How to Roast a Perfect Bird

by Amy Scheuerman

Over the years I have cooked a lot of birds. There is something wonderfully and simply satisfying about a well roasted chicken or turkey. And although Thanksgiving has come and gone there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy a roast bird with another holiday meal, or, for that matter, any old time you feel like it during the chilly winter months. Here are some tips for creating the perfect roast turkey, chicken, goose, or duck:

Pick a turkey. If you already found a heritage breed from a small farm, good for you. I personally prefer Bourbon Reds. They have a wonderful, ever so slightly gamy flavor, tender flesh, and a thin layer of fat that helps you get effortlessly crisp, dark brown skin. Unfortunately, (or fortunately if you want to look at it that way) with local food movements becoming so strong, you need to reserve one of those bad boys at least three months in advance of the major winter holidays. However, even if you haven’t gotten a heritage turkey it’s very likely that you can find an organically raised Broad Breasted White, which is the turkey that America is most familiar with. Broad Breasted Whites have been bred for speedy growth so that they can go from egg to table in as little as 14 weeks as well as (I bet you could guess from the name) an abundance of breast meat. The biggest problem I have with these grocery store turkeys is that they are less fatty than heritage breeds. Don’t worry though, there are plenty of things you can do to make sure your turkey comes out juicy and tender.

Choose the right size. I personally only choose to roast a whole turkey on occasions when I’ll be serving at least six people. It’s hard to find a turkey that is less than 10 pounds and serving a 10 pound turkey to any fewer than six people makes way too many leftovers for me and my fridge to deal with. If you have less than six people I’d suggest roasting a chicken or a goose instead of a turkey; I’ve written tips for cooking them below. As for picking the right size turkey I suggest the following rule of thumb: pick a bird that weighs two pounds more than the number of people you are feeding. For example, a 10 pound turkey would feed eight people while a 15 pound turkey would feed thirteen. And by feed I mean amply feed and then provide enough leftovers for turkey salad and soup.

Defrost your bird. Defrost your turkey in the refrigerator 24 hours for every 4 pounds of meat. This means 3 days in the fridge for a 12 pound bird, 4 days for a 16-pound bird, and so on. Plan ahead! You can defrost a chicken in cold water on the day of or the day before you cook it (30 minutes for every 2 pounds of bird is what I seem to remember), but in order to avoid bacterial growth it’s recommended that you change the water every 30 minutes. It’s a huge pain taking a giant bird in and out of a big plastic bucket and hauling around gallons of water over and over again. I definitely recommend defrosting the bird in the fridge ahead of time.

Let’s talk brining. There’s a way to make a grocery store turkey just as tender as a heritage turkey without compromising the same crisp, dark skin. Brining, sometimes called koshering, is a great way to make meat tender. Depending on how long you intend to leave your bird in the brining solution you will need a different ratio of salt to water. The reason for this has to do with osmosis and the speed with which the sodium ions cross over the cell membranes. Even if I did understand all the science behind brining well enough to explain it I don’t think I’d want to bore you with it here. In any case, my favorite brine is a 12 hour version: 1/2 cup salt to every gallon of water. If you have a big bucket then it should take about 2 gallons of salted water to completely submerge your turkey. Just don’t do the stupid thing that I did last year and add the turkey after you add the water. It may seem obvious to you, but I was very unpleasantly surprised when my bucket overflowed and salt water went everywhere.

Roasting a turkey. The final step toward a great turkey dinner is the actual process of roasting the bird. For equipment you’ll need a roasting pan equipped with a V-rack and a basting bulb. For ingredients you’ll need a turkey, half a stick of butter, salt, pepper, and any herb-type-seasonings that you want. I used sage this year. You’ll also need onion, carrot, and celery to stuff the cavity of the bird.

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Set the butter out to soften.
  • Remove the bird from the brine, rinse it in fresh water, and pat it dry. Let the turkey sit at room temperature for at least two hours. (Because breast meat finishes cooking at a lower temperature than leg meat you may want to place an ice pack on the breast of the turkey. This was suggested by Harold McGee and works very well to keep the breast meat tender until the thighs of the turkey are done.)
  • Half the onion, peel it, and trim the root end. Scrub the carrots and trim the stem. Rinse and trim the celery.
  • Insert the vegetables into the cavity of the turkey. Take four tablespoons of the butter and rub it over the surface of the turkey.
  • Sprinkle kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and chopped fresh sage over the turkey.
  • Place the turkey on the V-rack, breast side down. Place the turkey in the oven and reduce the temperature to 325 degrees.
  • Melt the rest of the butter. Baste the turkey with the melted butter and, once the butter has been used up, with the juices that collect in the roasting pan.  Do this every 30 minutes.
  • The turkey will take about 15 minutes per pound to cook. This means that a 10 pound turkey will take two and a half hours. Figure out how long it will take your turkey to cook and flip the turkey breast-side up half way through the cooking process.
  • The turkey is done with the breast meat registers 160 degrees and the thigh meat registers 175 on an instant read thermometer. Remember that the turkey’s internal temperature will continue to rise a few degrees after it is removed from the oven.
  • Allow the turkey to rest for at least 20 minutes before carving in order for the juices to redistribute.

If you have a chicken:

Brine your chicken using the same recipe as for the turkey: 1/2 cup salt for every 1 gallon water. Remove the bird from the brine, rinse it in fresh water, and pat it dry.  Then try one of the following flavor option:

Garlic Lemon Chicken: Stuff chicken with 1 lemon (halved) and 4 garlic cloves (peeled and crushed). Baste with melted butter seasoned with lemon zest and pepper. Herbilicious Chicken: Stuff the chicken with 1 cup herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage, chives, savory, tarragon). Baste with herb infused butter (simmer a single herb in melted butter for 10 minutes taking care not to brown the butter).

Umami Chicken: Stuff the chicken with 1 yellow onion or 2 shallots (peeled and halved) and 1/2 cup mushrooms or mushrooms stems. De-glaze the roasting pan with mushroom broth and serve with a roast chicken and mushroom sauce.

For each type of roast chicken you use the same procedure:

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, remove the butter from the refrigerator and allow it to soften.
  • Spread the butter mixture on the outside of the chicken and place the chicken in a V-rack or on a broiling pan breast side down.
  • Put the chicken in the oven for thirty minutes. After thirty minutes rotate the chicken so that it is breast side up and insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the breast. Baste the chicken with another tablespoon of butter.
  • Allow the chicken to cook until the meat thermometer reads 170 degrees. This should be about 30 more minutes (so 60 minutes total) for a 3.5 lb chicken and another 7 minutes for every extra half pound over that.
  • Remove the chicken from the oven and allow to sit for ten minutes before carving in order to allow the juices to redistribute.

If you have a goose:

Roast goose is something I have attempted only once. My virgin attempt was not fantastic, but it was good enough that I plan on cooking it a few more times to perfect the recipe. Until then I can give you the following recipe and a few tips that I have gathered from Jeffrey Steingarten and Barbara Kafka. For ingredients you’ll need a 10 pound goose, an onion, an apple, kosher salt, black pepper, and red wine. For equipment you’ll need a roasting pan equipped with a V-rack and a meat thermometer.

Brine your goose using the same recipe that I gave you for the turkey: 1/2 cup salt for every 1 gallon water.

  • Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Remove the bird from the brine, rinse it in fresh water, and pat it dry.
  • Pierce the skin and fat of the goose 100 times (give or take a few) taking care not to cut into the meat. The goal is to allow some fat to drain during the roasting process.
  • Let the goose sit at room temperature for at least two hours.
  • Half the onion, peel it, and trim the root end, peel, core, and half the apple, then insert the onion and apple into the cavity of the goose.
  • Sprinkle kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper on the goose.
  • Place the goose on the V-rack, breast side down. Place the goose in the oven and roast for 40 minutes.
  • After 40 minutes flip the goose over so that it is breast-side up, taking care not to spill any goose fat onto the floor over the oven (it will burn and smoke and make your smoke detector beep for an agonizing 20 minutes).
  • Baste the goose with the drippings from the roasting pan mixed with an equal amount of red wine. Continue to roast for another 30 minutes.
  • Reduce the oven temperature to 250 degrees and open the oven door for a few minutes to vent the heat. Baste the goose again and cook for another 60 minutes.
  • The goose is done when the thigh meat registers 170 on an instant read thermometer. Remember that the goose’s internal temperature will continue to rise a few degrees after it is removed from the oven.
  • Allow the goose to rest for at least 20 minutes before carving in order for the juices to redistribute.

The science information in and much of the inspiration for this article comes from Jeffrey Steingarten’s It Must Have Been Something I Ate, Harold McGee’s The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Barbara Kafka’s On Roasting, and various issues of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine.

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