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How to Properly Cook a Turkey

by Elizabeth Skipper | November 17th, 2015 | Ask the Chef
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Thanksgiving turkey (400x400)It’s a question I debate every year- how to get a moist, thoroughly cooked turkey. I have seen so many options- breast down for cooking, cut up the turkey and cook the white and dark meat for different lengths of time, and more. What do you recommend?

Ah, the perennial November question about roasting turkey. Seems everyone has their own preferred method, all touted to be “the best.” As usual, there’s more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to cooking, so I’ll just give you the pros and cons and let you decide which suits your needs best.

There are number of considerations which may not have occurred to you, beginning with the selection of the bird. Is the bird “flavored” or “pre-basted,” kosher, or plain? “Pre-basted” means it’s been injected with a salt solution. If the producer left it at salt, that would be one thing; but it’s usually salt plus seasonings and perhaps some kind of oil. Brining’s a great idea, but I’d prefer to skip the other chemicals and flavorings and brine the bird myself. Besides, the pan drippings from a pre-brined bird can be overly salty and unsuitable for gravy. A kosher bird has been rubbed with salt which penetrates the flesh for a time, and then rinsed during processing. This has the same effect as brining. I recommend buying an untreated bird and brining it yourself.

This brings up the question of the size of the bird. Until the late 1940’s, the weight of the average turkey was 12 to 15 pounds. These days the average is about double that! A bigger bird is harder to cook evenly because longer cooking means more time for it to dry out. Plus bigger birds, being older than smaller ones, tend to be tougher. If these reasons aren’t enough to make you think hard about the size bird you really need, consider the logistics of storing, thawing if necessary, and brining a large turkey. You might prefer to cook two smaller turkeys if you’re having that many guests.

Traditionally, the advice is to roast a whole turkey, stuffed or not, at 325ºF or 350ºF, until the temperature at the thigh registers 185ºF. Even if the bird is faithfully basted periodically during the roasting, anyone who’s done this knows the breast meat is overdone and dry at this point. A quick look just now at the USDA’s website tells me that they’ve revised their safety guidelines, and the recommended temperature for the bird – and stuffing, which is more susceptible to bacterial growth – is now 165ºF. It’s better to cook the stuffing separately, though, because by the time the stuffing has reached this temperature, the temperature of the bird will be even higher.

If you like the sight of a whole bird, this might be the method for you. Some pointers: Try to fit the roasting pan into the oven so the legs face the back, where they’ll receive more heat. Start roasting the turkey breast-side down on a V-shaped rack, and rotate it twice to roast the sides, legs pointing up. End the roasting with the bird breast-side up. Whew! Lots of fiddling, but recommended for optimum results.

Cutting up the turkey makes a lot of sense, and I know a highly regarded chef who used to prepare roast turkey with stuffing for a private client this way weekly – this was his favorite meal, and she had to figure out a way to make it that didn’t keep her in the kitchen ridiculous hours. She roasted the parts on a bed of the stuffing, which allowed the juices to seep down into it; and the breast pieces could be removed before the rest of the bird was done. A 15-lb. turkey cooked this way takes about an hour and 15 minutes at 350ºF, she says. The catch? No drippings for gravy – and while a good gravy needs good stock, it also needs pan juices. So if this method appeals to you, I recommend you also roast some turkey parts separately (maybe a couple of legs) for pan juices.

And here’s a method you may not be aware of, high temperature roasting. It’s easy, and doesn’t require brining, stuffing, inserting butter under the skin, or basting, although I’d oil the bird to start. It works for turkeys up to 15 or 16 pounds. Set a rack in the lower-middle level of the oven, and preheat the oven to 450ºF. Season the turkey and set it on a rack in your roasting pan. After an hour of roasting, rotate the pan. Cover the breast loosely with foil if it’s browning too rapidly. After another 45 minutes of roasting, take the bird’s temperature. At 155ºF to 160ºF, remove the bird from the oven and tent loosely with foil (remember carry-over cooking will raise its temperature to the desired temperature of 165ºF.) With this method, you’ll have to cook any stuffing separately, but the turkey will cook quickly and you’ll have pan juices for gravy.

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