1 Order your turkey in advance, and if it is frozen, calculate plenty of time for thawing; the recommended time and procedure for a 5kg turkey is 48 hours, refrigerated. Put it in a deep dish or container, cover with plastic wrap and put it in the bottom of the fridge to ensure any juices are contained and do not drip onto other foodstuffs. If the turkey comes in a plastic bag with an absorbency pad, leave it in the bag but still put it in a container in case there are any holes in the bag.
2 If time is not on your side – and it happens to the best of cooks – thaw the turkey in a sink of cold water, changing the water every 20 minutes or so (it will still take several hours to defrost). Don’t be tempted to use hot water as it will warm up the outside of the turkey providing ideal conditions for bacteria to multiply. And don’t thaw it in a microwave (partly frozen, partly thawed and partly ‘cooked’ is not a safe scenario). Seriously, if your turkey turns out to be frozen when you were expecting it to be fresh, and you’ve only got a short period of time to get it thawed and into the oven, consider another option for dinner. The risk is not worth taking.
3 Make the stuffing in advance, cool and chill before stuffing the turkey. When warm stuffing is put inside a turkey it provides the perfect temperature for bacteria to multiply unless it is cooked immediately. Avoid stuffing the turkey too far in advance of cooking it as it is difficult to maintain the correct chilled temperature of the turkey once it is stuffed. Alternatively, stuff turkey with piping hot stuffing, then sew up and cook without any delay.
4 A turkey has two cavities, the large main cavity, and the smaller neck cavity. Rinse both cavities thoroughly with cold water, tilt turkey one end after the other for a few minutes to drain, then pat dry inside and out with paper towels. Season cavities with salt before stuffing them. If you do not have enough stuffing for both cavities, stuff the smaller neck cavity with fresh white bread (the crusts from making fresh breadcrumbs is ideal). This is not intended to be served but it will help keep the turkey in good shape during roasting.
5 Tie the turkey in shape with string, drawing the drumsticks together to prevent them from splaying apart and exposing the drier breast meat during cooking. Do not use plastic-coated string.
6 Brush turkey all over with softened, nearly melted butter towards the end of cooking, and then sprinkle generously with salt. This will help the skin colour.
7 Cook the turkey in a steamy atmosphere. Put turkey in a large ovenproof dish, surround with stock and cook covered with a lid. Failing a lid, make a tin foil tent on top of the turkey; use heavy-duty foil and line it with baking (parchment) paper to prevent the foil sticking to the turkey. Remove lid or tin foil tent for the last 45 minutes’ cooking to allow the skin to brown.
8 Short of time to cook the turkey? A stuffed turkey takes longer to cook than an unstuffed turkey. Make stuffing once turkey is in the oven, and cook it separately, either in a shallow oiled ovenproof dish, or make it into balls and fry off in sizzling butter.
9 Rest turkey for 30 minutes in a warm place before carving. This ensures it absorbs its own juices which will make the flesh juicier and more succulent. There are two ways to carve a turkey, the traditional way on the bone, or, and I find this easier, remove the drumsticks and thighs, then the breasts, and slice them on a board.
10 The juices remaining in the pan after roasting a turkey make an ideal base for gravy. Pour off into a fat-separating jug, or tilt the pan, leave juices to settle, and scoop off any fat, then make gravy in the normal way.
Mix dried cranberries (craisins) previously soaked in hot water for 30 minutes, then drained, with chopped onion softened in butter, orange zest and a little orange juice, chopped toasted walnuts (flick off as many walnut shells before chopping as possible), thyme, seasonings, fresh breadcrumbs and egg to bind.
Soften chopped onion and fennel (or celery) in butter, add crushed garlic, smoked paprika, chopped chorizo, grated lemon zest, chopped parsley, fresh seasonings, breadcrumbs and egg to bind.
Sizzle chopped bacon in butter, add sage leaves, crushed garlic, pork mince, freshly grated nutmeg, salt and pepper, fresh breadcrumbs and egg to bind.
5 Great stuffing tips
1 Be generous with the seasoning – it’s a big bird, and the cavity is a big space, and it needs lots of seasoning to bring out all the flavours.
2 Avoid making the stuffing too sweet or it will be cloying to eat. If using dried fruit, always counter with some kind of acidity. Lemon and orange zest are great for bringing a fresh accent to stuffings, and a slosh of a good vinegar such as sherry or tarragon vinegar gives a nice fresh jab.
3 Keep raw stuffing moist and loosely bound – it’ll emerge drier after cooking. Water, juice or white wine can be used to loosen a stuffing. Soaking the crumbs in water or milk is also a good starting point for a stuffing. Egg will help the stuffing bind together, but it stiffens the stuffing. As a guide, 1 cup of fresh breadcrumbs (60g) needs about 2 tablespoons of liquid to moisten.
4 Put just enough stuffing in the cavity to lightly fill it. If you pack it down you make it dense and solid and it will take longer to reach the safe temperature of 74°C (165°F). Any leftover stuffing can be fried off in sizzling butter.
5 If the turkey is cooked but the stuffing has not reached the safe cooking temperature (74°C / 165°F), scoop out the stuffing and fry it off in a pan of sizzling butter.
Cooking time guide
Croziers, one of the biggest New Zealand suppliers of free-range turkeys, used to recommend 15 minutes per 500g (1 lb 1 oz), plus an extra 15 minutes, at 180°C / 350°F (i.e. allow 2¾ hours for a 5kg (11 lb) turkey, and 3 hours for a 5.5kg (12 lb) turkey, approximately). Checking their website today I see they recommend 35 minutes per kilo at 160°C (320°F) on regular Bake, not any form of accelerated cooking method). They recommend keeping liquid in the roasting dish at all times as free-range turkeys are drier than turkeys raised by other methods. Canter Valley is another producer of free-range turkeys. They recommend 35 minutes per kilo (2.2 lb) at 180°C (350°F) or at 160°C (320°F) for a fan-forced oven. They suggest turning the turkey over once during cooking, to help juices flow back into the breast meat to help keep it moist, and finishing with it breast uppermost. They also recommend using a barbecue rotisserie, as the juices continue to move through the turkey meat as it cooks, keeping it moist.
Other ways to tell if your turkey is ready
The drumsticks should wiggle a little when touched.
Insert a long skewer in the thickest part of the thigh, and into the middle of the cavity and check the juices; they must be clear. And check the juices between the breast meat and the leg; they must run clear. If there are no juices, the turkey is on its way to becoming dry. Another test is to do this with a metal skewer, or a long clean metal knitting needle; the skewer or needle should feel nicely warm when removed.
To kill all bacteria, it’s recommended that a turkey be cooked to reach an internal temperature of 74°C (165°F) before it is taken out of the oven. The temperature of the turkey will then rise to around 82°C (180°F) as it stands before carving. In most instances, this produces an overcooked turkey. Some chefs and cooks prefer to remove the turkey from the oven when the temperature reaches 65°C (150°F), letting it come to 74°C (165°F) as it rests. It is certainly more likely to be juicier this way. If in doubt remember that the breast meat cooks more quickly than the darker thigh meat. Overcooked turkey breast meat is like sawdust. Remove breasts from the bird in their entirety while they are still moist, cover the rest of the turkey with baking (parchment) paper and tin foil and return it to the oven for a further 15 minutes or until the thighs are sufficiently cooked. Carve and serve the breast meat and pour yourself a stiff drink. Next year will come around fast enough and you’ll have to go through the whole palaver again. But what will you have learned?