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A Chef's Guide to Roasting a Turkey
A Chef's Guide to Roasting a Turkey
November 15, 2012

By Chef Steven Shipley, Culinary Arts Instructor at Johnson & Wales University

Do you have Thanksgiving Day anxiety when roasting a turkey?  It can be challenging, but you can do it with these few easy steps.

If you are using a frozen turkey, the first step is to thaw it. Whenever possible, refrigerator thawing is the best method, though if you don’t have time for that, cold-water thawing will work.  Never thaw a turkey at room temperature, as this will allow for bacterial growth and is never recommended.  If thawing your turkey in the refrigerator, 24 hours per four pounds of meat will be necessary (make sure to place the bird on a tray to catch any juices). If thawing in cold water, submerge the unopened turkey, breast side down, and soak for 30 minutes per pound (be sure to change the water occasionally).  Of course, if you are working with a fresh turkey, thawing is not necessary.

Here we go. The day before Thanksgiving, remove your thawed, whole turkey from its wrapper and place it in a clean kitchen sink.  Remove the giblet bag from inside the turkey and rinse each item with cold water, then, give the bird itself a thorough rinse using cold water inside and out, then pat dry with paper towels. Move the turkey to a clean, dry surface, for instance, place it on parchment paper. Then, make sure to clean your sink with soap and water to avoid any cross contamination. Tuck the wing tips behind the backbone and drizzle a small amount of olive oil on the outside of the bird. Lightly season the turkey and giblets with kosher salt and coarse ground black pepper. Make sure to season the inside of the turkey.  If you’d like, chop some Italian parsley, rosemary and fresh thyme and add this herb mixture to some softened, unsalted butter. With a moist index finger, gently lift the skin away from each breast lobe and rub the herbed butter mixture evenly under the skin. Make sure to smooth out the skin afterwards.

In a shallow roasting pan, add coarsely chopped onions, carrots, celery and giblets (including the neck) to the bottom of the pan. Add a roasting rack, the turkey, and cover and place in the refrigerator. This could all be done the day before, or on Thanksgiving Day itself by following the same steps. Keeping the turkey covered with plastic or foil in the fridge until you’re ready to cook it the next day is how many restaurants and hotels prepare turkeys, chicken and other items in advance. It also gives the seasoning a chance to add that extra bit of flavor to the bird.

Thanksgiving Day.  Remove your turkey from the fridge about 30 minutes before you place it in the oven. This will allow the bird to come to room temperature and shorten the amount of cooking time in the oven. By keeping the turkey elevated on a rack when roasting, heat is able to hit all parts of the turkey and promote a crispy skin. Add one cup of chicken stock and one cup of water over the vegetables just before placing everything in the oven.

Place your oven rack in the lowest position and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Roast your turkey in the oven for 30 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees F. If possible, remove turkey from the oven and place it on the cooktop or the counter, and loosely cover the breast meat with aluminum foil to avoid excessive browning.  Many cooks carry out this procedure while leaving the turkey on the oven door, which unfortunately results in significant heat loss from the oven. Baste the turkey with its own juices before returning it to the oven. Continue to roast the bird at 325 degrees F for approximately 15-20 minutes per pound. This is only an estimate, so be sure to use a meat thermometer to get achieve the perfect level of doneness.

Continue to roast the turkey, basting every 30 minutes until an instant-read meat thermometer reaches 180 degrees F and the juices run clear when it is inserted into the thickest part of the thigh meat without touching the thigh bone. Remember to remove the foil 30 minutes before the turkey is cooked to ensure even browning. Make sure that your turkey is cooked! It sounds simple, but it is probably your most important step. Even if your turkey comes with a plastic pop-up thermometer, check it to make sure.

Remove the turkey from the oven and place it on a serving platter. Loosely tent with aluminum foil and allow it to rest out of the oven for a minimum of 20 minutes. This is a very important step that allows all the delicious juices inside the turkey to settle.

Making the gravy. For basic pan gravy, remove the rack from the roasting pan and carefully pour and strain the pan juices into a measuring cup or fat separator. Let the juices stand for a few minutes to allow the fat to separate and rise to the top. Many chefs will place the cooked mirepoix (onions, carrots and celery from the bottom of the roasting pan) into a blender with some additional chicken broth and purée the mixture.  This is a natural thickener that doesn’t require flour or cornstarch. If you used a fat separator, you can simply pour off the juices, leaving the fat behind and combine the broth with the puréed vegetables. If it gets too thick, loosen with additional chicken broth. Season to taste with salt and pepper if needed, and you’ll have a rich and nutritious gravy!

Carving the turkey.  Start with the right tools: preferably an electric carving knife and a two-pronged meat fork. The use of the electric carving knife will make this task pleasurable and quick. Start by gently pulling the drumstick away from the bird and cut where the thigh is joined to the body. Slice the thigh from the leg and cut the thigh meat into slices. This will leave you with an even carving surface for more equal slices of breast meat. Make a deep horizontal cut above the wing and hold down the bird with your two-pronged fork.  Carefully shave off thin slices of the breast with the electric knife in a downward motion.  Serve with your favorite sides and listen for the sound of your guests scraping their plates with their silverware.  You won’t have to ask them if it’s good, you’ll see and hear the results! 

Happy cooking!

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