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How to cook a turkey without having a breakdown
There’s a myth that cooking a Christmas turkey is simple - a slightly souped up version of an ordinary Sunday roast. In fact it’s quite tricky because of the size of the bird and the number of other things you have to get ready at the same time.
So if you’re a first timer here are some tips from more years than I care to remember of cooking Christmas lunch:
* Don’t go mad when you order the turkey. A 5-6 kg (11-13lb) bird is big enough for most families’ needs. You may struggle to get a bigger bird in your oven
* Make sure you have a roasting tin large enough to take the bird. And some extra large foil and skewers.
* Your initial problem is going to be keeping the uncooked bird cold. Ideally don’t pick it up until the 24th. If there isn’t enough room in the fridge keep it in a sealed container (so cats/dogs/foxes can’t get at it) in a garage or unheated outhouse.
* Take any giblets out of the turkey once you get it home. If you feel up to it make stock with them. Chop the neck and heart roughly - and set the liver to one side (you could add it to a chestnut stuffing, ragu or a paté.) Cook a diced onion in a little oil and butter, add the chopped turkey bits and a spring of thyme if you have some, pour over water and chicken stock to cover, bring up to boiling point then turn down the heat and simmer for an hour. Strain, cool and refrigerate.
* Think about what you’re going to do in the way of stuffing. It may be easier - and safer - to cook it separately. Putting stuffing in the body of a turkey increases the weight and slows down the cooking time. It may even not end up properly cooked. You can however put some stuffing in the neck of the turkey which rounds it out nicely. Don’t ram too much in though otherwise you may find it hard to secure the skin around it. (That’s what the skewers are for.)
* Take the turkey out of the fridge a good 3 hours before you put it in the oven to give it a chance to come to room temperature. (I'm assuming your turkey is fresh. If you've bought a frozen turkey you need to allow at least 24 hours to defrost in a cool place. There should be instructions on the pack.)
* If your turkey is HUGE and there’s no room to cook the roasties (let alone any other root veg, par-cook the potatoes before you put the turkey on. (I usually cut them into even-sized pieces, cover them with cold water, bring them to the boil and cook for 5 minutes then drain saving the cooking water for the gravy. Then roast in olive oil, lard or duck fat for about 30 minutes or until they begin to colour. Set aside to finish later. You could part-cook the stuffing at the same time.
* Once you’ve prepared the turkey place it in the tin and smear it lightly with a mixture of oil and melted butter and season with salt and pepper. You could put a few parsley stalks, half a lemon and a couple of smashed cloves of garlic in the body for extra flavour.
* Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F/Gas 6) - maybe a little hotter. Ovens DO vary and gas pressure can be low on Christmas Day. Put the turkey in the oven and cook for about 25/30 minutes until just beginning to brown. Make a loose ‘tent’ of foil over the roasting tin so the turkey is completely covered and turn the heat down to 180°C (350°F/Gas 4)
* Now this is the key bit. You have to keep an eye on the turkey, checking that it’s cooking fast enough but not too quickly. How do you tell that? It should be sizzling away gently. It should begin to smell appetising but it shouldn’t be browning too fast. Forget about timings per pound or per kilo. Assume it’s going to be in the region of 3 1/2 -4 hours with a resting time of at least half an hour at the end while you make the gravy. Don’t constantly open the oven door but check how things are going every 30 minutes or so. If it’s not cooking quickly enough increase the heat a setting. Turn it down if it's cooking too quickly.
* About another half an hour into the cooking you’ll need to get rid of some of the turkey fat (some birds are fattier than others). You can do that with a fancy bulb baster but I generally just spoon it out with a big serving spoon or carefully tip the tin (really carefully if you don’t want turkey on the floor) and pour off most of the fat. You’ll probably need to do this more than once. After the turkey has stopped producing fat add some liquid (I usually use white wine) to the tin to stop the juices from burning.
* About 2-2 1/2 hours in you may spot the legs are cooking faster than the breast. They will. You may want to wrap them in an extra layer of foil to stop them drying out.
* After about 3-3 1/2 hours you should start to check if the turkey is cooked. It should look as if it’s nearly done - apart from needing a final brown - but insert a sharp knife or skewer in the thickest part of the leg and in the base of the body. Clear juices should run out. If they’re still a bit bloody the turkey needs more time. Repeat after another 20 minutes or so.
* If you’re confident it’s nearly cooked remove - and keep - the foil tent (but leave the foil on the legs), whack the heat up to 220°C (425°F/Gas 7) and cook for a final 15 minutes or so until the skin is nicely browned. (Again make sure there’s some liquid in the pan or your precious juices will burn)
*Transfer the turkey onto a serving plate and leave it to rest loosely covered with that foil you took off earlier. Put the potatoes, stuffing and any other vegetables back in the oven to finish cooking. Put on the sprouts to cook. Don’t overcook them. Soggy sprouts suck.
* Make the gravy. This is a matter of taste and the number of people you’re cooking for. If you don’t need that much gravy and/or prefer a thin one you can just add the strained giblet stock (if you made some, a little chicken stock, if not) into the pan working off any stuck-on crusty bits and add enough reserved potato water to make a pouring gravy. If you need to make the gravy stretch add a couple of level tablespoons of flour to the juices in the pan to make a thickish paste then gradually add the stock and water. Check the seasoning either way. Turkey makes a good rich gravy - I never find I need that much. You could add some booze but I don't if it’s a family meal with young kids. Strain the gravy if you feel moved. I seldom do by this stage.
* By this time everything should be more or less ready. Turkey, potatoes, stuffing, gravy, sprouts. Warm the plates and keep everything as warm as possible while you carve the turkey up.
So that’s it. Like any recipe it’s a question of knowing what to look for at different stages. Once you’ve done it it will be a doddle next time!
Image © evgenyb - Fotolia.com
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