Thursday, December 15, 2011

How to cook a turkey

Just in time for Christmas!

The most important thing about cooking a turkey is this: don't get all worked up about it.

People put way too much pressure on themselves, and a picture-perfect turkey, during the holidays. Really, it's just a turkey. Whether or not to brine it, whether or not to stuff it, whether or not to blast it with high heat at the beginning or the end, whether or not to put foil on the breast as it cooks: ultimately, none of these things really matter.


A turkey is just a big chicken. If you've cooked a roast chicken before, you can cook a turkey.

Here's how you do it.

1. Thaw it. Completely. Either on the counter overnight, or in the fridge 2-3 days before you want to cook it.

2. Get a roasting pan. Put some things in the bottom of it--I put in a roughly chopped onion, carrot, and a few stalks of celery, along with a bag of small potatoes, halved. Pour in some broth--maybe 1-2 cups. If your turkey comes with a neck/giblets, put those in the bottom too.

3. Wash off your thawed turkey. Pat it dry, then rub it all over with butter. If you want, you can separate the skin from the breast and shove a bunch of butter in there, too. Put salt and pepper all over the turkey.

4. If you're not putting stuffing inside the turkey, put some aromatics in there. A halved onion, a halved citrus fruit of some kind, some fresh herbs, any/all of the above. You can put stuffing inside there too--I like my stuffing crispy, so I usually cook it outside the bird, but if you like moist stuffing, it's perfectly safe to cook it inside the turkey.

5. Tie the legs shut with twine.

6. I usually blast the turkey with high heat at the beginning of the process. Put it in a 500-degree oven for 30 minutes or so, then back it down to 350 degrees. Cook at 350, basting every 30 minutes or so, until the button in the turkey breast pops out. You can reverse this process, with no discernible difference in color or texture or taste, by high-roasting the bird for the last 30 minutes, but it's harder to accurately predict when the last 30 minutes will be. So I do it at the beginning.

7. LET THE BIRD REST. Take it out of the oven and just let it sit for a half hour or so. If you don't, all the juice will run out the instant you cut into it and you'll have a dry bird. (Also it will be too hot to eat.)

The biggest thing about cooking a turkey is that you have to plan your oven usage around it. I had a 12-pound turkey, a smaller one ($6 on sale!), and it took a good four hours of dedicated oven time. Fortunately, most holiday desserts/breads can be made ahead of time.

That's all there is to it. Once it goes in the oven, it's pretty low-maintenance. I forgot to baste for long stretches of time and the turkey still didn't dry out or anything. (There wasn't enough juice left over for gravy, though.)

So, coming up: recipes for stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potato pie, and gravy.

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