Turkey might be a traditional Christmas dinner centerpiece but it’s not the easiest thing to cook.
It can quickly turn dry and flavourless – but it doesn’t have to be that way.
There are lots of ways to cook the bird to keep it succulent and juicy.
While most of us don’t cook more than one a year and don’t get much experience, chefs usually end up cooking quite a few throughout the festive period.
We asked some of them to give us their tips and advice for cooking the perfect turkey at Christmas.
Choosing your turkey
With Christmas scaled back for many this year due to the pandemic, you might not need a whole turkey. For a smaller family, try sticking to a crown.
The larger the turkey, the longer it takes to cook so choose one that’s big enough for the number of people around the dinner table, plus a little for leftovers the next day.
A good rule of thumb is 450g per adult.
Cut it up
If you’re cooking a whole turkey, separating the crown and the legs can help keep the meat juicy.
Paul Gamble, senior development chef at Waitrose says: ‘The turkey legs and crown take a different length of time to cook, therefore separating them helps to avoid the breast meat over cooking and drying out.
‘I like to go all out at Christmas and take a very ‘cheffy’ option with my turkey. I remove the legs, debone them, fill them with some of the Christmas stuffing and then tie them up and roast separately.’
The team at Signature Chefs, who cook for celebrities and royalty, recommends this method too to keep everything moist but also to save on cooking time and space.
They say: ‘Dividing it up will allow you to roll the breast, stuff it and then cook the legs separately to ensure you always get the moist meat that everyone wants.‘
Brining is best
Almost all the chefs we spoke to agreed that brining is important to get succulent meat.
This means submerging it in a solution of water, salt and other flavourings before the big day.
Each chef uses a different brine and sticks to different times but they agreed it really helps.
Alex Bond, chef patron of the Michelin starred Alchemilla in Nottingham said: ‘Brine your turkey the day before as it stops it from drying out and keeps it moist. I recommend one breast, brined and then poached with a leg, boned and rolled with sausage meat stuffing then roasted.’
Jack Stein, chef director of The Rick Stein Group adds: ‘Brine your turkey overnight in a brine of 10% salt so 10g per 100mm water. Take it out in the morning and wash off and excess brine then it will always be lovely and soft flesh.’
James Cochran, chef patron at 12:51, explains that brining helps any poultry but particularly for turkey.
He says: ‘Brining should be a given when it comes to any poultry – that’s what we do with our fried chicken to ensure succulence.
‘So roasting a notoriously dry bird like a turkey will ensure this goes down in food history rather than a Christmas dinner we’d rather forget. You’ll never turn back on brining once you have a leftover xmas sandwich with brined turkey on Boxing Day. Insane!
‘To brine, submerge a 10kg bird in 10 litres of water and 1kg of salt then add lots of aromatics like the peel of a few oranges, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, juniper berries, bay leaves and leave in the fridge overnight.
‘The proteins are broken down in the bird via osmosis and the salt tenderises the meat.
‘The next day, make sure you drain and pat dry as much as possible to ensure a crispy bird and juicy cuts. So remember, baptise the bird you’ll be a convert I promise.’
It can be cooked ahead of time
You don’t have to cook your turkey on Christmas Day.
If you are tight on time, have a small oven or just want to spend the day sipping prosecco and eating Quality Street, rather than fussing over the oven, start it the day before.
Zoe Simons, senior development chef at Waitrose says: ‘I like to prepare my Christmas turkey ahead of time, which ends up saving me time on Christmas Day and means I get more time to spend with family.
‘A few days before Christmas, I take off the turkey legs and confit them in duck fat and herbs. Then on Christmas Day, the turkey crown takes less time to cook and the leg meat is rich and full of flavour – the legs just need a quick reheat in the oven for about 25 minutes.
‘I then use the fat from the confit turkey legs to roast my potatoes, this way you get all the flavour from confiting the turkey legs and you don’t waste anything!”
James Toth, head chef at Cornerstone, also has an easy method to cook the turkey while he sleeps.
He adds: ‘People always worry about cooking turkey on the day because time management is tricky. What I like to do is to put my Turkey in the oven overnight on Christmas Eve so it can start cooking gently.
‘I put a turkey for about five people on at 80 – 100 degrees, check it in the morning and to finish off the cooking and give it that roasted brown colour I whack the temperature up to 220 degrees for about 30-40 degrees.
‘I’ll definitely be doing that this year because I’m also cooking a vegan mushroom wellington on the day.’
Getting it ready for the oven
Once it’s brined you need to ensure there’s lots of fat and flavour to help it cook.
Kerth Gumbs, executive chef of Ormer Mayfair, says: ‘As well as brining your turkey to avoid it being bland and dry, I also like to prepare a butter and spice mixture (it can be any spice you like) to rub over it before cooking. Keeping the butter cold allows me to roll it out with a rolling pin.
‘Then, by running my fingers under the skin of the turkey breast, I create a gap that allows me to spread the butter mixture directly on to the flesh of the bird. This is a very good way to help the meat stay moist, tender and fragrant.’
Chef Omar Allibhoy has an unusal way he gets the turkey ready to cook, passed down through generations.
He says: ‘In our family we inject the turkey with half a bottle of brandy 48 hours before cooking – not only does it give the turkey a wonderful flavour, it’s super succulent too. Don’t worry about your turkey tasting of alcohol it will evaporate during cooking.’
If your turkey has giblets, make sure these are removed before cooking but you can use them later to make gravy or stock.
Most turkeys will have cooking times on the packaging but a good rule is to cook in a 180°C (160°C fan, gas mark 4) preheated oven for 35 minutes per kg.
Remember to weight the turkey just before you put it in the oven, rather than relying on the weight on the packaging as if you’ve added stuffing or anything else to the bird, it will need extra time.
Get the right equipment
You need a roasting tray big enough to contain the meat. Of course, you can easily find disposable trays in the supermarket but it’s best to pick up one you can use again and again.
Another piece of equipment which could be useful is a digital probe.
Jack Stein says: ‘It will take the stress out of timing the turkey – simply remove it from the oven when it reaches 68 degrees.’
You can also insert a small skewer into the thickest part of the thigh and see if the juices run clear. If there’s any pinkness, return to the oven and check every 15 minutes
Consider the BBQ
While there are lots of traditional ways to cook turkey, some chefs like to try something a little different and something which has been gaining popularity is cooking your turkey on the BBQ.
Martyn Lee, executive chef at Waitrose says it helps keep it succulent but the skin crisp, plus gives more space in the oven for all the trimmings.
He explains: ‘Barbecuing a turkey calls for indirect heat – it’s very different to grilling a steak over hot coals. The best way to do this is to stack coals along one side of the barbecue and the meat on the other side. My tip would be to use foil to deflect the heat if necessary.
‘I love to cook the whole bird on the barbecue as it gives everyone the option of white or dark meat, however I always remove the thighs and legs and cook them separately as the dark meat benefits from longer, slower cooking.
‘Cooking both at the same time means the white breast meat will overcook before the thighs and legs – leading to the dreaded dry turkey! If you prefer to focus on the turkey crown – or are planning for a smaller gathering – then this will cook beautifully too.’
Former MasterChef finalists Billy Wright and Jack Layer explain that you don’t want to serve your turkey up straight from the oven.
They say: ‘It’s an easy mistake to make, but meat needs to rest. The longer it rests the juicier it will be. You can take a turkey out of the oven and it will happily rest, covered for an hour, giving you time to roast the spuds.’
You need to give it at least 30 minutes but it will be good for anything up to 1.5 hours.
If you haven’t already removed the legs do this first.
There are two ways to carve the crown – either slice directly on the carcass, make a horizontal cuts below the breast towards the breastbone to allow the slices to come off easily, or remove the breast and slice it up to serve.
To remove the breast make a horizontal cut beneath it, then make a long cut down the side of the breastbone to carve out the whole breast. Pull it away from the bone and place on a board to cut it up into slices.
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