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Classic butter-basted roast turkey
Embrace tradition at your holiday table with this classic whole roast turkey recipe. But, with extra butter-basting.
How to choose a turkey:
Your choice of turkey may be often limited by what your local store carries, but with enough planning you can also order a fresh bird from a local producer. A fresh bird will be easier to handle and require less planning than a frozen bird, but frozen turkeys are more plentiful. Turkeys are also sold in a variety of weights/sizes. Though you might be tempted to have an enormous ‘feature’ bird on your holiday table, there are some variables to consider. Will it fit in your oven? Do you have a roasting pan large enough to accomodate it? And of course, don’t forget that a large bird will take significantly longer to cook. Planning is the key to success for classic roast turkey.
When to start thawing your turkey:
It’s not often that home cooks handle such enormous solid pieces of meat or whole carcasses. So it can be a real surprise that whole turkeys can take a VERY long time to thaw. If you don’t wan’t to be frantically microwaving your bird at the last minute, you need to plan ahead. Here are the guidelines for whole turkey refrigerator thaw times:
- 4 to 12 pounds — 1 to 3 days
- 12 to 16 pounds — 3 to 4 days
- 16 to 20 pounds — 4 to 5 days
- 20 to 24 pounds —5 to 6 days
The safest way to thaw a frozen turkey is very slowly in the refrigerator. It’s also the best method for preserving the meat quality, too. There are some other methods to speed the process along (which you can see on the USDA website) but you should never allow your turkey to just thaw at room temperature.
First time turkey cookers: prepare yourself for hidden giblets and neck!
No one really talks about this part. I’m not sure why, but I feel like most turkey recipes I have seen do not address it. But here is the crucial info: your turkey is a piñata of hidden body parts that you might not even know are in there! Most of us are used to buying “ready to cook” meats at the grocery store where you just open the package and go. Like how when you buy a whole chicken, you usually get an oven-ready carcass that’s cleaned out and ready to roast. So it’s natural to expect the same thing from a turkey. And that’s where things can be rather surprising. And if you’re already squeamish about raw meat, this definitely won’t be a pleasant surprise.
Most processors now leave the neck, giblets and other “inner bits” with the bird. They do this for the folks who like to use them to make gravy. What is definitely NOT made clear, is where these bits of offal are hidden. The neck is usually shoved inside the cavity and should be removed before roasting. And the ‘other bits’ are usually sealed in a small paper bag, and then tucked under the skin in the hole where the neck used to be. And yes, I’ll admit that on my first ever roast turkey attempt, the paper bag full of innards was accidentally cooked in place. So learn from my mistake and make sure to remove these before cooking. You’re welcome.
Here’s why you should always brine a turkey:
Turkey and other poultry meats can be notoriously dry. They are lean to start off with, so there’s not a lot of fat to help them stay moist during cooking or contribute to a richer, moister mouthfeel. Plus, since meat muscle is around 70% water, some it of it will inevitably be lost during roasting. The act of brining takes advantage of a combination of electrical charges, pH levels and some other awesome food science to bind water into the meat. To simplify things: brining adds extra water to the bird to make up for the water lost during cooking, so you get a juicier result. At the same time, brining also introduces extra flavor and seasoning as a bonus.
But DO NOT brine your turkey until you read this first:
This is another REALLY important pro tip! The majority of commercially available turkeys are pre-brined by the processor. This became common practice in an attempt to improve the overall quality for turkey consumers. This pre-brining is know as “enhanced” meat, and usually contains salt, water, spices and phosphates to help water retention. If your turkey is enhanced it will say so on the packaging. The packaging may also be labelled “self basting” or “added water” or similar. Just read the declaration at the front carefully, and the ingredients too, and you’ll quickly figure out if your turkey has been enhanced or not. If this is the case, you must skip the brine step. If you brine twice, you will end up with product that has an unpleasant mushy texture and is WAY too salty.
Turkey cooking guidelines:
If you need to be prepared for thaw times, you need to be equally prepared for cook times. It generally takes around 15 minutes per lb to cook a roast turkey. Bear in mind, this is the speed for a fully thawed turkey at around 350f. There are lots of variables that can affect the cooking time: stuffed/unstuffed, fan forces/electric ovens, the level of thawing, the accuracy of the oven thermostat etc. You also want to allow for a 30 minute rest when the bird comes out of the oven. So, pick your ideal eating time, allow for the rest and carving time, and work back from there to figure out your start time.
How to know when your turkey is ready and safely cooked:
So, if timing and cooking length is approximate, how do you know exactly when the turkey is done and ready? The answer is quite simple – temperature! For all of the other variables that go into cooking a turkey, there is one thing that is constant. Your roast turkey is ready and safe to eat an an internal temperature of 165f. A quality accurate fast-read meat thermometer is the best device for checking this. I use and recommend Thermapens. I prefer them to the “leave in” probe style thermometers, as I believe the fast read delivers more accurate results.
The best place to measure the temperature is in the thickest part of the thigh, and be careful not to touch the bone (as this will give you an inaccurate reading). The internal temperature of the turkey will keep climbing a little even after you take it out of the oven, so it’s ok to remove it a few degrees shy of the mark.
How to navigate hot spots and excessive browning:
Ovens frequently have hot spots in them – pockets of air that are hotter than other parts. This means that food may not always cook or brown evenly. Generally, the top of the oven is hotter due to hot air rising, so it’s recommend you place your turkey on a rack on the bottom third. But the easiest way to combat hot spots is simply to rotate the bird during cooking to ensure even browning. Another temperature tip is to also remove the turkey completely from the oven during each baste, so you are not losing too much heat from the oven door remaining open.
Your turkey skin may also start to brown a little quicker in some spots. To combat this, I get creative with foil. You could just foil the entire pan, but this will create a steam and condensation effect which turns plump, crispy and golden skin into the wrinkly kind. So instead, you want to create a series of foil shields. I start with some little caps to put over the wing tips, which tend to brown first. Then I’ll add a small foil shield for the highest part of the bird as it browns. Then I’ll progress to a bigger shield for the majority of the breast portion to keep it the perfect hue.
Here’s why you DO NOT need a turkey baster:
Most butter basted turkey recipes will call for you to baste the turkey with the pan drippings. Which makes sense, but can be a bit of a logistical nightmare. Like most folks, I roast my turkey on a rack set inside a pan, which is the traditional roasting setup. But it’s nearly impossible to get either a spoon OR a baster tip under the rack to collect the excess butter. Precariously tilting a top-heavy pan laden with a heavy turkey to try and spoon out butter just isn’t the kind of thrill I am looking for in my kitchen. My solution? I accept that some butter is just going to end up at the bottom of the pan, unused. Instead, I reserve some of the initial softened seasoned butter, then use it throughout the cook.
What’s better than butter? Seasoned butter!
Butter is probably up there with salt as one of the core/crucial ingredients for a delicious result in ANY meal. In this case, butter certainly contributes to the overall flavor of the dish. But why stop at plain butter when you have the opportunity to add extra layers of flavor in there? One of my key “secret weapon” ingredients is Hardcore Carnivore Amplify. It’s a mega-savory flavor dust that’s packed with chicken fat, soy sauce powder and a host of other umami ingredients. It has a very neutral flavor profile but does an amazing job of just ‘amplifying’ the flavor of food. I use it generously to create a luscious seasoned butter that is crazy good.
Tips for an extra shiny finish on your bird:
This recipe uses A LOT of butter. The introduction of obscene amounts of butter also helps to achieve that signature golden brown skin. But butter will not give a high gloss finish to your bird. So if you’re looking for an extra-lacquered look, the trick is to add jelly! Right towards the end of the cook, I add a 1/4 cup of apricot, orange or apple jelly to the remaining butter mixture. The added sugar helps build a nice glaze on the finished bird. It’s important to add this final coating 10-15 minutes before the end so that the sugar browns but doesn’t become excessively dark.
Classic roast turkey
- For the brine: 2 gallons cold water, 1 cup Kosher salt, 1 cup sugar
- 1 whole 12-15lb turkey
- 3 sticks salted butter, softened
- 1 tablespoon Hardcore Carnivore Amplify
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1/4 cup apricot, orange or apple jelly (without pieces)
- Start a day ahead by brining. Combine the water, salt and sugar in a large container, immerse the turkey and refrigerate overnight or up to 12 hours. DO NOT brine your turkey if it is already brined, enhanced, or self basting. You can also add herbs, citrus peel and hard whole spices like peppercorn and allspice to your brine.
- Remove the turkey from the brine and discard the mixture. Rinse the turkey under cold running water, then pat very well with paper towel to dry the skin. Place the turkey onto a rack in a roasting pan, and pre-heat oven to 450f. Pout 1-2 cups of water into the bottom of the pan to prevent any burning.
- Combine softened butter, soy sauce and Amplify. Reserve 1/3 of the mixture and set aside. Use your fingers to gently create a gap under the turkey skin, loosening the skin from the flesh. Spread some seasoned butter underneath the skin of the turkey, and the remaining butter across the top of the skin to completely cover it.
- Place the turkey into the oven, then immediately lower the temperature to 350f. Rotate the pan every 30 minutes to promote even cooking. Every 45 minutes, brush the turkey with the reserved softened butter mixture. It's recommended you remove the turkey completely from the oven for this step to ensure you don't loose too much heat as you baste it.
- The turkey will take about 15 minutes per lb to cook. Start monitoring the internal temperature at the halfway mark. The final temperature should read 165f at the thickest part of the thigh. If the skin becomes too brown in areas, use foil to make a shield to protect the skin from excessive browning.
- About 10-15 minutes before the turkey is done (so at around 155-160f), combine the jelly with the remaining butter. You may need to melt or microwave the mixture so that the jelly loosens and stirs in. Brush the turkey with the jelly-butter and cook until finished.
- Rest turkey for 20-30 minutes before carving.
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