No doubt about it – learning how to roast a turkey can be stressful. But really all it takes to prepare a turkey that would make Norman Rockwell proud are 3 things: the right tools, a plan, and the confidence that you’ll figure it out.
Our friends at OXO have provided me with a set of great of tools and you can have the whole set too. Check at the bottom of this post for the giveaway entry form. The tools are:
- Butter dish, both practical and pretty enough to put on the Thanksgiving table.
- Twine dispenser – to help you tie those turkey legs (see step #5 below.)
- Turkey baster, with a handy cleaning brush.
- Turkey lifter, fabulous for moving the turkey from roasting pan to cutting board.
- Measuring cup with a strainer, perfect for separating turkey juices from fat.
The plan is simple – 10 steps that take you from the moment you get the turkey (or take it out of the refrigerator) until you put it on the table. For tips on buying a turkey and whether or not to brine it, check out my Beginner’s Guide to Thanksgiving Turkey.
As for confidence, with apologies to the Wizard of Oz, I bet you have the courage to face down your fears. And as you bring a delicious meal to the table, your admiring guests will applaud your accomplishments.
How to Roast a Turkey – 10 Steps for Turkey Roasting Success
- You’ll need a large roasting pan with a rack so the turkey does not touch the bottom of the pan as it cooks. The rack allows the juice and drippings to fall below the turkey. If you don’t have a roasting pan, use a disposable one with a large sheet pan underneath. (The sheet pan is for support. Even though a foil pan seems firm when cool, it becomes pliable when heated and needs support.) A rack with movable sides is preferable, but a flat wire rack works too.
- Take the giblets out of the cavity before cooking. (Use them to make broth. My chicken soup directions work well here, substituting the turkey giblets for the chicken. If the broth isn’t flavorful enough, while it cooks, add boxed or canned low sodium turkey or chicken broth, or several pieces of chicken.) I know it’s kind of yucky to stick you hand into the cavity and pull them out, but you can’t cook the turkey with the giblets still inside, especially if they are wrapped in paper, as they often are.
- Pat the skin dry with a paper towel. Use butter or oil to moisten it and sprinkle with salt and pepper. (Do not rinse the turkey!) We often put a double layer of cheesecloth on the top of the skin to hold the moisture in as the bird cooks, although not in the picture above.
- Season the cavity with salt and pepper; fresh rosemary placed under the skin is a nice touch. We insert both halves of a cut orange, an onion with the skin removed, celery and fresh herbs into the cavity. (It’s a whole lot easier to cook “stuffing” in a pan and frankly, I think it tastes better cooked that way too.) I like bread cube-based stuffing and cornbread stuffing balls.
- Position the turkey on the rack and tie the legs. I sometimes use a small skewer to pull the cavity closed too, as you’ll see in the picture above. Dark meat cooks more slowly than light meat, so roasting an entire turkey is an exercise in figuring out how to slow down cooking the white meat so that it doesn’t dry out before the dark meat is done. If you’re a mere mortal, you will probably want to roast the turkey breast side up. But if you’re incredibly confident and have an assistant, starting out roasting it breast side down and turning it over mid-way through keeps the white meat from getting overcooked.
- Baste the turkey after 90 minutes, then every 20-30 minutes after that. Pouring the pan juices over the cheesecloth keeps the juices close to the skin. The minimum safe oven temperature for roasting a turkey is 325 degrees F. Many recipes suggest 350 degrees throughout, while others recommend starting with the oven pre-heated to 400 degrees to crisp the skin, then turning the temperature down to 350 degrees.
- To gauge whether the turkey is fully cooked, it’s best to rely on a meat thermometer. Also, check that the juices run clear when you cut the between the legs and the breast. Don’t rely on minutes per pound estimates of cooking time or a pop-up thermometer. The bird is done when the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F.
- Once cooked, leave the turkey to rest for 20 minutes before carving.
- For carving, carefully move the turkey to a cutting board, preferably one with a gutter to catch the juices. This is where the poultry lifter comes in really handy! The prongs of the lifter go inside the cavity and help keep the bird stable as you move it – much easier than trying to lift it just from the outside. For the carving, you’ll need a large, very sharp knife and a carving (large two-pronged) fork. Separate the legs and wings from the body first, then slice the breast meat. Here’s a useful video by a butcher showing how to carve a turkey. He does use a bare hand instead of a carving fork to hold the meat, but hey, the guy’s a professional.
- Save the pan juices and separate the fat, which will rise to the top. Only use the pan juices for gravy (not the fat), mixed with the giblet broth or with turkey or chicken broth. The handy separator lets you to pour the juices out while the fat remains in the cup. then you can properly dispose of the fat or use it for another purpose. Here is a simple template for gravy, made absolutely scrumptious when you use the turkey broth and maybe even a few of the drippings that sitting in the strainer of the measuring cup.
It’s not that hard – really. I didn’t learn to roast a turkey until recently and in just a few years, I’ve gone from novice to comfortable cook when it comes to turkeys. (Plus, there are always the turkey hot-lines for emergency advice on Thanksgiving morning.) Find a friend or spouse to help, keep a glass of wine – or whatever else helps you to relax – at hand, play some good music, and get started!