It’s almost Christmas, which means it’s almost time for my annual roast turkey feast. Except that this year, I don’t have an oven. Little bit of Korean household trivia for you: the kitchens in this country generally don’t include ovens. It is partly a space issue but is also due to the fact that while Koreans like to fry, steam, braise, boil and pickle, they do not bake or roast. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest shortcomings of Korean society. A messed up education system, rampant gender inequality, and ovenlessness is what is really keeping us back as a nation.
So to help me grieve over the fact that I can’t roast a turkey this year (it actually really upsets me and makes me not want to celebrate Christmas at all), I thought I would write a “turkey retrospective” of sorts and also share the tips and techniques that I have learnt in the art of turkey roasting over the years.
As you will have seen from the few cooking posts I’ve published on this blog, as much as I love food, cooking is not something that comes naturally to me. But there is one notable exception: turkey roasting. I OWN turkey roasting. I would happily and confidently go against Martha, Nigella, Maggie, and Jamie in a turkey roast-off and I would SLAY THEM ALL. My annual roast turkey is famous. By famous I mean renowned and praised amongst family and friends which is as famous as anything I do will ever get, so yes, FAMOUS. My dad even spoke about my turkey in his Father of the Bride speech at my wedding. My turkey is the shiz and ya’ll should listen up to everything I have to say because I am the definitive WORD on turkey roasting.
But before I impart my sage advice with you all, I should probably provide some photographic evidence of my turkey roasting prowess. So here it is, 2008-2014 A Turkey Retrospective.
2008: “Challenge Accepted!”
In Australia, Christmas dinners traditionally involve barbequed steaks, snags, and skewers and a big bowl of fresh prawns. Roast turkey isn’t actually that common, and is an idea that has been completely stolen from the Amuuurrrcans. In 2008, a group of friends and I had the wild idea of making turkey dinner for Christmas. It was novel, it was ambitious, it was a challenge to make a Christmas dinner that would slaughter all other Christmas dinners. And I took it on with gusto. The above may look a bit rough, but it was a result of hours of research, about ten combined recipes, a full day in the kitchen, and pure, extravagant love. Serving around twelve people, it’s the biggest turkey I’ve ever made, and the most memorable. We made it and ate it not even knowing what a roast turkey was meant to taste like, but it blew all our minds and ruined all future Christmases because we all knew that no Christmas dinner in our remaining lifetimes would taste as glorious as this one did.
2009-2010: “The Dark Ages”
No photo records exist of these turkeys because we were too hungry and excited to eat them to waste time taking photos. They did exist, you need to trust me on this one.
This year I followed a Neil Perry recipe that introduced me the miracle of stuffing a turkey’s skin as well as the cavity. I never looked back. This is why the turkey looks so swollen and bloated, like it just binged on its own Christmas dinner.
2012: “Crispy Skinned
I used a stuffing recipe for roast chicken because it included parmesan and parmesan makes all things better. The cheese also had the pleasant side effect of making the turkey skin deliciously crispy. Oh, and perfectly roasted potatoes.
2013: “Mastering the Art”
One of the best things about roast turkey is how photogenic it is. Look at that heart shaped breast, those shapely thighs, the red-brown glow of the skin.
From all angles, she is a beauty.
Now, I send you forth to cook your own turkeys in remembrance of me, who will be spending this Christmas ovenless and turkeyless. To help you on your journey, I will generously impart my invaluable expertise with you all.
1. Don’t be intimidated.
There is an urban legend going around that roasting a turkey is “difficult” or requires “skills.” DO NOT BELIEVE THE LIES. Preparing and stuffing the turkey takes less than an hour and the oven does the rest of the work. Yes, you do need be at home to monitor the bird and baste it at regular intervals, but most of the time is just spent waiting. Use it as an opportunity to read a thick novel or binge-watch The Mindy Project. You could even do something more productive, like prepare sides and dessert.
2. Buy a good bird.
The frozen turkeys at the supermarket do the job, but if you want to take this seriously, you need to see your local poultry specialist and order a fresh, free range turkey. To help you decide how big you need the bird to be, you can use one of many size guides available online. I usually get a 6-7kg turkey regardless of the number of people I’m serving because when it comes to turkey, SIZE MATTERS, and the bigger the bird, the bigger the impact. It takes longer to cook, but who cares, carrying the finished product out of the oven and having all your guests bow down to your domestic goddess status makes it totally worth it.
3. To brine or not to brine?
Most Americans I talk to seem to think that brining the turkey is an essential step. I can see how brining can add to the flavor and moisture level of a turkey, but I’ve never brined and I’ve never had any problems. Prepping and cooking a turkey already takes a FULL day, so spending additional time making a luxurious salt bath for your bird seems to be taking the joke too far. My advice is, don’t bother. You can make a perfectly delicious and moist turkey without it.
4. Go nuts with the stuffing
Stuffing is something that is foolproof, easy to make, and for which there are THOUSANDS of recipes online. This means you can just have fun with it and experiment. A quick review of a few stuffing recipes will help you realize that stuffing is basically just whatever you want + stale bread. Seriously, anything goes: from gourmet (wild rice and goat cheese stuffing) to dude-food (tortilla chip chorizo stuffing), to gluten free (quinoa stuffing). Sausage-based stuffings seem quite popular, and I’ve tried it once but didn’t really like it because I feel like heavy meat in your stuffing distracts from the taste of the turkey. Bacon, however, is completely acceptable. As are all bacon-like cured meats such as pancetta and prosciutto. Also, CHEESE. My current go-to stuffing is based on this recipe and includes all the classic components plus parmesan cheese and chopped pancetta. I’m not a huge fan of nuts, but I’ll add some walnuts to please the crowd. My favorite herb for stuffing is sage, because it smells heavenly.
5. Stuff EVERYTHING
When I learned that you could stuff the skin of a turkey as well as the cavity, this really changed the game. It elevated my turkey from amazing to mind-blowing and I’ve never looked back. You need to be little bit careful when separating the skin from the breast to create a pocket, but the fatty turkey skin is pretty resilient. Stuffing the skin has the quintuple effect of:
1. Adding flavor to the breast meat.
2. Making people more excited about eating the meat meat, which has a hard time competing with the dark meat.
3. Keeping the breast meat moist.
4. (If you use my parmesan recipe) Causing the skin to crisp up and go a gorgeous brown color.
5. Acting like breast implants and giving the turkey a plump, fuller, more youthful look.
One year, I used Neil Perry’s ricotta stuffed turkey recipe and it was a real hit. It wasn’t quite salty enough for my liking, but this was one of my more popular turkeys.
6. Trussing is NOT optional
If you do not truss your turkey, you will end up with wings splayed, legs spread-eagled, with a crusty bulge of stuffing bursting out from the cavity. Luckily, I did not learn this the hard way, I learnt this from laughing at other people’s mistakes. Your turkey is meant to be photogenic, not pornographic. Please, protect your turkey’s modesty. Plus, trussing a turkey is super easy if you follow a helpful instructional video like this. I would always kindly ask the butcher next to my poultry supplier for a length of butcher’s string, but really, any clean, strong, string will do.
7. The Three “B”s: Bacon, Butter, and Basting
The no.1 fear that people have about cooking a turkey is the fact that it “dries out easily.” And I’ll admit, dry turkey meat is nasty. It tastes like a hybrid construction material made from cardboard and rubber. But keeping the meat moist is really not as hard as people make it out to be. A lot of recipes will give you different tips and techniques on how to do this, but the key is to just do all of it at once. Everything that anyone tells you about keeping the turkey moist and tender: do it all. This will guarantee succulent, juicy turkey every single time. Here’s what I do:
1. Cover the turkey in bacon. This will flavor the skin as well as keep the breast from drying out. Also, you can eat the baked bacon as a snack later on.
2. Go to town with the butter. People talk about how turkey is a “lean meat” but you need to un-lean that baby until its fattier than a Krispy Kreme donut. I usually buy two sticks and melt one down to pour and brush over the bird before it goes into the oven, and then I chop up the other one and squeeze as much of it under the skin of the breast as will fit.
3. Baste every 30 minutes. This is probably the hardest part of cooking a turkey, because just getting a 6kg bird out of the oven every half hour is a big effort, but don’t get lazy. It’s essential. Most Aussies don’t have access to a proper baster, so I just used my pastry brush to cover the turkey with the fatty juices and butter pooling at the bottom of the pan.
4. Keep the turkey loosely covered in foil until the final hour of roasting, when you can take it off to let the turkey brown. This is a bit fiddly, especially when basting, but I believe plays a big part in preventing dry-out.
5. Roast at the correct temp for the correct amount of time. BBC Good food have this really nifty roast time calculator that looks pretty accurate. To test that it’s fully cooked, just stab it with a skewer and if the juices run clear, it’s ready!
When I made my first turkey, I wanted cranberry sauce because it’s traditional, but I also wanted gravy because GRAVY. Then I came across this recipe for cranberry gravy and I loved it so much that I have used it every single year since. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much it. Merry Christmas and happy turkey roasting! And in times of doubt, always remember: