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2000s Archive

Expert Advice: Let’s Talk Turkey

Of all the dishes that make up the Thanksgiving feast, the big bird demands the most attention. But how best to achieve turkey perfection—golden-brown skin with moist, tender white and dark meat? We roasted our way through more than 40 turkeys and found a method that’s so free of fuss and gets results so delicious, we can’t quite believe it ourselves.
roast turkey

Turn Up The Heat

We’ve been successfully roasting turkeys for years. But were we in a rut? Maybe it was time to rethink our traditional methods. Brining produces great-tasting birds, but it’s a cumbersome process and not practical for those with limited refrigerator space. Deep-frying was out of the question: It’s too risky. There had to be an easier, less complicated approach.

Getting back to basics was anything but simple. We gathered and distilled dozens of approaches into general guidelines, then tested each of them on the same brand of supermarket turkey weighing 14 to 16 pounds. We tried stuffing butter under the skin or leaving it out, basting and not basting, varying the heat versus keeping it steady. We raised the heat, we lowered it. We positioned the bird right side up and upside down. We did everything; and then we pared down to nothing (no butter, no basting, no heat variation). The results astonished us. The turkey no one bet on turned out to be vastly better than the others, winning the beautiful skin and juicy white meat contest hands down. The method? The bird was simply seasoned with salt and pepper, then roasted in a 450ºF oven—no butter under the skin, no basting, no foil tent, just blasted . Skeptical, we tried it again. And again. It kept working. Attempts to improve on it were pointless. Plus, it cooked in record time, only about 1 3/4 to 2 1/2 hours for a 14- to 16-pound bird. (An important note: Starting with a clean oven prevents smoking at high heat. Clean your oven again after roasting because of splatter.) The high-heat method is nothing new. Cookbook author Barbara Kafka popularized it for chickens and turkeys in her 1995 book Roasting, in which she cranked her oven up to 500 degrees. We compromised on 450 degrees to get the benefits of high heat while lessening any risk of burning the pan juices. Harold McGee, food scientist and author of the newly revised On Food and Cooking, confirmed he’s had similarly fine results with the same method. He surmises that because the bird cooks faster at a higher temperature, the outer portions of the breast have less time to become overcooked before the deepest portions cook through.

If you’ve become enamored of brining, as we have, and want to continue, using this method, feel free; it will make for an even juicier, more flavorful bird. (But don’t use the pan juices for gravy; they’re too salty.) And if you’re in the mood for something less than basic but still delicious, try our cover turkey, which features the cross-cultural innovation of using miso to flavor and tenderize the meat. This, however, is a higher-heat followed by lower-heat method. The miso butter blackened the skin when subjected to constant high heat.

Choosing The Bird

Fresh or frozen? Organic, conventional, or kosher? Whichever you select, we don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Using our basic method, we had uniformly good results.

Fresh: We’re partial to a fresh turkey. There’s no waiting for it to defrost—but that means there’s less flexibility as to when to buy it; the USDA recommends no more than 2 days in advance. Keep it on the coldest shelf of your refrigerator.

Frozen: We had consistently good results with a nationwide brand of frozen turkeys from the supermarket. Allow at least 3 but preferably 4 days to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator.

Organic versus conventional: Our past experience with organic turkeys was reconfirmed—the flavor was superior but the white meat was tough. If you go organic, you’ll need gravy. We are also fans of locally raised turkeys from small producers, as much for environmental and sustainability reasons as for flavor.

Kosher: We’ve recommended kosher birds for several years. Because koshering involves salting, we’ve found the birds to be comparable in juiciness and flavor to turkeys that we brined, which involves soaking the bird in a saltwater solution for 10 to 24 hours before roasting. Because they are minimally processed, however, they do require a significant amount of time for painstaking removal of stray feathers and quills.

Turkey Prep: The Day Before

Giblet stock: Do yourself a huge favor—make it the day before. The stock cooks longer (3 hours) than the fast-roasting turkey (roughly 2 hours) and no one wants to wait for the gravy. Plus, it’s always easier to lift solidified fat from a chilled stock than it is to skim it off a hot one. You can shave 2 1/4 hours off the cooking time by using a pressure cooker, and we found the pressure-cooked stock to have superior flavor. Begin by searching for the neck and the giblets—heart, gizzard (a digestive organ), and liver—which are usually tucked away inside the turkey. Often they are packed together in a pouch, but sometimes they’re loose, so check both cavities. Then remove the liver from the lineup. The remaining giblets provide the flavor base for the stock that will become your gravy; including the liver would only add bitterness. Instead, sauté it for a well-deserved cook’s treat, or dice it and sauté it to add to the stuffing.

Once your stock is made, let it cool completely, uncovered, then cover it and chill. If covered while hot, it will go sour. The shallower the container, the faster the stock loses its heat. The USDA recommends putting the shallow container of hot stock directly into the refrigerator to cool it quickly. You can let it cool at room temperature, but never longer than 2 hours. We like to speed up the process by using an ice bath.

Extra white meat: For white-meat-only types (and to have plenty for sandwiches), roast an extra turkey breast the day before, using the same high-heat method.

Equipment Checklist

Roasting pan: It should be heavy (to support the bird), flameproof (to go on top of the stove; that means no glass), and light-colored (to prevent burning; see Tips). Make sure it’s ample enough to hold the turkey; we suggest a 17- by 11 1/2-inch pan with sides no more than 2 to 2 1/2 inches high—deeper pans keep the sides of the bird from browning.

Flat rack: It needs to be sturdy and able to lie flat inside the pan. Many V-racks do, some don’t. A flat rack helps the roasted bird sit without tilting; one in V-formation results in a leaning whole bird but is ideal for turkey breast.

Thermometer: We prefer dial-style instant-read thermometers. They can be recalibrated (follow manufacturer’s instructions). For us, the readings seemed clearer than on the digitals we tried.

Kitchen string: An untreated cotton string is best. Anything else may melt or impart an undesirable flavor to the meat. And if you don’t have it, don’t worry. Barbara Kafka recommends leaving the legs open; it’s not as attractive, but it helps the dark meat cook more evenly.

Turkey lifters: Lifting and landing a cooked bird on a platter is challenging. And if you didn’t stuff your turkey, you’ll need to tilt the bird enough to pour out the flavorful juices that collect in the large cavity. Silicone gloves let us work hands on, and there are many gadgets to suit your wallet and drawer size.

Turkey Prep—Thanksgiving Day

To stuff or not to stuff: We love the contrast of a crisp top and moist tender interior with a stuffing that is baked separately; and the bird tends to cook faster unstuffed than stuffed, though the timing difference may be less when using the high-heat method.

But stuffing baked inside the turkey has its loyalists. The downside is that the stuffing takes longer to get to a safe temperature than the turkey itself does—and you risk overcooking the breast meat. Our solution is to remove a stuffed bird from the oven when the meat tests done (170 degrees) and immediately scoop the stuffing from the large cavity into a baking dish (test the temperature of the stuffing in the smaller, neck cavity, too; ours didn’t need to be removed). Then return the stuffing to the oven (covered for a moist stuffing or uncovered for a crisp top) to cook until it reaches at least 165 degrees.

If you do stuff the turkey, make sure the stuffing is room temperature before spooning it into the bird; a hot stuffing heats the cavity to a temperature at which bacteria thrive.

Roasting Tips

Position the oven rack so that the turkey (not the pan) is in the center of the oven.

Kafka recommends putting the turkey into the oven drumsticks first so that the legs, which take the longest to cook, are in the back, which tends to be the hottest part of the oven. In our 30-inch home-style ranges, the turkeys fit best sideways, so it was necessary to rotate them 180 degrees halfway through to enable the legs to cook more evenly. Even so, not once did both thighs register the same temperature.

Our fuss-free turkey comes out with gorgeous golden-brown skin and a slight matte finish. If shinier skin is important to you, baste the bird just once at the same time that you rotate it.

Test for Doneness

A thermometer is the most precise way of knowing when the turkey is cooked to the optimal temperature. But where exactly should it go? It needs to measure the fleshiest part of each thigh, the slowest parts to cook. Insert the thermometer vertically, between the drumstick and the tapered end of the breast. Feel around with the tip; it should be near but not touching the bone, and should measure at least 170ºF. As an added precaution, also test by inserting the thermometer horizontally underneath the drumstick. And for utmost food safety, all the readings need to be a minimum of 170ºF.

Letting the Turkey Stand

Allowing the turkey to rest for 30 minutes when it comes out of the oven is essential. The juices in the turkey need time to redistribute themselves.

If you like crispy skin, don’t cover the bird. Covering offers no advantages.


How you carve the meat enhances the tenderness and juiciness of each portion. When you remove each breast half from the bone in one piece, then slice it crosswise, each slice includes the slightly more well-done meat close to the skin and the velvety meat next to the bone.


A whole cooked turkey can overrun your refrigerator, so break up the carcass before storing it. Cut off the legs, if you haven’t already, and separate them into drumstick and thigh portions.

Reserve the wings, along with any picked-over bones, in a sealed plastic bag and freeze them for later use in soup.

Wrap the leftovers in plastic wrap. The salt and iron from the turkey cause foil to corrode, leaving smeary traces of aluminum on the meat.