Along with roast beef, this actually is one of the most difficult dishes that you might choose to cook for a crowd. Getting the beef perfectly rare or the turkey moist and succulent are more art than science, so cooking times are hard to predict, which can make it difficult to coordinate the timing of the companion dishes. Turkey is probably harder even than beef, because the white meat often is ruined by the time the dark meat is done. the editor likes Thanksgiving, however, and likes turkey, so has roasted a lot of them for a lot of people over the last thirty years. This is the method that has evolved through the application of English Empiricism. It actually produces turkey with moist white meat and dark meat that is sufficiently done, not an easy task.
- cheesecloth (a must)
- poultry needles, wooden Asian skewers or round toothpicks
- a 10-14 pound turkey (see the notes): rinse and reserve the giblets
- at least ½ lb unsalted butter
- 4-6 cloves of garlic, smashed and chopped
- 3-4 loaves good Italian bread or French baguette, slightly stale (buying the day or two before use does the job), torn into pieces of about 1 ¾ - 2 inches square
- about 1 lb mushrooms, stemmed and sliced (finely chop the stems for gravy)
- 4 good sized onions, sliced into thin crescents
- 6 stalks of celery, trimmed and cut into 1/3 inch chunks (keep the leaves for stock)
- About ½ cup reasonably dry sherry or white wine
A. Make the Stuffing
- Melt ¼ lb of the butter (1 stick) in a small pot with the garlic over low heat and let it steep while you work on the stuffing. Do not let the garlic brown
- Brown the mushrooms over high heat in about 2 Tablespoons of butter. Do not stir them: If they are moved too much they will just stew instead of coloring. Just shake the pan once in a while. Once the mushrooms have acquired some gold and brown lines, put them in a large bowl with the bread, celery and onions.
- Pour the garlic butter into the bowl with the other ingredients: Add generous amounts of salt and pepper. The stuffing should have a light sheen and be barely tacky, like nearly dried paint, to the touch. It should not feel wet. If the stuffing is dry, mix in more melted butter or a little stock if you already have any at this point (see section C).
B. Prepare, Stuff and Roast the Turkey
Preheat the oven to 450°.
- Rinse and dry the turkey: Make sure the bird is really, really dry, inside and out.
- Cut gashes where the thigh meets the leg, and also where it meets thesocket of the torso; cut all the way until you touch the bone (or area: do not fret if the knife hits on either side of the bone rather than precisely at the socket). Do not break the bone.
- Cut the wingtips off at the last joint: They have no meat, are only going to burn and smoke, which will not improve the flavor of your turkey.
- Cut 8 or so pats of butter about ¼” thick and shove them between the skin and meat of the breast and thighs. Stuff the cavity and crop: Asian wooden skewers or long metal needles are helpful to secure the flaps. Do not pack the stuffing too tightly or it will get mushy and/or cook unevenly.
- Melt 2 oz (½ stick) of butter in a small pan, and use it to saturate a piece of cheesecloth big enough to cover the breast doubled over: Place the buttered cloth over the breast.
- Put the bird breast side up on a rack in a large pan: Add a splash of white wine or, better, some fino or amontillado sherry to the pan.
- Roast for ½ hour, then reduce heat to 350°. Do not let the liquid in the bottom of the pan scorch. If it threatens to do so, add a little stock or wine until the turkey throws some liquid.
- Every half hour or so check to ensure that the cheesecloth is moist. If not, add more butter and, once the bird does throw some liquid, baste it with the pan juices.
This is the hard part because it is imprecise. The turkey should take about 15 minutes per pound to cook, more or less. Actual times vary tremendously by the bird (see the notes). You really have to check the turkey once it browns by cutting the thigh (when juices run clear the turkey is done; some turkeys, however, especially free range or other good ones, have darker pigment and will throw colored juice instead. The best bet is simply to cut a small piece of the meat and taste it; alternatively, once you have roasted a few turkeys you can get a sense of whether it is finished by feel (slightly resistant to the touch on the breast; easy to move the leg; crackly brown skin).
C. Make the gravy
Most writers of gravy recipes are flippant: They do not offer much practical guidance. This is how to actually do it.
- 2-3 celery tops and leaves
- 4-6 stalks of parsley
- an unpeeled onion cut in half
- 3 bay leaves
- whole black peppercorns
- 4 tablespoons flour (and possibly more: see Step 9)
- Kitchen Bouquet
- hot sauce
- mushroom ketchup
- the turkey neck and giblets
- one can of beef consommé
- Make stock. Put about 6 cups of water in a decent-sized pot with the neck, giblets other than the liver (slice it thin and sear it in some butter with salt and pepper for a cook’s treat), the unpeeled onion, some celery tops and leaves, a handful of parsley, some whole black peppercorns, a few bay leaves and splashes of Worcestershire and hot sauce.
- Simmer the mess for at least an hour (remove the heart after 20 minutes: It will toughen if cooked longer).
- Strain the stock and let it cool. It should not throw any fat but if it does you can skim it away. If you want giblet gravy, chop the neck and giblets fine and reserve them with the mushrooms after cooking them in Step 4. Otherwise toss all the solids.
- While the stock simmers, finely chop two generous handfuls of mushrooms and cook them in a little butter.
- The amount of gravy you make is driven by the number of people you are serving; you have plenty of flexibility to stretch the amount without diluting the flavor.
- Start by pouring the drippings from the roasting pan through a strainer into a large skillet. The Editor likes to use the unwashed skillet that fried the mushrooms. Heat the drippings over medium-high heat until water droplets bead and sizzle away on contact. Then add the flour and stir rapidly and constantly with a wire whisk until the mixture colors to a light brown, just a shade less then peanut butter. Immediately add one can of beef consommé (carefully: The roux is preternaturally hot and if it splashes will cause bad burns), then add ladles of the stock one by one as each ladleful heats up in turn.
- If you need more gravy and run out of stock, add ladles of potato water (you would never serve turkey without mashed potatoes) in the same way.
- Reduce the heat to a simmer and add about a teaspoon of Kitchen Bouquet, and splashes of Worcestershire, hot sauce and mushroom ketchup.
- If you have added a lot of potato stock, and like a thicker gravy, you can make a liaison of some of the gravy and a little more flour in a small bowl. Add it slowly back into the simmering gravy.
- Add the mushrooms and giblets (if you are using them) and taste for salt. Let the gravy simmer on ultralow heat until you are ready to serve it.
- If you get a turkey much bigger than 14 pounds it becomes almost impossible not to dry out the breast. Cook two birds instead if you are serving a lot of people.
- The Editor has cooked two 14 pound turkeys in two reliable ovens at the same time and one has been ready 40 minutes before the other.
- You may be tempted check the bird with a meat thermometer, but thermometers are not foolproof. Once the breast reads 160° it is definitely done, but may become overdone (dry): It will continue cooking for a while after removal from the oven. Never use the popup plastic thermometers that come embedded in some turkeys; by the time they pop, the turkey usually has been ruined.
- It is as fashionable not to stuff turkeys as it is to brine them. The Editor, however, remains stubbornly old school on both counts. Stuffing cooked outside of the turkey neither absorbs the flavor of the meat nor flavors it in turn. If you require more stuffing than will fit inside the cavities of your turkey for a big crowd at Thanksgiving or Christmas, and you will, because the stuffing is everybody’s favorite dish, bake extra separately in the oven during the last hour or so of roasting time for the turkey. Add some drippings from the roasting pan to the external stuffing and then mix it with the stuffing from your bird before taking the hybrid to table.
- The Editor does not like to brine turkey. The meat turns out mushy rather than tender, and none of us needs all that salt when we can get it from pickles. Most prepackaged turkey is bathed in a saline solution, however, so it pays to buy a good one from a reputable butcher. The cooking time for most prepacked turkeys usually will be shorter;the meat can turn out gooey. Boiling a shrink wrapped bird is less risky. No harm is done as long as you do not salt the water in which you simmer the bird.
- The Editor does not like to make gravy in the roasting pan because carbonized hunks of stuffing and other debris can give it a scorched and bitter flavor.
- Wondra flour is nearly indispensable in making gravy. It is nearly impossible to create lumpy gravy with it.