I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the best time to cook a turkey is any day that isn’t a major holiday. Yup, I said it…cooking a bird for a holiday is for the birds, and you know why? They’re a fuss! And people expect all these side dishes and desserts and whatnot to go with them. Way too much work. If “Turkey Day” were up to me, we’d all have some very nice sandwiches, enjoy an array of pickles, hang out with friends and family, and call it good. (Which may be why Thanksgiving is never left to me…)
Anyhow. I’m cooking a turkey today (yes, it is indeed a rather nondescript Thursday), and it is going to be awesome. I got out of work a smidge early to wrangle some packages from Fed Ex (did I mention John got an elk when we went to Montana? Well, he did, and it arrived today, still frozen and mostly in sausage and burger form!) So to make room for the impending influx of elky goodness, I thawed the last turkey in my freezer this week, and today I’m roasting it.
Out of sheer curiosity, I googled “how to roast a turkey,” and I have to say, there are some arcane methods out there. Brine it, spice it, butterfly it, wrap it up in a plastic bag (OK, people who cook turkeys in plastic bags, I ask you: what about the gravy!?!! how do you get any browned bits to make gravy out of if you ensconce your bird in a plastic shroud?!), thaw in a bucket, thaw in a fridge, pin the wings, truss the legs, on and on and on. No wonder NPR has a “don’t panic, you will survive your turkey” program airing every Thanksgiving. You’d think this was difficult, complicated even!
I promise you, it is not. The thing is, a turkey is just a really big bird. If roasting a chicken doesn’t make you hyperventilate, neither should roasting a turkey (and if roasting a chicken sounds intimidating, well, it’s not!…try it sometime when you don’t have a lot of pressure riding on the outcome). It doesn’t even take a ton of equipment. That giant roaster pan you have taking up a bazillion cubic feet of storage somewhere? Completely unnecessary. (Not that you shouldn’t use it if you have it, I mean, you are storing the thing the other 364 days of the year, but you really don’t need one to successfully roast a turkey). All you need is a half sheet pan (a jellyroll pan would do in a pinch) and rack that fits inside it.
The key thing is that you have a pan with edges to trap the drippings, and that the turkey fits on the rack and doesn’t hang over the side of the pan. Seriously, that’s it.
To prep the bird, thaw it however you like…my preferred method is in a 5-gallon bucket full of very cold water. Leave it in there for 24 hours max. Smaller birds will be thawed after 12 hours or so, bigger ones take longer Change the water around the 12-hour mark, using very cold water again. I set the whole works in the bathtub to keep it out from under foot.
Once thawed, pull any loose bits out of the body cavity. These can include a gravy bag (toss it, you are totally capable of making proper gravy that isn’t 90% salt), giblets, neck, pope’s nose, etc. I don’t use these, but you can use them to make dressing if you want. I find it to be a bit too much hassle, but your bird = your call! Once you have everything out of the cavity, rinse the bird inside and out.
Now this next bit is a really important step, because if you fail to do this, your bird will not turn the lovely caramel golden brown we all know and love, it will remain pasty and anemic even after hours in the oven. So, to prevent that travesty, pat the bird dry. EVERYWHERE. Yes, in the crevices between the wings and the breast. Yes, even in the folds of skin around the neck. Every drop of water you can remove before you roast it is one less drop that has to evaporate in your oven. Less time evaporating extra water = more time browning. Once your bird is dry, set it on the rack in your sheet pan, breast-side up.
Next you season the bird. This is easy. First, remove all jewelry from your hands: rings, bracelet, whatever you don’t want covered in turkey goo or potentially lost somewhere therein (trust me, you do not want to go fishing for your wedding band in the depths of a turkey). Then dump a couple tablespoons dried Herbes de Provence (rosemary, thyme, sage, and tarragon, usually) into a small bowl. Add enough olive oil to make a loose paste, then stir in about a tablespoon of good Dijon mustard, a couple minced cloves of garlic, and a bit of salt and pepper. Stir. You should have about 1/3 cup or so of this mixture.
Now here’s the icky part…you need to put some of this mixture under the skin of the turkey breast. So first, find the edge of the skin at the back of the breast.
Basically, you wriggle your fingers around under the skin (careful not to break through the skin) until you are wearing a turkey mitten (of sorts)…it’ll take you a while, just go slowly (and if your bird has a popup timer in the breast, take it out…you can put it back in later if you want, but right now it’s just in your way). You should be able to get your hand all the way up and over the breast under the skin.
Still with me? Good! Now take about half the herb mixture you whipped up and smear it all over under the skin.
This will help keep your breast meat moist, and will give it tons of flavor. Smear the rest of the mixture over the outside of the bird. Viola! Seasoned!
One last step before you pop the bird into the oven: tuck the wings. I don’t know if it is just universally assumed that everyone knows what “tuck the wings” really means, but I didn’t get that particular memo, so it took me a really long time to figure out how to do it so they don’t untuck themselves while cooking. Basically, you stretch the wing out and wrap the point of the wing (let’s call it the wrist) behind where the neck used to be, behind the rest of the wing, and down along the back.
So your turkey looks like he’s laying there with his arms behind his head (yeah, that’s now missing, but bear with me!) staring up at the sky spotting animal shapes in the clouds. This keeps the wings from burning as you roast, which is great if you like the wings as much as I do and are as sad as I am when they’re overdone!
Now you’re ready: pop that sucker into a 500 degree oven for 30 minutes.
Yes, 500 degrees. Basically this cooks the outermost surfaces very quickly and seals all the juicy flavor inside. Once the 30 minutes have passed, lower the temp to 350 and roast another 90 minutes or so. Here’s my bird after the first 30 minutes…so pretty!!!
Make sure you rotate your sheet pan once during the cooking time (since most ovens are hotter at the back than at the front, if you don’t rotate the bird, the side in the back cooks faster. And we want an evenly roasted bird! So turn it!). As you do this (and when you take the pan out of the oven later), be careful not to splash yourself with the drippings or tilt the pan and accidentally pour them all over your hands…third degree burns are not on the menu here!
When the bird is done, it will register 165 degrees on a meat thermometer (yes, it is truly done at a little higher temp, but if you take it out at 165, it will finish cooking on your counter while it rests, and won’t be overdone!). Once you hit 165 degrees, pull it out of the oven and carefully–it’s HOT!–set the bird on a large cutting board or platter to rest. Cover it with foil (or up-end a large mixing bowl over it…you want to keep it warm!).
Now for the best part…now we make the gravy! Carefully remove the rack and pour the drippings out of the roasting pan and into a saucepan (a pan with a good amount of surface area works best). Set the roasting pan on a solid surface and deglaze with a bit of white wine (just pour it in and start scraping up all the brown bits, pouring them into the saucepan every so often till your pan is pretty much cleaned out). In a liquid measuring cup, combine a couple tablespoons of flour with 1/2 cup water; mix well so there are no lumps. Heat the saucepan over a medium-low flame and whisk in flour mixture. You can add a bit more wine or water if needed, but cook for 7-8 minutes (it will come to a low simmer), stirring frequently, till thickened and no longer “floury” tasting. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
And that’s it. Really. Wasn’t too hard, right? Maybe not a weeknight endeavor (unless you get off work super early like I did!), but definitely do-able on a weekend. And the leftovers go so far! From this turkey, I expect to have sandwiches, soup, a turkey tamale pie, and I’ll probably make a batch of turkey stock concentrate using the carcass. One afternoon’s worth of work (which, realistically, wasn’t that much work!), some cleanup, and I’m done cooking for at least a week!
Have you ever cooked a turkey? Do you do it differently?