How To Roast and Carve a Turkey

By pete, Nov 9, 2013 | |
  1. You're finished with school, have moved out of your parents house and have your very first apartment.  You're feeling good about things and decide it's time to take that next great step to becoming a "real" adult.  You invite your parents over for Thanksgiving Dinner.  It sounded like such a great idea 3 weeks ago, but now, with Turkey Day fast approaching, the panic has set in.  "What were you thinking," you ask yourself.  "I can barely make a Grilled Cheese or heat up a can of soup without burning it.  However am I going to roast a turkey and get everything else done?"

    Not to worry.  Help is here.  This guide will walk you through all the steps, from purchasing a turkey to preparing and roasting it and finally to slicing it for serving.  We will go through all the necessary steps to prepare a basic, yet tasty roasted turkey.  This guide will not cover things like brining a turkey, preparing marinades or glazes for your bird or any of the myriad of variations on roast turkey.  Those are all lessons for another time and tutorials can be found on both ChefTalk and throughout the Internet.  What this guide will be covering is how to prepare a very classic, simple roast turkey.  One that you can proudly serve to your parents, or to the other important people in your life.  This will also teach you the basic techniques which you can then apply to other more complicated preparation methods.

    One thing this guide will not be covering is stuffing your turkey.  The main reason for this is that stuffing your turkey adds a considerable amount of time to the cooking time of the bird and often results in breast meat that is dry.  Secondly, and this is a personal preference, but the author finds that stuffing from stuffed birds tends to be rather soggy.  To avoid these issues, and for he added benefit of getting the little crispy bits that stick, the author suggests baking your stuffing in a separate pan.

    The very first thing you will need to do is purchase a turkey.  But how big of one do you need to purchase?  Your best bet is to figure on at least 1 pound per person, and if you like leftovers then  1 1/2 pounds per person.  That may seem like a lot, but remember there is a lot of bone to a turkey so the yield is rather reduced.  So if you are serving 8 people you would want a turkey that weighs at least 8-12 pounds.  You will want to buy your turkey in plenty of time to make sure that it is completely thawed before you begin preparing it. If your turkey is frozen, or even partially frozen plan on letting it thaw 1 day for every 4 pounds.  To thaw your turkey, place in the bottom of your fridge, sitting on a pan to catch any juices that might leak.

    Fast forward to Thanksgiving morning.  The very first thing that needs to be figured out is how long the turkey must cook.  On average it takes approximately 15 minutes, per pound, to cook a turkey fully, so a 12 pound turkey will need to cook for approximately 3 hours.  These times are only approximations as there are a whole host of variables that can affect the time.  My suggestion is plan on 15 minutes per pound but start checking the temperature at about 12 minutes per pound, just in case.  As you are planning the day, and when you want to eat, don't forget that the turkey will rest for 20-30 minutes also before slicing.  Don't forget to take that into account.

    You have your turkey, you know when you want to eat and have figured out what time the turkey should go into the oven, so now it's time to begin.  First thing you want to do is pull your turkey, of the fridge 1 hour prior to cooking, to allow the turkey to warm up a bit.  Meanwhile pre heat your oven to 375°F.  Also get your roasting pan and rack ready.

    You don't have a roasting pan and rack?  This is your first apartment and you couldn't afford to go out and purchase one yet?  Not a problem.  For smaller turkeys, under 15 pounds here's a little trick.  Take a large onion, peel it and slice it into 4 1/2-3/4 inch slices.  Place the 4 slices in the bottom of a 9x13 baking pan and you have your roasting pan.  The onions will keep the turkey off the bottom of the pan, help with air circulation and add a nice flavor to the juices left in the pan to make gravy with.


    Remove the turkey from the packaging and remove next and the giblets, usually in a small bag and either stuffed into the body cavity of the bird or in the hollow by the neck.  Use or discard.  I usually add them to the turkey broth I've made to boost the flavor before making my gravy.  Next rinse the bird, inside and out to remove any of the juices it has been sitting in.  While doing this remove the turkey timer that may have been inserted into your bird by the manufacturer.  These things rarely work, and even if they do they are set at so high a temperature that using one guarantees dry breast meat.  Pat dry with paper towels.  Fold the wing tips back under the body to prevent them from burning.


    Take 3-4 tablespoons of butter and rub them between your hands to soften and then generously coat the entire outside of the turkey, rubbing the butter into the skin.  Season the turkey with salt and pepper, coating the entire outside, but also rubbing some into all the surfaces within the body cavity.


    Add your choice of aromatics to the cavity of the turkey.  Peeled garlic, peeled onions, quartered lemons or oranges or fresh herbs such as rosemary, thyme or sage are all excellent choices.  Here, for the purpose of the guide, the turkey was simply stuffed with a couple of sprigs of fresh sage.  Place the turkey into your roasting pan (or makeshift roasting pan) and add 2 cups of water to the bottom.


    Place into the oven and immediately turn the heat down to 325°F.  Roast for 1 hour then baste the turkey with the accumulated liquid in the bottom of the pan.  When basting remove the turkey from the oven and keep the oven closed.  Too many people want to baste with the turkey still sitting in the oven, but this allows for too much heat to escape, adding significantly to the cooking time.  Continue to baste once every 45 minutes.  After the turkey has cooked for 12 minutes per pound start checking its temperature, by inserting an instant read thermometer into the inner part of the thigh, making sure to sink it into the thickest part and keeping it away from the bone.  The turkey it done when the thermometer reads 160°F in the thickest part of the thigh.  If your turkey is not done but the breast is already at 160°F or getting too brown lay a piece of foil over top.  Once the temperature, in the thigh has reached 160°F pull the turkey out, cover it completely with foil and allow to rest for 20-30 minutes.  This rest period will allow the temperature to rise to 165 or more, ensuring that the bird is fully cooked.  It will also allow the meat to relax allowing it to retain more moisture rather than losing it all as the turkey is getting carved.

    While Norman Rockwell would lead us to believe that carving a turkey, at the table, is the thing to do, it is usually best to carve in the kitchen as the job can be a messy one and easier done when you don't have 8-10 pairs of eyes eagerly watching your every move.  It is best to present the bird, to receive the adulation of your admirers  then discretely retire to the kitchen to carve as others bring the rest of the dishes to the table.

    To start carving, cut the skin that connects the thigh and the breast.


    After this, pull the thigh and leg down.  This will pop the thigh bone out of joint.


    Making it easy to cut around the bone and disconnecting the thigh.  From there it is easy to separate the leg from the thigh and remove the meat from the thigh bone.

    The wing is treat in much the same way as the thigh, cutting the skin around the wing to expose the flesh then popping the wing joint out of place to easily carve around it.


    Next you will want to remove the entire breast in 1 piece.  To start, make a long cut just this side of the center, to avoid the keel bone.


    Slowly, using the tip of your knife, cut the breast away from the carcass, following along the natural contures of the ribcage.


    Finally, cut through the bottom skin that is holding the breast to the carcass.


    From there, it is a simple matter to slice the boneless breast and add it to the platter with the other meat.


    All that's left to do is take the platter to the table, sit down and enjoy your first Thanksgiving.

    When not writing for ChefTalk you can find me blogging about food over at www.onceachef.com.

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