It’s time to start planning how to cook your Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey. Or perhaps I mean start worrying about how to cook your turkey. Will it be over-cooked, under-cooked, cold, dry, or tough and chewy? Will there be enough or too much, do I put the stuffing in the bird or cook it separately? How long do I need to cook my turkey? What time do I need to get up in the morning? And what kind of turkey – will the extra cost of an organic Bronze make a difference? And brining – should I even bother to brine my turkey!?
Well, I’m not an expert – only professional turkey chefs are experts. How can we home cooks ever become expert when we only cook a turkey once a year, (or perhaps twice, if you are American living in the UK, like I am). On the whole, we all do well with our turkeys and our dining guests are always very appreciative. With this assurance, I have ventured to try-out many different methods. Here are 10 different ways I have cooked a turkey. In fact, it should be 11 – my sister reminds me that I have boned a turkey for Thanksgiving!
If you want to know our favourite way to cook a turkey then jump to the bottom of the page!
If you need a safe and sure method, try traditional roasting. This was best explained by Rick Stein who suggested that the best way to cook a turkey was to ‘put it in the oven and cook until done’. What we are doing here is simply roasting a joint in the time-honoured fashion: heat evenly penetrates the meat during a sustained period in the oven resulting in a browned joint which is moist and tender.
The turkey is done when juices run clear—and we have all seen our mothers determine this by poking a knife, fork or skewer into the legs and breast. Some turkeys come with a device which is stuck into the flesh before going into the oven—this will pop-up and indicate when the turkey is done. Thermapen recommends a turkey should be cooked to an internal temperature of 74C or 165F. Rest the turkey for half an hour—up to an hour before serving.
The timings and temperature for this method can be ascertained from the instructions that come with the turkey. Otherwise, here are my guidelines, using information from our local council’s website (Elmbridge):
Pros: The turkey makes and attractive presentation at the table. Juices make an excellent gravy.
Cons: White meat tends to be dry when dark meat is fully cooked – or dark meat is chewy when white meat is perfectly cooked.
WDC Rating 7/10
The issue we all have with turkey is juiciness—our breast meat is so delicate it can easily lose its moisture and become dry and tough. However, dark meat is much more forgiving—it can even benefit from over-cooking. I have a preference for dark meat completely due to this fact. I have adopted this method from one of the many ways of cooking chickens. It is rather like a rotisserie style of cooking but in very slow motion…
Pros: The white turkey meat will be juicier than conventional roasting.
Cons: Turning is difficult.
WDC Rating 8/10
First, buy lots of tinfoil—wide and extra strong. Having prepared the turkey as for the conventional roast, prepare the roasting tin. Run two long strips of foil over the roasting tin—one along the width and one along the length of the roasting tin. Then push the foil into the tin place a rack on top add liquid as for the conventional roast, put the turkey on top of the rack and fold the tin foil up to make a loose tent around the turkey closing the ends tightly to form a sealed encasement. The principle is similar to a Dutch oven or a Romertopf clay baker. Both of these create an enclosed cooking environment within the oven. The method keeps moisture in the bird and eliminates the variable hot spots of an oven. However, it is also similar to steaming, which is counter-intuitive to a roasted joint, so the foil must be removed at least 30 minutes before the end of cooking to allow the turkey to brown.
The Ginger Pig butchers recommend the tinfoil method in their recipe. Here are their recommended temperatures and timings:
Pros: A Moist turkey
Cons: Lacks the very crispy browning effect of roasting without foil. The white and dark meat cannot both be cooked perfectly (see ‘The best of both worlds’ below).
WDC Rating 7.5/10
This is based the Piedmontese speciality of cold veal covered in a creamy sauce flavoured with tuna. Why on earth you would do this to a turkey? Because it eliminates the last minute hassles of cooking and worrying about things going wrong. You know where you stand with this method. The turkey is cooked the day before, the tonnato sauce is made on the day, you assemble the dish at your leisure and enjoy the day. Serve with hot potatoes and a warm vegetable salad.
You have options: cook the whole turkey and slice both white and dark meat thinly to go with the sauce; cook a whole turkey and reserve the dark for later, or just cook a turkey crown. If using a crown, cook using the tinfoil method to cook without the un-foiling during the final stages of cooking. Otherwise, follow any of the other roasting methods listed here.
A tonnato sauce for four (based on The Silver Spoon) can be made from these ingredients:
Pros: Moist turkey in an interesting sauce—the combination really works. All prepared in advance leaving a stress free day in the kitchen.
Cons: It’s not a roast turkey.
WDC Rating 7.5/10
This was my idea of managing a large horde at Thanksgiving—we did not have the space for everybody to sit at the table. The dilemma was how to manage a turkey dinner, complete with lashing of gravy at a stand-up buffet. The solution was certainly far from traditional, but good fun and made the buffet a real success.
The white meat is served ‘shredded’ for tacos and the dark meat is served ‘pulled’ for ‘pulled-turkey’ rolls. We had salsa Mexicana or ‘pico de gallo’, guacamole, lettuce and cheese with corn and flour tortillas and sesame buns for the pulled pork with BBQ jalapeño en adobo sauce with citrus slaw.
The Mex – ‘shredded’ white meat
The Tex – ‘pulled’ dark meat
Pros: Moist tender turkey, prepared in advance. Can use frozen turkeys—overall less meat required, so is very economical. Fun and interesting change to roast turkey!
Cons: It’s not a roast turkey. Success depends on good sauces to accessorise—making these from scratch can be time-consuming.
WDC Rating 8/10
A few years ago brining a turkey was unheard of. But these days most people are aware of the concept—and are even having a go themselves. Americans have been brining their turkeys—and other joints—for years and years. You can even buy the turkeys already brined.
So what is brining and how do you brine a turkey? It’s another of those counter-intuitive scientific facts. A turkey submerged for a day or two in salted water makes it juicier.
But does it not taste of salt? Yes, but not so you would notice too much. Just focus on all that extra moistness.
Okay, so how does it work? Through osmosis, water with high saline content will flow to areas of low saline content. In addition, the salt changes the structure of the meat cells allowing them to hold more water. The extra moisture can be lost in the cooking but not all of it.
Is it worth brining a turkey? Depends.
The problem with brining is that there is a trade-off between juiciness and flavour. Turkey is full of natural turkey flavour which is then diluted with salty tap water. Also, the juices left in the roasting pan from the turkey will be so salty it cannot be used as gravy. To counteract this effect, many cooks add aromatics, sweeteners, fruit juice or even buttermilk.
On matters of science and cooking, we should always seek the advice of Harold McGee: he recommends that we do not bother with flavouring the brine. The molecules are too small (relative to salt molecules) to make anything but a superficial difference. I should have heeded this advice before I put two bottles of maple syrup in my brine. I do recall that nobody said wow, you can really taste the maple syrup!
These are McGee’s proportions for an effective brine for your turkey:
Pros: Moist tender turkey breast.
Cons: Risk of too much salt. Gravy cannot be made from juices of the turkey.
WDC Rating 7/10
Ah Heston, where would all of us aspiring home cooks be without your essential thermometers and slow-cooked masterpieces: the 5 hour rib of beef, 7 hour leg of lamb, and 10 hour turkey… Well, we might be having a life! Tread this low-temperature road with caution—it has many pitfalls. I’ve travelled the road often and I have stumbled many times. But, I couldn’t help myself—I had to see what the fuss was about…
Now, I shy away from this route, mainly because I do not have an accurate oven and timings are too difficult to predict and plan—a nightmare when everybody is sitting at the table and you are cursing your turkey, whose core temperature refuses to budge above 55C!
What is the science?
The low-temperature arguments go like this: Breast meat cooked above 68C will be dry. However, pathogens are only destroyed at temperatures of 70C and above (the recommended food safety temperature is 165F/74C for both the USA and UK food safety departments—see links below). Temperatures can be used below these ‘safe’ levels providing the food is held for certain lengths of time. Practitioners will use low oven temperatures for long periods so that they can bring the temperature of all the meat to the desired temperature. See below.
In his book In Search of Perfection, Heston Blumenthal says to cook roast chicken in an oven set at 60C for 4-6 hours until the internal temperature reaches 60C. He lets it rest for 1 hour.
Matthew Fort states in his article for the Guardian that pathogens are killed at 61C if the temperature is held for 30 minutes—or 63C for 17 minutes. His method requires a turkey is cooked in an oven at a temperature of about 60C—100C and cooked for 10 hours or more.
Harold McGee declares in his article for the NY Times that a turkey is safe when breast meat reaches 66C—68C and held for 15 minutes.
Pros and cons
It may be a challenge, but low temperature cooking can deliver a smooth, delicate and tender texture almost unrecognisable as turkey. But it comes at a price.
With all low temperature cooking the end result is anaemic looking meat. Therefore, browning the joint (when much of the flavour – and visual appeal – is developed) must be achieved using alternative methods, such as a blow torch, frying, or blasting in an extremely hot oven.
A final and significant characteristic of low temperature cooking is the lack of juices in the roasting tin (which remain in the bird rather than forced from the tissues by high heat). The giblets can help make a sauce, but this is no substitute for proper gravy. You will need to find other workarounds for this.
When I have used this method I have kept the meat at lower temperatures (holding for the above times). I blast it in the oven at high heat to brown and then tend to hold for up to an hour with turkey covered and insulated tightly.
Pros: Very moist, very tender turkey breast.
Cons: Timing can be very difficult to predict and manage. The dark meat can be chewy and it may not have the ‘roasted’ appeal of a conventional roasted turkey. There will be little juices with which to make gravy.
WDC Rating 7/10
…the usual caveats
If you cook at lower temperatures, you need to ensure you are well advised of the methods and risks. WDC can only advise that you cook your turkey according to government food standards official recommendations. Links:
We’re talking really hot: 240C -260C. And really quick: one and a half hours to two hours.
This is something that has featured in American publications over the last few years. Along with many other people, I was naturally sceptical, but after trying it was surprised by how moist the turkey could be —yet also baffled as to why…
It may be that only excess moisture is driven from the bird, or that the heat circulates inside the bird, or that the high heat shocks the bird into creating outer seal leaving internal meat moist.
What seems important is the extremity of the heat. You must have faith—any faltering or last minute compromises will spoil the effect.
So push the oven setting to its highest, open-up the bird and expose the cavity. Put it on a rack above a pool of water and blast-away. As a guide about 8 minutes for 450g— but check with a thermometer to get to a safe temperature of say 70C. See low-temp version for further info on internal temperatures.
Pros: Moist tender turkey breast.
Cons: High risk method. Little control if things go wrong. Fun to try once.
WDC Rating 6.5/10
This is two styles of meat. The breast crown is cooked as a roast and the legs cooked as a confit.
To be fair, I have not done this with a turkey. But I did do it with a Christmas goose, which was delicious – confit turkey legs would be equally good.
Three days to go…
This needs to be done three days before the meal. Separate the legs and make a dry marinade and curing mix of salt, garlic, thyme, pepper and bay leaves. Leave this overnight. The next day rinse and dry the legs and place in a large casserole. Cover with duck or goose fat. Place in the oven at 140C – Gas 1, and cook for about 2 ½ to 3 hours. Ensure the temperature of the remains around 80C. Aim for a core temperature of 73C. Allow to cool and store for 1 day in the fridge. On the day they will be served, remove excess fat and either fry on skin-side for 8-10 minutes, until warmed through and the skin is crispy or place on a raised oven tray in a very hot oven until warmed through and the skin is crispy.
Meanwhile cook the crown as for the conventional roasting method above or use a low temperature method.
Pros: Moist tender turkey breast. Fabulously rich and decadent dark meat.
Cons: Quite a lot of fussing with the confit. Large amount of duck or goose fat required. (But still worth it!). Not a lot of gravy.
WDC Rating 8/10
From all my experience of cooking turkeys I have finally arrived at a happy compromise. It’s informed by the science of cooking and my knowledge about what works best in our basic gas oven.
The principle at play can be seen clearly in a supermarket rotisserie chicken. These will be cooked to 70C -73C to conform to food safety standards. But as we already know, white meat loses most of its moisture at these temperatures. Conversely, dark meat needs to be cooked at these temperatures to allow the connective tissue and collagen to breakdown and for the meat to become tender (rather than chewy). The proof is in a rotisserie chicken: the white meat is dry and the dark meat juicy.
Dark vs white
This is why you have to cook white meat and dark meat separately. Doing this will not result in the plump and bronzed Christmas turkey adorning the dinner table – but does mean both white and dark meat will be cooked to perfection.
Hot vs cool
The method relies on the oven being hotter at the top than the bottom. Therefore the dark meat gets a higher temperature and the white meat a lower temperature. As the meats will be cooked to different core temperatures the overall cooking time is similar for both. Though adjustments will be inevitable. NB: this temperature difference in the oven is a natural characteristic of a gas oven. Use an oven thermometer to check your oven and make adjustments.
With this level of attention to each meat I do not feel it is worth brining. I split the crown from the rest of the carcass and cook them separately. They are seasoned and covered in butter, then the dark meat goes at the top of the oven and the white meat at the bottom. Both parts are put on racks in their trays, with wine or stock in the dark meat tray.
I use a quick blast to begin (pre-heat oven to max) for 30 minutes—turning the legs once—and then roast at 180C Gas 3 for about 17-20 minutes per 500g. This temperature is a compromise. It is not as high as traditional roasting but neither is it a low temperature. I have settled on a higher temperature to brown the dark meat. The white is not so critical as I always slice and platter this up before taking to the table. (Although it may need extra cooking time—it can also be brought to the top of the oven for a final browning.)
Stand by with thermometer at the ready and check continually. I cook my breast to 66C—68C and hold for 15 mins and cook the dark meat to 73C. (See caveats in low-temp method.)
Pros: Moist tender turkey breast, succulent crispy dark meat. Plenty of juices for gravy.
Cons: Just a tad of a chore to separate the turkey and run with two roasting trays.
WDC Rating 9/10