How to make the perfect Christmas Turkey

How to make the perfect Christmas Turkey

This article first appeared on Food24, it has been edited to update

The biggest complaint about turkey seems to be that is can be a little dry. Here are some top tips to getting a moist, succulent roast! Hold onto your tinsel! Here comes the perfect turkey!

Cold turkey
As the majority of turkey is imported, it is shipped frozen. Look for any signs that the turkey may have defrosted in transit and never re-freeze it once it has thawed.

Turkey size
Choose your turkey based on the size required to feed your guests. To account for the weight of the bone allow 400-450g turkey per person (if you are serving other proteins you could reduce this number). Using that calculation, an average “medium-sized” turkey (around 4kg) should feed 8-10 people.

Two days before your celebration, remove the bird from the freezer and place it on a tray in the fridge to defrost. It takes a while, so don’t leave it to the last minute. On the day before cooking, remove the plastic packaging and leave open in the fridge to allow the skin to dry out. Don’t forget to remove the giblets and bits that are usually in a bag inside the bird.

The 5 B’s of Turkey
The get the perfect, moist roast turkey, follow the five Bs.
Most turkeys that are sold in SA seem to be brined already, but you can still add your unique stamp with a creative brine. Brining is a hot topic in the poultry circles. It is a way for producers to up the weight of frozen poultry thereby making it more expensive.
However, it does make the meat more tender and juicy. Basically, all you need to do is soak the bird in a lightly salted solution for 1 – 2 days causing it to soak up moisture and flavours from the brine. The rule of thumb is ½ cup coarse salt for every 4 litres of water. The turkey can be left to defrost in the brining water if you want to save time. The night before roasting, remove the bird from the brine, and leave open in the fridge for the skin to dry out.

Simple apple brine
1 litre apple juice
250ml apple cider vinegar
Handful chopped sage
10 peppercorns
1 onion (quartered)
3 litres water
125ml coarse salt

Mix everything together in a large bowl and place your turkey in the bowl, breast side down, cover with cling film and leave to soak in the fridge for 2 days. The evening before roasting, remove the bird from the solution and place open (breast side up) in the fridge to allow the skin to dry.
Before roasting, make a flavoured butter and stuff it between the skin and the fresh of the bird. This will melt into the meat and help the skin to crisp up. Great flavour ideas include sage and black pepper or lemon and thyme. This can be done on the breast and leg/thigh area.
To keep your meat extra moist, consider covering the breast with a fatty meat such as bacon. Use good-quality, streaky bacon with a high fat content. As the bird cooks the bacon will protect the breast from drying out and the fat will soak into the bird making it succulent and flavourful. Half an hour before the end of the roasting time, remove the bacon to allow the skin to crisp.

Roast your turkey at a relatively low oven temperature of 160°C. This will prevent the skin from darkening too much and will allow the heat to permeate the roast without overcooking the outside. Baste your roast regularly, with the pan juices to help keep it moist. This can be done every 30 minutes of the cooking time.

The last B is for braaiing. It takes a brave cook to attempt a turkey on the braai, but the flavour and succulence is incomparable. For this you will need a kettle braai and you will use indirect heat (the coals aren’t directly underneath the bird). Prepare your bird as above and place it in the braai breast-side down for the first half of the cooking time with the lid on. Leave it to cook slowly; because it is a lengthy process you will most likely need to prepare coals to replenish and keep the heat going. Once, about half the cooking time has passed, turn the bird over so that the breast is up. If the skin starts to brown too much cover the skin with foil.

No turkey (or Christmas) would be complete without stuffing. Because of the size of the turkey it is possible (and desirable) to create two different stuffings. One for the front and one for the … ahem… rear. Two favourites in our house are a pork based stuffing and a bread based stuffing. Recipes below.

Pork sausage stuffing
6 pork bangers
1 finely chopped onion
1 egg
Handful of chopped parsley
Bacon strips (optional)
Mix everything together and stuff into the cavity. If there is any mixture left over place it in a loaf tin and cover with bacon and cook for 30 minutes at 180°C.

Apple sage stuffing
Half a loaf white bread (ripped into chunks)
One onion (peeled and roughly chopped)
3 apples (peeled, cored and roughly chopped)
2 tbsp butter (melted)
Handful of sage
Place all the ingredients in a food processor and blitz until they come together. Stuff into the cavity of the bird and roast. If there is any mixture left over place it in a loaf tin and cover with bacon and cook for 30 minutes at 180°C.

Is it done?
There are various ways of determining when you roast turkey is cooked. Many turkeys come with a little red plastic “pop-up”. This is supposed to pop up once the turkey is cooked, but in my personal experience it sometimes gets gummed up with turkey juices and doesn’t pop when it is supposed to. So rather use these guidelines:
Cooking times are a guideline and you should check that the turkey is done before removing it from the oven.
For a 4 kg (medium bird) the cooking time would be 3 hours (at 160°C) if unstuffed and 3 ½ hours if stuffed.
By far the most accurate test is to measure the internal temperature of the bird. For a turkey with bones, the internal temperature should be 83°C. If, however, you do not have a thermometer, check that it is done by piercing the meat at the thickest part (near the thigh joint) and see if the juices run clear. If not return to the oven for a further 15 minutes and test again.

Remove the turkey from the oven and cover with foil to rest. Resting will help it to hold onto its juices and prevent drying. If possible rest the turkey for at least 30 minutes (if not more) before carving. Because it is so large, there is minimal heat loss in that time, and the product is heavenly!

Use any pan juices (I usually roast the giblets and neck etc in the pan as well) and make a gravy. Serve cold leftovers with cranberry sauce or jelly.
Simple gravy
Remove the roast and any pieces from the pan (like the neck) and add 2 cups of chicken stock. Place the pan on the heat and with a whisk deglaze the bottom of the pan. Strain this mixture into a jug. In a clean pot, melt a table spoon of butter, and add in a tablespoon of flour. Cook gently over a low heat and gradually begin adding the stock, whisking between each addition. Once all the stock has been added, bring to the boil and season to taste.

Let’s get festive!