Roasting a Turkey
How to make a turkey that is
moist and delicious, every time
Revised November 2012
It's that time again! Time to roast!
Over 90% of American households have turkey on Thanksgiving. Over the course of a year, each of us, on average, eats a whole turkey. (I must be eating a couple of vegetarians' share.)
Most of those are roasted — mostly badly, with squeaky, dry breast meat, and greasy, salty, gravy. It's not surprising. With its different types of meat, tacked on to an oddly shaped, heavy frame that's not much smaller than a home oven, a turkey is not an easy thing to roast well.
It does not have to be that way. Turkey heaven takes just a little knowledge and a few simple practices.
Here are the most important hints for roasting the perfect turkey. If you are not as obsessed as I am, you don't need to follow every tip. The list is in order of importance. Just start with number one and continue as far as you can stand. But you MUST do number 1 and number 2 is very important, too. Ah, so is 3. After that, it's small stuff. Well, smallish ... mmm, told you I am obsessed!
If today is Wednesday or Thursday, run out and get yourself a pre-brined, thawed turkey (see 4: Good Turkey). Rinse, unwrap, and if there's time, place in the refrigerator, uncovered, to air dry it overnight. Remove it from the refrigerator two hours before you're ready to cook.
If it's Monday or Tuesday, you can get any thawed turkey. If it's unbrined, you can wet brine it (see 2: Brine the Bird!) and still have a day to air dry it.
If it's Saturday or Sunday, you have time to dry-brine, then air-dry.
If you have questions or need a recipe, e-mail me:
1: MEAT THERMOMETER!
With any roast, the internal temperature is the only reliable way to know it's ready. Cooking time charts are unreliable. It's even more so for turkey, with its giant slabs of breast meat that go from delicious to painful in ten degrees.
The worst mistake is relying on the pop-up thermometers that come implanted in some turkeys, almost all of which trigger at something like 185 degrees.
After a 30-60 minute rest, the temperatures will rise about ten degrees to 160 for the breast, 170-175 for the dark meat.
Until 2006, the USDA recommended an internal temperature of 180 degrees — dry, dry, dry. They now recommend 165 (for both dark and white meat) but a lot of sources still reflect the old advice. Salmonella, campylobacter, and other bird-borne nasties are history at 160. It's not necessary to take the bird to cardboard-land. Just make sure your thermometer is accurate (you can calibrate yours using boiling water, which is 212 degrees at sea level). Take multiple readings in the thickest parts that are not adjacent to bone, and wait for the reading to settle. Cook until your lowest reading is the target temperature.
The finest thermometer is the Thermapen. While most so-called instant-read thermometers take nearly a minute to reach an accurate reading, the Thermapen is there in less than ten seconds. But it's about $100 so I am not suggesting it. Unless you gotta have it. Then I recommend it, highly. It will last a lifetime.
For roasting, I recommend a food thermometer with a remote probe at the end of a cable. The probe goes into the meat and the read-out is outside the oven. An alarm sounds when target temp is reached. My Polder probe thermometer was dead accurate and less than $20. It finally died and I replaced it with a similar unit from Thermoworks, the folks who make the Thermapen. There are also wireless units so you can walk around the house and know what's going on inside your bird!
Placement can result in incorrect readings. The probe tip should be in the thickest part, not touching bone. To be sure, set your probe thermometer's alarm to ten degrees below target, then follow up with multiple readings from an instant-read thermometer.
Allow the bird to rest 30-60 minutes before carving. It prevents the juices from running out, helping them stay in the meat. It also helps with the meal timing. This is the time to complete the gravy and the rest of the meal. The meat will stay hot for 45 minutes, easily. Tent loosely with foil and it will stay hot for over an hour. Just drape the foil over the bird, so you don't soften the skin. After carving, if the meat is not hot enough, or if there are parts that seem too pink for your guests' tastes, a minute or so in the microwave will fix it.
Soaking the bird in salt flavors the meat and makes it absorb water. This makes for a much moister bird and gives you leeway on the temperature — brined breast meat is still quite palatable as high as 180 (don't ask me how I know). Which is good since it is hard to get the thigh to 175 without taking the breast higher than 160. So you must, you must, you must brine, or buy a brined bird.
You can brine it yourself or buy a brined bird — see item 4, about how to buy a good turkey. Wet brining is soaking in salt water and takes a day. Dry brining is more convenient but the turkey needs to be thawed four days before.
Before you brine, check the label. If the bird is kosher or "packed in a solution," then it's already brined. If you brine it again, it will be too salty.
Basic Dry Brining Procedure
I learned about dry brining from an article by Russ Parsons, published in the Los Angeles Times. It's recommended by the Zuni Cafe's Judy Rogers. "You just salt the turkey a few days in advance, give it a brisk massage every so often to redistribute the salt, and then roast it." It worked well for me and is now my regular method. The results are much the same as wet brining. The meat is flavorful, not at all salty, and moist throughout. The biggest advantage: It's easier. Salt it, place it in a plastic bag, refrigerate for three days, then refrigerate another day, uncovered. The only disadvantage is that you have to plan 4-5 days ahead.
Basic Wet Brining Procedure
This is an overview. If you crave more detail, see "More on Brining" (below).
Good gravy is an absolute requirement for me. I have a PhD in gravy. There is a simple, reliable route to excellent gravy: make-ahead pan gravy. Much of it is done before the bird is ready, even days in advance.
When you put the turkey in the oven (or a few days before), put the neck, giblets, tail, and wing tips in a pot. Brown well. Add a cup of white wine and, if you like, 1/4 cup of sherry, deglaze pan (stir and scrape pot bottom with wooden spoon to free any browned bits stuck to pan).
Add two cans of low-salt chicken broth (recommended: Swanson's lower-salt version) and enough water to cover. Simmer for an hour with one onion (chopped and skin included) or so. Remove turkey parts, set aside to cool. Strain the broth into a container.
Remove meat from the turkey parts and mince finely, including the giblets (or process using a food processor). Add to the broth and refrigerate.
While the turkey is roasting, prepare a roux. A roux is flour and fat cooked together. It prevents lumps because the flour granules are coated and can't clump together.
Place 3 tablespoons butter and 1/4 cup flour in a 5-quart or larger pot. Cook at medium heat, stirring pretty constantly, until it's brown and nutty — your nose knows! Don't try to go past dark brown, as it will burn easily. You want it about the color of peanut butter, not as dark as milk chocolate. Set aside in a small bowl.
When the turkey comes out, it needs to rest. Move it to a platter and cover it well with foil. While it rests, complete the gravy.
Add the broth to the turkey roasting pan and heat over medium heat using two burners, to dissolve up all that good, browned stuff. Strain into your saucepan, including about a cup of the carrots, celery, and onion from the turkey's pan (see basic roasting instructions, in section 5), and stir in half the roux. Add more if you want it thicker but note that it gets thicker as it cools, so leave it a bit less thick than you want.
If you want the gravy smoother, run the finished product through a sieve, blender, hand blender, or food processor.
I make a couple of quarts of gravy and freeze the rest in baggies. Myum.
A really big bird is hard to cook well. While it's best to stay under 14 pounds or so, Cook's Illustrated developed a recipe for 20-pound birds that serves 20-24 people but I would rather do two smaller birds.
Brined or Not?
You can buy pre-brined birds or brine them yourself (as explained in step 2). Birds that are labeled as koaher or "packed in a solution," or list sodium or potassium-based ingredients, are brined. The advantage of a brined turley is that it saves you a step. The disadvantage is that you have no control of how salty the bird is.
Frozen? Fresh? Heritage? Which Brands?
Frozen turkeys do as well as fresh in some tests and I have had similar success with average supermarket birds and fancy-name fresh ones. Frozen birds are very likely to be pre-brined (the label will say it's "packed in a solution," or will list sodium or potassium-based ingredients).
A top-rated turkey in more than one magazine report was the plain old Butterball. Most (but not all) Butterballs are packed in what they call a "solution," which is basically a brine — actually "salt, modified food starch, sodium phosphate, and natural flavors." I have used them twice with great success.
In past years, one of the best turkeys in Cooks' Illustrated's and other tests was Empire Kosher. In the San Francisco South Bay Area, they are now widely available, at Nob Hill, Safeway, Mollie Stone's, and Andronico's. A few years ago, Cook's top-rated another Kosher bird — Rubashkin's Aaron's Best. They are hard to find on the west coast but I learned that Trader Joe's Kosher Turkey, available only during the holidays, is a Rubashkin. I cooked one and was disappointed at how salty it was. Cook's mentioned that while they rated it as the best, it was also the saltiest. I thought the salt dominated the flavor. I also find the Empire Kosher pretty salty.
Kosher birds have two other disadvantages. One is that they are not cleanly plucked. A spokesperson for Empire explained to me that this is because the Kosher laws do not allow the hot water dip used by most processors to loosen the feathers. A Kosher bird will have small pieces of feather. They are a bit off-putting but don't affect the flavor. I pull the larger ones. The second complaint is that Kosher birds don't have any giblets or wing tips, which are part of my gravy-making. All you get is the neck.
So far, I have to give the nod to good old Butterball, or whatever Costco or Trader Joe's has.
A lot of gourmets are turning to "heritage" birds — the original breeds before the Dolly-Partonizing of modern breeding. I haven't tried them yet. From what I read, they vary quite a bit. Even the same breed can taste quite different, depending on the grower. If you can suggest one that is available in the Bay Area, let me know:
While you're at the market, pick up some extra parts: A couple of necks, wings, or backs, for the make-ahead gravy. This is most important if you're cooking in a way that makes pan drippings unavailable, such as smoking or grilling.
5: TURN THE BIRD!
Cook's Illustrated's original method had you start it breast down, then on one side, then on second side, then breast up. I had mixed success with this and it's a lot of fuss, so I turn it just once. Cook's has evolved their instructions and they now do the same.
But you do need that one turn. Recall that you want the breast at 160 degrees and the thigh at 170-175. The breast-down period helps shield the breast so it can be ten degrees behind the legs.
But don't try shielding the breast with foil, because the skin won't crisp up. Alton Brown on Good Eats disagreed -- he started the bird at 500 degrees, then shielded the breast. It worked for me when I tried it but the skin on the breast didn't brown as well. Brown's current recipe omits the foil, so he must think I'm right. But he agrees with Butch about the brine — he adds herbs and sugar.
And yes, Brown brines his bird. All turkey-masters do.
Basic Roasting Instructions
So, How Did You Do?
If you use these notes, I would love to hear from you! Contact me:
Imagine roasting at 550 degrees instead of the usual 325! That's the idea behind high-heat roasting or "high-roast." I have tried it three times, twice following Chef Marc's instructions, once more along the lines of a Cook's Illustrated article. I have also done other meats at high temperatures.
High-roast delivers some great browning and speeds things up but is hard to control with turkey and it's large mass of heat-sensitive breast. It works much better for chicken.
If you try this, rely on the Cook's Illustrated article rather than Chef Marc. He is sloppy. There are several inconsistencies on his site and if you hear him on the radio (he used to be an annual guest on KGO-AM in San Francisco), you hear still more inconsistencies, all belted out with the emphatic certainty normally reserved for political talk show hosts. A lot of what he says is either wrong or dubious. The videos on his site are especially odd. He drinks wine the whole time and by the end, he is getting sloppier and sloppier.
I love high-roast chicken but for turkey, stick with the standard 325 degrees.
Grilling and Smoking
Of course you can grill turkey! It turns out well but you miss the pan drippings, so the gravy suffers a little. You can put a drip pan under the grate (in the middle, where you have no coals) if you are doing Weber-style indirect grilling.
Turkey takes smoke beautifully. I've never done genuine smoking of a whole turkey (which is an all-day, low-temperature affair) but I have added smoke during a normal two-hour grilling and it works very well. It's not really Thanksgiviing tradition though. I especially like to smoke turkey parts other times of the year. But it's apparently hard (or impossible) to get the skin crisp — in fact, it comes out rubbery and barely edible.
One friend, Dave, hot smokes a turkey and says that if you use a pan to catch the drippings, you get a wonderfully smoky gravy.
In 2006, I finally fried a turkey. It's very fast and works really well. The method has potential but I had a few issues.
There are various vertical roasting products on the markets and my friend Linda swears by (actually, raves about!) a clay upright, the Cocorico (which she got at Napa Style). I have not tried it and wonder if my oven would accommodate a turkey in the upright position. She says it's tight — she has the rack at the bottom, sticks with an under-14-pound bird, and it means the oven is not available for anything else.
I saw George Duran do beer-can-chicken with a turkey (using a Foster's Lager's 24-oz can). I like beer-can chicken but I'll not be trying this one. I don't like Foster's that much.
Stuffing the bird is a food safety no-no because reaching 160 degrees inside tends to ruin the breast. Tests show that the stuffing doesn't really pick up any flavor from the turkey. So make your stuffing but bake it in a separate pan (where, technically, it's called "dressing").
But if you insist, put the dressing in a cheesecloth cloth bag, microwaving it so it is quite hot, and then placing it inside the bird. Alton Brown of Good Eats re-addressed the stuffing question in the show titled "Stuff It."
How long do you brine?
The dry brine process takes 3-4 days plus a day or so to dry.
A wet brine can be short or long. Short brines use a higher concentration brining solution, with more salt. Both work well but I prefer the longer brine because with more time, the salt penetrates deeper and since the water has less salt, you are less likely to wind up with overly salty meat near the surface.
Cook's Illustrated has a detailed brining formula with variations for longer and shorter brines (or at least, they had one — they keep moving their links around). I use 2 cups of kosher salt or 1 cup table salt and 1 cup sugar per gallon of water for 8-12 hours; or twice the concentration for 4-6 hours. You must keep this at under 40 degrees.
You might also wonder what vessel to brine in! If you don't have a pot big enough for a turkey (3 gallons), an ice chest is a good choice because you can add ice daily, to keep the food safety police at bay. (Remember: no more than two hours in the 40-140 danger zone).
When you're finished, rinse the turkey well, to remove surface salt. Then — important tip — dry the bird very thoroughly and , if you have time, leave the turkey unwrapped in the refrigerator for a day or two. Drying means crispier skin.
Benefits of Brining
Dry brining worked as well as wet brining and was a less fuss. The methods in the main article detail it.
Inquiring minds want to know: How does brining work? And the often-asked question: How much salt does brining introduce?
Geek alert: This is hugely nerdy.
Cook's Illustrated looked at how much water enters the meat and how much remains after roasting. Plain water hydrated the meat just as well but brining made it stay there. Brining and soaking both added 6% to the weight. After cooking, a pound of untreated meat weighed 0.82 lb., water-soaked meat ended up at 0.88 lb, and brined meat was 0.93 lb. Serious Eats has seen similar results in their brining tests.
I did a lot of research and no one really knows how brining works. It's believed that salt interacts with the structure (probably by denaturing proteins) in a way that helps retain water.
How much salt does it add? The amount is significant but not massive. I have seen some discussions guessing at mechanisms and amounts, nothing iron-clad. If the added water is similar in concentration to the brine, then an 8 oz serving of meat, which normally contains 120 mg of sodium, has an additional 0.09 tsp of salt, or 225 mg added by brining. That's 350 mg for a half-pound of turkey meat.
A slice of bread, an English muffin, or a pretzel rod has around 200 mg. The USDA recommended daily intake is 2400 mg and for low-sodium folks, 1500.
So it's significant but not greatly so, especially given that it's one of the two great eating holidays.
Ways to Cook Turkey
Someday I'll have tried them all:
My food blog, FeedMe, carries a blow-by-blow description of my turkeyheaded adventures.
© 2012, Moe Rubenzahl