Turkey

Roasting A Turkey #2


The old fashioned covered roaster method is "current best practice" for "Heritage" turkeys and appropriate for "Free Range" turkeys as well. It also works fine with the standard "Broad Breasted White" (see photo), but today those are almost always done in an open roaster (see our Roasting a Turkey Method #1 page). The covered roaster method is actually easier and quite a bit faster - if you have the right roasting pan.


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General & Historical

The domestic turkey was developed by the Aztecs and their predecessors in Mexico, but the roasting methods we are familiar with were developed in Europe for Peacocks. You will find a lot more fascinating but useless information on our Turkey page.

In recent years a lot of research has been done on how to roast a turkey with the least trouble, with a high probability the meat will be moist and tender, and a low probability the guests will die of bacterial infestation. The method presented on this page is the most traditional but takes full advantage of modern knowledge and practices. It is the most successful way to roast a "Heritage" turkey because those have a rather different texture than the common "broad breasted white". For those see also our page Method #1

Equipment You Will Need:
  • A Granite Ware covered roasting pan. Find these in both traditional hardware and general stores and in gourmet emporiums (with appropriate price differences) or buy on-line. They're made in the USA by Columbian Home Products. Stainless roasters can be used but the black granite ware provides much better heat transfer than shiny stainless.
    • #01509 18" oval for birds less than 14 pounds.
    • #01510 19" oval for birds less than 18 pounds.
  • An oven with good temperature control and sufficient room for the turkey and its roasting pan.
  • IF brining, a pot or bucket of sufficient size to hold the turkey and enough water to submerge it completely (see below) or a water-tight brining bag.
  • Salt, lots of it. IF rubbing the bird, grind the salt to powder in your spice grinder along with the seasonings - it'll be a lot easier to handle that way. IF brining the bird regular salt is fine. Some recipes add sugar and seasonings to the brine (almost as much sugar as salt).
  • If salting or brining, a refrigerator with enough room for the turkey submerged in a brining bag or bucket. If you don't have refrigerator space brining can be done with the brining bucket or bag submerged in a tub of ice water but be careful the water temperature doesn't go above 40°F/4.4°C.
  • Rubber Oven Gloves - these are for turning the turkey over part way through roasting and removing it from the V-rack after roasting. If you don't have them, or are as outraged by the price as I am, get the thickest set of flock or fabric lined rubber dish washing gloves they have at your local market, in size "extra large". These will do fine if you are organized and work quickly. "Turkey lifters" and other gadgets generally don't work well.
  • A meat thermometer with a probe long enough to penetrate to the center of the turkey. One with a long cable that allows you to monitor the bird without opening the oven is great and some are quite affordable. It can be inserted in the phase where the cover is removed.
  • Bamboo skewers.
  • A basting brush (a clean 1 inch wide natural bristle paint brush will do).
  • Butter, and something to melt it in.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

The first challenge is what turkey to buy, then the general plan of action - there's a lot to consider.

  • Roasting Pan - Unlike the open pan method, your bird must fit the covered pan. The first time I tried this method the smallest turkey I could find was 16-1/2 pounds. I had to use a heavy kitchen mallet to shape it to fit the smaller #01509 roasting pan. Tasted great but cosmetically it was less than perfect. The turkey should not press against the sides and you need some space below the lid because the turkey will expand upward. Even with the larger #01510 pan you're limited to about 18 pounds.

  • Weight? Here's a chart of weights by approx roasting time, servings yield, and thaw time if frozen. Caution: The covered roaster method will take much less time than the open roaster times given in the table.
    WeightUnstuffed 325°FStuffed 325°FServingsFridg Thaw
    4 - 8 lbs1-1/4 to 2-3/4 hrs2-3/4 to 3-1/2 hrs3 to 51-1/2 to 2 days
    8 - 12 lbs2-3/4 to 3 hrs3 to 3-1/2 hrs5 to 82 to 3 days
    12 - 14 lbs3 to 3-3/4 hrs3-1/2 to 4 hrs8 to 93 to 3-1/2 days
    14 - 18 lbs3-3/4 to 4-1/4 hrs4 to 4-1/2 hrs9 to 123-1/2 4-1/2 days
    18 - 20 lbs4-1/4 to 4-1/2 hrs4-1/2 to 4-3/4 hrs12 to 134-1/2 to 5 days
    20 - 24 lbs4-1/2 to 5 hrs4-3/4 to 5-3/4 hrs13 to 165 to 6 days
    24 - 30 lbs

    16 to 206 to 7 days

  • Fresh or Frozen? These terms are defined by U.S. Department of Agriculture.
    • "Fresh" turkeys can be cooled to 26°F, well below the freezing point of water so they may have ice inside but the flesh should still be pliable. Rinse the ice out of them and they're ready to start working with. A turkey that has dipped below 26°F must be labeled "previously frozen".
    • "Frozen" turkeys are generally stored below 0°F.
    • Thawing:   FDA insistence that turkeys be thawed in the fridge at 40°F or below (see time chart above) is absolute bunk, even dangerous, and there's no supporting data for it. The bacteriaphobes at the USDA have always approved cold water thawing as safe for commercial preparation. Actual tests showed higher bacteria counts for refrigerator thawing and a high risk of contaminating other food items. If you won't be ready to cook when nearly thawed just slip the critter into the fridge until needed (being careful to avoid contaminating other stuff), but do cook as soon as possible.

      While refrigerator thawing is still the current FDA/USDA recommendation, their instructions for cold water thawing seem similarly unreasonable. "Keep turkey sealed in its bag, make sure the bag has no leaks (put it in another bag if it does), and allow 1/2 hour per pound and change the water every 1/2 hour" (that's 10 hours for a 20 pound turkey). I'm pretty sure unbagged thawing in rapidly changing cold water would be more effective and probably safer - so that's how I do it, and I haven't died yet.

  • Processing & Packaging?.
    • Self Basting: Don't use for this method, see Method #1. Consider other options.
    • All Natural:   Not pumped full of stuff - good for salting or brining.
    • Kosher:   Processed by hand through several tedious steps involving salt and draining. The price will be higher than for regular turkeys. Do not salt or brine.
    • Free Range:   Double the price but tastier but still works well with this open roaster method.
    • Heritage:   These need to be ordered months in advance and the price is definitely in the Yuppie / Gourmet range. You can expect excellent flavor, and the Covered Roaster method is very much the way to do these.
    • Future Turkey:   We hope the move to flavor will result in "Heritage" class birds at "Free Range" prices when volume ramps up - but we aren't anywhere near there yet.

  • Tom or Hen? Some "experts" prefer a tom (male) in the larger sizes since they say some hens tend to have breast meat so thick other parts will be overdone by time the breast is up to temperature. Other "experts" say there's really no difference except size range. In any batch of turkeys the larger will be the toms and the smaller will be hens.

  • Brine or Not? Brining is not traditional with the covered roaster method (see Salt Rub below), but it won't hurt. The point of brining is to assure the meat will be moist and tasty after cooking. Brining soaks some salt into the meat, and salt absorbs water, thus moist flesh. Do not brine "self basting" or kosher turkeys. In the first case, whatever concoction the factory has injected the turkey with is supposed to do the moisturizing job, and with a kosher turkey it's already pretty salty (tasters generally prefer brined over kosher, but if you're keeping kosher, enjoy).

  • Salt Rub? This has an effect similar to brining and works well with the covered roaster method. If you're using the drippings for gravy make sure you wipe the salt rub off thoroughly before roasting, particularly from leg and wing pockets.

  • Stuffing or Dressing? Stuffing the turkey is traditional, but most experts today recommend baking the stuffing in a separate casserole, in which case it is called "dressing". Add some chicken stock to it to replace juices from the bird (see our page Turkey Stuffing & Dressing for complete details and procedures). The reason to do dressing is a shorter roasting time and much better control over doneness of the turkey, thus greater probability the meat will be moist. In most cases little flavor is imparted to the turkey from the dressing so there is little lost there.

    A trick I've used is to just stuff the front cavity so the breast is nicely plumped out and do the rest as dressing. This stuffing is relatively shallow and will easily be up to temperature, and may slow down cooking of the breasts a little giving the thighs a chance to catch up.

  • Make Gravy or Not?   Traditionally, a stock is made from the neck, giblets and other offcut parts. This is mixed with defatted drippings from the pan plus additional stock and thickened into gravy for the meat and potatoes. Some modern menu plans have no need for gravy, so making it isn't always necessary. Gravy adds a serious element of complexity, but can be done successfully, if properly organized and as much as possible done in advance (see our Turkey Gravy) page.

  • Air Dry? It's a gourmet trick to get the crispest possible skin, but it's just a waste of time for a turkey done in a covered roaster.
Procedure

This procedure is for a natural turkey that will be salt rubbed. If you have a kosher turkey, skip the salt rub steps. You can also brine the turkey instead, but need to start a day ahead (see Method #1 for details).

Evening Before
  1. Prepare a broth from the neck, giblets and wing tips. This broth may be used for making gravy, moistening and flavoring dressing, or any other broth use (see "Evening Before" steps on the Turkey Gravy page).
  2. Prepare your salt rub - might as well do it now even though you don't need it until T Day, you'll have plenty to do then. A typical rub might be:
    1/3 c Salt (1/2 cup Kosher salt)
    1/4 c Sugar
    1 T Red Chili, ground (a fairly mild one).
    Grind it in your spice grinder, salt and all, it'll be much easier to handle and will stay on the bird that way.
T Day
  1. Prepare your stuffing / dressing by whatever recipe you chose to use.
  2. Rinse your turkey, drain, pat almost dry with paper towels and rub thoroughly with you salt rub formula.
  3. Set the turkey aside for about 1 hour for the salt cure to soak in, which also allows the turkey to come up to near room temperature.
  4. Prepare your roasting pan, lightly oil the inside bottom.
  5. Preheat the oven to 425°F/220°C.
  6. Brush the salt rub completely from the turkey paying particular attention to pockets under the legs and wings.
  7. IF your turkey did not come with the drumstick ends held by a clip, you can tuck them through a hole cut in the skin under the tail. Failing both, bind the legs together and down to the backbone with heavy string.
  8. With bamboo skewers, pin the wings to the side. Break the skewers off to length.
  9. IF you are stuffing the bird, do so just before it goes into the oven, not earlier. Give the cooking temperature a head start by first heating the stuffing as hot as you can handle it. For complete details see my page Turkey Stuffing & Dressing.
  10. If stuffing the bird, first stuff the front and use a bamboo skewer to fasten the front skin to the back behind the neck. Then stuff the main cavity. Do not pack stuffing too tight as some stuffings expand a bit during roasting.
  11. Set the turkey into the roasting pan.
  12. IF you are making gravy, put a cup each of chopped celery, carrots and onions in the roasting pan around the turkey. No additional water should be needed.
  13. Cover the roasting pan and slide it into the oven and turn the oven down to 325°F.
  14. Roast covered for 2 hours - no longer - then uncover, brush the skin with butter and turn up the oven to 350°F.
  15. Roast until done. It is done when the thermometer shows you are going to meet USDA mandated temperatures (thermometer must not be touching bone). This will be 5°F lower than the USDA recommendations because the inside temperatures will rise about 5°F while the turkey is resting. See Safety Notes below for more on temperature.
    Pull when the thickest part of the thigh reaches 160°F.
    Caution: Check early - total roasting time will be significantly less than the USDA 325°F chart given on our Method #1 page, or any other chart for open roasting. If you want to do neat slicing be careful you roast only until done.
  16. Remove turkey from the roasting pan (rubber gloves) and place it on a platter or baking sheet to catch juices that still come out (add them to the broth).
  17. Cover the turkey lightly with a sheet of aluminum foil and let it rest for at least 1/2 hour (45 minutes wouldn't hurt). This gives the juices time to redistribute and the meat to solidify so it is possible to carve the turkey in an organized manner and without injury. See our page Presenting and Carving a Turkey for detailed instructions.
  18. Finish up the gravy if making it.

Aftermath
  1. Dismantle the turkey for leftovers and refrigerate within 2 hours of taking from the oven.
  2. Store stuffing, gravy and meat separately. The USDA says to use gravy in less than two days, meat and stuffing within 3 days, but most people consider this rather paranoid. I aim to use up the meat in less than a week. You can extend the storage life of the stuffing and gravy by bringing them up to a simmer.
  3. After cutting off all the meat, break up the carcass and put it in a stock pot with any bones and other turkey debris. Add any leftover broth you haven't used for gravy. Put in enough cold water to cover and simmer for a few hours for turkey broth. Strain, remove the fat (gravy separator again), let the sediment settle, pour liquid off sediment, Freeze or pack in sterile jar (see instructions at the bottom of our page Presenting and Carving a Turkey.
Stuffing & Dressing

"Dressing" is the same as "stuffing", but baked in a casserole rather than stuffed into the turkey. This gives better control of the turkey (you need only meet 2 USDA temperature points, not three) and a shorter roasting time. Complete details and procedures will be found on our page Turkey Stuffing & Dressing.

Gravy

Traditionally, the neck, giblets and pan drippings are used to make gravy to go along with the meat and potatoes. Gravy adds major complexity but can be managed if well planed and done as much as possible in advance. Complete instructions will be found on our page Turkey Gravy.

Safety Tips

During life the turkey has natural processes for keeping bacteria under control, but the moment it is killed those processes stop and bacteria immediately start dismantling it. Some of these bacteria are harmful to humans and some of them can survive rather adverse conditions, so care is in order to protect your health and the health of your guests.

A turkey is so large that temperatures changes take a long time, so it presents an unusually high risk of contamination. Consequently exceptional care in handling is indicated.

  • Do not refrigerate a turkey after stuffing, cook immediately. Preferably stuff with very hot stuffing and get it into the oven at once.
  • Observe cooking temperatures given above and take them seriously. Harmful bacteria multiply very rapidly at temperatures between 40°F/4.5 °C and 140°F/60°C, a range your turkey will be in for most of the cooking time.
    Note:   Thermometers and many cookbooks say poultry must go to 180°F/82°C to be safe. The FDA backed off from this bunk in 2006 and came in line with the USDA's 165°F/74°C. The FDA failed to find any evidence, even scribbled notes, to justify that ruinous high temperature (perhaps they were paid off by the beef board to assure turkeys were always dried out and flavorless).
  • When handling an uncooked turkey, do not handle any other food until you have cleaned up with soap and water.
  • Do not let an uncooked turkey come in contact with any other food.
  • Immediately upon moving an uncooked turkey, scrub the cutting board or surfaces it was touching with soap and water and preferably a little bleach. I generally scrub everything with an "institutional strength" disinfecting cleanser which releases bleach in the process.
  • Observe that leftovers should be in the refrigerator within 2 hours of coming out of the oven. If there are large amounts store in multiple smaller containers so the temperature will drop quickly.
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