Turkey 101: How to cook a turkey
1. High-temperature roasting. Simple, no-fuss approach. This recipe is from Ruth Reichl’s “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life” (Random House, $35).
High-heat turkey: Heat your extremely clean oven to 450 degrees. Rinse and dry a 16-pound turkey and bring it to room temperature. Put it on a rack in a roasting pan, add a cup of water, put it in the oven and forget about it for an hour. Rotate the pan, make sure there’s still about a cup of water in the bottom (if not, add more), and cook for another hour and a quarter to an hour and a half, until a thermometer in the thigh registers 170 degrees. Remove the pan from the oven and allow the turkey to rest for half an hour before carving. That’s all there is to it. Really.
Key: Oven must be perfectly clean; old drippings and spatters can produce lots of smoke. Use turkey as close to 16 pounds as possible. Be sure it is completely thawed.
2. Getting under the skin. Butter, herbs or even stuffing, is tucked under the skin. This method puts moisture plus flavor on the breast meat which can become dry during roasting. Also helps with crisping skin.
How to: Starting at the neck opening, slide your hand under the breast skin. Gently separate skin from the meat, reaching all across both halves. Stuff with softened butter to which you’ve added chopped fresh herbs, minced garlic, spices, etc. Or tuck in some of your favorite stuffing; one with a fatty meat to moisten the bird is best.
Key: Work carefully to loosen the skin to avoid poking holes in it. Distribute mixture as evenly as possible.
3. Brining. Makes for a juicy, flavorful bird. And you can choose a brine (salt-water mixture) with flavors you like.
Be sure time is on your side. Skip the store-bought brines: You have everything in your kitchen to make your own. Figure 1/4 cup salt for every quart of water, then add a liberal amount of seasonings. We like this bourbon brine from Tribune Newspapers columnist JeanMarie Brownson: In a large food-safe plastic bucket or container, dissolve 1 cup dark brown sugar and 1/2 cup coarse salt in 2 cups very hot water. Stir in 2 cups cold water, 1/2 cup bourbon and 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes. Put the turkey in the brine. Add enough cool water to completely immerse the turkey. Refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.
Key: Bird must be completely thawed before brining begins. Always soak bird in brine in the refrigerator; some recipes brine overnight, others suggest 12 hours. Discard brining liquid. Pat bird very dry before roasting. Brining will increase saltiness of pan juices.
4. Don’t stuff it. The bird will roast faster, saving you 30-45 minutes roasting time. And you need not worry about food-safety issues that may arise with temperature variations between the stuffing and bird.
Instead, fill the cavity with herbs (sage, thyme, parsley) plus wedges of onions, oranges and apples. Place bird on a rack in a roasting pan and roast at 325 degrees, 15 minutes per pound.
5. Forget basting. Regularly basting a bird with butter or pan juices is time consuming and annoying and lowers the oven temperature every time you open that door.
You can still get bronzed skin by liberally applying fat (often butter) to breast and legs before roasting. We like this trick: Soak a double layer of cheesecloth (large enough to cover breast and legs) in melted butter then drape it over bird for first hour of roasting before removing to finish roasting. Make sure bird sits low enough in oven so cloth does not touch oven’s top coil.
Key: Browning too fast? Cover with foil to continue roasting to required temperature.