In the on-going debate of what's a better turkey for Thanksgiving: brined or roasted?, I decidedly fall on the roasted side. Admittedly I've never brined a turkey before. But that in and of itself says something -- I've never had to. Because I've always successfully roasted a turkey to a moist perfection.
Roasting anything comes down to technique. It's one of those opportunities in cooking where it really depends on your abilities rather than quality of ingredients. Don't get me wrong...you need good quality stuff to work with, and that can only maximize your success. But often a roasting technique (like grilling) can separate the men from the boys, or the savvy from the inane as it were. My mother for example has simply obliterated perfectly wonderful turkeys with her improper roasting technique. So if you can get that part right, you're more than halway there.
Roasting is not braising. Braising is easy -- you put all your ingredients in a big pot, add some liquid, cover with lid, and cook in oven for a few hours until everything is super tender. Roasting on the other hand, involves some attention and moving around. You need to adjust temperatures to lock in juices, add some aliminum foil here or there to help the thicker parts cook while not burning the thinner parts, and even manually moving whatever your roasting around so all the sides can get done. Techniques like basting -- the process of taking up liquid and distributing on the meat -- helps get every inch browned up nicely without having to manually rotate the thing constantly. But overall, you do need to be an active participant in the roasting process.
That said, roasting properly sounds a lot more duanting than it really is. All you need to do is abide by a few rules and pay attention.
Here we go...
Rule #1: Use a room temperature turkey!
I can't state this enough either. Your turkey must be at room temperature for maximum roasting success. A turkey is a thick piece of meat -- the outside is going to get warmer faster than the inside. When you're roasting the same thing happens. If you're turkey is cold straight out of the fridge, you run the risk of undercooking the inside and overcooking the outside. What will happen is the top layers will get done and look golden and beautiful, you'll insert your meat thermometer and find the inside is still quite underdone, so you have to keep cooking it, and then when the inside is done the outside is nice and dry.
To avoid this, your entire turkey needs to be the same temperature. By using a room temperature turkey, the deeper inside is the same temperature as the top, so now you have maximum control and can cook the entire turkey evenly. This simple but crucial step will guarantee a moist turkey. You may say "well why not just use a cold turkey straight from the fridge -- the whole thing is cold!" Yes, but again the outside will cook faster than the inside. And the colder the inside is the longer it's going to take to cook through.
Seasonings are stick easier to a room temperature turkey as well.
Rule #2: Season with salt, pepper, and dried herbs and spices only!
When roasting, you're going to expose the meat to some high intense heat, both directly and indirectly. Fresh herbs have water in them, and water when exposed to high heat will evaporate quickly. This ends up burning whatever holds the water. So to put it simply: if you use fresh thyme on top of your turkey, it will burn in a half an hour. Black. Finished. But dried herbs have had that moisture already taken out. So they are much friendlier to the roasting process.
Fresh herbs are fabulous and preferred to season inside the turkey. Fresh herbs have more concentrated flavor, so they are great to use. When you place them inside the cavity of the turkey, they're protected by the turkey, so they won't burn. So keep to this simple rule: fresh herbs in, dried herbs out.
Rule #3: Lubrication is the key to success and flavor!
Turkey has some fat to it. The entire skin of the turkey is fat, and will yield golden delicious yumminess to your gravy later. But he still needs a little help to keep moist for such a long time in the oven.
Two traditional and preferred methods are used for lubricating the turkey (or chicken): oil and butter. Oil is nice because it has a higher smoking point, meaning it can handle higher temperatures and for longer periods of time before it burns. Butter conversely contains milk solids in it, and when exposed to high temperatures for too long, will burn and turn black and taste nasty. However, butter has considerable more flavor than oil, so it's preferred for its taste. And butter generally gives you the best perfect golden color you're looking for when roasting a turkey or chicken in particular.
You can use either for turkey. Just remember if you use butter then you'll probably have to loosely cover the turkey at one point with foil so it doesn't burn. And using room temperature butter is best so it can spread easily and evenly on the turkey!
Rule #4: Add some liquids!
Turkey is bigger than chicken. Duh. It therefore needs a longer time to cook in the oven. They way you can help a turkey get browned and keep its moisture is by adding moisture. This is done vis-a-vis basting. You can use any liquid you like: fruit juices, broth, wine or beer even, or combinations of those. Water is technically fine too but why use it? It has no flavor and will dillute your roast. Chicken broth works best for roasting chicken or turkey, and I've successfully used apple, orange, and pineapple juice as well. You don't need much -- only a cup or two that you pour into the bottom of your roasting pan. And another upshot is the liquid helps keep the golden drippings from the turkey from burning, and thus gives you the base of an excellent gravy to follow.
Rule #5: Lock in those juices!
Probably Misake #1 people make when roasting their turkey is they put it in at a 350 degree oven for a couple of hours. Misake. Unless you've brined that turkey first and already infused that moisture and seasoning into that turkey, this is the best way to assure a dry turkey. The most important part of roasting is manipulating that temperature so you can lock in the juices.
To do this, you need to start the turkey at a high temperature -- 400 degrees -- before you finish cooking it at 350. What this does is blister the outside of the turkey. You're basically searing the outside of the turkey, creating a crust. This crust then is going to lock in the moisture inside of the meat, preventing it from drying out as you continue to cook your meat through. This is the most important step in roasting anything, especially poultry. Then you reduce your temperature to 350 to continue cooking the inside, and you use the basting technique to help the entire turkey get evenly browned.
Rule #6: Use a thermometer so you don't have to guess!
Turkey is poultry and needs to be full cooked through. Undercooking turkey can make you very sick (hello food poisoning!) so it's imperative you know when your bird is done. Turkey because it's bigger can be a little funky though, and appear done on the outside but not quite done on the inside. Best bet is to use a meat thermometer. This way there is zero guessing and you know exactly when your turkey is perfectly cooked. Using a thermometer helps you to not overcook your turkey as well. So invest in one if you don't have one already. You don't need anything battery-operated and super fancy; just one that you can stick into a meat and the gage is easy to read. I like using the ones that can stay in the oven, so you're not constantly poking the meat -- you just insert the thermometer, roast, and watch the temperature go up.
Rule #7: Let that turkey rest before cutting!
Another big mistake people make with any meat they grill or roast is they cut it too soon. You need to let your meat "rest" for a few minutes before cutting so the juices can redistribute and settle down. When you're cooking, the heat activates the juices and they move -- they're literally moving all throughout the meat -- so if you cut too soon then the juices will run right out an onto your carving board or platter. That juice, that moisture, is what makes meat taste tender. So if you lose it on your carving board, you're left with a dried meat. By letting the meat rest there on the platter, the juices move back and settle into the meat. So when you cut, the moisture is still in the meat rather than on your counter top.
Here's some basic roasting techniques from A to Z for your turkey. Do whatever flavor combination you like, stuff it with whatever; this roasting technique won't change.
1. Position the rack in the lowest third of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees F.
2. Taking a room temperature turkey, season it as you wish. Rub butter on the outside first, concentrating more on the breast. Season liberally with salt and pepper and other spices, or use your prepared spice rub. Season the cavity of the turkey with salt and pepper and stuff it with whatever you are using. Place turkey on roasting rack in roasting pan. You are now ready to roast.
3. Loosely cover the turkey breast with aluminum foil and roast for 20 minutes at 400 degrees.
4. After the first 20 minutes, the turkey will start to render some of its natural juices. This is Liquid Gold and must be preserved for gravy flavorings. It cannot be allowed to burn. To preserve this, simply add your liquid directly to the bottom of the roasting pan now and use a whisk or wooden spoon to gently melt the pan drippings into the liquid.
5. After adding the liquid, continue cooking the turkey at 400 degrees for 40 minutes.
6. Reduce the temperature down to 350 degrees, remove the foil from the turkey breast, insert your oven-proof meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, and check on the liquid. Add some more (another 1/2 cup to 1 cup) as needed. You don't want the liquid to completely evaporate in there, but also not to create a soup either. You want to have about 1-2 cups worth of liquid in that pan at this point so you have something to baste with. If you're thermometer is not oven proof, then don't worry about the temperature yet.
7. Continue roastint the turkey at 350 degrees for another hour and half or until the thermometer reaches a temperature of 165-175 degrees. If you're using a meat thermometer that is not oven-safe, then insert the thermometer always in the thickest part of the thigh to check the temperature.
8. Once temperature is reached, remove turkey from oven. Transfer turkey to a platter and cover with aluminum foil. This is called "tenting." You're allowing the turkey to "rest" so juices can redistribute. Let turkey rest at least 20 minutes before carving. Take advantage and make the gravy while the turkey rests.
You are now ready to serve, carve, and eat your perfectly roasted turkey. Enjoy it!
And to make that Gorgeous Gravy...
Strain out the turkey pan juices from the roasting pan. Place in a small saucepan and heat on stove. Skim off fat if you like using a spoon. Add 1-2 cups of chicken broth to the solids. Add a mixture of 1 Tbsp cornstarch dissolved in 1Tbsp cold water to the gravy and whisk to combine. The gravy will thicken instantly. Remove from heat and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Place in gravy service bowl and serve immediately.