I have messed up turkeys every possible way, usually winding up either on the over-done or under-done ends of the spectrum and rarely nailing it. A massive bird, that you have to feed to guests, is enough to trigger performance anxiety in even the most experienced cooks. This year was an exception.
After purchasing a 22 pound bird, I promised myself that I was going to get it right this year. I read all that I could find on the internet and in my cook books about roasting turkeys. After deciding on a protocol, I followed it diligently and the results were amazing. The turkey was perfectly cooked, juicy, tender, and delicious. Based on this experience, here are some tips for roasting turkeys:
- Start thawing early. A big turkey takes a glacial amount of time to thaw. The typical recommendation is a day of thawing for every four pounds of bird. That worked out to be six days for our 22 pounder. So plan ahead. The alternative is to thaw the bird for 12 hours in cold water, but that strikes me as an unnecessary mess and contamination risk.
- Clean your kitchen thoroughly before you start. Cooking a hunk of poultry the size of boulder is a messy enterprise. Proper sanitation is a must. Cleaning your kitchen before you start gives the turkey juices fewer places to hide and makes cleanup easier at the end.
- Pre-brined turkeys are fine. I am a huge fan of brining poultry and normally prefer to brine it myself rather than purchase the pre-injected variety. When I barbecue chicken, the difference is noticeable and my home brined chicken just has a better texture. However, brining an entire turkey is a chore and the only reason that I can do it is because I have a very large homebrew kettle. Even then, it is a nasty job. The bird comes out soaked and it tough to get dry. This year, I opted for a Butterball Premium turkey. It already was infused with “up to 8% solution” of salt and spices. This solution is the equivalent of brining the turkey. I had no complaints about the texture or taste of the finished product, so I consider the infused Butterball Premium turkey to be a good alternative to brining at home.
- Buy a good roasting pan. In previous years, I have opted for cheap roasting pans including the dispoasable variety and using a boiler pan. This made it very difficult to move the bird as well as leading to problems with the drippings. The drippings tended to burn with the disposable pan and overflow with broiler pan. This year, I upgraded to a 12 x 16 non-stick roasting pan by Faberware. It was only $29.99 and made life much easier. It was solid enough to lift with ease and it has a massive amount of volume for drippings. The nonstick coating on the pan made for an easy cleanup.
- Roast until the thermometer reading tells you to stop. All roast turkey receipies come with a range of cooking times, usually at 325 F for 2-4 hours. However, every oven is different when it comes to internal temperature and don’t expect your oven to maintain a consistent temperature, particularly with a massive bird in it. I decided to blast the bird breast side up at 450 F for an hour so the bottom wouldn’t get soggy, then I fliped it and slow roasted at 325 F until done. I periodically took the temperature in the breast. When the temperature got above 160 F, it was done. All together, it took 2 1/2 hours in the oven, much shorter than the 4 hours that I had planned on.
- Use meat lifters. Flipping a partially cooked turkey or moving a cooked turkey to the carving board is a great way to get 3rd degree grease burns. Many books recommend just wrapping your hands in rags, but that is a mess and the grease can soak through the rags. My wife recently purchased the perfect solution: Pampered Chef Meat Lifters. These are two massive forks. Shove one in the front of the turkey and the other in he back. Now your turkey has handles! Problem solved.
- Have a large carving board and a sharp knife. Carving a turkey is tricky and a bad carving job can make even the most delicious turkey look like it was torn apart by raccoons. On the internet and in cook books, advice on the method of carving a turkey was quite consistent when it came to the order of carving, direction of carving, and how to place it on the plate. The most important consideration is to have a very large carving board and a long sharp knife. Carving a turkey on a serving plate with a dull knife can lead to a trip to the ER.
- Freeze your leftovers. If there is any turkey left after your dinner, it can be kept in he refigerator for three days. I recommend purposely making too much turkey and freezing the leftovers in meal size bags. I got my turkey for 99 cents a pound at Aldi as part of their Thanksgiving sale. After cooking, you can expect to get about 50% of the pre-cooked weight in meat. That means the the turkey wound up costing $2 per pound.
Roasting a turkey is complicated, but the rewards are worth it. This year taught me that the key to a good turkey dinner is (like so many things in life) research, planning, and preparation. If done right, a roast turkey is an economical and delicious meal.