Several years ago, a health issue which turned out to be minor, thank goodness, was the impetus to document all my family’s favorite recipes. That way, I figured even if I got run over by a truck, my kids would know how to make all the special family meals and desserts we enjoy. Many of the recipes are 40 or 50 years old, some unique to our family, and some are familiar to most people who like to cook and bake.
Since making a Thanksgiving Day turkey is quite a challenge for new cooks and sometimes even for those with more experience, I decided to write a blow-by-blow description of how to roast a turkey and make a delicious stuffing (to die for!) and gravy to go along with it. I wrote the directions with my kids in mind and tried to make it a real primer for them since they’ve never cooked a turkey before. I haven’t changed a word of it, so even though you’re not one of my kids, you can pretend to be!
I hope you find my Turkey 101 lecture helpful. Gobble, gobble…
Roast Turkey with Stuffing and Gravy
Okay, kids—this isn’t a recipe so much as it is a technique. Anything I write here you can look up on the Butterball turkey website! The stuffing (recipe follows), of course, is another matter altogether! Here goes….
I always buy a fresh turkey—they’re moister than frozen and are less salty. Usually, there’s a cooking chart on the plastic wrapping. Cut it out (wash off the juice!) and set it aside for cooking guidelines.
Next separate the legs; they’re usually bound together with wire. Now dig out the giblets and neck from one or both cavities. In any case, check out both cavities! The giblets are usually in some sort of paper envelope. Dump the giblets and the turkey neck into a 4-qt. pan and fill it with water. Don’t worry about the quantity of water. Just eyeball it (cover giblets/neck of course!) because you’re going to reduce the liquid by a long simmering process. Bring it to a boil and add a chopped onion and a couple of ribs of chopped celery. Add a few peppercorns and salt to taste. Once it boils, lower to a simmer and let it reduce to concentrate the flavor of the turkey stock. It should simmer for at least an hour or longer. This is what you will use when you make the gravy for the turkey. When the stock is done, take out the giblets and strain the broth into a bowl. Set it aside to cool, and wash the pan because you’ll need it later for the gravy. Do this first thing in the morning so that it will be finished, freeing the burner up for cooking the vegetables.
Now is a good time to preheat the oven to 450o. This high temp will sear the skin and help make it crisp. Once you put the turkey in the oven, you will immediately turn the temperature down to 325o.
Back to the turkey! Sprinkle it with salt inside and out and then rinse the turkey thoroughly. Shake off excess water and place in your roasting pan. Stuff both cavities and secure the flap of skin with some small metal skewers. Cut off a good length of twine and, starting at the bottom skewer, crisscross the twine up to the top and tie in a knot.
Cut up another onion and some more celery and toss in pan around turkey. Add some water to the pan, maybe 1/8″ to 1/4 ” deep. It’s ready to go in the oven! Remember to immediately turn the oven temperature down to 325o.
Roasting guidelines call for cooking the turkey 13 to 15 minutes per pound, so get out your calculator to estimate how long to roast the turkey. Figure out the estimated time the day before so that you can give yourself enough time to get everything else ready. This is more important, obviously, if you’ve invited people to dinner at a particular time. You don’t want to put yourself under unnecessary stress! To give you some feedback, the last Thanksgiving turkey I roasted weighed 17½ lbs., and it cooked to perfection (including the legs) in exactly 4 hours. It was juicy and tender.
After the turkey is in the oven for an hour or so, I usually take a few pats of butter and rub it over the skin. I also check periodically to make sure the water at the bottom of the pan doesn’t totally dry out. Add more water if you need to. Use a basting bulb to suck up the turkey juices and baste the turkey with this. It helps flavor and crisp up the skin. If, at any point, you feel the skin is browning too rapidly or is brown enough, cover the turkey with foil.
Some turkeys have a pop-up timer in the breast. They are not always accurate. Follow the roasting guidelines and also use a meat thermometer to check doneness. Stick the meat thermometer into the thickest part of breast without letting the tip touch the bone. Take another reading by the underside of the breast along the leg. The internal temperature should be 175o to 180o F. It’s a fact of life, kids, that the breast generally is done before the dark meat, especially around the legs. If you wait until the legs are done, sometimes the breasts will be overcooked and dry. It’s not against the law to take the turkey out and carve the breast meat and then return it to the oven to finish cooking the legs/dark meat.
A couple of ways to check on doneness: pierce the breast with a long cooking fork—it should pierce the breast easily all the way to the bone if the meat is done. If you get some resistance when you try to pierce the meat, it’s probably not done yet. Another way to test if the legs are done is to wiggle them. If they move easily and/or the bone falls away from the meat, they’re done. As always when cooking poultry, any juices that run when you pierce the meat should be clear. If the juices that run are pink, the meat is undercooked and you will run the risk of salmonella poisoning.
When you take the turkey out, let it sit for about 15 minutes before carving. You can remove the stuffing from both cavities during this time. Then carve the breast meat and return the turkey to the oven if the dark meat isn’t done yet.
There, that wasn’t so bad now, was it?
Now, on to the stuffing which I always make on Wednesday to get it out of the way.
- 16-oz. package of Pepperidge Farm herb-seasoned stuffing mix. I always buy the bag with the smaller pieces—not the cubes.
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 4 or so celery ribs, sliced – I try to use equal amounts of both the onion and celery
- 1 stick of butter
- 2 lbs. meat loaf mix – Jewel and most stores sell packages of what they call “meat loaf mix” which is a combination of hamburger and lean pork. If you can’t find the combo, buy 1 lb. each of lean hamburger and pork.
- 1 cup of freshly grated Romano cheese
- 2 tbl. of Bell’s seasoning or other poultry seasoning
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. pepper
- 1/4 cup of raisins
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
Boil 1 cup of water. Pour the Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix into a really large bowl. Pour the water you boiled over the stuffing mix and stir to moisten all of the stuffing. You should be able to pick up some of the stuffing, squeeze it firmly into a ball and have it retain its shape. You want to moisten the stuffing just enough so that you make a ball, but you don’t want to make it overly wet because more moisture will be added when you mix in the cooked onion/celery and meat (as well as the eggs when you’re ready to stuff the turkey on Thanksgiving morning). If you read the directions on the back of the Pepperidge Farm bag, it will tell you to add twice the water you actually need. Don’t do it, or you’ll end up with very soggy stuffing! (Ask me how I know.)
Melt the stick of butter in a large frying pan. Add the sliced celery, followed by the chopped onion and sauté for at least 10 minutes until the vegetables are soft and golden. Add them to stuffing in bowl and mix well. Next sauté the meat until browned. While the meat is cooking, add the Romano cheese, Bell’s seasoning, salt, pepper and raisins to the bowl and mix in. Add the cooked meat to the bowl with a slotted spoon so that you don’t add any unnecessary grease to the bowl. Mix well. Now is the moment you’ve been waiting for. You get to taste test! Call whomever’s around and get their opinion. Adjust seasonings if need be. When you’re happy with it, cover the bowl and refrigerate it until Thursday morning. Note that the eggs are not added on Wednesday. Do not add them until Thanksgiving morning just before you’re ready to stuff the bird.
I routinely buy an 18-lb turkey. This amount of stuffing will fill both cavities of the bird with stuffing left over. I put the leftover stuffing in a Corning casserole dish and cook it in the microwave. Since it won’t have the turkey juices running into it, I moisten it with some of the turkey stock from the giblets. Usually 10 minutes in the microwave is enough to cook the raw egg. I usually don’t cook the leftover stuffing until the turkey is almost done.
OK, we’re in the home stretch—it’s time to make the gravy!
When the turkey has finished cooking, take it out of the roasting pan and place it on a big carving board. Tent it with foil to keep it warm until it’s ready to be carved. Strain the juices in the pan through a food mill directly into a large (4-cup is preferable) measuring cup. Let the liquid settle, and the fat will rise to the top. Remove most of the fat with a spoon into a fat can (not down the sink—you’ll clog the pipes!).
Whatever amount of liquid is left—let’s just say it’s one cup, measure out HALF that amount in flour ( in this hypothetical case, it would be 1/2 cup of flour). Put the flour in a 4-qt. pan and turn heat to medium. Slowly pour the roasting pan liquid into the 4-qt. pan—all the while stirring constantly with a whisk to prevent clumping. This is a standard technique when making a roux. As soon as the juice is incorporated and the roux is smooth, slowly pour in the turkey stock you have made from the giblets—once again, stirring constantly with a whisk. If you don’t feel you have enough turkey stock, you can add a can of College Inn chicken broth.
At this point, I always stand over the gravy until it’s done which is at least a 10-minute process. You want to bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat. Do not turn the heat higher, or the gravy will burn on the bottom of the pan and spoil the taste. You need to stir almost constantly because, even at medium heat, the flour will start to settle and stick to the bottom. The stirring is necessary to keep the flour incorporated with the liquid and thicken the gravy. When the gravy finally starts to simmer, lower the heat to maintain just a nice, bubbling simmer. This is the point where your father always comes over and asks why I don’t just add cornstarch? I’m flour—he’s cornstarch!
When the gravy is thickened to your liking (longer you simmer it, the thicker it will get—I personally don’t like it really, really thick but do your own thing), adjust the seasonings (salt & pepper).
Now, sit down and enjoy a bountiful feast—Bon appétit!