Obviously the centerpiece of Friendsgiving was the turkey. And it turned out pretty amazing, if I do say so myself.
Since I didn’t use one set recipe to cook the turkey, I needed a full-on guide, with every single step laid out beforehand. (And yes, I still missed one or two things … ) But too much information is always more useful to me than not enough, so: a step-by-step guide to making roast turkey.
STEP ONE: GET YO BIRD.
When buying a turkey, you start with two options: fresh or frozen. Frozen is cheaper, but requires a bit more pre-planning, since a turkey takes serious time to thaw (ideally 1 day in the refrigerator for every 4 pounds). Also, you need to prepare enough fridge space to house a potentially giant turkey for a few days. And some say the flavor isn’t as “turkey-ish” as fresh, but that’s why we slather it with herbed butter and gravy and cranberry sauce.
If you go the fresh route, bear in mind that it can only stay in the fridge for 1-2 days, so you can’t buy it too much ahead of time. There are usually more options for types of turkey: organic or pasture-raised or heritage breeds, etc. This is a great explainer on the different varieties, and what you choose can affect how you cook the bird.
I went with frozen, since it fit my schedule and my budget best.
STEP TWO: SUPPLIES.
Beyond the bird itself, there a few essential supplies for roasting a turkey. Obviously, a pan — there are a plethora of roasting pans out there (this is a good buying guide). But I went with a heavy-duty foil one from the supermarket because a) I didn’t want to spend the money on a roasting pan; b) I don’t have space to keep a roasting pan; and c) I don’t want to clean said roasting pan.
Sitting the meat on a roasting rack ensures that the heat circulates better around the turkey and the skin stays crispy on all sides. Most roasting pans come with racks, but if you don’t have one, there a few ways to hack a rack. I went with a “vegetable trivet” instead (totally co-opted from Jamie Oliver): piling the turkey on a crisscross of carrots and celery, with some onion halves and a potato or two thrown in for good measure. It’s inexpensive, adds a ton of flavor to the meat and especially to the gravy.
You’ll also need twine to tie the turkey legs together, a meat thermometer to check for doneness, and an oven thermometer if your oven is like mine and has ZERO temperature markings.
STEP THREE: PREPARE YOUR TURKEY.
To brine or not to brine? The eternal question. It wasn’t an option for me, since I could barely fit my teeny 10-pound turkey in the fridge, much less a multi-gallon bucket. And, truth be told, we didn’t miss it in the end.
I also wanted to air-dry my turkey, removing the turkey from its wrappings and sitting it in the fridge uncovered for 24 hours, so that the skin would dry up and get extra-crispy when it roasted. But I couldn’t really do this in a way that didn’t contaminate the entire fridge, so c’est la vie.
Once the bird is thawed and you’re ready to cook, the first step is unwrap the turkey (if you haven’t already) and remove the giblets from inside the main cavity. You should really save them to use for turkey stock or gravy, but you can also toss them. And DON’T WASH YOUR TURKEY! Cooking the turkey to the correct temperature (which you should do anyway) will kill off any surface bacteria, and you’re just risking contamination of your sink / kitchen by trying to rinse a 20-pound turkey.
Pat the skin of the turkey dry with paper towels — the drier the skin, the crispier it will be.
STEP FOUR: FLAVOR THE MEAT.
Now we get to the good part: herb butter. One of the many ways to keep a turkey from drying out is by slathering the meat with flavored butter, both under and over the skin. I followed Tom Colicchio’s instructions on this, sliding my hand between the meat and the skin to loosen it up, then rubbing butter all over the meat. (There is no way to say that without it sounding dirty. I’ve tried.) I used a combo of fresh sage, rosemary and thyme, with a bit of minced shallot thrown in.
Since this was a potluck Friendsgiving, I wasn’t making any stuffing, so no stuffing the bird (also, there’s all sorts of cooking and food safety concerns with stuffing a bird, so it seems like a lot of trouble for something that tastes equally good when baked separately). Instead, I filled the cavity with more carrots and celery, a whole lemon, a half-head of garlic and some fresh herbs. The aromatics add an extra boost of flavor to the turkey.
STEP FIVE: GET YOUR TURKEY IN PLACE.
Make sure your oven is preheated and the roasting pan / rack / vegetable trivet / whatever else you may use is set up. Then place the bird in the center. Most people roast breast-side up, but after reading this, I decided to try roasting it upside down. The meat basically self-bastes, keeping the breasts from drying out and ensuring that all the different parts cook evenly.
STEP SIX: ROAST.
I followed the roasting instructions for the upside-down turkey, but whatever recipe you’re following, there are three important things to remember:
1) Don’t keep opening the oven door to check on the roast, since that can change the oven temperature and mess up the heat circulation around the turkey. Since I buttered my turkey, I didn’t need to baste it, so I just checked on it once to flip the turkey and once or twice when I thought it might be done.
2) How long to roast for? Plan for about 12-15 minutes per pound for an unstuffed bird. My ten-pounder took a little over 2 hours.
3) Cook your turkey to 165F. That’s the temperature at which all bacteria is killed. A good instant-read thermometer is a godsend here — insert it into the thickest part of the thigh. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can cut into the meat (it should not be pink), but honestly a thermometer saves a lot of guesswork and costs $10. No point spending hours and days cooking something only to have it make everyone sick.
4) Let your bird rest. Once it’s hit 165F, take it out of the oven, tent tin foil over it and set it aside for at least 30 minutes, or definitely longer if your turkey is huge. That allows the juices to redistribute, so they don’t leak out when you carve (a juice-less turkey = a dry turkey). Rejoice in this rest period — it gives you time to finish your gravy, heat up the rest of your sides and get everyone to the table.
STEP SEVEN: CARVE.
A sharp knife and a large fork are your best friends here. I had neither, so I had to hack at my bird a bit. At the end of the day, this is just about looks — the turkey will be delicious regardless of how you carve it.
More Thanksgiving: Literally every recipe you need, plus the most important tips for surviving Thanksgiving Day, are over here. You got this!
Aaaaand now that I’ve written nearly 1,200 words, let’s get to the recipe, shall we?
- - 6 sprigs fresh rosemary (divided)
- - 8 sprigs fresh thyme (divided)
- - 10-12 fresh sage leaves (divided)
- - 1 small shallot, minced
- - 12 ounces (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- - salt, to taste
- - 7 celery stalks, trimmed
- - 7 whole carrots, scrubbed
- - 2 yellow onions, peeled, trimmed and halved
- - 1 large red potato, scrubbed and quartered
- - 1 10-pound turkey, thawed and patted dry (giblets removed)
- - freshly cracked pepper, to taste
- - 1 lemon
- - 1/2 head of garlic
- Make the herb butter: stem 3 sprigs of rosemary and 4 sprigs of thyme. Combine with 5-6 sage leaves and chop very finely. In a small bowl, stir together the chopped herbs, minced shallots, softened butter and salt. (You can make this a few days in advance and store, covered, in the refrigerator. You could also wrap the butter tightly in plastic wrap and freeze for up to 3 months.)
- Slide your hand between the skin and the flesh of the turkey to loosen the skin. Rub half of the butter directly onto the flesh, then rub the remaining herb butter on the outside of the skin.
- Preheat the oven to 325F. Make your vegetable trivet: line up 5 of the carrots and 5 of the celery sticks on the bottom of your roasting pan. Scatter the potatoes and onions around.
- Sprinkle salt and pepper into the main cavity of the turkey. Stuff the turkey cavity with the remaining 2 carrots and celery sticks, rosemary, thyme, sage, and the lemon. Use kitchen twine to tie the legs of the turkey together, securing the aromatics in place.
- Place the bird breast-side down on the trivet. Roast for 1 hour, then flip the turkey carefully using tongs (try not to tear the skin). Turn up the oven to 400F, and cook for an additional 60-65 minutes.* Check for doneness by inserting a meat thermometer into the fattest part of the thigh -- when it reads 165F, the turkey is done.
- Remove the turkey from the oven and place it on a cutting board. Tent a piece of tin foil over it, and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. (Use this time to make the gravy and finish preparing the rest of the meal.) Then carve the turkey and serve.
- *The two-hour total cook time is for a 10-pound turkey. If yours is larger, cook on 400 for longer -- plan 12-15 minutes per pound total. You should only cook the turkey upside down for an hour, then flip and cook the turkey breast-side up for the remaining 1 or 2 or 3 hours.