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Cook a Perfect Turkey

When pulled out of the oven, the mahogany patina of our crisply roasted 18-pound turkey, moist at the thighs with clear juice, was successful confirmation of hours of maddeningly alluring aromas. It was the perfect turkey: crisp skin, joints that fell off and juicy butter-like flesh that sliced cleanly and easily. You too can make the perfect turkey by following a few important tips.

Cooking a moist bird

Many people claim that they don’t like turkey because it’s too dry. A roasted turkey should never taste dry. If a turkey is “too dry” then it’s been overcooked. That’s the only reason turkey breast (white meat) is dry and crumbly.

A turkey is a naturally moist and delicious tasting bird. So, when cooking turkey you must pay attention. One reason people overcook turkeys is because the United States Department of Agriculture, many cookbooks, supermarkets, everybody, instruct you to cook the turkey until you have an internal temperature of 180 F. Instead, it should be 160 F. To achieve this, you should always use a quick-read thermometer, use it multiple times in multiple places and never rely solely on a pop-up timer in the turkey or any roasting rules-of-thumb.

When roasting turkeys it is important to keep the breast meat protected from becoming  overcooked, because it will cook faster than the legs and thighs, the dark meat. Convection ovens will help, but if you don’t have one do this by placing a triangular piece of doubled-up cold aluminum foil over both halves of the breast about 1 to 1½ hours before the bird is done. You don’t always have to do this. It depends on your oven and how well air circulates (i.e. if you have a convection oven) and if there are hot spots. You need to eyeball it to be sure. If the top of the turkey, the breasts and backbone area are getting way too brown before it’s done, then use the aluminum foil.

Picking a bird

About 99 percent of the turkeys sold in the United States at Thanksgiving are the breed known as broad-breasted white. These are only kind of turkey sold in the supermarket and they are almost all sold frozen or defrosted. Your other options are wild turkey and heritage turkeys. A heritage turkey is an heirloom breed of turkey that long ago went out of popularity and is being revived by some turkey farmers. I’ve cooked wild turkey and have used the heritage known as the bourbon red and both were fantastic turkeys. Remember, though, that a wild turkey will not have the enlarged breast typical of supermarket turkeys.

Prepping the bird

If possible, always buy a fresh turkey, never frozen. A frozen turkey will be tougher because the natural juices crystallize and when they defrost the texture changes. If your turkey is defrosted place softened butter in between the skin and breast, or just butter the top of the turkey and use a triangle of aluminum foil as previously described. Always defrost the turkey in the coldest spot of the refrigerator, a process that will take about three days. Do not defrost quicker than that. A 15- to 18-pound turkey is plenty for 10 diners with plenty, but not a ridiculous amount, of leftovers.

Before preparing the turkey for roasting — and this is a step nearly everyone doesn’t do — always check your oven thermostat to make sure it is accurate; turn the oven on to 350 F with an independent thermometer placed in the center rack of the oven. Check the independent thermometer against the oven setting after 45 minutes and if they are not calibrated make the proper correction when roasting.

Using a fresh as opposed to frozen turkey will help in having a non-crumbly meat bird, although you can use the aluminum foil method and/or you can separated the breast skin from the flesh, pushing in gently with your fingers to do this and then rub a stick of soft butter underneath the skin.

You can also drape a butter-soaked cheesecloth over the breast meat. Never stuff a turkey before you intend on roasting it because bacterial development is a sure probability; so stuff it, truss it, roast it. The rule of thumb for roasting is 15 minutes per pound for stuffed turkey — but be careful with rules of thumb.

Taking the temperature

The turkey should be basted every 20 minutes. This will help the bird look golden brown and crispy. The turkey is done when the entire bird is golden brown and the juices run clear  from a hole made by a skewer stuck in where the leg meets the body. This means that it should have an internal temperature of 160 F measured with an instant-read thermometer pierced deep into the stuffed cavity. Make sure the thermometer is not resting on a bone. If that temperature is reached before you are ready to serve, turn the oven down to 150 F and let the turkey rest there. It’s important to keep taking the turkey’s temperature plenty of times in different areas, especially the breast. You will see many cookbooks and temperature guides saying a turkey should be roasted until 180 F internal temperature, but cooking your turkey to this temperature will only lead to dry, crumbly meat.

It’s always better, if you still feel the anxiety, to undercook your bird rather than overcook it. If you overcook turkey everyone is unhappy. If you undercook it, you can slice off the meat for the first serving and then return it to the oven for more roasting.

Always let the bird rest 25 to 30 minutes outside the oven before carving.

A stuffed 18-pound turkey will take 4½ hours to cook at 350 F. As far as the advice about brining turkeys (I did it one year and it was fine, but no one noticed), turning them upside down, roasting them at 450 F, and other snippets of advice you’ve heard. None of it is necessary.


Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.

Photo: Thanksgiving turkey. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).