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Turkey for First-Timers

Every November, the advice about roasting turkey comes fast and furious. But for rank beginners it’s a confusing world. What they’re looking for is hand-holding, and it just doesn’t exist. Besides, even if it did, whose hand do you hold? The celebrity chef with his hidden staff of 20 or your mother who consistently ruined turkey? Who do you believe with so many ideas and pieces of advice?

I cooked my first turkey probably when I was about 20 or 21 and away at college the year I didn’t come home for Thanksgiving. The one thing I remember was that it was a joint effort and we were all clueless. I don’t remember the turkey, but I bet it was dry and crumbly.

The reason it’s often late in life that we cook our first turkey is for years we’re always going home where our mom, aunt or grandmother does the cooking and we’re playing football waiting for food. Then suddenly, perhaps in our late 20s, we’ve got to cook a turkey. So we hit the cookbooks to find their myriad pieces of advice: Do this, don’t do that.

Here are the 10 steps to a perfect turkey, your first turkey. Follow these instructions and these instructions alone and you’ll be a happy camper.

  1. Place an order for a fresh turkey with your local butcher and pick it up the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Do not freeze it. If it’s too late for that, place your frozen turkey in the refrigerator the Monday before Thanksgiving to defrost. Buy a turkey big enough to feed your party and to have leftovers for one or two more days. You don’t want enough leftovers for weeks or people will get sick of it. So for 10 to 12 people a 16- to 18-pound turkey is more than enough. A stuffed 18-pound turkey will take 4½ hours to cook at 350 F.
  2. A few days before you’ll cook, place an oven thermometer in your oven then set the oven to 350 F for an hour and see if it’s calibrated correctly. If it is not, make the proper adjustments.
  3. If you don’t have the following, buy them at the supermarket:
    • an independent oven thermometer
    • a quick-read thermometer
    • a disposable aluminum roasting pan
    • kitchen twine
    • bamboo skewers
    • a bulb baster
    • aluminum foil.
  4. Decide whether you want a stuffing. Most people want stuffing. Choose your stuffing from a favorite cookbook or heirloom recipe. On Thanksgiving Day, remove the turkey from the refrigerator and remove the bag containing the gizzards and neck and use them to make a gravy (follow any recipe from any cookbook). Stuff the body and tail cavity, not too loosely and not too tightly. Preheat your oven to 350 F. Remove and discard any pop-up thermometer in the turkey.
  5. Make sure your work surface is large and uncluttered. After stuffing the tail cavity, make sure the skin flap covers the opening and lies flat on the counter. Take a long length of kitchen twine and wrap around the turkey so it encircles the bird and the wings are flat against the body and tie off tightly.
  6. Stuff the body cavity, then take a skewer and lace it through the two sides of the opening, as if you were stitching leather. When they are closed, the sharp point should be facing down. Use a length of kitchen twine and lace it around the skewer as if you were lacing shoes and tie it off. With another length of kitchen twine tie the ends of the legs together to further close up the opening. (Some turkeys come with a plastic hold on the legs to do this, which you can use). Place in the roasting pan and smear room-temperature butter on the breast halves, which is the top exposed portion. Sprinkle top and bottom with salt.
  7. Place in the oven and roast the turkey until some juice and fat has accumulated in the roasting pan. Baste by pulling the rack out a little and using the bulb baster to suck up some juices and then squirt it over the breast (mostly) and the legs. Roast the turkey 13½ minutes per pound and baste every 20 minutes. Be careful because the turkey could be done before the time you’ve calculated, so keep taking its temperature with the quick-read thermometer.
  8. When the turkey is three-fourths done, make a triangle with the aluminum foil and place over the breast meat and continue roasting.
  9. The turkey is done when the quick-read thermometer is 160 F measured in the breast. Push the thermometer in but make sure it’s not touching bone and not touching the stuffing. Remove the turkey and let it rest for 25 minutes before carving. This is important so the juices can sink back into the meat and so the meat won’t shred when you carve. When carving, the white meat is the breast meat and the dark meat is the thighs and legs.
  10. Cautionary note: You will see many cookbooks and temperature guides saying a turkey should be roasted until 185 degrees F internal temperature. This is absolute nonsense. Roasting to that temperature will leave you with crumbly dry meat.

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: Clifford A. Wright with assistant Lori Alston preparing a turkey for students at the Venice Cooking School in Los Angeles. Credit: Michelle van Vliet

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).

  • Big Dan 11·19·12

    Some of the best roasted turkey I have ever had was roasted breast side down. Try it, it stays moist and tasty.