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FOOD

How to cook 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. Yes, it’s unwieldy, but there’s nothing difficult about roasting something larger than you’re used to. Here’s how.

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

Serves 8 to 20

Even if you’ve cooked one for many years, you may still feel incompetent when it’s time to roast a turkey. It’s so big! Even if you bought a small one, it’s still a great deal larger than any chicken you’ve ever handled. And if you’ve got one of those turkey giants from the meat counter, you’ll have a low-impact workout by the end of the day.

But the timing is not tricky. Just follow the chart (also down below) and have a meat thermometer on hand; the thermometer is essential. 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 breast will be overcooked.

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 (it breeds bacteria). Unstuffed turkey, of course, cooks more quickly and it’s easy to make sheet-pan stuffing to accompany the bird.

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The day before, prep the bird for the oven by sprinkling it inside and out with salt and pepper; let it sit overnight in the fridge loosely covered; this is a kind of dry brine, which is all you need to give the turkey good flavor. But don’t cover it tightly. If you let the skin dry out in the fridge it will turn more crisp in the oven.

Set it 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.

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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.

So you can do it, and feel proud that you did. Pull that big beautiful bird from the oven and set it on the table and inhale those lovely aromas and admire your own work.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.