Herb Roasted Turkey: How to Make Turkey that is Moist, Tender and Juicy (Not Dry!)

by Marge Perry on November 21, 2011

Roasting a turkey is easy and uncomplicated. But because so many people swear by so many methods as “the one and only method to ensure absolute turkey perfection”, our heads get spun around. Brine! Fry! Tent! High temperature/low temperature/reduce temperature halfway through cooking… the list goes on and on.

Let’s keep it simple. If you want to brine and you like the result, go for it. I think it is a big complicated mess that results in moist but mealy meat. But lots of people disagree, and what matters is if you like the result. (Unless you are cooking for me. Then I presume you care what I think, since you’ve gone to the effort to have me over to dinner. Thank you. But I’ll be so pleased to be at your house I might not care so much about the texture of your turkey).

Then there’s frying. A few years ago I went to the Greystone campus of Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and we fried turkeys in peanut oil. The good news is I learned all about the health and culinary benefits of peanut oil. But I also that learned deep-frying turkey is also a big, complicated– and dangerous– mess that results in meat that pretty much tastes like it was roasted. So where does sliding that big slippery bird into a vat  of hot oil get you?

Let’s agree, then,  to roast. It’s a simple matter really: season the exterior, stick it in a roasting pan and cook until it hits 175 degrees. Take it out and let it rest for nearly half an hour, then slice and serve. Here are just a few questions that might occur to you along the way.

To Rack or Not to Rack? Whether you roast the turkey on a rack or directly in the pan depends on the height  of your roasting pan. High sides (three or more inches) may inhibit the lower parts of the bird from browning well; in that case a rack lifts her up and allows heat to get directly to all but her underside.

If you do use a rack, coat it with cooking spray.  Yes, partly because racks are such a nuisance to wash– but more importantly, you don’t want the precious skin to stick and potentially tear when you transfer the turkey to the carving board.

To Stuff or Not to Stuff? Some folks swear by the flavor of the stuffing when cooked in the bird. To get the same flavor, when you take the turkey out of the oven drizzle some of those great pan juices over the stuffing in a baking dish. Heat the stuffing while the turkey rests and gets carved, and by then the juices have baked into the stuffing. Baking stuffing separately is safer, allows the bird to cook faster, and makes controlling the consistency of your stuffing a whole lot easier. (If it seems dry, you can add broth or butter, and if it is too wet, uncover and bake until it dries out. You certainly can’t do either if the stuffing is in the bird.)

You  need to tie the turkey either way. Just run a piece of twine around the narrowest part of the drumstick– the part that looks like “ankles” in a figure 8 pattern and knot it. Then take the pointy part of the wings and tuck them down so they don’t stick up and get burned. (This also prevents them from flopping down as the bird roasts. It just doesn’t look as nice when the wings are splayed out to the side).

To Baste or Not To Baste? I think we turkey-cookers need to baste. After all, we think about and smell the turkey for those many hours it cooks, and we want to feel involved. The truth is, frequent basting doesn’t accomplish much, other than lowering your oven temperature every time you open the door. Basting is not the key to moist meat. (I’m getting to that), because basting is only skin deep. The constant opening and closing of the oven door can cause your oven temperature to lower– which means the turkey has to roast even longer. I baste about every 45 minutes or so– but even as I am doing it, I know it is for my sake and not the turkey’s.

Basting really does matter, however, about a half hour before you take the turkey out of the oven. That’s when the pan juices help the skin crisp and turn a gorgeous mahogany brown.

What is the key to moist, juicy turkey?

Cooking the bird to the right temperature. When the thigh hits 175 degrees, take the turkey out of the oven and let it rest about 30 minutes. Resting is key: if you try to carve the bird too soon, the juices will flow onto your board, where they won’t do your mouth or stomach one bit of good.

How do I put the thermometer in my turkey?
Here are a couple of views of where to insert the thermometer to take the turkey’s temperature.

Positioning the thermometer in the turkey thigh (View #1)

Positioning the thermometer in the turkey thigh (View #2)

Tomorrow I will post a photo-illustrated guide to How to Carve a Turkey. And here is my very simple, no-fail recipe for making a perfect moist, juicy, tender roast turkey. If you have any questions, just send them in on the comments below and I will get back to you very quickly.

Of course you need gravy with that turkey– so reserve all the pan juices and check your mailbox later today for my simple, lump-proof Sherried Gravy recipe.

And tomorrow, I’ll email you a photographic illustration of How to Carve Your Turkey.

Now go fill your belly with vittles and your heart with the warmth of your gathering!

For more Thanksgiving recipes and a guide to planning, click here.

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