Turkey is not my favorite bird (duck is!) but I’ve made roast turkey enough times to know what works and what doesn’t. I’ve made mistakes, I learned from those mistakes and I’ve learned to separate facts from myths.
Thaw the turkey in the fridge
For health reasons, it is not advisable to thaw turkey (or any bird for that matter) on the kitchen counter or any place where the temperature goes higher than 40F. At 41F, Salmonella and Campylobacter can begin to grow. Even if the internal temperature of the bird is still at 40F or lower, the external part of the turkey may already be exposed to a temperature higher than 40F.
The best and safest way to thaw the turkey is to allow it to sit in the fridge. You don’t have to remove the original packaging. Just place the unwrapped bird in a container (to catch the water that might drip as the turkey thaws) and leave in the fridge for two to three days. How long exactly depends on the size of the bird and the temperature of your fridge. Just make sure that the temperature inside the fridge is 40F or lower.
Most frozen turkeys sold in groceries come brined. But if you want to add more flavor to your turkey, here’s a trick. Peel off the turkey wrapping and rub the bird all over with crushed herbs and spices. Rosemary, thyme, whole peppercorns… Whatever you think will make a great combination (note, though, that Anthony Bourdain says garlic and turkey are not friends). Put the turkey in a resealable bag and allow to thaw in the fridge.
To stuff or not to stuff
While the traditional way of roasting a turkey is to stuff the cavity, modern cooks and chefs no longer recommend this method. Again, it’s a risk of Salmonella and Campylobacter issue.
Imagine a turkey and how thick the breast meat is. For turkey meat to be cooked through (and safe from any risk of Salmonella and Campylobacter infection), the temperature of the meat has to reach 180F.
How exactly does the turkey cook in the oven? Naturally, the outermost parts of the bird will get blasted by the heat first. As the turkey continues roasting, the heat penetrates the meat. When the thickest part of the breast meat reaches 180F, the temperature of the stuffing, which is deeper inside the bird, will be lower than 180F. Now imagine the turkey juices that had been absorbed by the stuffing during cooking. Is it safe to eat stuffing with turkey juices that never reached 180F? Again, you risk Salmonella and Campylobacter infection.
Traditionalists who refuse to serve roasted whole turkey without stuffing sometimes cook and serve the stuffing separately. I don’t see the point but, hey, better safe than sick.
Alternatives to traditional stuffing
The last time I roasted a whole turkey, I did stuff it. With herbs.
Lemongrass and pandan leaves. Yes, very Asian.
But didn’t I just say that stuffing the cavity of the bird constitutes a health risk? Well, we didn’t eat the stuffing. The point was to add both flavor and aroma, and nothing else. The lemongrass and pandan leaves were discarded before the turkey was carved. And, as an added safety measure, there’s a trick to ensure that the innermost part of the cavity did reach 180F.
If you want to stuff the cavity with herbs that you do not intend to eat, this is how to do it. DO NOT overstuff the cavity. Roll the leaves loosely and push into the cavity but leaving enough empty space between the leaves and the walls of the cavity for the heat to reach the bones and circulate inside. Simple but effective.
What are those things underneath the roasting rack? Ahhh… more about those later. Let’s talk about the roasting rack and pan first.
Is a roasting pan essential for cooking the turkey? What about a rack?
A traditional roasting pan has rigid sides, right? Here’s a free stock photo from Pixabay to illustrate.
Why a stock photo? Because I’ve never owned a roasting pan. Which, as it turns out, is actually a good thing.
For the turkey to cook evenly, the heat has to reach every part of the bird. If the turkey is too close to the sides of the pan and the sides are rather high (by “high”, I mean it reaches up to a fourth of the height of the bird, or higher), then the metal will deflect the heat and prevent the proper heat circulation leaving you with crisp skin on top and pale skin on the bottom. According to Serious Eats, “those high, thick pan sides shield the turkey’s thighs from radiation, meaning they actually cook slower than the exposed breast meat.”
What have I been using to roast my turkey at home? A shallow pan and a rack that lifts the turkey up.
See how exposed the turkey is despite the rack being placed inside a pan? And see how crisp the skin is from breast to thighs to wings?
Why not use a tray instead of a shallow pan? Because I’m scared of spilling rendered fat when the turkey comes out of the oven. A tray is too shallow and a slight tilt might send rendered fat dripping on my feet.
So, a rack is essential while a traditional (and expensive) roasting pan is not? That’s right. Without a rack, there’s no way to get the heat to circulate around the bird completely.
Lining the roasting pan with more aromatics
Now we come to the part about those things in the pan underneath the turkey.
Aroma, baby. Aroma. As the turkey rendered fat, the spices cooked in the fat and emitted their aroma which, naturally, the turkey caught.
Roasting the turkey
We’ve talked about thawing, stuffing, roasting pans and roasting racks… We now reach part about roasting the turkey.
How should the turkey be positioned on the rack? Breast side up or breast side down?
I’ve always roasted turkey (and duck and chicken) breast side up. It’s more for convenience than anything else. I use a meat thermometer to make sure that the turkey is cooked through. Trust me, when roasting a whole turkey, the meat thermometer is your best friend. And the proper use of a meat thermometer is to stick it in the thickest part of the meat. Either the breast (if stuffed) or the thigh (if not stuffed) without touching bone.
If the stuffed bird is upside down and the thermometer is inserted into the breast, well, the thermometer might not be at an optimum location given the awkward angle. If the thermometer is inserted in the wrong place, it’s difficult to get the correct temperature that says the bird is safe to eat.
There is an article that recommends cooking the turkey breast side down to allow the juices to drip down to the breast meat to keep it moist. I have never tried the technique but click here if you want more details.
At what temperature should the turkey be roasted? 350F and make sure that the oven has been thoroughly preheated.
How long should the turkey roast? Well, until the properly inserted meat thermometer says the meat has reached a temperature of 180F.
Rest the turkey before carving
Does that crispy turkey skin make you drool yet? I remember roasting a turkey for a New Year’s Eve family reunion we hosted at home and people were hovering over the turkey as soon as it came out of the oven. But I held everyone off. The bird needed to rest for half an hour before it could be carved.
What’s the point in resting the turkey? Isn’t it best to enjoy it while hot?
The juices, you see… The heat pushes the juices to the center of the meat. If you carve the turkey while the innermost portion of the meat is still at 180F, most of the juices will ooze out. But, as the bird cools, the juices settle and move back outward to the surface making a more even distribution of moisture in the meat.
And that is the purpose of resting the meat. Well, aside from the fact that eating too hot meat will scorch your mouth.
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