First, let me say that I have bought a turkey, plopped it into the oven to roast, ignored it entirely until it was done -- and it turned out great. I don't know if that was a fluke or not. These days, I put more effort into roasting the turkey, but there are a few popular steps that I skip.
The procedure and times below are for a turkey that is not stuffed. The official stance on stuffing birds is that the stuffing should be cooked separately. I find it easier to do it separately, because I can make the stuffing (officially called dressing if not inside the turkey, I suppose) the day before. One less thing to worry about. I pop it into the oven to bake an hour before we eat and it's always great.
For years and years I basted turkeys and chickens. Last year, I think it was Martha whom I watched insert butter under the skin of the bird, which I thought clever. My mother is a big believer in basting and we've spent many Thanksgivings treacherously tilting the pan to suck up the juices with the baster and squirt them on the bird. Not anymore. I side entirely with Alton Brown who experimented on one of his shows and declared basting unnecessary. In fact, he suggested that basting simply lowers the temperature of the oven because one opens it continually.
I know what you're thinking -- but the crispy skin is the best part! Quite by accident (and laziness) I discovered that leaving a duck uncovered in the refrigerator for 24 hours before roasting yields a fabulous skin. That's what Chinese restaurants do. They hang ducks to dry before transforming them into crispy-skinned Peking Duck. Turns out the same thing works great for turkey. It goes against our grain to leave the foil or plastic wrap off something in the refrigerator, but that's exactly what I do. The day before you plan to roast the turkey, set it on a rack in the roasting pan and slide the whole thing, uncovered, into the refrigerator until it's time to cook.
The other step that I love to skip is trussing the turkey. In The Diva Runs out of Thyme, Sophie trusses the killer, but I think tying the turkey is over-rated. On most turkeys, there is a flap of skin that crosses the bottom end. I do try to wedge the ends of the legs under that flap. It holds them tight and saves me from wrestling with the bird to tie it.
So, here are the basics that I'll be following:
1. SUNDAY Move the turkey from the freezer to the refrigerator. Most guides suggest giving a frozen turkey three to five days to thaw in the refrigerator. If you've ever tried to yank the giblets or neck out of a partially frozen turkey, you understand the need for plenty of thawing time.
2. TUESDAY NIGHT Brine the turkey. As discussed last week, if you bought an enhanced turkey (with a solution injected) or a Kosher turkey, you should not brine it. So what's the fuss about brining? At its most basic, the salt molecules penetrate the turkey meat and work magic on the turkey meat molecules, leaving the meat softer and moister. It also leaves some saltiness in the meat, so use a light hand if you salt the skin of a brined turkey.
Brine the turkey in any food-safe container (like a five gallon bucket) large enough to hold the entire turkey. It must remain refrigerated during the brining. I usually remove a shelf from my refrigerator to accommodate it. I've read that some people brine their turkeys in large coolers, but I've never tried that.
Remove the giblets and neck, if possible.
Dissolve 3/4 cup Kosher salt in a gallon of water and pour over the bird. Repeat until the bird is covered. Add 1/4 cup sugar to the brine. Refrigerate 6-8 hours.
3. WEDNESDAY MORNING Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse inside and out with water. Place the turkey on a roasting rack, breast side up, and store UNCOVERED in the refrigerator until ready to roast, preferably 24 hours.
4. THURSDAY Dice carrots, onions, and celery and spread in the bottom of the roaster. Don't forget to add a cup of water so they'll cook instead of burning. They taste delicious plain, but I like to puree them and add them to the gravy -- yum!
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Tuck the ends of the legs under the flap of skin as described above. Rub the skin of the turkey with salt (very little or none if brined) or your favorite herbs (optional). Turn the turkey breast down on the roasting rack and roast for 45 minutes.
After 45 minutes, turn the bird breast side up. SKIP THE BIG DANGEROUS TURKEY FORKS. People keep giving them to me as gifts for some reason. While they look like terrific weapons for use in a mystery, I find them extremely cumbersome. I get a much better grip on the turkey if I grab it with a clean kitchen towel on each end. But watch out! There may be HOT turkey juices inside the cavity of the bird. Be sure you don't tilt it so that the juices penetrate the towel.
5. WHEN IS IT DONE? Brined meat cooks faster, so take that into consideration if you brine your turkey. Last year I made a note that my 13 pound turkey was done in 1 hour and 45 minutes. A larger turkey might take a little longer. Do NOT rely on those little pop-up timers! I've had many of them get stuck -- they wouldn't have popped up if the turkey charred.
The best method of checking for doneness is a thermometer. I'm partial to my Thermapen, but there are less expensive thermometers that work well, too -- never mind how many of them I've killed . . .
But how done is done?
The USDA says a turkey is done at 165 degrees.
Serious Eats -- The Food Lab says your turkey is overdone if it exceeds 150 degrees.
Most of the websites I checked go with the USDA recommendation of 165, but I wouldn't let it cook any longer than that!
(Note: I tried cooking a turkey breast to 150. Definitely undercooked! Shoot for 165!)
If you're only roasting a turkey breast, you might want to read my old blog post where I side with Rachel Ray about the temperature of the oven for roasting a breast. It goes against most of the turkey breast recipes I found on the net.