22 November 2011

Roasting a turkey; a Blog Off post

Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive with something called a Blog Off. A Blog Off is an event where bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic on the same day. The topic for this round of the Blog Off is "It's Thanksgiving, so let's talk about food"

There are few things in life that give me the kind of joy that feeding the people I love does. One of my great pleasures is to prepare a meal from scratch and to share the fruits of my efforts.

It kills me that my sentiments about food aren't shared by everybody and seeing the endless displays of convenience foods arrayed in grocery stores at this time of year sends me over the edge. Instant stuffing, instant mashed potatoes and the nightmare that is green bean casserole aren't fit for human consumption and I can't believe that those sorts of things end up on Thanksgiving tables all across this country. Scratch cooking isn't difficult, all it takes is time and attention to detail. The result is a meal that requires effort but the reward comes in knowing exactly what you're feeding your loved ones. Read the ingredients on a box of Stovetop Stuffing some time. Is that really the sort of thing you want to feed to people you care about?

The centerpiece of any Thanksgiving dinner is a stuffed turkey. If turkey's not your thing, a capon makes a perfect stand in. In either case, stuffing and roasting a large bird is a simple operation.

All photos from Martha Stewart

When you're buying a turkey, allow a pound for every person you're feeding. Most frozen turkeys, and even some fresh ones, are shot full of heaven knows what so that they remain moist during roasting. This sort of idiot-proofing is completely unnecessary and introduces a bunch of things nobody needs in his or her diet. Find a fresh or frozen turkey that has one ingredient, a turkey. You get bonus points if it came from a local farm.

Defrosting a turkey in the refrigerator takes a couple of days. And if you're late to the game and don't have a few days, there's hope. You can defrost a large, frozen bird in a couple of hours using cold tap water. The USDA's website has some terrific guidelines on safe thawing.

Once thawed, it's time to prepare your bird for roasting and a large part of that preparation involves making stuffing. Two days before you need to use it, cube the slices of a whole loaf of bread and set them on a baking sheet. Let the bread dry out and get stale. Again, in the interest of knowing what I'm feeding my loved ones, I use bread I baked myself. But then again, I'm a purist.

Making stuffing is easy and Thanksgiving is no time to get cute. Holding onto traditions is what Thanksgiving is for. I make the same bread and sage stuffing my mother and my grandmother always made. I have no doubt my grandmother learned it from her grandmother and when I make it now, I feel like I'm honoring the people who came before me and upon whose shoulders I stand every day. I don't follow recipes or measure things, I tend to cook by instinct and sight. The following instructions are meant to be adapted, but if you follow them as written you'll get a good result.

Here goes. Remove the giblets and the neck from the carcass of the bird. Put them in a sauce pan with four to six cups of water and boil them for 45 minutes. Add more water as it evaporates. After 45 minutes, remove from heat and add a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of thyme and a couple good grinds of black pepper. You just made turkey stock, congratulations. Fish out the organs and neck and feed them to the closest dog. Let your stock cool.

Melt a stick of butter in a sauce pan. Once the butter's melted, add about a cup of chopped celery (with leaves), a chopped half an onion (not a sweet onion) and about an eighth of a cup of chopped parsely (stems and all). Saute for ten to 15 minutes until the celery's soft but still firm. Remove from heat.

See how loosely packed that stuffing is? That's how it should look.

Take your stale bread cubes and put them in a large bowl. Pour the butter and sauteed vegetables over the bread cubes. Take about half the stock and pour it over the bread cubes, but add a bit at a time. Stir the mixture as you add the liquid. You want the bread cubes to be moist and sticky, but not sopping wet. Save the rest of your stock, you'll need it later. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Make a chiffonade from 12 fresh sage leaves and add it to the bowl. Then add around a teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves and salt to taste. Stir and mix everything thoroughly. Set aside for the time being.

Take your now thawed turkey and rinse it thoroughly. Salt and pepper the inside of the bird. Then stuff it with the stuffing you've already prepared. Don't pack it too tightly. The goal is to fill the cavity, not to pretend you're stuffing a sofa.

A trussed bird ready for the oven.

Once stuffed, prepare the roasting pan. Line the bottom of the pan with whole celery stalks to form a rack of sorts. Roughly chop the remaining half onion and spread over the celery stalks. Set the bird on top of the celery and onion rack. Truss the bird's legs with cotton string. If there's a pop up timer in your turkey, remove it. They don't work very accurately and food safety is very important if you're roasting a stuffed turkey.

Tuck the wings under the bird before placing it in a roasting pan.

Pour around two tablespoons of olive oil over the bird. I eyeball everything so that measurement is approximate. You want to coat the entire bird, so use your hands to rub the oil over all of its exposed parts. Tuck the wing tips under the body of the bird. Sprinkle a teaspoon or two of salt over everything and set the roasting pan onto the lowest rack of your preheated oven. Every half hour that the bird's in the oven, brush it down with your remaining turkey stock. Don't skimp on the basting, the liquid that rolls off the turkey is what you'll be making gravy from later.

Toothpicks are the perfect way to pin down the skin around the neck cavity.

Use the USDA's guidelines for cooking times. Regardless of the amount of time it takes, a turkey has to be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. You have to have a meat thermometer to be able to read this temperature. No method other than a meat thermometer can tell you with any degree of accuracy when your turkey's cooked.

Take the temperature of the inner thigh and the thickest part of the breast, don't rely on a single probe and take care not to touch any bones when you're plunging in your thermometer.

About 3/4ths of the way through the roasting process, the bird will achieve the perfect color even though it's not fully cooked yet. Make a tent from aluminum foil and cover the bird, being careful not to let the foil touch anything but the roasting pan. The foil will keep the bird from browning any further and it helps to preserve some of the moisture being lost due to the hot oven.

When the bird gets to 165 degrees, remove it from the oven and set it aside. After five minutes, remove it from the roasting pan and set it on a warm serving platter. Let it sit for another 15 minutes before you carve it.

While the turkey's resting, take a fork and remove all of the celery and onion from the bottom of the roasting pan. Pour the remaining liquid into a sauce pan. Add a tablespoon of corn starch to the remaining stock that you made earlier. Mix in the starch and stock thoroughly. Keep stirring until the starch is dissolved completely. Add the stock and starch mixture to the sauce pan holding the drippings from the roasting pan. Bring to a boil while stirring constantly. As the liquid boils, the starch will make it thicken. Once at a roiling boil it ought to be done. Add salt to taste. Congratulations. You just made gravy. Turn down the heat to a slow simmer and cover.

Remove the stuffing from the now rested bird and put it in a serving dish. If you're planning to eat right away, set it out on the table. If not, cover it and put in the oven to keep it warm.

Carve the bird and you're done.

See? Easy. All you need is a willingness to put in the time and an awareness of what cooked food looks and tastes like.

It's these sorts of handmade meals that memories are made from and where traditions are born. As a personal favor to me this year; skip the prepackaged, cheater foods for Thanksgiving and make something from scratch. Thanksgiving's not a time for haute cuisine or edgy ingredients and techniques. Rather it's a time to eat the way your grandparents did. Simple foods prepared simply make for the perfect Thanksgiving dinner.

Late breaking addition: I've been told that how to carve a turkey properly is a sticking point for a lot of people. Here's a video that explains and shows everything.

As the day progresses, a list will appear below with all of today's participating bloggers as they weigh in on today's topic. It's going to be an interesting day and passions are running high. And not just mine. Check out what bloggers from all over think about food.


  1. I'm scared Paul! If you get a few emergency DMs from me one year just disregard them...

  2. Are you tackling your first turkey this year? You'll sail through it!

  3. Nothing is so bad but what our imaginings will not make it so. You’re right, Paul. The meal is a great deal easier than people think it is. My wife’s family has always used instant mashed potatoes. I would rather be shot then eat those things! I have many times made them from scratch for them, and they all comment on how nice and fluffy they are. In fact they have gotten to where they regard it as a rare treat, probably because it is! But even so, when left to their own devices, they still make instant mashed potatoes!

  4. Ack. Few things are as easy to prepare as mashed potatoes. Gee whiz.

  5. Ok, I'm gonna go a different direction on roasting the turkey. I learned how to cook Thanksgiving dinner as a line/prep cook at the Viking Village Smorgasbord in St. Paul, MN so my turkey prep is a bit different.

    The owner was cheap, so name brand turkeys from a food supplier was never happening. We got the old birds so they went BREAST SIDE DOWN in the pan so the white meat was always basted in the juices. About 3/4 the way through, they were turned the birds around to brown the skin. Perfect every time. Never stuffed, stuffing was made from scratch on the stove, finished baking in the oven but we made 50lbs at a time :-)

    Carving was done on the line. Along the breast bone, 1/4 inch over, again, again and then along the ribs at the bottom. Perfectly juicy, rested turkey cuts perfect slices.. if it doesn't, you've over-cooked or roasted breast side up...

  6. @Paul @Joe Yup, most people over-mash their potatoes too, whipping them into a glop that has the consistency of wall paper paste. Cream, butter, salt, pepper, dollop of sour cream, mash-mash-mash-mash-mash. Walk way.

  7. Rufus: I've heard tell of people roasting turkeys breast side down but I've never tried it. Doesn't the shape of the turkey get warped by that method? My mashed potatoes are legendary. Potatoes with the skin on, butter, sour cream and salt. Mash and your done. Easy peasy.

  8. I roast breast side down as well in a roasting rack. Flip it over, cover the turkey with cheesecloth that's been drenched in butter and baste for the final 90 minutes. Not only is it cooked properly, you have the most picture perfect golden brown turkey Norman Rockwell every dreamed of

  9. Fascinating. I love how everyone has his own way to do this.

  10. I love the idea of the butter-basted cheesecloth. And I cook my turkey breast side down as well. For the gravy, I spoon off quite a bit of the fat before I assemble the ingredients; your stock will help to stretch it. Oh! Most dog owners know that a turkey neck isn't good for your dog.

  11. There are two schools of thought when it comes to poultry bones and when I had my dog, my vet was adamant that I give her poultry bones, preferably raw ones. It's counter-intuitive but he swears dogs need them in their diet to stay regular. I've heard of people doing the cheesecloth thing though I've never tried it. It would certainly save you from having to baste. I love gravy. A lot. I started making that stock as a way to make more gravy and it really works.

  12. Thank you for the great post...starred it for when I actually do make a turkey. I did just make your stuffing though...or similar at least. After a few years of cornbread stuffing and sausage-chestnut stuffing everyone's opted for plain-old traditional stuffing. My mother-in-law's recipe was incomprehensible, and my own mother's is Stovetop, so yours was invaluable. I made it with rosemary instead of sage (that's what I had) and grated the celery/onion (people don't like "chunks") and it's delicious & ready to reheat on Thanksgiving.

  13. Woo-hoo! Another fan of traditional bread stuffing. I always have sage and thyme around but I've been known to throw in rosemary, marjoram and oregano from time to time.

  14. i like the images and the walk-through. and the video was smart, the carving can be a stress.

    a part of the holiday that has always been a tradition is the food preparation. I've never experienced a Thanksgiving (once I was old enough to help) preparing food by myself. Even when invited into someone else's home/kitchen it was all hands in, a strange orchestra much of the time.

    ~L (omphaloskepsis)

  15. You know it's funny. For most meals, I rather enjoy cooking with someone. However, when a holiday rolls around it's time for the Paul show and I always insist on doing everything. But then again, I enjoy it to an almost unhealthy degree. But timing the various dishes is paramount when it comes to a traditional holiday dinner and too many cooks messes that up.

  16. If I ever roast my own turkey, I'll follow this post, step by step. I'm right there with you when it comes to cooking from scratch. It doesn't take as much time as people think and it is always sooooo much better. Part of my role as a health counselor is to gently introduce people to the world of cooking real food... It's amazing how resistant people are to it, but once they get in the kitchen a bit, they realize it's actually quicker and cheaper than the instant, processed, take-out route.

  17. Denese you're a woman after my own heart. Portion control and deciding what you put in your body is so much easier when you're cooking for yourself.

  18. Sounds absolutely delicious. Happy Thanksgiving.

  19. I never stuff the bird. First off, I always make more stuffing than fits. Secondly, the bird cooks a wee bit faster. Third, I like leftovers, and I hate having to pull the stuffing out for storage.

    As far as my recipe, per loaf of bread, I add 1 chopped onion, 1 can of mushrooms, 1 can of cream of mushroom soup, and 1 stick of butter. Add Simon & garfunkel to taste, along with some black pepper. And if you use multiple loaves, vary them with white, wheat, and rye.

  20. You know, that sounds delicious. Bur because I feel utterly compelled to convince people to kick the can, you could make that even better by making your own cream of mushroom soup... Thanks for joining in the conversation.


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