A thousand words on how to cook a turkey

I was writing this out to share with a friend and decided that I’d post it here to for all of posterity.

Take the bird out of the fridge at least an hour before you’re ready to stuff it. Take it out of all the packaging. Don’t forget that there are packages of giblets in the main cavity, and there may be some in the neck, too. The first time I did a turkey I forgot that package until I was stuffing it.  Rinse it in cold tap water, and then pat it dry, both inside and out. Let it rest and come to a general room temp (doesn’t have to be exact, but it’ll cook more evenly than if it’s cold. If there is a metal bracket that holds the legs together, try to keep it in. It will come in very handy later. If it comes out, that’s ok, but try to remember where it was stuck so you can try to re-use it after the bird is stuffed.

While the bird is resting, fix the stuffing.

There are a couple of ways of doing the stuffing. I’m going to try something a little different this year. Usually I stuff the bird as best I can, and then bake the rest later so we have leftovers. This year, I’m going to wrap some of the stuffing in cheesecloth before stuffing it into the main cavity. Then, when there’s only about an hour or so left I’ll pull it out and mix it with the rest of the stuffing before I bake it. That way, you get the flavor of the in-the-bird stuff with the crispiness of the baked (I prefer my stuffing to be crispy, I do not like it soggy)

With the bird, I pull the breast skin, and as much of the thigh/leg skin away from the meat and shove slivers of butter and slices of garlic between the skin and meat. This adds a lot of flavor.

Then you can put the stuffing in. Remember to not stuff it too full because the stuffing will expand and could make a mess.

Start with the neck area. A large spoonful or two is probably plenty (the large kind of cooking spoon). Pull the skin down over the stuffing and then tuck the tips of the wings under to hold it in place.  If you can’t get that to work, use some toothpicks or skewers.

Then, stuff the main cavity. Again, only fill it about 2/3s full. If you have the metal bracket, slip the legs back into it (so that the turkey looks like it’s trying to keep its legs crossed). This can sometimes take a little muscle, but don’t worry about hurting it, the bird’s already dead. If you don’t have the metal clip, tie the legs together with string (I’ve even used sewing thread a couple of times when I didn’t have any string.) Tying the legs together helps keep the stuffing in so that it doesn’t come out as it expands.

If you want, you can put salt and pepper and maybe some sage on the outside of the breast. I don’t cook with much salt, so I don’t usually do that step.

If you have any cheesecloth (and I strongly recommend finding some, I know WalMart carries it in the fabric section), Cut a piece about 2 feet long (long enough to reach from one end of the bird to the other). Unfold it so that it’s only about 2 layers thick. Lay it over the bird like you were covering it with a blanket. You want it to cover as much as possible.

Pick the bird up and put it in your roasting pan. It’s really better if you have a rack in the pan, but if you don’t that’s ok. Make sure the cheese cloth is tucked under all around, but if you’re going to remove the stuffing early leave it loose at the ends. Once I tried wrapping it all the way around, but it was no fun trying to take it off a hot bird.

Melt a stick or two of butter/margarine or use some olive oil and poor it all over the cheesecloth to saturate the entire bird.

You’re ready to pop it in the oven. Figure about 20 minutes a pound at 325 degrees.

I usually try to remember to baste about every ½ hour to 45 minutes, nothing too taxing, just a couple of spoonfuls of the pan drippings over the breast.

Use a meat thermometer if you have one, everything should be at least 165 degrees, check the breast, the thigh, and the stuffing (unless you’re removing that early)

When the bird is done, take it out and remove it from the pan to a cutting board, one with ridges to catch the drippings if you have one. You need to let it rest for at least ½ an hour to 45 minutes. Anything over an hour is a waste, and you could end up with cold turkey.  This gives you plenty of time to make the gravy. Take the cheese cloth off when it’s still warm and wet from the basting. It can get a little hard to pull off once it starts to cool.

The cheese cloth keeps the skin from getting too cooked, or burnt before the bird’s ready. You don’t need to tent it with aluminum foil if you use the cloth. I have a small oven and never have room for the aluminum foil, and the cheese cloth just works so well it’s not worth it to me to use it.

Carving should be one of the last things you do before sitting down to eat.

If you have the time (I know you have your hands full, so it’s not essential) try to plan out a schedule ahead of time and print it out. It’s very easy to forget things when you’re rushing around trying to get everything ready at the same time. I’ve been working on my scheduled for weeks and I think I’m ready.

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