until the meat is done, then transfer the stuffing from the cavity to a baking dish and continue baking (or microwave it) until it registers 165°F. (Remember, inside-the-bird stuffing has fresh turkey juices in it that need to be fully cooked.)
6. Basting Is Worth the Fuss
Basting is the most contentious turkey topic. New York Times columnist Mark Bittman believes “basting is a complete and absolute waste of time for turkey. The skin gets crisp from fat, not liquid. Rub the bird with some oil or butter at the beginning to encourage crispness, and you’re done.”
Modernist Cuisine author Myhrvold, on the other hand, is a basting believer. According to Scott Heimendinger, the director of applied research for Modernist Cuisine, his team has found that basting will “heat and dry the food surface more quickly and evenly than either baking or panfrying alone. The result is often a crisp and delicious crust–the very best incentive for basting.”
In other words, the practice of periodically spooning pan juices over the turkey has nothing to do with helping the breast meat stay juicy. It’s all about getting crisper skin.
Molly Stevens takes a balanced view of basting. Sometimes she bastes, and sometimes she doesn’t. She might be in the mood to baste as she putters in the kitchen, or she might skip it in favor of talking with friends and family gathered for the holiday in the living room.
7. Use the Four-Spot Test for Doneness
When it’s time to check your turkey for doneness, the old method of pricking the thigh and looking for clear juices is not reliable. For instance, a heritage turkey, which requires a significant investment of money, may emit rosy-pink juices even at the USDA food-safe temperature of 165°F.
Between supermarket turkeys bred for buxom breasts and the inevitable hot spots in your oven, we urge you to take the temperature in at least four places: both thighs, as well as the thickest part of the breast on each side. (If you plan to serve the wings to gnaw on, take their temperature, too. No need to check them if they’re destined for soup, though.) Don’t remove the turkey from the oven until all these places register a minimum of 165°F. (Some will get there before others, so wait until they all do.)
When testing the temperature, be sure you are using a good-quality instant-read thermometer–and have a second one on hand for backup. And hang on to the directions (or go to the manufacturer’s Web site) for instructions on how to conduct a preholiday test to make sure it’s still accurate (and how to recalibrate it if it’s not).
8. Let the Turkey Rest After Roasting
When the turkey comes out of the oven, it’s hard to resist the urge to start carving, but resist you must. While your bird has been roasting, the juices have been working their way toward the outer part of the roast. If you slice your turkey while it’s still hot, those juices will keep up their momentum, moving right out of the bird and leaving the meat as dry as sawdust.
Instead, do your turkey and your guests a favor and let the bird sit on a platter for 30 minutes. During that time, the juices will move back to where they belong, inside the meat. And you will gain precious time to make the gravy and reheat the side dishes.
Some people like to cover the turkey with foil while it’s standing, but that’s only going to turn the gorgeously crisp skin flabby. Rest assured that even uncovered, the turkey will still be slightly warm after half an hour, and oh, what a dream it will be to carve! Your well-sharpened knife will glide easily through moist flesh rather than saw through dry, tough, fibrous meat.
9. Keep Turkey Leftovers Foil-Free
When you clear the table before dessert, focus first on storing the leftovers. A turkey carcass takes up nearly as much room as an uncooked bird, so break it down now. Remove any remaining breast meat or thigh meat in the largest pieces possible–in preparation for sandwiches–and wrap the meat separately first in wax paper or parchment, then in plastic. Separate the drumsticks from the thighs, and save the drumsticks, wings, and any other bones for turkey soup.
Whatever you do, don’t wrap the turkey in foil. The salt and iron in the bird can corrode the foil, leaving smears of aluminum on the meat.
Now that you’re well armed with this essential information, relax with the confidence that you can handle this bird and enjoy the feast and festivities.