There’s no escaping all the talk about turkey this time of year. Whether you serve this classic American dish for Thanksgiving or Christmas or both, most of us end up with a turkey in our freezer this time of year. I don’t know why many of us wait until the end of the year to make a turkey. As far as I’m concerned, it’s great anytime – especially in the summer!
Our adventure into roasting a turkey is really less of a recipe and more of a process, or an approach, to preparing the bird. I’ll start from the turkey on the table for Thanksgiving dinner and work back. This is important because if you are someone who likes to “present” the bird at the table – ala Norman Rockwell – with all the “oohs” and “aahhs” from those gathered around, then this is not the preparation method for you. I grew up sitting at the table with mom bringing out a giant platter of carved turkey, in pieces big and small, white and dark, and it got passed around the table as everyone filled their plates with all they wanted.
When it comes to hosting Thanksgiving, I believe in doing as much as you can do ahead of time. Some things you just have to do on the big day. Most of your sides – the mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing (I don’t make stuffing), vegetables, rolls, etc. are all done on Thanksgiving Day. I can’t afford to have a turkey clogging up my most valuable real estate (the inside of the oven) for hours on end. So, I just make the turkey a week or two in advance.
For years I catered our big annual turkey dinner at church. I would have to cook between 12 and 15 turkeys. This simply can’t be done in a day unless you have a six ovens and a staff of ten. We had neither. So, I learned to roast turkeys over the course of a couple of weekends, carve them, and prepare the meat for the freezer. Today, on a much smaller scale, I use the same process at home, and yes, everyone at the table raves about the moist and tender turkey.
1 turkey (size is up to you, but plan for 1.5 pounds for every person you are serving – add a couple more pounds if you want to insure leftovers)
1 cooking bag – this is optional, but recommended. Why? Because the turkey will cook faster, stay moist, and there will be very little clean up. Also, roasting turkey has a way of creating a big mess in your oven, using a bag prevents that situation.
2 medium onions – peeled and quartered
3 stalks of celery – washed and cut into thirds
1 lemon, quartered
Salt, pepper and poultry seasoning
2 – 14 oz. cans low-sodium chicken or turkey broth
Make sure your turkey is completely thawed. The best and safest way to thaw a turkey is to take it from the freezer to the refrigerator and leave it there until it is thawed. For an 18-20 pound bird this is going to take about five days. So, plan in advance. Put frozen turkey on a rimmed baking sheet or large baking dish – this will catch any juices that may come out of the turkey when it thaws (often the plastic wrap around the bird has a hole or tear in it). You don’t want turkey juice all over the inside of your fridge!
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Unwrap the thawed turkey and rinse it in the sink. Be sure to pull out the neck, the bag of giblets, gravy pouch, or anything else they may have tucked inside! Remove bird from sink and pat dry with a paper towel. Season liberally with salt, pepper and poultry seasoning, making sure to put some inside the cavity of the turkey as well as all over the outside of the bird. Put the onions, celery and lemon inside the cavity of the bird – stuff it in there, it should fit!
Prepare your cooking bag. Put three tablespoons of flour inside the bag and give it a good shake so the flour coats the inside of the bag (read the instructions that come with the baking bag). Carefully transfer the turkey to inside the bag. You will get a special closer for the bag, use that to cinch the end of the bag closed. Transfer bagged bird to a roasting pan. Cut six slits that are about one inch long in the top of the bag (again, refer to the instructions that come with the bags, but most brands work in a similar fashion).
If you have a probe-style meat thermometer (see video), stick the probe through one of the slits you cut in the bag and into the thigh of the turkey – be sure that the probe is not hitting a bone. If you don’t have one of these thermometers, you can check the internal temperature of the bird with a regular meat thermometer during the cooking process. You want that thigh to register around 180 degrees, and that will tell you it’s done.
Put the turkey into a 375 degree oven. How long it will take very much depends on the size of your turkey. If you have an 18-20 pound bird, it should cook in three to four hours – let your meat thermometer be your guide as to when to take it out of the oven. When the thigh reaches 180 degrees, remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest. You can cut the bag open CAREFULLY – there will be a lot of very hot steam. You want the turkey to cool to a comfortable carving temperature. This may take 30-45 minutes or so…be patient because the wonderful smell of that turkey is going to drive you crazy!
Carve the turkey as you normally would. I leave the drumsticks intact, but that’s up to you. Transfer all the cut turkey meat into a freezer-proof pan (I use one of those heavy-duty disposable foil pans). Open cans of broth and pour over the turkey meat. Seal pan with two layers of heavy-duty foil and put pan in freezer. Your Thanksgiving turkey is now done!
Two or three days before you want to serve the turkey, remove it from the freezer and transfer pan to the refrigerator to thaw. Put pan in a 300 degree oven for 90-120 minutes and serve it up on a pretty platter!