Are you cooking the Thanksgiving turkey this year? Even for those of us with decent culinary chops, the pressure to perfect the linchpin dish of a meal that your friends and family have been waiting 364 days to devour is high. You’ve got the bird—and it’s big—and one shot to get it right.
But don’t stress. Take a deep breath and remember that cooking a Thanksgiving turkey requires a few basic steps. You need a turkey, some seasoning, a roasting pan fitted with a rack, and a thermometer and a working oven. Let’s break the process down.
First, the ingredients
- 1 turkey, about 1 lb-1½ lb per guest (depending on the various appetites of your family members)
- 4 c chopped carrots
- 4 c chopped onion
- 1 handful of parsley
- 1 handful of celery tops
- 1 stick of butter, or however much you need to coat your turkey
- Cooking oil to baste
- 1 c dry white wine
- 2¼ c chicken broth
- 3 tbsp cornstarch
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ tsp sage
- Salt and pepper to taste
Steps 1 to 14: Roasting the Turkey
Step 1. Set your alarm on Thanksgiving Eve. Work backward from desired dinnertime and figure the bird takes about 15 minutes per pound to roast unstuffed at 325°F. If you are roasting a 20 lb unstuffed, thawed but moderately chilled turkey, it should take between 5-5½ hours. If you like your bird stuffed, plan for an additional half hour of cooking time. The USDA has a very convenient chart of cooking times here. Don’t forget to set the timer on your coffee maker the night before to awake to the smell of a fresh brew.Pour yourself a cup of ambition as soon as you roll out of bed!
Step 2. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Step 3. Lightly cook 1 cup each chopped carrots and onions for 5-8 minutes.
Step 4. Wash, then dry the turkey inside and out with paper towels.
Step 5. Sprinkle the cavity with 2 tsp of salt and add cooked vegetables, along with a handful each of parsley and celery tops. If you are stuffing the bird, now is the time for that as well.
Step 6. Time to get crafty. With a large sewing needle and durable string, sew down the neck and cent flaps, and truss the legs and wings. If sewing isn’t your bag, employ some of the knots you learned in Boy Scouts. Nothing looks so indecent as a turkey with legs akimbo and cavity gapping; it deserves a more dignified fate.
Step 7. Rub the turkey all over with soft butter—as much as you need to cover the entire bird. The butter is key to crisping the skin. Place it breast up on a rack in a roasting pan.
Step 8. Insert a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh, but not against the bone.
Step 9. Dip a double thickness of cheesecloth (enough to cover the turkey’s breast) in cooking oil and drape it over the turkey.
Step 10. Put the turkey in the oven.
Step 11. Rinse out your coffee mug and make yourself a hot toddy.
Step 12. Baste every 30 minutes, at first with cooking oil, then with pan drippings.
Step 13. About 1½ hours before the end of the estimated cooking time, add 2 c each of raw carrots and onions to the pan.
Step 14. The turkey is done when the meat thermometer reads 165°F at minimum. Some signs that it’s getting there include: Juices run from turkey into pan; drumstick moves fairly easily in socket; lower part of thigh exudes clear yellow juice when penetrated deeply with a fork; people crowd around the oven saying, “I think it’s done” and “Looks right to me.” Remember: The turkey should rest, partially covered by foil, for about 45 minutes after it comes out of the oven before you start carving it.
Steps 15 to 26: Making the Gravy
Store bought turkeys come with a bag of gizzards, livers and hearts for a reason. They should be used to make the gravy. While it is certainly possible to make a roux from the turkey drippings alone, frying up guts and gizzards will take your gravy to the next level. To make gravy worth licking your chops, follow these basic instructions.
Step 15. Time to put what you learned from years of watching Dexter to good use. Chop the neck into 2-inch pieces, quarter the gizzard and halve the heart.
Step 16. Brown the giblets in 4 tbsp of cooking oil, drain and remove from the pan.
Step 17. Cook 1 c each chopped carrots and onions in same oil for 5-8 minutes until tender.
Step 18. Return the giblets to the pan, add 1 c dry white wine, 2 c chicken broth and enough water to cover by an inch or so.
Step 19. Add 1 tsp salt, 1 bay leaf and a ½ tsp sage.
Step 20. Simmer the gravy partially covered for 2½-3 minutes.
Step 21. Stain the mixture, degrease the pan and return the stock into it.
Step 22. Blend 3 tbsp cornstarch with ¼ c chicken broth, beat the mixture into the stock and simmer 3-5 minutes.
Step 23. Remove from the heat but keep warm on the back of the stove until the turkey is done.
Step 24. When you move the turkey to the platter, spoon fat out of the roasting pan, add the turkey stock and stir over moderately high heat for 5 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.
Step 25. Strain into a saucepan, degrease, adjust the seasoning, reheat and pour into a gravy boat.
Step 26. Prepare for a standing ovation.