Allegedly it’s the most wonderful time of the year. It isn’t of course – that honour goes to June, when asparagus is in season, the wildflowers are in bloom and it’s light for 19 hours a day – but I’m willing to concede that opening the first chocolate panettone of the holiday period is pretty damn good. By the way, there’s no need to spend a fortune on the Christmas panettone or stollen; this was £4 from Wilko’s and is brilliant in every way.
Yesterday I dropped in to see my old friend Sally Russell, who tells me – with some trepidation – that she is in charge of Christmas dinner this year. Now this raises an eyebrow, for two reasons. Firstly, Sally is a vegetarian. Secondly, she has a genuine intolerance to butter, cream, oil, cheese…all the good stuff.
For Sally to be cooking Christmas dinner for 11 people (or whatever it is) is A BIG DEAL. So here I brain-dump my top-tips for the Christmas turkey, refined over many years of experience.
Tip 1: Buying the turkey
Buy the best you can afford. This is important: a well-reared bird will give you a juicy, flavoursome result.
The Kelly bronze are the tip of the top – they’re an old-fashioned breed and only really do well when outdoor reared, so have higher welfare standards. The downside is that they often have little black pin-feathers, which you might find off-putting (just pull them out with a tweezer). If the Kelly’s are too much money, go with free-range or outdoor reared if you can. I think that the best place to go is a local farm-shop (Sally, think about going to Gwillams Farm Shop, not far from you, or Clives Fruit Farm).
PLEASE avoid the cheap bargain-basement supermarket freezer turkeys. These are no better than conveyor-belt chickens and kept in appalling conditions. Morally abhorrent and also impossible to cook well.
To feed 10 people, I’d go for a bird that’s around 6-8kg. Any bigger and it’s a struggle to cook.
Once you’ve got your bird home, remove any plastic wrapping so that the skin can dry out a little. We always get ours on the 23rd or 24th December and leave it in a cool room rather than put it in the fridge. Make sure you remove the little bag of giblets, saving them for the stuffing and gravy.
Make sure cats can not get at the raw turkey, else you will end up sharing your bird with your feline friend.
Tip 2: Flavouring and prepping the turkey
This is the good bit. You will need:
Up to 200g butter
Generous handful of fresh winter herbs (sage, thyme, rosemary work well)
Salt and pepper
Streaky bacon – enough to cover the bird
A roasting tin big enough to take the bird and fit in the oven
Roasting rack that fits in your tin (optional, but it works for me)
I do all this on Christmas eve, so it’s stress free.
The butter is going to be flavoured and then spread all over the bird. So chop half of your chosen herbs finely, and add them to a bowl with your butter. Grate in the orange and lemon zest, season generously with salt and better, and use your hands to squish it all together.
Now get your bird and use your hands to loosen the skin on the breast away from the flesh. Go easy, to avoid tearing it too much. (Remove any knobbly rings from your fingers to avoid damaging the skin.) Squish half of the butter into this opening and ease it all the way down the breast. You can insert whole sage leaves under the skin too, if you like. Ease the skin back over the breast, and secure in place with a rosemary stick or skewer if you think it needs it.
If you’re stuffing your turkey, do this next – ease the stuffing into the neck flap and tuck in the ends. Don’t over-stuff, and I’d avoid putting stuffing into the cavity as it can make it longer to cook the bird through. Any leftover stuffing can be cooked separately in a dish.
Spread the rest of the butter on the breast and legs of your turkey. Take your streaky bacon and lay it east-to-west over the bird (e.g. from leg to leg, rather than head to neck. It’s more likely to stay put this way). The fat in the bacon helps to flavour the turkey and prevent the breast drying out.
Take the zested orange and lemon, cut in half, and stick them into the cavity with your remaining herbs.
Now put your turkey into the roasting tin or – as I do – on a rack so it’s raised up out of the tin. Cover the lot loosely with foil, tucking the ends around the outer edge of the roasting pan.
The turkey will be quite happy left overnight like this, provided it’s in a cool room or fridge. Important: take the bird into the kitchen several hours before you cook it, so it’s at room temperature before you put it in the oven.
I also like to make a stock with the giblets at this point, which is the basis of my gravy (this is another blog post in itself).
Tip 3: Work out the timings
Everyone lies about how long it takes to cook a turkey. I utterly fail to understand why people cook their birds for 5+ hours – no wonder it gets such a bad press as a dry meat. So before you do anything else, work out your timings.
A free-range bird cooks in a much shorter time than a flabby battery turkey, so you’ll have to do a bit of this by eye. Hugh FW recommends cooking the bird between 100-200 minutes, so between 2 to 4 hours, and he’s deliberately vague as so much depends on the vagaries of your bird and your oven. If your turkey is fridge-cold it will obviously take longer to cook, which is why I like to have mine at room temperature before I start.
If you’ve bought a good bird, and it’s not stuffed in the cavity, it will probably take a total of 2 and a half to 3 hours. It will then need to rest for an hour. Yes, an hour! So let’s assume your bird will take a total of 4 hours.
At this point the older generation may well be throwing their hands up in horror! So my advice is to roughly work out your timings beforehand, but on the day, cook your turkey for 30 minutes: in other words, check and baste every 30 minutes until it’s done to everyone’s satisfaction.
So work out what time you want to eat your lunch, and then think backwards to work out when to put the turkey into the oven. If you want to eat turkey at about 2pm, it goes in the oven at 10am.
Tip 4: Prep everything else
Your potatoes are going to cook in the oven whilst the turkey is resting. So use Christmas morning to get all your other veggies and sides prepped. Enlist help as required.
Tip 5: Cooking the turkey
Make sure the turkey is at room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 220c. We’re going to give it a half-hour sizzle (I learnt this from Hugh FW) before turning the heat down to cook it through. So when the oven is at 220c, put the bird in the oven and leave for 30 minutes.
Then turn the heat down to 180c, pour a little water or white wine into the base of the tin, and cook for another 30 minutes. The liquid helps create a moist atmosphere for the bird to cook in.
After 30 minutes, take the bird out of the oven and baste it – pouring fat and juices all over the meat. Put it back in the oven and cook for another 30 minutes before repeating.
Keep going, checking every 30 minutes, until the meat is just done. You can tell this because when you insert a skewer into the thick part of the thigh, juices come out clean. I also sacrifice a pair of oven gloves and lift the bird directly, with my gloved hands, to pour juices out of the cavity – they too will come out clean when cooked.
Top tip: Display cooked turkey to your mother / mother-in-law / any other opinionated adult, so that everyone is satisfied of its cooked-ness.
The bird now needs browning. So whip off the foil and bacon, turn the oven up to 200c, then put it back in for 20 minutes or so until it’s burnished and lovely.
I actually think turkey is quite forgiving, so if it does take a little longer than our calculations then no stress, just keep it in the oven a bit longer. If it’s cooked earlier, whip it out and let it rest a bit longer.
Tip 6: Resting the turkey
When it’s done, put the turkey onto a warmed plate or roasting tin – make sure whatever you use has a lip to catch the juices. Cover with clean foil, maybe double thickness, and then cover again with a tea towel or two. Place it somewhere warm, but not hot, to rest. It will look like this.
The turkey can rest for an hour, or more actually. What happens is that the muscle fibres relax, which makes for a juicier bird. It won’t get cold, don’t worry.
Tip 7: Cooking everything else
Use this hour for the other VERY IMPORTANT thing – cooking your roast potatoes.
Use the juices in the roasting tin to finish your gravy, and meanwhile get the sides sorted, drink champagne, etc.
Tip 8: EAT!
It’s now lunch time! Congratulate yourself on your hard work, enjoy your tasty bird, and sit down whilst somebody else washes up.
Sally, I wish you luck, and I may well blog again this week with instructions for gravy and stuffing.