Notes on turkey 2: gravy and stuffing

Grey, grey, grey, rain, drizzle, grey, cloud, grey. And WARM! Today I picked a bagful of mustard spinach, chard, chicory, normal spinach, rocket and mizuna from the allotment, some of which I planted back in March. Extraordinary to think it’s still cropping 9 months later – a major success in my book.

But the prize for MAJOR success goes to my Mum’s cavolo nero, which are bushy, tall and slug-free. A wander around her garden shows that not only are things still cropping, but the first promise of spring-time treats ahead are there if you look.

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Mother’s majestic cavolo nero

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Horseradish root – croppable all year around but particularly good in deep winter

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Over-wintered broad beans doing well

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First bulbs are erupting

Mum and Dad Stallard’s kitchen can always be relied on for several things. The first is that the freezer(s) will be brimming with meat, veg, ice-cream, stock, you name it. The second is that the fridge will always contain at least one pot of double cream. The third is that my Dad will recently have made, or will soon be making, a great vat of soup. He is incapable of doing things small and so a few years ago I bought him an enormous soup-making pot, to help his kitchen forays.

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The big pots are out which means…

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…Dad is making a vat of soup

In my last post I promised that I’d provide tips for the Christmas stuffing and gravy, to help my friend Sally Russell in her festive hosting. As with the turkey, these aren’t so much recipes as a set of instructions born from years of trial and error. They have at their heart the little bag of goodies found within your turkey: the giblets.

Each year I’ll change the stuffing recipe slightly, maybe adding chestnuts or sauteed celery, or maybe dried cranberries or orange zest. The most important thing is to use the turkey liver, as it adds a rich, pate-like flavour to the stuffing. It tastes a bit like foie gras, but without the ethical issues. I usually make my stuffing on Christmas Eve and use some to stuff the bird but cook the rest separately in a dish.

Christmas Sage and Onion Stuffing

To accompany the roast turkey, serves 10+ as part of a meal.

1 small onion, very finely diced

Liver from the turkey giblets

Butter – enough for frying

1 pack of sausage meat, about 400g (choose free-range if you can)

Sage – small handful, finely diced

Thyme – few sprigs, leaves stripped from the stalks

1 lemon, zest only

Breadcrumbs – I can’t give exact quantities but I usually take a 400g white loaf, let it go stale, crumb it in the food processor, and use most if not all of the result. Any leftovers can be frozen for another day.

1 egg

Salt and pepper

First we need to get the liver sorted. Take the liver out of the turkey giblet bag, give it a rinse under the tap and remove any obviously hard or fatty bits. Pat it dry with kitchen roll. Get a frying pan nice and hot, add a little butter to the pan and when it’s foaming, add the liver. Fry for a scant minute on each side, until it is just browned, then remove to a plate. Leave to cool then dice into smallish pieces and place in a big mixing bowl.

Now we cook the onion. Use the same pan as your liver, add a little more butter, then add the onions and cook on a low-low-low heat until the onions are soft and translucent, but not brown. Add a pinch of salt to help them on their way. This takes a bit of time – 15 minutes or so – so be patient. When they’re done, add them to the bowl with the turkey liver.

Now add your sausage meat, the diced herbs and lemon zest to the bowl. Give it a good mix – your hands are the best for this, or use a wooden spoon.

We now have a nicely flavoured sausage mix, but to make it into a stuffing we need to add breadcrumbs for an open texture, plus an egg to bind. So: crack the egg directly into the mixture and add a handful of breadcrumbs, and give it a good mix. If it feels too wet, add more breadcrumbs, and keep going until the texture is soft, combined and moist, but not too dry or too loose. Now season it generously with a little bit of salt and quite a lot freshly milled black pepper (the sausagemeat and onions are already salted, so go easy on the salt).

If you want to taste your mixture, fry a little bit in a frying pan, taste, then adjust the seasoning until you’re happy.

Now you can use your stuffing as you need. I usually put a little into the neck of the turkey before it roasts, then pile the rest into a baking dish and cook alongside the potatoes. If you do this, allow about 30 minutes in a 190c oven, and make sure it is entirely cooked through before serving. A skewer inserted into the middle will be hot when pressed against your lip.

Turkey gravy

Lastly, the gravy. I always make this on the day, but get ahead by making a flavourful stock from the remaining giblets on Christmas Eve. Then all there is to do on Christmas Day is save and de-fat the roasting juices from your cooked turkey, thicken them up, and you’re good to go. This looks complicated but actually is really very easy; it just needs a few well-timed interventions. To make proper gravy, you’ll need either a gravy strainer or a big 1-litre heat-proof jug.

For the stock:

The turkey giblets

1 onion, topped and tailed but you can leave the skin on, provided it’s not caked in mud

1 carrot

1 stick of celery

A few whole peppercorns


To finish:

The roasting tin itself, from the turkey, with any brown roasted bits left intact

Juices from the cooked turkey

Plain flour

White wine (optional)

Salt and pepper


Sieve for straining the stock

Gravy-strainer or heat-proof jug

Metal spoon

Wooden spoon


The day before, make your stock. Take the turkey neck and heart from the giblets, pop them in a big saucepan, top up with water (about 1 litre) and add the vegetables and pepper. (You can also use the kidneys if you want to, but I find their flavour too strong so they usually end up as pet-food.) Bring the lot to a slow simmer and use a big metal spoon to skim off any foamy dirty bits that come to the top. Pop a lid on, leaving it slightly ajar to allow a bit of steam to escape, and cook on a low heat for an hour or so – it should be just bubbling, not merrily boiling.

When it’s done, strain the liquid into a jug (I use a fine sieve for this) and have a taste – if it’s too weak, put it into a clean saucepan and reduce down for 10 minutes or so. When you think the stock is ready, pop it in the fridge to use later.

On Christmas Day, once the turkey is cooked and put aside to rest, drain any juices from the roasting tray into a big heat-proof jug, or use a gravy strainer if you have one. I prefer to use a jug, as the strainers are usually too small. You may well have a pint or more of liquid, especially if you anointed your bird with lots of butter to begin with and used water in the roasting tray to help things along.

If the roasting tin has any sticky roasted bits in the bottom, deglaze it with a little hot water – really scrape around to get all the good stuff out, then add this to your jug.

Use a metal spoon to skim off the fat from the top of your juices but don’t throw it away! Put it into a small bowl. It’s the basis of the gravy but also will make excellent roast potatoes another day.

Now we make our gravy! Put three tablespoons of the turkey fat in your saucepan, add 2 heaped dessertspoons of flour, and cook on a low heat until the flour turns the lightest golden brown, stirring often with a wooden spoon. This initial cooking of the roux helps give good colour to the gravy.

Add a small splash of wine, if using, and stir stir stir – the mix will seize up into a lump. Now we gradually and gently add our reserved juices and some of the stock, stirring all the time, until we have a smooth gravy.

Bring to a simmer and let it cook for 20 minutes or so, to really cook out any raw flour or wine flavour. Add more liquid if it needs it. Taste and add salt and pepper as you wish, then serve.

If you do get any lumps, try whisking it and if that doesn’t work, just put it through a sieve.

It sounds like a lot of work, but it isn’t really. Good luck!

Notes for a tip-top turkey

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.

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Hello breakfast!

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

1 orange

1 lemon

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.

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Resting turkey, Queen optional.

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.

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Voila! Juicy flavoursome turkey!

Sally, I wish you luck, and I may well blog again this week with instructions for gravy and stuffing.

Boxing Day ramble

So how was your Christmas dinner?

There are four key things to get right with the turkey: 1, get a good bird; 2, prepare it well, anointing with flavoured butter and streaky bacon to protect the breast; 3, most importantly, cook it for about half as long as the books tell you. This one was 7kg and took 2 and a half hours at 170c; 4, leave it to rest for at least an hour.

If I do say so myself, this year’s turkey was a triumph! Moist, flavoursome and…enormous.

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Carving the bird

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The ultimate roast

The best thing about Christmas dinner though is leftovers. Obviously. As I write my Dad is stripping the meat from the bone, ready to make a vat of stock for soups, braises and casseroles. As for the meat…I’m thinking creamy turkey and leek pie, punchy Thai turkey salad full of chilli and lime as well as good old turkey soup.

It helps to wash it down with a bottle of something delicious.

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The Christmas wine

Yesterday we took to the hills to get some air. Not the main bit of the Malverns, which is always heaving with folk on Boxing Day. Best to go off piste, down to the bit that only the locals know about – the Gullet quarry and the Eastnor obelisk. Happy holidays!