It's easy to be intimidated by cooking a turkey for the first time. It's big. It takes a long time to cook. You have to cook it to just the right temperature, lest you make everyone ill. How are you supposed to know the difference between dressing and stuffing, and isn't it really better to be dressed than stuffed? The easy answer is that cooking a turkey is a straightforward, step-by-step process once you've properly defrosted it in the refrigerator overnight.
Just in case there's still time to get to the store, make sure you've properly planned for the meal. You'll need one pound of meat per turkey-eating guests. In other words, if you're serving a crowd of 20, heft a 20-pound turkey out of the bin at the grocery and take it home. If you've under-planned the size of the bird and it is zero hour, make more side dishes to feed the hungry masses.
The basic ingredients of stuffing and dressing are interchangeable: bread, cornbread, onions, celery and your favorite regional throw-ins, such as chestnuts, pecans, sausage and oysters. The difference between the two, many culinary experts say, is the in-the-bird or out-of-the-bird distinction. Stuffing goes inside the hollow cavity of the bird as it cooks, and dressing is cooked in a separate pan and served as a side. If you need to hurry your preparation, mix in dry salad dressing and seasoning mix to flavor your stuffing. Dry mixes contain balanced seasonings, and you won't have to spend time measuring herbs. Most chefs and dieticians say salmonella and bacteria from the bird's juices contaminate the stuffing. For the bacteria to die, the stuffing must be cooked to a temperature of 165 F, which generally means you'll overcook the bird to allow the stuffing to reach that temperature. However, if your family has stuffed their bird for the past 100 years and still insists on doing so to flavor the turkey, make sure you throw away the cooked stuffing to minimize the possibility of food poisoning, particularly if children are eating. Just cook a separate pan of dressing on the side.
If you have at least a day before you plan to serve the turkey, mix together a flavorful brine in a new, clean bucket big enough to immerse the turkey in, and allow it to soak in the brine overnight. Remove a few of the shelves in your refrigerator so the bucket will fit inside. If you don't have that much time, consider stuffing the cavity with aromatics such as oranges, apples, onions and herbs. You can certainly combine both the brine and aromatics. Place the turkey breast-side up on a rack in a roasting pan, tuck the wings into the body and truss the bird with kitchen twine. Trussing is the process of tying the bird together compactly to keep it intact during cooking. Place a tent of foil over the bird to keep the skin from becoming too brown.
The primary number to remember is 165 F -- that's the temperature you want to achieve before removing your cooked turkey from the oven. In a 325 F oven, cook an unstuffed bird according to its weight. For example, a 10 pound bird should be cooked from 2 3/4 to 3 hours, or a 20 pound bird should be cooked from 4 1/2 to 5 hours. A thermometer inserted into the thickest parts of the bird, such as the breast or leg, should register 165 F before you remove it from the oven. A stuffed bird will require longer to cook.
The primary tool you need, besides a food thermometer, is a baster or long-handled spoon. Throughout the cooking process, bathe the turkey in juices to keep it moist and to crisp the skin. A last tip: if you want a beautiful, golden bird, pour a small amount of port or red wine over the turkey in the last 30 minutes of cooking to add a beautiful hue and depth of flavor. The alcohol will cook away, making the turkey still appropriate for little ones.
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