On most Christmas Day menus the main dish is roasted turkey, which is particularly popular for big family get-togethers. Although it’s actually very simple to cook (the oven does most of the work) the occasion can cause an enormous amount of stress and, as a result, the centrepiece of the meal often ends up undercooked, dry or just blandly boring. However, if you get a bit organized and follow a few basic rules, it really should be a triumph!!! Roasting a turkey is very easy – the secret to success is first in the preparation and then in the final touches.
- Shop around! Try to buy fresh, regional, organic (or at least free range) turkey – go for the best possible quality that you can afford! Only buy a frozen turkey if it’s an especially good deal or, for whatever reason, you can’t get a fresh one a few days before Christmas. Also, don’t buy it too big – calculate about 350-450g (1 lb) per person – just make sure it will fit in your oven!
- Two hours before cooking, take the turkey out of the fridge. N.B. a frozen turkey must be defrosted properly! It can take more than 24 hours, so do follow the pack instructions carefully.
- Do remove any giblets – but don’t throw these away, you can make lovely gravy or stuffing from them!
- Clean the turkey properly- remove any remaining feathery bits and quills, then clean it dry with paper kitchen towels (inside the cavity too!).
- You’ll need bacon/pancetta and plenty of butter/margarine!
Do calculate the overall time – you don’t want to eat Christmas lunch at midnight! So, to work out if/when to set the alarm for on Christmas day, you must add up the following:
- defrosting time (if applicable)
- room temperature time
- cooking time
- resting time
- The Outside: starting from the neck, using your fingers, loosen the skin under the breast then rub in some soft butter. Do the same under the skin where the thighs meet the carcass. Then rub the turkey all over with butter or olive oil and season with salt. Cover the breast with streaky bacon or pancetta.
- The Inside: to ensure that the turkey cooks through properly and evenly don’t put stuffing into the cavity because it prevents hot air circulation. However, it’s good to put half an orange or lemon in there, plus some herbs (e.g. rosemary, bay leaf, thyme, sage), and a couple of garlic cloves and perhaps a small piece of celery.
- Stuffing: it should only be put under the skin at the neck and/or cooked separately. Make sure you pull down the skin flap at the neck then tuck it back under, secured with metal skewers. Home-made stuffing is far superior to packaged stuff so check out Turkey stuffing>>
- Roasting tin: use a large, deep roasting tin and put the turkey breast-side up (but see tip 4 below) into the middle, leaving plenty of room around it. Also, you can scatter a few chopped veggies around the turkey such as onion, celery, garlic, carrots and herbs in order to enhance the taste of the gravy (but remove these later).
- Cooking methods: you can cover the turkey with foil for most of the cooking – but this needs to be taken off for the last 30-45 minutes and you should baste it. If you don’t use foil at all, you’ll need to baste your turkey regularly – every 30 minutes or so – just spoon over its juices or use a silicon brush!
- Oven temperature: the oven should be preheated to its maximum temperature setting, then turned down to 180°C/350°F/gas 4 as soon as you put in the turkey (but see tip 3 below)
- Cooking time: calculate 20 minutes per 450g (1 lb) plus 20 minutes. If the turkey weighs more than 7 kg (15 lbs) then make it 15 minutes per 450g (1 lb) plus 15 minutes.
- Roasted vegetables: it’s sensible to cook your roasted veggies with the turkey – just scatter any root veggies around it such as carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, onion, parsnips etc for the last hour of the cooking.
- Glazing: if you want a nice, golden final colour, glaze the turkey for the last 15-20 minutes of roasting – just brush the skin with some sauce, depending on your side dishes – for example maple syrup & orange; cranberry or pomegranate molasses; and port & balsamic syrup all work superbly.
- When is the turkey cooked? Pierce the thickest part of the thighs with a skewer or small knife – if the juices run clear (i.e. not pink) it’s done.
- Resting: transfer the turkey onto a large plate or into a serving dish. Cover it with foil, then wrap it with several tea towels. Rest for at least 1 hour depending on its size. Don’t worry, it won’t get cold! And see making gravy (tip 6 below).
- Carve the turkey at the dining table if you can – it’s part of the ceremony! Do use a sharp knife and start with the breast!
- The traditional side dishes are: roast potatoes, cranberry sauce, braised cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bread sauce, roasted parsnips & carrots. You can make special or different versions of these or do something totally different.
- Many side dishes can be made in advance, so you don’t have to spend your Christmas day in the kitchen!
- Make little skewers from rosemary sprigs and bacon, thenstick these into the turkey – this is a good way to keep the turkey moist and tasty; and the foil won’t touch the skin!
- Position the tray on a low shelf in the oven, leaving plenty of room above the bird to avoid burning.
- Another way to roast the turkey is to cook it at high temperature (200°C) for 30 minutes, then (covered with foil) at a lower temperature (170°C), then uncovered for the last 30 minutes at a very high temperature (230°C). This method will result in a lovely crispy skin. The overall time should be as in Cooking time above.
- Some people swear by cooking the turkey mainly breast side down as the cooking juices go into the breast, making it beautifully succulent.
- If you have a rack for the roasting tray – do use it as this helps circulating the heat and cooking the turkey more evenly. You can pour some wine underneath the rack which will allow the turkey to roast and steam at the same time making the meat even more succulent!
- Make the gravy whilst the turkey is resting. Use the cooking juices, vegetable stock, giblets and some wine. You can also make a base-gravy in advance (from the giblets and/or chicken pieces) and just mix this with the turkey juices. Thicken it with corn starch and/or crème fraîche. Add some wine, port and cranberry jelly/sauce to make it taste even more Christmassy!
Try some of these side dishes that will complement your roast turkey:
- Cranberry sauce with port and orange
- Roasted carrots and parsnips with maple and orange glaze
- Brussels sprout mash with chestnuts
- Brussels sprouts with chestnuts and bacon
- Shredded Brussels sprout with bacon
- Braised red cabbage with chestnuts
- Braised red cabbage with cranberries
- Braised red cabbage with mulled wine
- Mashed carrots with roast garlic
- Cranberry and pork stuffing balls