Thanksgiving is the quintessential holiday for the United States. It's a celebration of all we have in this country from wild rice, corn, and squash to family, friends, and football. It’s about in-laws, nosy neighbors, and more children than you usually see in a year. It's also a holiday of contradictions, as we come together to celebrate, and give thanks for, successfully surviving another year. Frequently, we are brought to the table with people we would prefer not to see, yet with whom we share so much. And the greatest contradiction of all? On this day of feasting we very frequently look forward to the leftovers more than the main course.
In getting ready for the big holiday, I thought it would be helpful to provide a round-up of tips to help you roast the perfect turkey: one that’s moist, delicious, and wholesome. I can’t help you choose your bird, but these helpful hints should turn any turkey into a great centerpiece for your holiday table.
I’ve included a recipe that always produces a moist bird with nicely crisp skin as well as guides to defrosting a frozen bird as well as storing your leftovers.
Defrosting the turkey
Do not use my slow-cook method for a bird that has not been fully defrosted. The safest way to defrost a turkey is in your refrigerator. Count on about five hours per pound to fully defrost your turkey.
If you are faced with a partially or fully frozen bird that needs to be defrosted in a hurry -- hurry being relative of course -- you can also use a cold-water bath.
By immersing your turkey in cold water, under 40F, you can defrost your bird in hours as opposed to days. The rule of thumb is to allow about 30 minutes per pound. During the defrosting process you need to keep running the water to refresh the pot, otherwise the frozen bird will act like an ice-cube by bringing the water down to 32F and retarding the thawing process.
Roasting the perfect turkey
I am a fan of the start high, end low school of thought regarding turkey roasting. By using high temperatures early in the roasting process you begin the process of crisping the skin early on and then allow for the rendering of fat, and transfer of heat from the outside to the inside of the bird, to take place at a slow, even rate that yields crisp skin and a moist bird. It’s a recipe for success!
Remove the neck and giblets from the turkey’s body cavity.
Rinse the turkey under cool running water, and pat it dry with paper towels.
Separate the skin from the breast meat of the turkey. Place a half stick of softened butter, formed into a rough oval about ½ an inch thick, on top of each half of the breast. Add herbs on top of the butter to help perfume and flavor the meat. My current favorites are a few sprigs of fresh thyme and half a fresh bay leaf per side but you can change this to suit your tastes.
Lightly season the skin of the breast with salt and white pepper. The salt helps to draw moisture out of the skin, contributing to the crisp skin.
If you want to add stuffing, remember that it will absorb the juices of the bird during the cooking time and will expand. For me, there really is no substitute for stuffing baked in the bird, but you have to very careful about how you go about safely doing so. Only fill the bird’s cavity about halfway with the stuffing and don’t pack it in there. Leaving it loose helps to ensure that the stuffing reaches the same even temperature you need to guarantee a safe dish for you and your family. Only stuff the bird when you are ready to begin cooking it otherwise you run the risk of creating a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.
So, once you have the oven preheating to 475F you can go about stuffing your bird.
Once stuffed, tuck the wing tips under the body to prevent them from burning. If there is a significant flap of skin from the neck, use toothpicks or a metal skewer to close off the neck opening.
Tie the turkey legs together using butchers’ twine -- make sure not to use plastic or synthetic fibers to bind your bird.
When the bird is ready, place it on a baking rack in a roasting pan large enough to accommodate it and place it in the oven uncovered for 25 minutes.
After 25 minutes, reduce the heat to 275F and cover the breast of the bird with aluminum foil.
Basting a turkey does more harm than good. Every time you open the oven door, heat and steam escape. Once the turkey has lost that moisture, no amount of bathing the outside of the bird will replace it. The use of low heat to slowly cook the bird will keep that moisture in the bird, eliminating the need for basting, and freeing you up to enjoy your day a little more!
This cooking process will take approximately 17 additional minutes per pound, and is done when the internal temperature of the meat at the thickest point -- meaning the center of the breast, the center of the stuffing, and the meat of the inner thigh closest to the bone -- is 165F.
Once your bird has reached 165F, remove it from the oven, uncover the breast, and allow it to rest for 20 minutes. This period allows the temperature of the bird to even out a bit and even reduces the overall temperature, allowing the meat to reabsorb some of the juices that the heat in the bird is trying to force out.
One point regarding taking the temperature of your bird: an instant-read thermometer is essential. The pop-up timers that most turkeys come with are wildly inaccurate.
Enjoy, and think of witty responses to the compliments you are about to receive.
Taking care of turkey
Some tips for keeping your leftovers safe:
Remove the stuffing from the bird while it’s still hot. Leaving the hot stuffing in the bird may keep it warm for hours and create a perfect environment for the growth of harmful bacteria.
Refrigerate all your leftovers immediately after your meal.
Use shallow pans and break the leftover turkey down into smaller parts to promote rapid cooling.
Refrigerated turkey should be used within four days of cooking.
To view the photos for this article, go to Tips for the Perfect Thanksgiving.