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FOOD

How to roast a perfect turkey for Thanksgiving

That bird is so big and so cumbersome. Even if you’ve cooked one for many years, you still get a nagging feeling of incompetence. And that problem of dry white meat because you have to wait for the legs to cook through? We figured out how to make them both juicy. Here’s how.

A Thanksgiving turkey.Photo by Sally Pasley Vargas; Styling by Sheryl Julian and Sally Pasley Vargas

Serves 8 to 20

Big, whole turkeys have so many built-in problems, it’s a wonder that we still tackle the bird every year. Even if you bought a small one, it’s still a great deal larger than any chicken you’ve ever handled.

At the end of the cooking marathon, there is a sense of accomplishment to all this effort. The bird emerges from the oven and looks regal, even sitting in a roasting pan splattered with turkey juices. Everyone comes into the kitchen to tell you how magnificent the turkey looks, so just as you’re thinking you’re through roasting a big bird, that you’ll never do it again, you get all that love from your family and friends.

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But you can’t just hope that the white meat doesn’t dry out because it will. It takes longer for the legs to cook than it takes for the breast meat to reach its cooked temperature. Remember this number: 165 degrees. That’s what you’re looking for if you insert a meat thermometer into the turkey in several places (and don’t even think about cooking a bird without one).

Here’s a trick to getting juicy white meat: When the breast reaches 165 degrees all over, cut it off the bird, keep it warm, and return the rest of the carcass to the oven.

But first, invite your guests into the kitchen to have a look at your handiwork in all its glory. Then, shoo them out of the room and enlist an assistant. Line the kitchen counter with several layers of a thick towel. While your assistant holds the roasting pan securely with oven mitts, take a sharp chef’s knife and cut down one side of the breast bone to remove the meat in one large piece. Set it in a baking dish. Remove the other breast meat in another large piece and set it in the baking dish. Cover loosely with foil.

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Now, the carcass has big empty spots where the empty breast meat was. Cover that area with foil. Return the bird to the oven. It may take 30 minutes for the meat to reach temperature. But now, you’re not looking for 165 degrees. Let the thighs and legs cook to 180 degrees. They can handle a much longer time in the oven.

The timing is not tricky. Just follow the chart (also down below). The chart shows timing for the whole bird (not the quick surgery method we’ve just explained).

Check the turkey temperature at least 30 minutes before the suggested time because some turkeys cook faster than others. To check for doneness, insert the meat thermometer into the turkey in three places. It should register 165 degrees in all three spots; the stuffing should register 165 degrees in the center. If the bird has a pop-up thermometer, ignore it; if you wait until it pops, your turkey will overcook.

If you’re stuffing the turkey, make sure the stuffing is not hot, or even warm. Stuff the turkey right before you roast it; never in advance or the night before (it breeds bacteria). Unstuffed turkey, of course, cooks more quickly and it’s easy to make pan stuffing to accompany the bird.

We never brine the bird because a dry brine of salt and pepper the day before does a nice job of giving the turkey flavor. Prep the bird by sprinkling it inside and out with salt and pepper. When you refrigerate it, cover it loosely. You want the skin to dry out because it will be crispier after roasting.

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Set the turkey on the kitchen counter one hour before roasting so you’re not putting a cold turkey into the oven. In this recipe, the oven heats at a high temperature, but when you put the turkey in, you immediately lower it to 325 degrees.

When the turkey is done, let it sit in a warm place in the kitchen for up to 40 minutes while you use the oven to cook side dishes and make Giblet Gravy (see recipe) or regular Turkey Gravy (see recipe). If the bird is stuffed, take all the stuffing out of the bird after 15 minutes.

If cooking the bird feels overwhelming, try roasting a whole breast and a couple of thighs for your feast (increase the proportions for a large group). By the time the turkey parts are carved and arranged on a platter, it won’t really matter if you began with a whole bird or not. As the host, you’re still getting the kudos you deserve.

The perfect roast turkey

  • 1 turkey, thawed if purchased frozen, 8 to 24 pounds
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 onions, cut into wedges
  • 2 carrots, cut into 1-inch lengths
  • 2 lemons, quartered
  • Large handful fresh herb sprigs for the cavity (rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano)
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1½ cups water, or more if needed
  • 3 tablespoons each chopped fresh rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano
  • Extra fresh herbs on their sprigs, small apples and pears, lemons (for garnish)

***

1. The day before roasting, set the turkey on a rimmed baking sheet to catch all the drips. Snip open the packaging and remove the giblets from the vent and neck ends (don’t forget that some of the giblets are often tucked between the breasts). Wipe the turkey inside and out with paper towels. Season the cavity generously with salt and pepper. Add 1 onion, 1 carrot, and 1 lemon, and the sprigs of herbs to the cavity. If not stuffing, use kitchen twine to tie the legs together. Rub the skin of the turkey with the oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover the turkey loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

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2. Before cooking, transfer the turkey to the roasting pan (if you have a rack, set the turkey on the rack inside the pan). Let it sit on the kitchen counter for one hour before roasting. If stuffing the bird, stuff it with cool stuffing right before it goes into the oven.

3. Slide an oven shelf in the lowest position so there’s space for the turkey. Set the oven at 425 degrees (note: you’ll turn the oven down as soon as the turkey goes in).

4. Set the remaining onion, carrot, and lemon around the turkey. Pour enough water into the pan to make a very thin layer. Transfer the turkey to the oven. Immediately turn the oven temperature down to 325 degrees.

5. Roast the turkey (see chart for times, also down below), basting with the juices in the pan several times. The turkey is cooked when a meat thermometer inserted into the bird in three places (inside the thigh, in the thickest part of the breast but not on the bone, under the wing) registers 165 degrees. If the bird is stuffed, the thermometer should also register 165 degrees in the center of the stuffing. Check the temperature 30 minutes before the time on the chart because some birds cook faster than others. Remove the turkey from the oven when it reaches the correct temperature. If it’s browning too much during roasting, cover loosely with foil. If it isn’t brown enough, turn the oven temperature up to 400 degrees for the last 30 minutes.

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6. Transfer the turkey to a platter. The easiest way to do this is with your hands. Cover them with paper towels and take care that the juices inside the cavity don’t spill onto the counter. Tip them back into the roasting pan. Cover the bird loosely with foil and let it sit in a draft-free place up to 40 minutes. If the bird is stuffed, remove all the stuffing after 15 minutes and transfer to a bowl; keep warm.

7. Sprinkle the turkey with chopped herbs. Garnish with the fresh herbs on their sprigs, apples and pears, and lemons cut into big wedges. Carve the turkey.

***

Turkey roasting times:

Unstuffed turkey:

8 to 12 pounds, 2¾ to 3 hours

12 to 14 pounds, 3 to 3¾ hours

14 to 18 pounds, 3¾ to 4½ hours

18 to 24 pounds, 4½ to 5 hours

Stuffed turkey:

8 to 12 pounds, 3 to 3½ hours

12 to 14 pounds, 3½ to 4 hours

14 to 18 pounds, 4 to 4¼ hours

18 to 24 pounds, 4¼ to 5¼ hours

Source: USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service




Sheryl Julian can be reached at sheryl.julian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.