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Recipes

Classic Roast Turkey

Lynley Jones

Why it works: a wine-and-butter soaked cheesecloth keeps the turkey breast moist and flavorful during cooking, and adds lots of flavor to pan juices to make delicious gravy. See notes at the end of the recipe for more details.

Updated November 2017

Ingredients

1 fresh turkey, any size, patted dry (brined or un-brined are both fine)

1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), melted; plus 1/8 cup unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup dry white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc, or dry French vermouth; plus more if needed

3 carrots, chopped into large chunks

2 celery stalks, chopped into large chunks

3 yellow onions, chopped into large chunks

3-4 bay leaves

1 bunch parsley

Salt and pepper

If you are not stuffing your turkey: 2-3 lemons and 3-4 garlic cloves

Optional: more sprigs of parsley and other herbs such as sage, for garnish

Instructions

1. Take the turkey out of the refrigerator and let it sit out on a platter at room temperature while you set everything else up, for up to 2 hours. (Bringing the bird as close as possible to room temperature will help cut down on roasting time; up to 2 hours is perfectly safe.)  

2. Stir together melted butter and wine in a medium bowl. Fold a very large piece of cheesecloth into quarters so that when folded, it is large enough to cover breast and halfway down sides of turkey. Immerse cheesecloth in butter mixture; let soak while you prep the turkey, preferably at least 20 minutes.

3. Check to be sure the oven rack is in the lowest position. Preheat oven to 425°.

4. Set up a roasting pan with a rack for the turkey (but don't put the turkey in it yet). Put the chopped vegetables in the pan under the rack and scatter the bay leaves and 3/4 of the parsley over the vegetables. Mince the rest of the parsley and set it aside to garnish the finished turkey.

5. Rub the turkey all over, still on the platter, with the softened butter, then sprinkle salt and pepper over the skin.  If you are not stuffing the turkey, sprinkle salt and pepper inside the cavity. If you have not brined the bird, be generous with the seasonings; less so if you are working with a brined bird.

6. If you are stuffing the turkey, fill both cavities loosely with stuffing like this: start by filling the neck cavity, and securing the skin with turkey lacers (see notes). Then, fill the main body cavity with stuffing. Note - do not pack the stuffing in tightly, because this will lengthen roasting time substantially and make it difficult for the turkey to roast all the way through. 

7. If you are not stuffing the turkey, cut the lemons into quarters and lay them along the bottom of the cavity. Smash the garlic cloves, remove the papery skins, and scatter them on top of the lemons. Lay 8-10 sprigs of the parsley (borrowed from the roasting pan) on top of the lemons and garlic.

8. Fold the wing tips back and under the turkey. Tie the legs together with kitchen twine (see notes). Place the turkey, breast side up, on the rack.

9. Remove the cheesecloth from the butter mixture, squeezing the excess liquid gently into the bowl. Reserve the butter mixture for spooning over the turkey during roasting. Lay the cheesecloth over the turkey, making sure the breast is completely covered (it can cover parts of the legs, etc. too).

10. Slide the roasting pan into the oven. Roast for 30 minutes, then take the turkey out and spoon some of the butter mixture over the cheesecloth. Return the turkey to the oven, reduce temperature to 350° and roast for another 30 minutes, then spoon more of the mixture over the cheesecloth. Continue roasting, spooning the mixture over the cheesecloth every 30 minutes, until you run out of mixture or for about the first 2 hours of cooking time.

11. During roasting, keep an eye on the roasting pan and do not allow it to completely dry out. Add a little more wine, water or broth as needed to keep the pan moist (this is so that you can use all these yummy drippings to make gravy later on). Also, be sure to rotate the turkey for even cooking each time you take it out to brush it.

12. When you use up the final bit of mixture, put the turkey back in for another 30 minutes. When you take it out again, carefully remove the cheesecloth being careful not to tear the skin! If the cheesecloth sticks to the skin, moisten it with a little water or wine to remove it. Squeeze any excess liquid remaining in the cheesecloth over the bird (carefully - it might be really hot!). Baste the turkey with the pan juices again and return it to the oven.

13. Continue roasting until skin is golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers 165°. If your turkey is not stuffed, you can check doneness by tipping the turkey slightly to allow the juices to run out of the cavity. When they run clear (not pink), use a thermometer to confirm doneness. If your turkey is stuffed, insert the thermometer into the stuffing instead; roast until the temperature in the stuffing is 165°. Total roasting time will be about 18-22 minutes per pound for a stuffed bird, and 15-18 minutes per pound for a bird that is not stuffed. Begin checking doneness at the earliest part of that time span. If the breast begins to brown too much before the end of cooking (unlikely in this recipe), cover the breast loosely with foil for the remaining cooking time. 

14. When done, let the turkey rest in the rack in the roasting pan for about 15 minutes, then transfer the turkey to a platter or carving board, being careful not to tear the skin. Tip: place a small square of paper towel underneath the turkey on the serving platter or carving board to help absorb any extra juices that run from the bird, and keep the bird from sliding around while you carve it. Allow the turkey to rest, very loosely tented with foil, for up to an hour to allow the meat to achieve an even temperature and the juices to be reincorporated into the meat. Reserve the pan juices for making gravy.

15. If you stuffed the turkey, remove the stuffing and spoon it into a serving dish before you bring the turkey to the table. (We learned the hard way, doing this at the table looks a little strange.) Use some herbs to camouflage the now empty-looking cavity.

16. Garnish the turkey with the minced parsley and the additional sprigs of herbs if using. Serve and enjoy!

Notes:

First, all credit to Martha Stewart for the wine-and-butter cheesecloth idea.

Here's why it works: it's not about adding flavor to the turkey meat itself (the way to do that is to brine the turkey ahead of time, which I also do). The genius thing about the cheesecloth idea is that it slows down the cooking of the breast meat, giving the dark meat time to catch up.

The reason roasting a whole turkey (or a whole chicken) can be tricky is because the white meat cooks so much faster than the dark meat. And then, to make matters trickier, the bird is positioned in the oven with the white meat on top, fully and directly exposed to all that hot, dry oven air. Which makes it cook even faster.

Which means you can end up with dry, overcooked white meat by the time the dark meat is cooked through. 

There are a few strategies to combat this, and I've tried many of them, but Martha's cheesecloth approach is my favorite. For example, one idea I've seen recently is to ice the breast before roasting. This is basically the same idea (cooling the breast), but without the benefits of the wine/butter flavor bomb. Another strategy is to start the bird breast-down, then flip it over halfway through. Two words: severe burns. Two more words: torn skin. Two more words: stuffing disaster. And two final words: unnecessary hassle.

OK, so the wine-butter cheesecloth slows the cooking, but it doesn't soak through the skin into the meat, so what's this flavor bomb you speak of? Glad you asked.

It does flavor the skin, and it does flavor the pan drippings. Both of which are delicious - one of which I'm eating, and the other of which is flavoring my delicious gravy.

Final issue: Basting makes roasting take longer. This is true. And this is why I do it anyway:

This is Thanksgiving (or an equally auspicious, special occasion). It's once a year, people! And we have set an entire day aside simply to roast and eat turkey. Which should be delicious. So to me, if it takes a little longer to have juicy, delicious breast meat with a delicious gravy, I'm going to take the extra time. No question.

However, if you're truly in a hurry, there's no reason to roast a whole Normal Rockwell-esque bird. The fastest and simplest way to roast a turkey is to cut it up. I've got a recipe for that right here, and it takes less than an hour to roast. In that recipe, the wine and butter are still happening in the pan, without the cheesecloth, and I promise you that recipe is also some of the most delicious turkey you will ever taste.