How to roast a perfect turkey for the holidays is on the forefront of many folks thoughts — especially if they’ve never done it before.
I highly recommend investing in a quick read or instant read thermometer (or at least a meat thermometer although it takes much longer to slowly reach the final reading). They are cheap and readily available at department stores, grocery stores, and even dollar stores.
When it comes to perfect turkey there is no substitute for an accurate temperature reading (well, several readings actually) and it is far more reliable than any plastic pop-up timer that turkeys sometimes come with if you want a perfectly cooked and juicy turkey.
To use, insert into the center of the thickest portion of the turkey breast, and in the thickest portion of the thigh, and into the center of the stuffing. All three areas must be tested as they tend to cook at different rates and require different temperature ranges for both safety and perfection.
Make certain the tip of the thermometer is not touching and not close to any bones, and not too shallow or too deep, but well and perfectly centered half way through the thickest portion being tested.
First, the turkey must be fresh or fully thawed. It always takes much longer to thaw than the normally recommended 3 days in the refrigerator –unless it is one very tiny, scrawny little turkey! I’ve had whole chickens that didn’t thaw in that amount of time!
For the best and most accurate advice I’ve ever found (all in one place) on how to safely thaw a turkey:
Once fully thawed, it will safely keep for an additional two days in the refrigerator before cooking — so to be on the safe side — give yourself an extra day or two to get a head start on thawing!
If you keep your refrigerator colder than 40 F degrees, then definitely allow that extra time for thawing.
II. How Long To Cook/Safe Temperatures
Next, you need to know how long to cook it and at what temperature.
I recommend 325 F degrees — not because of FDA recommendations — but because it is neither too cold nor too hot and allows for the most even baking throughout the various meats and even works well for stuffing.
Less heat and the center of the turkey will not cook at a proper rate of speed and temperatures will not be high enough inside to kill bacteria — yet it will be just warm enough to encourage its proliferation (growth). Plus, you could end up with the outside being over cooked long before the center gets hot enough to even start cooking.
More heat and the outer portions of the turkey will cook too quickly and dry out long before the center is ready.
For any turkey that is baked at 325 F degrees, the FDA recommends the following times based upon size and if stuffed or not stuffed:
Do not rely upon these time frames but simply use them as a guide to approximate potential cooking times. To be on the safe side, plan for an extra hour to to an hour and a half in which to allow for resting the bird and for additional baking time if required. Instead of a clock, rely upon a thermometer to know when it is time to remove the turkey!
The FDA also recommends that the turkey be cooked to 170 F degrees — which is horribly overcooked!
First, they recommend temperatures that are at least 5 degrees higher than is required to provide a safety cushion for any margin of error. In reality, the breast and stuffing should be 165 F degrees minimum and the thigh meat should be at 175 F degrees to be safe to eat.
Secondly, turkey continues cooking after it is removed from the oven — for another 15 to 20 minutes minimum! Depending upon size a turkey can continue cooking for a longer period.
Take it out of the oven when the breast meat reaches between 155 and 160 F degrees. By then, the dark thigh meat has usually reached about 165 to 175 F degrees.
The temperature will continue to rise another few degrees after the turkey is removed from the oven.
Rest it for 15 to 20 minutes, re-checking the temperatures again at 15 minutes and at 20 minutes.
When ready to eat, the breast meat should read between 165 and 170 F degrees while dark thigh meat should register about 175 to 180 F and the stuffing 165 F degrees.
If not, return it to the oven for 20 to 30 minutes or until the breast reaches 158 to 160 F degrees and the thigh meat reaches 170 to 175 F. Rest it and recheck again. Oven temperature variations exist and can differ by as much as 25 F degrees less or hotter, white meat cooks faster than dark meat and the turkey may have had various temperatures inside its different body parts prior to going into the oven, and any other number of possible reasons for variations.
If the bird temperatures register correctly but the stuffing is still under then scoop it out, add a little broth to keep it moist, cover it over with foil, and pop it back into the oven until it is hot enough. You can always give it a stir then put it back into the bird for a pretty presentation if desired.
III. Perfectly Crisp Skin, Etc.
All that remains is how to make the turkey look and taste good.
Don’t forget to remove the giblets and neck from inside the cavity. They may or may not be contained in a sack or left loose inside. If in contained in a bag remove the giblets to be used and discard the the sack.
Put the giblets and neck on to boil so that some broth will be ready to use to coat the bottom of the roasting pan — although the turkey will normally release a sufficient quantity during baking it may not yet be enough when it is time to start basting plus if dripping into an empty, bare pan it will evaporate quickly or burn up initially. You will only need to use a small amount of broth and the rest will be used for other recipes and for making giblet gravy.
Save the pan juices released by the turkey after it finishes baking to add to the remaining giblet turkey broth and gravy.
You can boil the giblets in either water, chicken broth, or vegetable broth.
For best flavor and results I like using low sodium or no sodium chicken broth — or when possible I will try to keep some homemade chicken and other types of broth frozen for such occasions. I use about 6 cups or more chicken broth to which I add the giblets and turkey neck for the gravy — plus extra for everything else that is needed. Afterwards, toss any giblet item not wanted and use the rest in the gravy and other dishes.
For more about making turkey broth and giblet gravy:
To start, make sure that you rub the skin down very well and generously with unsalted butter or olive oil. Use both hands and just pretend that you are smothering it with suntan lotion or sunburn protection. Try to rub some up underneath the skin also if possible being careful not to tear or damage the skin — which may be too difficult for those with very large hands and depending upon the turkey. This greasing of the turkey will keep the skin from burning and/or drying out, as well as prevent it from being soggy, and help produce a perfectly golden brown and crispy skin.
Sprinkle salt over the entire bird and rub it well. This not only helps with seasoning but holds in the juices. Do not over salt the bird making it too salty to eat. The quantity to properly season it is also a sufficient quantity to help hold in juices. Salt also helps with crisping the skin.
Alternately, you could marinade the turkey in a brine solution overnight but that is easier said than done! It is also the ploy used by markets to infuse more water into the meats to make them weight more along with injecting salt water. I’d rather just seal in the natural juices of the bird myself.
Now it is down to seasoning with herbs and spices inside as well as outside. It’s down to personal preference and there is no right or wrong way.
Being from the South, I generally sprinkle then rub my already oiled and salted turkey down with onion powder, garlic powder, rosemary, thyme, coriander, and a generous amount of rubbed sage. I also stuff fresh herbs under the skin and into the cavity. Additionally, I place thin slices of oranges and onions under the skin to insulate the faster cooking breast as well as for flavoring and I place large wedges of onion and oranges inside the bird’s cavity. Afterwards, I mix up my stuffing and stuff that inside the cavity. My stuffing contains things like scallops, cranberries, both walnuts and pecans, onions, minced garlic cloves, and so on. Everyone has their own special family recipe while some prefer to use a pre-prepared stuffing mix. I will be posting other holiday recipes over the next couple of months.
For any turkey over 18 to 20 lbs., I put frozen gel ice packs (or fill zippered plastic bags with ice and change out frequently with fresh ones as the cubes begin to melt although this doesn’t seem to get nearly as cold nor as quickly) on top of the turkey breast to chill it down. Always inspect well before using gel packs to ensure no leaks exist! This makes the faster cooking breast much colder than the rest of the turkey slowing down the cook time slightly. I leave them in place for a minimum of 45 minutes or longer when possible changing out with new ones as needed. If using ice cubes, ice the breast for about an hour or more. Meanwhile, as the turkey breast is getting colder the thighs are warming up which helps the thighs to cook at a slightly faster rate.
I also use special gel packs that may be heated as well as frozen — which makes it much easier to sanitize them — I can simply wipe them off with an appropriate sanitizing solution then place them on the top rack of the dishwasher afterwards.
Do not attempt to use dry ice or liquid nitrogen because it will cause the turkey to develop freezer burn!
Meanwhile, I cover the tips of the wings and the leg ends with foil to prevent them from burning. The entire turkey is covered for much of the cooking but it is very difficult to foil wrap the wing tips and ends of legs after the turkey is scalding hot so I prefer to do it before the turkey is actually baked.
Brew some coffee or save some from breakfast. Pour 1 cup into the bottom of the roasting pan. Coffee used this way does not make meat taste like coffee but it does enhance and enrich the flavor of the meat itself. I do not know the science behind it but learned it from a college classmate and friend who was Amish when I was a teenager. I didn’t take any stock in it at the time but once I did finally give it a try years later I fell in love. I never roast any kind of meat or poultry in the oven without it now. Place a wire rack into the roasting pan on which the turkey will rest. Pour in enough broth or water to cover the bottom of the pan without touching the rack.
Levels will rise further as the turkey cooks and releases juices. If they get high enough to touch the turkey, use the turkey baster to remove the excess — but be sure to keep it to use in the giblet turkey broth and gravy! Even with the little bit of coffee added you will not get a coffee taste when using the turkey pan drippings in the broth or gravy. You will simply get a richer turkey flavor!
Adjust and position the rack so that a sufficient space will be available in which to stick the tip of the turkey baster. It is a device that looks like a giant eye dropper used to suck up the hot liquid so it can be squirted on top the turkey breast. Basting the turkey frequently during baking keeps it moist, prevent the skin from burning, and helps to cool the faster cooking breast as it evaporates taking heat away with it. But that comes later. First things first.
Place the turkey on the rack. Normally I place the turkey breast down which produces a juicier turkey breast, however, this results in unsightly groves from the rack which I prefer to avoid during the holidays. So, place it on the rack breast side up for a pretty holiday bird.
Place in the preheated 325 F degree oven uncovered until the skin begins to cook in order to caramelize (dissolve and crust over) the salt and seal in juices. It does not need to brown, however, at this time. Usually 28 minutes is sufficient time for this process to occur. Then seal the turkey with a lid or foil and continue to roast for one hour. After one hour you will need to start basting the breast in those hot juices as mentioned previously every 25 to no more than 45 minutes apart. Once basted, cover the turkey back up and continue roasting.
About an hour to two hours prior to the FDA recommended total baking time start checking the temperature of the breast and thigh every 30 minutes. When it is getting closer to the desired temperatures check with increasing frequency.
Keep the turkey covered until the desired temperatures are reached. Then remove the cover, do not baste anymore, and increase the oven temperature to about 425 to 450 F degrees to allow the skin to become a beautiful golden brown and crisp up nicely. If your oven cooks unevenly you may need to turn the roasting pan from front to back to obtain a more even browning. Do NOT leave the turkey unattended at this stage and keep a very watchful eye on it until the skin is perfect.
Remove the turkey from the oven when the skin is perfect and allow it to rest as previously indicated. Allow the bird to rest uncovered. Covering the hot bird will result in condensation (moisture) build up which will make the skin lose all of that perfect crispness and it will become soggy.
The turkey should also be allowed to rest uncovered for 20 to 45 minutes before serving or carving. This allows the juices to stop being a scalding hot steam and settle — as well as gives the skin time to dry and crisp more. The bird will still be plenty hot but it will have a perfect skin and juiciness as well as be easier to carve.
The very last thing you want to do right before putting the turkey into the oven is to put the stuffing into the cavity (if using stuffing). For more about stuffing:
For Southern Cornbread Dressing: