The secret to foolproof turkey

Foolproof Turkey

When it’s done, your foolproof turkey will look like this. (Photo courtesy of, licensed under Creative Commons.)

The guests are coming, you’re onstage to host the holiday meal, and you’ve never cooked a turkey before. But never fear. Foolproof turkey is a lot easier than almost any other showpiece dish as long as you avoid the single most common mistake: overcooking the bird.

A too-done turkey will have well done dark meat but the breast will be dry as paper, and that’s the part everybody sees when you start carving. The secret is to protect the breast until the last hour of cooking time, so it cooks slower than the rest. I use a piece of cheesecloth, paper towel or clean dishrag which I’ve soaked in butter. Simply drape it over the breast and continue to moisten with pan juices as they develop. You can also make a tent of aluminum foil over the breast, or even use the soak rag and foil in combination.

There are a few things you’ll need for foolproof turkey which you may not have on hand if you don’t cook a lot. First, a meat thermometer. You can get an instant read digital or an old-fashioned chef’s pocket thermometer for under ten bucks and it will last you forever or until you misplace it. You should also get a baster but a long handled spoon will do in a pinch. And you’ll need a pan to fit the turkey. Take your biggest roast pan to the market when you buy your bird and if that isn’t big enough, invest in a disposable aluminum pan.

To brine or not to brine? Stuffing inside or outside the bird? I will refer you to my Thanksgiving clips post which has useful links answering all these questions. If this is your first effort, I recommend you skip the brine but consider putting stuffing inside the bird as well as making extra in a pan. The stuffing inside the bird will absorb the juices as it cooks for a moist, tender treat.

Now to the oven. We’ll assume you’ve got a thoroughly defrosted turkey* which is slightly chilled. (It’s more pleasant to handle if you take it out of the refrigerator a couple of hours before it goes in the oven.) Dry it inside and out with paper towels. Rub the outside with a stick of butter and salt and pepper the skin. Stuff loosely, as the stuffing expands while you cook. Take the giblets (if you have them) out of their bag and simmer with a couple of cups of water to make turkey stock that you can use for cooking vegetables and possibly gravy. (Your stock will be better if you put in some vegetables and seasonings, but today we’re keeping it simple.)

Notice I haven’t mentioned a cooking temperature. It actually doesn’t matter all that much since a turkey is very forgiving because of its size. My favorite recipe wants you to roast at 400 degrees. Joy of Cooking says 325 degrees. In my house we generally start at 400 then turn it down to 350 if we get concerned it’s cooking too fast. Allow 12-15 minutes per pound for a family size (over 15 lbs) turkey, a bit more if it is stuffed. You are going to determine doneness not by time but with your meat thermometer. It’s ready to take out when the thermometer stuck into the thigh (but not touching the bone) reads 165 degrees. A stuffed bird is done when the stuffing reads 165 degrees. So we’re talking 4-6 hours of cooking time.

Along the way, at about the two hour mark, the turkey will start to throw off pan juices. Ladle or baste these periodically onto the skin to keep it moist and help it cook to a nice rich brown. Take off the breast protector the last hour so it will brown to match the rest of the skin. When you’re done, remove the turkey to a rack with a pan underneath it to catch the juices. You can use those juices plus what is in the roasting pan to make some wonderful gravy, but since this is your first time you’re allowed to use store bought gravy. Let the bird sit for at least half an hour, and up to an hour or more, while you set the table and prepare side dishes.

And now you’re done…. How hard was that? You’ve got a bird that looks like the one in the photo, and you don’t have to let anybody know it was your first time.

*I’m guessing the second biggest turkey mistake is not allowing enough defrosting time for a frozen turkey, so you end up with an unevenly cooked bird or you give up and buy prepared turkey from Boston Market. You need to allow three days in the refrigerator to defrost a large turkey, or one day if you’re willing to do a diligent soak in the sink where you frequently change the water. Or you can simply cook the frozen turkey, following this method. I’m going to try it one of these days with a heavily discounted supermarket bird.

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