First time on turkey duty? Panicking over a dry crown? Can’t get to sleep over a Mr Miyagi-like repeat of the ‘foil on’ or ‘foil off’ question? With roast turkey being the traditional choice in Britain at Christmas, have it deliciously under control with our foolproof guide on how to roast a whole turkey.
So take a deep breath, pop on some Perry Como, and pour yourself a glass of something lovely – because this year, you’ve got Christmas.
First things first, which kind of turkey is the best?
Don’t let the family Christmas dinner down before you’ve even switched the oven on. As with all farmed animals, there can be a huge variation in the way your turkey is reared and grown. Choose your turkey wisely and cook it correctly and you should be able to shake off any fears of a lacklustre, dry-breasted bird.
The cheapest commercially reared turkeys you can buy will spend all of their lives in dark, crowded barns and will never see or spend any time in natural daylight. The low light reduces in-fighting due to a lack of stimulation, a crowded barn means less is spent on housing the birds and a lack of outdoor exercise enables the birds to gain weight more quickly, and in turn reduce production costs.
Higher-welfare organic, free-range and slow-grown turkeys on the other hand, spend time socialising outdoors, pecking at forage in grassy pastures and exercising in woodland. These birds lead an incredibly different life. However, the quality of outdoor life can vary still for free-range reared birds – legally, free-range birds must have outdoor access for at least half of their lives and a minimum allowance of four square metres of outside space. So what to do?
Absolutely expect the quality to be reflected in the cost when it comes to turkeys. The best birds come from small farms who can guarantee lots of space, grassy pastures and forest for them to run around in. Turkeys reared in this environment tend to be grown more slowly than the cheapest indoor reared supermarket turkeys, which on average are grown over three months compared to the six of our farmers’. In this time they build muscle and fat from exploring outdoors. They develop a deeper flavour and a firmer texture that’s impossible to achieve in commercial farming – and crucially, means they’re less likely to dry out in cooking.
Take a look at our guide on how to choose the best turkey for a helping hand.
The easiest way to roast a fresh free-range turkey for Christmas
Keep things simple. Yes, you can brine, deep-fry and even slow-cook your turkey, but to keep stress levels down, make your life easy and strip things back to basics. When you’re starting with an already beautiful high-welfare, slow-grown, truly free-range and superior quality bird, you don’t need to go messing about it too much with to make it amazing. That’s not so say you can’t add your own flourishes along the way, but to start, stick to simple. This easy method is foolproof, so there’s no reason to be afraid of the biggest bird you’ll cook all year.
Take out the fridge for an hour (at least)
Remove all packaging, string and any giblets from the turkey. Take it out of the fridge for at least an hour (you can leave it out for up to four hours), before cooking and pat the skin dry. Removing it from the fridge before roasting it allows your bird to come up to room temperature and makes for more accurate cooking times. Remember, you don’t need to wash it because the bacteria will be killed in the cooking.
Preheat the oven
Preheat the oven to 250ºC for 20 minutes. Place your bird in a large roasting tray, either on a bed of roughly cut carrots and onions, or simply on a rack on that sits above the base of a baking tray.
Season to perfection
Season the turkey with a generous pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover the whole bird in olive oil. You can use a brush for this or just get down and dirty and use your hands. For extra flavour, throw in a half a lemon and a skinned onion sliced in half into the cavity.
Use timings and do not overcook
Cover the bird loosely in foil, cook at 230ºC for the first 30 minutes, and then reduce to 190ºC for the remaining time (20 minutes per 500g or per 1lb 2oz). At 30 to 50 minutes before the end of cooking, remove the foil.
The British Turkey Information Service advise that if a turkey is over 4kg, the total cooking time = 20 minutes per kilogram + 90 minutes. When using foil, the timings to work to are:
4kg = 2 hrs 50 minutes
5 kg = 3 hrs 10 minutes
6 kg = 3 hrs 30 minutes
7 kg = 3 hrs 50 minutes
8 kg = 4hrs 10 minutes
9 kg = 4hrs 20 minutes
It’s very important not to overcook turkey, which so often leads to disappointment when it come out dry. Always and keep an eye on your bird by testing an hour or so before the end of your calculated timings. Test the turkey by poking a clean knife or skewer into the fattest part of the bird or inside of the thigh – when the juices run clear, it’s done, or use a meat thermometer. Which leads us to…
For a perfectly cooked turkey, use thermometers (yes, that’s more than one)
To ease any doubts on whether your turkey is cooked, use both a meat thermometer and an oven thermometer. Use your meat one to check the temperature at the inner thigh, outer thigh and breast. Use your oven one to keep tabs on the actual temperature of your oven.
Commercially raised supermarket turkeys should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 72ºC. Slow-grown, free-range turkeys raised on small-scale farms and from a trusted high-welfare source can be cooked to 65ºC as they should be a safer product to eat.
Give it a rest
When your turkey is cooked, leave it to rest. Whatever you do, don’t skip this step. Take it out of the oven, place onto a serving platter and cover in lots of foil. Turkeys that weigh 4 to 6 kilograms should be left to rest for around 1½ hours and ones from 6 to 10 kilograms can rest for up to two hours. Don’t worry, it won’t go cold. Your bird will carry a lot of residual heat even outside of the oven. Reserve the juices from the bottom of the tray to make an awesome nutrient-rich gravy.
Why do cooked turkeys need resting?
This resting period is essential to helps the meat to relax and take on more of its juices. A dry bird can happen as a result of a deadly combination of overcooking and not enough rest time, throwing all your good work (and that of the farmers’) out of the window. Have faith in your timings, your tastebuds will thank you for it!
Our free-range and organic traditional Bronze turkeys are lovingly slow-grown by Nick & Jacob at Fosse Meadows Farm in Leicestershire, Peter and Henri Greig at Pipers Farm in Devon and The Malseed family at Frenchbeer Farm in Dartmoor National Park. They are never plastic wrapped and come in handy cardboard box.
High-welfare farm-fresh turkeys have a superior flavour and slightly denser texture. Our farmers’ truly free-ranging turkeys are grown for at least twice as long as the average supermarket turkey. Wave good bye to dry, flavourless mass-produced commercial birds.