Cook the perfect Christmas turkey
Cooking the perfect Christmas turkey is a precise and time-consuming operation. Follow our step-by-step guide to ensure you achieve perfection this year.
Before you do anything else to perfect your Christmas turkey, do this: buy the best one you can afford. Christmas is a time for overspending but a big bird is good value for money – not only on the day but also for all those sandwiches and leftovers that fill the following week.
If buying from a butcher, get your order in early. This ensures you’ll get the variety and size you want. Fridge space is also a consideration but you can collect your fresh turkey a day or two before Christmas.
If you’re lucky enough to have a larder or outdoor storage space, all the better – the weather is usually cold enough. Always ask for the giblets (to use for stock and gravy) and remove them from the cavity of the bird as soon as you get it home. With a frozen turkey, always make sure it is fully defrosted before cooking.
Thawing times for frozen turkeys
4–5kg: 20 hours at room temperature; 65 hours in fridge
5–6kg: 24 hours at room temperature; 70 hours in fridge
6–7kg: 30 hours at room temperature; 75 hours in the fridge
8–9kg: 40 hours at room temperature; 80 hours in the fridge
9–11kg: 48 hours at room temperature; 96 hours in the fridge
Preparing to cook
If you’re cooking the turkey on Christmas Day, take it out of the fridge on Christmas Eve (or leave it in the larder overnight). It’s important to get it to a cool room temperature before roasting, otherwise cooking times are affected.
Stuffing can be made a few days beforehand (in fact, some people insist it improves if you do). Keep it in the fridge (you can even freeze it). However, if your recipe includes raw egg, make it on the day.
Always ensure the stuffing is cold before filling the neck cavity of the turkey. Officially, stuffing the main cavity is not recommended (although many people do) due to the risk of bacterial growth before the internal temperature reaches safe levels.
Use your own judgement and experience in this, but always stuff loosely to allow for expansion while cooking. A nice alternative to stuffing the cavity is to pop in a halved onion, a halved lemon and a handful of fresh herbs. This infuses the turkey with a subtle flavour that will enhance not only the taste of the bird but the gravy as well.
Allow plenty of time
You can always let the bird sit and wait for you once it is done. Never, under any circumstances, serve underdone turkey.
Calculate the roasting time
It’s helpful to do this the night before and make a note – it’s one less thing to do on a busy Christmas morning. All ovens are different so find out if yours is fast or slow (hot or not so hot.) Ask your butcher to give you the oven-ready weight, or go by the weight on the packaging. A handy tip is to weigh the stuffing separately and add it to the weight of the bird. This will give you the total weight to calculate the roasting time.
Prepare the bird
Place the turkey in the roasting tin, rub with butter or olive oil, season with salt and pepper and cover loosely with a tent of foil. This still allows it to go brown but helps prevent the breast from drying out. Also, you don’t want the foil wrapped too tight because you’ll need to baste the breast regularly. Make sure your oven is at full temperature when you first put the turkey in. For larger birds, it’s best to start the roasting at a moderately high temperature, then turn it down for the remainder of the time.
Let the turkey cook for just over half its roasting time, then baste with the juices using a baster or large spoon. Do this every 20 minutes or so, increasing the intervals to 10 minutes for the final half hour of cooking.
Roasting times for a turkey, stuffed or unstuffed, and approximate times for serving
4-5 kg: 3 hours at 200C/400F/gas mark 6; start at 9, 10 or 11am to eat at 1, 2 or 3pm
5-6 kg: 3–4 hours at 200C/400F/gas mark 6; start at 9, 10 or 11am to eat at 1:30, 2:30 or 3.30pm
6-7 kg: 30 minutes at 200C/400F/gas mark 6, then 3 ½ – 4 hours at 180C/350F/gas mark 4; start at 8, 9 or 10am to eat at 1:30, 2:30 or 3:30pm
8-9 kg: 30 minutes at 200C/400F/gas mark 6, then 4 ½ – 5 hours at 180C/350F/gas mark 4; start at 7, 8 or 9am to eat at 1:30, 2:30 or 3:30pm
These times are approximate, depending on your oven and how often you open the door to baste. Weight is the total weight, including any stuffing you may have used.
How do you know when it’s done?
Insert a skewer into the thickest part of the thigh. The juices should run clear with no sign of pink. If you’re at all unsure, return the turkey to the oven for another 30 minutes.
Once your turkey is cooked, it’s important to let it rest for at least 30 minutes or longer. This gives you time to finish roasting the vegetables in the oven and any other last-minute jobs. Cover it loosely with foil and keep in a warm place. Strain the juices and add to the gravy.
Whether you're hosting Christmas for the first time and don't know where to start, or you're a seasoned chef looking for something new, look no further than this essential guide to fest...