It’s a safe bet that every cook will be called upon to roast a turkey at some point in his or her life. Since it’s usually a once-a-year endeavor, there’s not much room for practice.
Rely instead on proven methods and careful planning.–Martha Stewart with Sarah Carey
LC She's Not Kidding Around Note
Martha’s not kidding around when she mentions planning ahead. Here, in her words, is what she means by “careful planning.”
Brining the meat ensures that the turkey will be tender and juicy. The brining solution contains aromatics for more flavor, but you could forgo those and simply sea mixture of salt, sugar, and water.
This is also an instance where it’s crucial to make sure you have the right equipment (a pot large enough to hold the brining turkey, plus a spot in the refrigerator to place it; a heavy lasting pan; cheesecloth for “basting” the bird as it cooks; and an instant-read thermometer) and sufficient time (a day for brining and then at least 5 hours for bringing the bird to room temperature and roasting it).
Also, take care of as much as possible in advance, such as preparing the stuffing the day before and refrigerating it overnight while the turkey is brining. You will also need to dry the bread for the stuffing overnight earlier in the week, then transfer it to a resealable plastic bag until it’s needed. This means it will be much easier when the time comes to focus on the task at hand: roasting the perfect turkey.
One more safety note: Never stuff a turkey ahead of time. Warm stuffing should not be put into a turkey until just before roasting, and then get the bird and into the oven as soon as possible. Chilling warm stuffing before cooking it in a turkey is not safe because the stuffing will, through cooling and heating, spend too much time at temperatures at which bacteria thrive (between 40°F and 140°F [5°C and 60°C ).
A fresh turkey is preferable to a frozen one, but if you have to resort to frozen, here’s how to defrost it properly: Leave it in its original wrapper, and place it breast side up on a rimmed baking sheet (to catch any juices) in the refrigerator. Be sure to plan ahead. Allow 1 day of thawing per 4 pounds of turkey.
A delicious gravy begins with flavorful stock. You can do this while the turkey is roasting. Also, reserve 3 tablespoons of the pan drippings from the turkey roasting pan (after the turkey has been removed to a platter), as well as the pan itself. Pour remaining drippings into a gravy separator and let stand until fat has risen to the top, about 10 minutes, or pour into a glass measuring cup and discard the fat that rises to the top.
Combine 2 quarts of the water with remaining brine ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until the salt and sugar have dissolved completely. Transfer the mixture to a large pot (at least 5-gallon capacity) and add the remaining 4 quarts of water. Let cool completely. It’s essential that you let the brine cool completely before adding the turkey for food safety reasons.
Lower the turkey, breast first, into the brine. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Remove the bird from the brine and pat it dry with paper towels. Let it stand at room temperature for 2 hours. Meanwhile, discard the brine.
Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C) with the rack in the lowest position. Prepare the cheesecloth by stirring together the melted butter and wine in a medium bowl. Fold a very large piece of cheesecloth into quarters so that it’s large enough to cover breast and halfway down sides of turkey. Immerse the cloth in butter mixture and let it soak.
Make the chestnut stuffing
Spread the bread cubes in a single layer on several baking sheets. Let the cubes dry uncovered overnight at room temperature. (You could also dry them in a 300° [150°C] oven for 20 to 30 minutes, if necessary.)
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Score the chestnuts on the bottom with an “X”, then boil them until soft, about 20 minutes. Drain and let cool slightly, then peel and quarter them.
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and celery and cook, stirring frequently, until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the sage and cook for 3 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup of the stock and cook until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Transfer the onion mixture to a large bowl. Add the remaining 4 1/2 cups of stock, the reserved chestnuts and bread cubes, and the parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste and toss to combine.
Stuff and roast the turkey
Place the turkey, breast side up, on a rack set in a large roasting pan. Fold the wing tips underneath the body, as if the turkey was placing its arms behind its head, and season the cavity with 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. If you’re stuffing the turkey, loosely fill the cavity with the stuffing. Tie the legs together with kitchen twine. Fill the neck cavity loosely with stuffing, and fold the neck flap under, securing it with toothpicks. If you’re not stuffing the turkey, transfer the stuffing, or rather, dressing, to a buttered 17-by-12-inch baking dish. Cover it with parchment-lined foil and bake at 350°F (175°C) for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and continue baking until heated through and the top is golden brown, 30 minutes more.
Pat the turkey dry and rub it all over with softened butter and generously season it with salt and pepper. Remove the cheesecloth from the butter mixture, squeezing it gently over the bowl to remove any excess. Reserve the butter mixture for brushing and place the cheesecloth over the turkey breast. (The legs may be exposed; this is okay.) Place the turkey, legs first, in the oven and roast for 30 minutes, then brush the cheesecloth and exposed turkey parts with the butter mixture and reduce the temperature to 350°F (175°C). Continue roasting, brushing every 30 minutes, for 1 1/2 hours more. If the bird appears to be browning too quickly, you may need to tent it with foil. Discard the cheesecloth and rotate the pan. Baste the turkey with the pan juices and continue to roast, rotating the pan halfway through, until the skin is golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh (avoiding bone) registers 165°F (74°C). This will take 1 to 2 hours more, depending on the size and temperature of your bird. It’s best to start taking the turkey’s temperature after 2 1/2 hours total cooking time.
To serve, transfer the turkey to a platter and garnish it with the apples, sage, and chestnuts, if desired. Let the turkey stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before carving. Set the pan with the drippings aside for making gravy, if desired.
Make the gravy
Trim the fat and membranes from the giblets. Rinse the giblets and pat them dry.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook the celery, carrot, leek, and onion, stirring fairly often, until the vegetables begin to brown, 7 to 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the giblets, neck, herbs, peppercorns, and the water. Cover and bring to boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, uncovered, until reduced to about 3 cups, 50 to 60 minutes. Pour the mixture through a fine sieve into a clean medium saucepan and keep it warm over medium-low heat. Roughly chop the giblets and shred the meat from the neck with a fork. Discard any other solids.
To deglaze the roasting pan, place the reserved roasting pan over two burners. Add the wine and bring it to a boil, stirring with a wooden spoon to loosen any browned bits on bottom of pan. Remove from the heat.
Heat the reserved 3 tablespoons of pan drippings in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour, whisking briskly but constantly to combine, then continue to cook, still whisking constantly, until the mixture is fragrant and a deep golden brown, about 9 minutes. Whisking vigorously, slowly add the hot stock to the roux and bring to a boil. Still whisking, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Stir in the reserved deglazing liquid in the roasting pan, the defatted pan drippings, and the giblets and neck meat. Season with salt to taste. Don’t forget to say grace.
I used a 12-pound bird and stuffed it with my own bread stuffing. I followed the directions for using the cheesecloth and it produced a very moist and tender turkey. The skin was a beautiful, crisp golden brown. This is a foolproof recipe for a beginner or an experienced cook alike.