Tips for Roasting the Perfect Turkey

Karen Haigh
Source: Meta Given's Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking, 1953

The three-fold requirements for successful poultry cooking are:

  1. Choosing a high-quality bird for the method of cooking intended.
  2. Careful and thorough cleaning and storage.
  3. The correct cooking method and attractive service.
Choosing the poulty is of first importance, for the finished bird as it comes to the table can never be of any higher quality than the quality of the original poultry. It is essential that every chef know how to recognize prime quality so that s/he can avoid the disappointments which result from a poor or mistaken choice.

High quality poultry should be well-shaped, with a broad full-fleshed breast, and a creamy white or yellowish skin which is glossy, soft, and slightly waxy to the touch. There should be few if any bruises and abrasions, no tears in the skin of the breast, and none in the back that are not sewed up, no broken wings or legs, and practically no pinfeathers.

Both the skin quality and the presence of pinfeathers depend largely upon the manner of killing and dressing. The highest grade of poultry, U.S.Special or U.S.Grade AA, permits absolutely no pinfeathers of down to be left on the bird and no tears or bruises anywhere. If a bird falls short of these standards, it may still make good eating, but its quality is less dependable.

The quality of the dressed bird is the result of the breeding, the care and feeding of the live bird. To develop a tender, meaty, sweet-flavoured bird, a good diet and regular feeding are important. Poultry raisers and packers are becoming more and more careful to feed their birds a diet which will ensure good flavour in the meat. In addition, the practive of confining the birds a week before slaughter to finish-feed them is becoming common. The effect of this is the same as that of "finishing" steers and other meat animals by a similar method; it improves flavour and results in a "marbling" of fat through the lean meat of the poultry. Prime quality poultry is always fed in this manner.

Years ago turkey was available only during the holiday season and there was little or no demand for it at other times, and the cost was unusually high. Today turkey is available throughout the year, and costs no more than chicken. Very meaty turkeys are now produced so that a 10 to 12 lb bird generously serves 5 for two meals -- roast turkey one day and turkey hash the next, with the carcass still making a delicious soup.

In addition to developing smaller, meatier birds, turkey growers are marketing broiler-fryers, 12 to 14 weeks old, weighing from 4 to 8 pounds, for frying and broiling. Enormous mature Tom turkeys weighing 45 to 50 lbs are also being grown. These are sold in halves, quarters, turkey-burgers, steaks or any desired part. For years there have been dried and smoked turkeys available in some markets.

Whole turkey may be purchased ready-to-cook (eviscerated), frozen or unfrozen; or dressed with head and feet on, plucked but not drawn. A hen turkey has more meat in proportion to its weight than a Tom because of its thick, plump breast. Hen turkeys weigh from 13 to 15 pounds.

Estimating exact cooking time of a turkey has always been guesswork because the time depends on size and age, and age is not always easy to ascertain. However, a simple guide for roasting time can be found the day before the turkey is roasted. The gizzard holds the secret. Put gizzard, heart and neck in a saucepan, barely cover with cold water, heat to boiling, cover tightly, reduce heat and simmer until gizzard can be pierced with a fork as easily as cold mush -- this may require 3 to 4 hours. Now, add one hour to the time it took to cook the gizzard tender, and that will be the approximate time required to roast the turkey. The liver cooks tender in about 10 minutes, so add it when the gizzard is nearly done. Transfer cooled giblets, neck and cooking water to a bowl, cover; store in refrigerator. Use broth to make gravy or in dressing. Chop giblets to add to gravy or dressing.

Trussing: Trussing consists simply of binding the legs and wings closely to the body of the bird so that it will cook more uniformly, brown more evenly and have a more symmetrical appearance than a bird that is not trussed. A sturdy needle (6-8 inch upholstery needle is best) and a strong slender cord about a yard long are the only equipment required. Special trussing needles are also available at most department stores.

  1. Lay the unstuffed bird on its back with the tail to your right. Lift the legs so the drumsticks make right angles with the body (straight up), and insert the needle into the body, guiding it to come out at the corresponding place on the opposite side.
  2. Fold the wings to the tips lie under the back, turn the bird around (tail to left). Insert the threaded needle down through the angle formed by the wing at your right; then across the back and up through the angle of the other wing. (You should now have a loop from one leg, through body, around other leg, around wing, under back, around other wing). Tie string ends together; bringing thighs close to breast.
  3. Stuff the bird, lace opening together with toothpicks.
  4. Tie drumsicks to tail opening, thus closing the vent opening.
  5. Fold neck skin to the back and tuck it under the cord and the wing tips. Fasten securely to the back with toothpicks.

Carving:

"To do the honors of a table gracefully, is one of the out-lines of a well-bred man; and to carve well, little as it may seem, is useful twice every day, and the doing of which ill is not only troublesome to ourselves, but renders us disagreeable apt ridiculous to others."

--- In "The Art of Carving", by the Reverend John Trusler, 1788, quoting Lord Chesterfield. According to Chef Steve Holzinger... of the
eGG, carving a turkey is an art form that contributes to the meal as much as the cooking.
  1. Insert knife between leg and body and cut through the skin.
  2. Lift the leg and cut through the joint, removing the leg.
  3. Run the point of the knife into the pelvic joint to release thigh bone. Twist the knife to free the thigh.
  4. Place the thigh skinside down on the board. Observe the direction of the bone. Cut on either side of the bone to release the thigh meat.
  5. Slice the smaller piece the long way. The larger piece of thigh may be cut in either direction. Serve skin side up. Serve the bone with some meat on it.
  6. Remove the first wing joint. Remove and discard the wing tip.
  7. Make a deep cut parallel to the board just above the wing joint.
  8. Cut parallel to the breast bone to release slices of the breast.
  9. Continue slicing the breast until the keel bone is reached.

Roast Turkey

Buy the right sized turkey: 1.25 to 1.5 lb per person if for one meal, 2 lb per person if two leftover meals are the aim. Clean thoroughly: remove pinfeathers with care, singe, wash thoroughly and drain well. Remove fat from gizzard; render. Cook giblets until tender; cool and store in refrigerator. Meanwhile, pull neck skin of turkey back as far as possible, rub 1 tbsp salt into breast flesh, 2 tbsp inside bird. Rub outside with fat. Cover with wax paper then with a cloth; store in fridge.

The day before cooking, prepare and combine all stuffing ingredients, except onions, celery and liquids. Put dry stuffing ingredients in plastic bag, close and leave at room temperature. When ready to stuff, prepare and add onion, celery and liquids to stuffing. Remove bird from fridge. Pack stuffing into neck and body cavities lightly, then truss and stuff. Start roasting immediately (if refrigerated, warm to room temperature for 2 hours). Fold enough cheesecloth 4 times to cover bird completely. Dip folded cloth into melted shortening and lay over bird. Place bird on rack, breast-side down in a pan large enough for bird to fit in comfortably; one too large lets juice spread out over exposed pan to burn and give gravy a scorched flavour; one too small lets juice drip into oven to burn.

Roast according to chart:
Weight ready Oven Cooking time
for oven Temperature min per pound Total
8-10 lb 325 oF 25-20 3-3.5 hours
10-14 lb 325 oF 20-18 3.5-4 hours
14-18 lb 300 oF 18-15 4-4.5 hours
18 lb 300 oF 15-13 4.5-5 hours
20 lb 300 oF 15-13 5-6 hours

Baste with 1/2 cup rendered turkey fat or butter and 1/2 cup hot water. When cooking time is half gone, turn bird on back, rearrange cheesecloth to cover well and baste again. To baste, remove turkey to top of stove, closing oven so it won't cool. Spoon basting liquid over cloth to coat skin of bird. Return to oven. Repeat basting every 20 minutes. Cover breast and thighs browing too fast with alumimum foil. To baste, lift foil then replace. When done, lift bird to hot platter; cover to keep hot while making gravy. To serve, remove trussing cords neatly. Garnish platter simply with loose bouquets of crips parsley leaving enough room for carver.

Turkey Gravy

You can make only so much fine flavoured gravy. The amount depends on the savory juices left in the roasting pan. First, drain off all fat and juice from the pan into a glass measurng cup. Let stand for fat to float, then pour off all but 1/3 cup of fat if turkey weighed 14 pounds, or correspondingly less amount for smaller turkey. Return remaining fat and juice to roasting pan. Add 1/3 cup flour and stir and scrape until flour blends smoothly and residue in pan is loosened. Add 2.5 cups giblet broth or 2.5 cups broth and milk. Place over low heat, stir constantly. Boil 5 minutes. If gravy is too thick, add more liquid to obtain right consistency. Season with salt and pepper. For pan-gravy, skim all but 2 tablsepoons of fat from pan juices, add 1 cup of broth, place over heat and stir and scrape until residue dissolves. Add 1/2 cup of cooked, mashed chestnuts for delicious variation. Makes 2.5 cups.

Stuffings

Although turkey may be roasted without dressing, most folks anticipate the dressing as eagerly as the turkey. Allow 1 cup of dressing per pound of dressed weight, or 1.5 cups per pound of ready-to-cook weight. Rub salt in the cavity of the bird 6 to 8 hours before stuffing to give the bird better flavour. Do not pack dressing in too tightly for it becomes firm and compact during baking and it may burst the skin as it expands. If outside of the turkey is rubbed with fat, never sprinkle with salt as this causes the skin to blister. When these blisters break, the exposed flesh loses juice.
Bread Stuffing
Chestnut Stuffing
Mom's Stuffing