I was a chef for 15 years before working at Knifewear, and embarrassingly I had to call my mother the first time I cooked a whole turkey. I was tasked with preparing the turkey for a holiday staff meal and it was very important to the boss that we have a glistening whole turkey for him to carve. I had always taken the easy route and cooked the breast, brined and roasted, separate from the legs, braised in wine and delicious stock.
There’s something particularly intimidating about roasting a turkey; it’s usually the holidays so you’re probably stressed out, and a whole bird is notoriously difficult to cook properly. Don’t focus on the scary bit, focus on the fun bit. You get to win the holidays. When you’re standing in front of your family honing your beautiful sujihiki and carving up dinner, you will be the coolest person in the room.
I don’t have a recipe for the perfect bird. There’s too many variables from place to place and from turkey to turkey. I do, however, have a tonne of chefly tips that will help you to cook a better tasting turkey.
There’s a reason why a fresh & free range turkey costs more than a previously frozen Butterball. Animal husbandry, types of feed, and age of the bird all have a huge affect on the final result and how good it’ll taste. Visit your favourite butcher and ask them for something special; you only get to do this once or twice a year, so it’s ok to spend a little extra on something extra tasty. If you’re near one of our shops, I'd recommend talking to any of these folks
Submerging a turkey into a salty sweet brine overnight will definitely help keep the white meat moist, but it comes at a price. Where are you going to keep a 16 gallon bucket while the turkey soaks? I don’t suppose you have a walk-in cooler at home, I certainly don’t. Unless you then take the time to pat it dry and let some of that moisture evaporate prior to roasting, you’ll find that the skin takes longer to brown up and never gets quite as crispy as you’d like.
The alternative is what the cool kids are calling a dry brine. The idea here is to aggressively season the flesh the day before to let the seasoning work its way into the meat and add its moisture-retaining blessings. A super simple mix would be a bit of sugar, kosher salt, and black pepper, but you could add whatever spices and herbs you like. Give the bird a liberal dusting all over, and make sure to season the cavity and get a little bit under the skin. Put it on a roasting rack on a tray to live in the fridge uncovered until the following day.
You know why a turkey gets dry? Those barnyard beasts generally don’t carry a tonne of extra fat on them. Fortunately, one of the first things they teach you in culinary school is that butter makes everything better. A great trick to introduce more flavour and moisture is to rub the whole turkey with some soft, unsalted butter. This is a good chance to get a little creative too; you can always put some sage, lemon, and garlic in that butter for extra flavour. You can drape bacon over the top of the breasts while it's roasting too. Shockingly, bacon also makes everything better.
That was probably hard for you to read, I’ll give you a second to recover...
Filling the cavity of a turkey with dry bread and onions does a great job of turning dry bread and onions into something tasty, but it also makes your bird cook WAY slower. I like leaving the bird unstuffed (you might find me putting a halved lemon or onion for a flavour boost in there on occasion) so it cooks faster, but also more evenly. Hot air makes its way into the cavity, allowing the turkey to cook from both the outside and the inside. Make your stuffing in a separate dish with a bunch of sausage, sage, and apples. You’ll even be able to get the edges all crispy and delicious.
Your best friends here are going to be a big roasting pan with a rack in it, and a preheated oven. We want to lift the turkey off the bottom of the pan so the drippings can drip; if you let the turkey sit in the juice, it’ll never get as crispy and golden brown as it should.
Take your bird out of the fridge hours ahead of time. Trust me. We want to let the turkey approach room temperature before we pop it in the oven; it’ll give us a leg up in the battle of dry white meat. While your magnificent turkey is relaxing on the counter, preheat your oven to 400F and rub the bird all over with that soft butter.
Call me crazy, but I don’t truss the bird either; if the legs aren’t tied to the sides of the turkey they’ll cook more quickly and evenly, and you’ll get more of that addictive crispy skin. Everyone knows that everything on the bottom is prime picking.
Place the roasting pan in the center of your oven with the turkey’s legs pointing towards the back. Drop the temperature to 325F. There’s no hard rule as to how long this is going to take, but a reliable rule of thumb is that it will take about 15 minutes per pound. Figure out how long it should take and make sure to check it an hour or so before it’s “supposed” to be done.
A lot of chefs will tell you that the turkey is done when the juices run clear after nicking the skin near the thigh. It’s a good trick, but only works if you have any idea what that means. It’s perfectly ok to use a meat thermometer when cooking a big ol’ piece of meat. Even if you’ve done it a million times by sight, the thermometer doesn’t lie. Remove the pan from the oven when a thermometer stuck in the fattest part of the bird reads 155-160F, knowing that the temperature will increase by another 5-10F while it rests.
This will sound weird but trust me:you should let the turkey rest at room temperature for almost as long as it took to cook. I’m serious, if it took 3 ½ hours in the oven the ideal resting time is 3 ½ hours.
Resting allows the meat to calm down again after being roasted. The heat makes the flesh seize up and squeeze out all of those tasty juices. Letting it rest allows it to relax, and reabsorb those juices.
“But the meat will be cold!” you argue. No it won’t, because you’re going to pour piping hot gravy all over it. Don’t worry, I thought of everything.
Next, I remove the legs, and split them into thighs and drumsticks before removing the cooked breast and slicing it into plate-sized portions. Carving forks are outdated and a pain in the ass, you’ll fare a lot better with a solid pair of chef’s tweezers.
Make sure you carve your turkey in front of everyone and make a big show of it. Wait until everyone is watching before you use your honing rod and make sure you take a second to tell a story about that sexy sujihiki you’re using. This is your time to shine. You are the Thanksgiving Champion!
Just remember that cooking is supposed to be fun, so don’t let it stress you out. No matter how the bird turns out, everyone will be grateful that you took it head on and they didn’t have to.