James Beard Award-winning author Michael Ruhlman shares his recipe for Thanksgiving Turkey, from his newest book, Ruhlman's How to Roast (Little, Brown), the first in a line of technique-based cookbooks.
This may be the one dish that more Americans unite in cooking than any other, and every November seems to arrive with a collective panic about roasting the turkey successfully. The newspaper food sections and cooking blogs bombard us with different takes on cooking the turkey—roasting, deep-frying, grilling, steaming—and the battle over whether to stuff the turkey is waged yet again.
Here, I am going to stick with the traditional roasting method—the cavity filled with aromatic herbs, vegetables, and lemon; the bird trussed and salted—and we’ll follow the same basic rules for roasted chicken.
The size of the bird is important. The larger it is, the harder it is to cook properly. That’s what makes the turkey challenging, the fear that the breast will dry out before the legs are cooked through and tender. A 20-pound/9-kilogram bird is really too big to get just right, so if you must cook a bird this big it’s best to use a combination method of roasting and braising. I’m restricting the size to 10 to 12 pounds/4.5 to 5.5 kilograms, enough to feed 8 to 10 people.
I grew up in the stuffed-bird tradition and subsequently ate overcooked breast moistened by Grandma Spamer’s gravy. (Her stuffing was worth any number of slices of dry breast.) I prefer not to stuff the bird when I prepare it myself; a stuffed bird takes considerably longer to roast, as there’s no hot air cooking the bird from within but rather a solid mass of starch. Furthermore, that stuffing will end up having spent much time at warm, bacteria-loving temperatures with egg and poultry juices in it and so needs to be made hot before serving.
The same rules apply to a big turkey as to a smaller chicken: You want to prevent too much air from circulating inside the bird. Stuffing it with celery, onion, lemon, and herbs not only accomplishes this, but these ingredients also help perfume the roasted bird and fill the kitchen with delicious aromas.
I truss the bird for appearance and to further protect the interior.
The most important step in the roasting method I recommend is removing the legs and returning them to the hot oven while the big, fat breast rests. The legs really do benefit from extended cooking, and they’re difficult to overcook. Removing the legs and cooking them separately will, of course, ruin your opportunity for a carving-the-bird-at-the-table presentation a la Norman Rockwell. I don’t like that method of serving anyhow, because the meat gets cold before half the table is served. But presentation is important, so I recommend roasting the whole bird until the breast is done, presenting it to your guests for their appreciation, and then returning to the kitchen, removing the legs, and putting them back in the oven to finish.
In terms of serving the turkey, you want to make sure it’s hot. Hot is key.
Moist is also key. Therefore, I serve it in hot moisture. Indeed, I slightly undercook the breast so that it finishes cooking in hot stock. It’s a foolproof way to ensure that you are relaxed and composed, and your family and friends can all dig in to hot, juicy turkey. This preparation can even be done up to 4 hours before you want to serve it (keep the legs and thighs in the oven at 200˚F/95˚C), as everything can be reheated in the hot stock at the end.
1 (10- to 12-pound/4.5- to 5.5-kilogram) turkey
2 celery ribs, cut into large chunks
½ Spanish onion, quartered
½ lemon, halved again
1 bunch thyme (optional)
1 bunch sage (optional)
½ cup/110 grams butter, melted
1 cup/240 milliliters dry white wine
2 cups/480 milliliters turkey or chicken stock, preferably homemade
About 4 hours before you plan to start roasting, remove the turkey from
the refrigerator, rinse it, pat it dry, and let it sit at room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 425˚F/220˚C (or 400˚F/200˚C if you have convection).
Liberally salt the interior and jam the celery, onion, lemon, and herbs (if using) into the cavity of the bird. Truss the bird as you would a chicken (see page 16). Rain salt evenly all over the bird. Put the bird in a low-sided pan (or elevated on a rack in a roasting pan; you want plenty of circulation around the bird) and put it in the oven.
Roast at that high temperature for 20 minutes. Pour the melted butter evenly over the bird and lower the oven temperature to 375˚F/190˚C (350˚F/180˚C convection). Continue to roast until the breast reaches 155˚F/ 68˚C, 60 to 90 minutes, depending on your oven and the size of the bird, basting as you wish.
Remove the pan from the oven. Show off the bird to your guests.
Bring it back to the kitchen. Slice through the skin between the legs and breast. The breast should still be pink, but if it looks cold and raw you can return the entire bird to the oven for 10 more minutes. Put the bird on a large cutting board (preferably with a channel or a depression to hold the bird). Remove each leg at the joint connecting it to the carcass. I reserve the wings for stock the following day rather than serving them, as they’re tough and not terribly meaty.
Pour off the fat and juices from the roasting pan (I reserve the fat to make a roux to thicken stock for gravy, and I add the juice to gravy or stock). Return the legs to the pan and return them to the oven.
Roast the legs for at least an additional 45 to 60 minutes; if you intend to leave the legs for longer than an hour, turn the oven down to 200˚F/95˚C (without convection). The legs will only get better with time and can be left in the oven for up to 4 additional hours; don’t worry about the breast, as it will reheat in the stock at the end.
Remove the legs from the roasting pan. Put the pan over high heat on the stovetop. Add the wine and bring it to a simmer, scraping up the stuck-on skin and browned juices. Add the broth and bring to a simmer, then turn the heat to low.
Carve the dark meat from the drumsticks and thighs and put it in the hot stock in the roasting pan. Remove each breast half from the turkey (be careful not to tear the skin). Don’t worry if the breast is a little pink; this means it will be juicy as it finishes cooking in the hot stock. Cut the breast crosswise into ¼- to ½-inch/6- to 12-millimeter slices. Transfer the pieces to the roasting pan with the stock. Turn the burner to high and bring the stock to a simmer. Simmer for a minute or two to ensure that everything is hot, and then serve.
Recipe reprinted from Ruhlman's How to Roast Copyright 2014 by Michael Ruhlman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. Reprinted by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company