With some simple instructions, anyone from novice cooks to experts can roast a perfect turkey for any occasion.
The image of a golden brown roast turkey is as American as, well, apple pie. Whether turkey is the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving family feast or the entrée at a special occasion meal, turkey is tasty. Many cooks shy away from roasting a turkey. Even experienced cooks who create other dishes without difficulty are daunted by the prospect of cooking turkey. Some cite prior experiences that were less than savory – dry meat, burned birds, or unpleasant taste. Turkey preparation doesn’t have to be hard, however, and with a few simple steps, any cook – novice or expert – can roast a turkey to perfection.
The first step is selecting a bird. Most supermarkets carry frozen turkeys year round and many grocers add fresh turkeys around the holiday season. In some markets, free-range birds are available as well and some hunters are proud to carry home a trophy turkey to be roasted.
One of the major differences between a fresh and frozen turkey is that a fresh bird is ready to be prepared. Cooks can buy one and bring it home to cook within hours while a frozen turkey must be thawed over several days.
Two types of turkeys are available – the smaller hen turkeys and the larger toms. Hen turkeys are usually smaller than the toms, which often begin around 18 pounds and top out well past twenty pounds. If feeding a large group is a priority, choose a tom turkey. Cooking methods are the same for both.
Other options include turkey breasts for families who prefer white meat and turkey roasts are also available. Turkey roasts range from turkey meat that has been boned and rolled into a roast form to formed hunks of turkey meat pressed into foil pans. The best option for these choices would be to follow the manufacturer’s directions.
Once a turkey has been chosen and brought home, the preparation begins. Thaw a frozen bird in the refrigerator several days ahead of cooking. Smaller turkeys may take 2-4 days; larger birds may require 3-5. Place a towel or pan beneath the bird to catch drips as it begins to thaw.
When ready to cook, begin by removing the turkey from its outer packaging. Save the package for suggested cooking times and suggestions if needed. Once the wrappings have been removed, it will be necessary to remove the brace that has held the legs in place. Some are metal and must be removed from each end of the cavity opened. Others are plastic and can be pulled free. Remove either before cooking. Plastic will melt in the oven and ruin the meat; a metal leg brace will taint the meat with an unpleasant metallic taste. Remove the giblets and neck.
Next, wash the bird thoroughly with cold water inside and out. Do not use soap. Rinse the cavity until the water runs clear and there is no remaining blood. Most cooks prefer to trim excess skin from around the neck and to remove the fatty deposits near the bottom. Next remove the giblets. Reserve for cooking or for making broth or share with pets. If feeding giblets to any animal, be sure to cook first. Next, place the turkey into a prepared roasting pan, breast side up.
In the past, many cooks rubbed salt in the cavity of the turkey to tenderize the meat. Today, it is unnecessary because most birds are young and tender. A few generations ago, it was common to parboil the turkey before roasting as another method to tenderize but that is no longer necessary.
Fill the cavity with celery and quartered onions. Wash and chop celery into lengths that will fit inside the bird. Peel and quarter onions, then add with the celery. These vegetables enhance the flavor of the meat. Do not do this if planning to stuff the turkey with dressing but instead arrange celery and onions in the pan around the bird.
If stuffing the bird, wait until just before the turkey goes into the oven. Use a recipe for homemade dressing or opt for breadcrumb mixes or even packaged stuffing mixes. An alternative method is to bake the stuffing in a separate dish.
Melt a stick of butter or margarine then pour over the turkey. For a fat-free alternative, spray the outer skin with non-stick pan coating. Several brands now offer a butter flavor as well as other varieties.
Next, season the turkey. This is cook’s choice but common herbs and spices used include sage, dried onions or onion powder, basil, thyme, savory, black pepper, and blends such as Cajun or poultry. Be creative and use a favorite seasoning such as lemon pepper. To add a little zest to the bird, add lemon juice or orange juice to the melted butter poured over the turkey.
Some cooks suggest tying the legs and/or wings but it is not necessary. Do add about 2 cups of water to the bottom of the roasting pan. Don’t use a shallow pan – a deeper pan allows broth to form that can be used in gravies. Broth can also be strained and saved for use cooking noodles or dumplings.
Place the pan into a pre-heated 350-degree oven. Do not cover the turkey at this time. Allow the bird to become brown. The length of time varies on the individual oven and on the size of turkey. Check the turkey after an hour and at intervals until the bird is beautifully brown.
Cover the turkey with the roaster lid or tent foil over the bird. Total cooking time for a turkey range from three to six hours. Consult a cookbook or the package suggested cooking time. A turkey is done when a meat thermometer – a must-have for any well-equipped kitchen – registers at least 180 degrees. For best results, insert the thermometer deep into an inside thigh area. Make sure that the tip is not touching bone. When a turkey is done, both legs will move easily and wings will be flexible. Do not overcook, a common mistake that often causes dry meat and lack of taste.
Remove the turkey from the oven when done and let sit for about twenty minutes before carving.
These simple instructions can help anyone roast a tender turkey. Step by step methods make it easy. If all else fails, call the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Meat and Poultry Hotline toll-free at 1-800-535-4555.