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A True Thanksgiving Winner
Nothing in the basic Thanksgiving Day menu could ever qualify as a culinary challenge. Roasting a turkey is, in fact, a little boring, seeing as it hides in an oven for hours. But things happen. To guarantee that you have no surprises as you prepare and roast this year's turkey, here are some areas to watch.
Dry no more.
If you hate the memory of dry turkey from the old days, buy a fresh-killed (meaning, never frozen) turkey. They truly are juicier, tenderer, and tastier than frozen birds. Call a butcher about three weeks ahead of time and order yours.
Size IS important.
This is one of those rare opportunities to champion being average. Turkeys range in weight from the 6- to 8-pound category to as large as 26 pounds. Very small and super-big are not better. Small ones get blotchy. Big ones present food safety problems because their mass resists total heat penetration. Best to go with a basic 12- to 16-pound turkey.
Expect battle scars.
Real home-cooked turkeys don't look like they just got photographed for a food magazine. To its credit, a home-cooked turkey looks like anything else that has been inside a 350-degree oven for many hours -- legs splayed, irregularities in color, ripped skin. This is normal.
The point of tying string around a turkey is to make the bird into a round -- no protrusions, no wings sticking out. This prevents burning of exposed areas. Twist the wing tips, which will burn first, under themselves, using some force. Now run a strand of string under the turkey's girth and up each side, catching the wing tips under the string. Continue the string over to the drumsticks, catching them and the fatty tail flap (Pope's Nose), and tie tightly.
The darn clamp.
The drumstick clamp is almost unavoidable on fresh OR frozen birds, is very mean to cooks. It comes with no directions and can draw blood. With a towel, pull the upside-down "U" TOWARD you. With your other hand, find the strength to lift the loosest drumstick out of the clamp. Once the first drumstick is free, the second one will come out easily. To remove the clamp completely, squeeze its sides IN, and PUSH it away from you.
No fancy footwork.
You'll probably run into recipes that roast turkeys at a scorching 500 degrees, or that raise the heat up and down and flip the bird over a few times. Forget it! If your turkey weighs less than 14 pounds, it's 350 degrees all the way. If it weighs more than 14 pounds, its a steady 325 degrees all the way.
Turkey tool box.
With enough celery, onion and carrots on the bottom of your roasting pan, you don't need a V-shaped roasting rack. You'll still be happy you have:
A big roasting pan.
Graniteware roasting pans are often too small. I can't tout enough the virtues of disposable aluminum roasting containers. Not only are they larger than metal roasting pans, they can be washed and reused several times before being recycled.
You will have greater luck with the drumstick clamp if you grasp it and the slippery turkey with a towel.
This is your most important tool. With this, you don't need a roasting chart or a clock. Read the facts on the dial. There will be no question about the internal temperature of your meat. If you don't have one, get one.
This major help comes in two styles. One resembles an L-shaped metal prong. The prong goes right up the turkey's cavity while a handle remains in your hand. All you do it lift. If you've stuffed the turkey, get the type that looks like snow chains, lies under the bird, and acts like a sling. Either device ends burned hands, greasy potholders and lost drumsticks.
Suctioning pan juices to flow over the bird keeps the outside of the turkey in contact with the flavorful juices from below. But bulb basting begs the question about basting at all. Sometimes basting streaks the turkey's skin and succeeds only in keeping the cook busy.
When is it done?
The good news on this controversial front is that turkeys are deemed done enough to be safe before they're cooked dry. When the breast shows 170 degrees on the instant-read thermometer, and the juices between the thigh and body run clear, your bird is cooked.
If turkey weighs 10 to 14 pounds, roast 1 1/2 to 2 1/4 hours at 350 degrees. If turkey weighs 14-plus pounds, roast 2 1/2 to 3 hours at 325 degrees F.
Elaine Corn is a Sacramento-based freelance writer and cooking teacher as well as the author of two books, Now You're Cooking for Company and Now You're Cooking