7 tips for roasting the perfect turkey
Out of all of the parts and pieces of a Thanksgiving dinner, people seem to stress out the most over roasting the turkey. The irony of that? Roasting the turkey is probably the easiest part of the whole meal! A delicious, flavorful, juicy turkey requires little more than letting the bird do it’s damn thang in the oven without you fussing over it. In fact, I’m of the camp that believes the less you mess with the turkey, the better it tastes.
Of course, turkey roasting can be quite the polarizing topic. Stuff the bird, don’t. Baste it, don’t. Breast up, breast down. My philosophy? Once you figure out what works for you, write it down and stick to it. That’s what I’ve done here. These tips have produced a perfect turkey for me every, single time. But my perfect turkey might be different from your perfect turkey. So experiment and figure out what works for you. Here is what works for me:
1. Do the math.
First things first, you need to do some old-fashioned arithmetic. First up, you need to figure out how much turkey to make (you need about two pounds of bird for each person, if you want leftovers). And then you need to figure out thawing (if you’re using a frozen bird) and cooking time. I’m a big fan of the Butterball calculators. Easy peasy.
2. Give the turkey its space.
Don’t try to wedge your 20 pound turkey into your everyday roasting pan. You don’t want your turkey to have fat bird in a little coat syndrome. It needs to have room to breathe (and create delicious, gravy-making juices). Giant roasting pans can be crazy expensive (think upwards for $200 a pop), so I just grab two large disposable aluminum turkey roasting pan. They are cheap—around $3 a piece—and when you put two together, are quite sturdy and give the turkey plenty of space. And it’ll take a lot of turkey dinners worth of $3 roasting pans to make the non-disposable kind worth the moohlah.
3. Breast side down.
Alright, this is the first of my tips that might be controversial, but here goes—I cook my turkey breast-side-down. The whole time. Why? Well, the white meat is naturally the driest part of the bird, and this way, we use gravity to our advantage and force the juices to flow down into the breast meat. I used to actually flip the bird half way through cooking (start off on the breast, flip over to crisp up the breast skin), but damn, it’s really hard to flip a 20+ pound, scalding hot bird. So I didn’t this year for Canadian Thanksgiving, and, dare I say, it turned out even more delicious and juicy. I do believe I heard the words, “best turkey I’ve ever had” uttered by a few different folks. You are losing the crispy, browned skin on the breast, and therefore losing the classic turkey look to the bird. But to me, it’s totally worth that sacrifice.
3. Don’t stuff it with stuffing.
Controversial, I know! But I don’t put my stuffing anywhere near my bird. Think of it this way: stuffing is like a giant sponge. You put it in the bird and it soaks up all the flavorful broth and juices from the bird. Which is great for the stuffing, not so great for the bird. Instead, I use a really high quality (preferably homemade) stock to make the stuffing and cook it separately. Then that leaves the delicious turkey juices to keep the turkey moist and yummy.
4. Do stuff it with aromatics.
So what do I put in the bird? Well, lots of flavorful aromatics, that’s what! I put in apples, onions, garlic, oranges, rosemary, thyme, sage and, really, anything else that sounds delicious. It gives the bird such a distinct flavor, but it also makes the house smell absolutely insane.
5. Skip the basting.
Alright, this is the last of my controversial topics—I don’t baste in the traditional sense. There are no turkey basters allowed in my house! I do put pats of butter between the skin and the breast before cooking and I pour about two cups of high quality chicken or turkey broth over the bird twice while cooking, but other than that, I leave that bird alone!
6. Check doneness three ways.
I like to make sure the turkey is done with three different methods—time, temperature and the leg wiggle. For time, you can check the Butterball calculator for your size of bird. For temperature, you want the internal temperature of the meat (not near the bone) to reach 165°, but pull it out of the oven a few degrees before that because it’ll continue cooking outside the oven. For the leg wiggle, take one of the legs solidly in your hand and wiggle—it should feel very loose (almost like you could break it off easily). Why all three? Well, getting a turkey to the right doneness is the most important and most finicky part of the process. And honestly? I don’t feel like any of the three methods is all that reliable on its own. Just this past Canadian Thanksgiving, the time and temp were right, but it wasn’t passing the leg wiggle test and needed to go back in the oven for a few more minutes. 15 minutes later, the turkey passed all three tests and was done perfectly.
7. Let ‘er rest.
Once you pull it out of the oven, put a foil tent over the pan and don’t touch the bird for at least 30 minutes, but more ideally an hour or so (especially if it’s a big bird). You want all those delicious juices to settle and redistribute before your carve. It also gives you plenty of time and oven space to finish off all your sides and get the table set. Don’t worry about the bird getting cold. It will hold a ton of residual heat and still be nice and toasty and delicious when it hits the table.