How to roast a perfect turkey or chicken

This is how I roast chickens and turkeys. There are plenty of other methods, many of which work. I use this method because, after much experimentation on dozens of birds, I concluded that it's the easiest way to get a juicy, tender bird. If your family has a method that produces results you're happy with, stick with it! No need to buck family tradition.

However, if your method is producing a dry bird, or you have no idea how to roast one, here is my method. I assure you, it's easy. I roast chickens all the time for parties because it's such a low-effort dinner. Roasting a turkey is almost exactly the same as roasting a chicken.

After your fabulous turkey dinner, you might want to serve my Grandma's apple pie for a perfect dessert ending to the meal.

Equipment

First, you need a covered roasting pan. I use one of those black enamelware ones with the white flecks all over it. They're cheap, I think I paid about $12 for mine. (Think of it this way: a disposable foil pan costs about $4. Buy three and you've spent as much as you would for a nice reusable pan with a cover. If you buy the nice reusable pan with a cover you'll get a juicier bird and you can roast chickens in it when it's not Thanksgiving.) I do not use a rack in the pan, I think the rack is unnecessary.

You'll need a remote temperature probe with a temperature alarm. These can be had at most decent cooking shops for $25 or less. It's a little box with a digital temperature display, with a wire that runs to a prong that you stick into the bird. (We'll get to where later.)

You'll also need some cotton string, a baster, and a pair of turkey lifters. (Turkey lifters are a pair of huge two-pronged forks with big plastic handles.) There are two ways to think about basters: you can get a nice pretty one and plan to clean it after every use (I pull the bulb off of the tube and stick both parts in the dishwasher) or you can get a cheap one (they can be had for $1) and throw it away when you're done cooking.

Selecting a bird

REMEMBER THAT A FROZEN TURKEY CAN TAKE SEVERAL DAYS TO THAW.

I recommend a turkey that has been pre-brined. Butterball sells well for a reason. You can brine your own bird, or use an injector to inject moisture into it, but why bother when you can buy one that has been all taken care of for you?

When I cook a chicken, I try to get the largest one I can find - usually about 9 pounds. My thought is, since I'm cooking anyway, it's no more effort for me to cook a 9 pound chicken than a 4 pound chicken, and then I'll have leftovers I can use for future meals and a nice big carcass I can boil for soup stock. However, once in a while I just get a great deal on smaller (3 to 4 pound) chickens, so I cook two at a time in a nice big roasting pan. Cooking several smaller birds does have one advantage, which is that they cook faster than one big one.

Estimating cooking time

This method determines when the bird is done based on the temperature of the meat, not by time. Do not use the estimate to decide when to take the bird out of the oven, use the temperature probe's alarm as described below. This method of estimating is provided only so you can decide what time to start cooking so the bird will be on the table at about the right time.

Birds usually take about 15 minutes per pound of bird. Remember that each bird cooks on its own even if you put them in the oven together. If you're cooking two 4 pound birds, that means the estimated cooking time is an hour, not two hours. For this reason, I try to avoid cooking two birds at the same time that are very different weights, so I'll know that since they're the same weight in the same oven at the same temperature, when one is done the other will be too.

If I have to cook two different weight birds (for example, if I'm having a large party and I want a 9 pound chicken and a 4 pound chicken to supplement it) I put in just one bird to start and then add the second. In our example, I would estimate that 9 pounds X 15 minutes = 2 hours 15 minutes, and 4 pounds X 15 minutes = 1 hour, so I'd cook the larger bird for 1 hour 15 minutes and then add the smaller bird. In such cases, I always use an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature of the second bird to make sure it's done properly.

Preparing to cook

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Remove all packaging from the completely-thawed turkey or chicken. If you bought a frozen turkey, thaw according to instructions on the package, remembering it can take days to thaw! There will probably be directions telling you how to prep it, you may want to follow them. MAKE SURE TO REMOVE THE PLASTIC GIBLET POUCH FROM INSIDE THE BIRD. (If you don't use the giblets, throw them in the freezer until trash day, they smell terrible when they get warm.) Rinse the bird thoroughly, inside and out.

I prep the bird pretty simply, I just tuck the wingettes backwards under the body of the birdso they lay flat and tie the two drumsticks together.These steps are entirely unnecessary to proper cooking, but make for a more attractive bird when it's served. If you don't do these things, the wings and drumsticks slump unattractively out to the sides during cooking.

If the bird has any other string on it I remove it. Don't stuff the bird, cook the stuffing separately. (If you cook the stuffing in the bird, if your handling procedures are incorrect there is a small possibility that the stuffing could grow bacteria from the bird and become unhealthy. By cooking it separately, you eliminate this problem.) Dust the inside with salt and freshly ground pepper. You may choose to add some coarsely chopped celery and carrots for aroma.

Rub the outside (the skin) liberally with olive oil or corn oil or butter, or spray it with a canned spray olive oil or corn oil. The spray is easier, but butter has a bit more flavor of course.

Place the turkey in the roasting pan. Pour two cups plain water into the bottom of the pan if roasting a turkey, one if roasting a chicken. The water is to prevent smoking from the bird's drippings, and will probably turn to steam and go away on its own during the cooking process.

Insert the remote temperature probe deeply into the breast meat under one drumstick (so the hole won't show). It's important that the probe be deep inside the meat or the meat will not be properly cooked. Connect the wire from the probe to the alarm unit, which goes outside the oven. Place the lid on the roaster and place the whole thing into the oven. Close the oven door.

During cooking

Set the temperature alarm on the temperature probe for 150 degrees. After 20 minutes, turn the oven down to 350 degrees and fully open the oven door for about 30 seconds to let the oven temperature decrease. The 450 degree oven is actually too hot for cooking, it's just to jumpstart the cooking process.

At 25 minutes after that, baste the turkey. (You remove accumulated juices from the inside of the turkey and the pan using the baster and spray them gently over the top of the bird.) Repeat basting every 45 minutes therafter. If you're roasting a chicken, you don't have to baste! Really, I've tried it, I promise! You can roast a chicken with no basting at all and it comes out juicy and delicious.

When the temperature alarm goes off at 150 degrees, open the oven and remove the lid from the roasting pan. The purpose of the lid is to keep the nice juices in the pan from drying up, and the purpose of removing it is to let the dry heat of the oven brown the skin of the turkey beautifully.

Now, according to Julia Child's masterpiece, "The Way To Cook", the correct internal temperature for a fully cooked bird is 180 degrees. Also, you're supposed to remove the bird from the oven 10 degrees lower than that, so that when its internal temperature rises 10 degrees after removal from the oven (due to heat distributing to the middle of the bird from the outer bird), it will be cooked perfectly instead of being 10 degrees overcooked and dry. Thus, it seems the best internal temperature at which to remove the bird from the oven is 170 degrees. Therefore, I set my remote temperature probe alarm to 170 degrees, and when it goes off I remove the bird from the oven.

Immediately upon removing the bird from the oven, use the turkey lifters first to scrape along the underside of the bird (to separate it from the pan if it's stuck), and then to remove it from the pan. (Plunge one lifter under the breast on either side of the bird and then lift.) Place the bird on a nice big platter and put it aside to rest no less than 15 minutes (and as much as half an hour) before carving it.

Carving the bird

This is really very easy and you'll never have to fear being asked to do it again as everyone tells you what a genius you are for just cutting up a piece of meat. An electric knife is entirely unnecessary but may be used if you like it or its noise gives you nostalgia. (I have one, it's great, but I use it for beef roasts and pastry, not poultry.) I use a nice sharp carving knife or chef's knife (I like the chef's knife better but the carving knife is fine, particularly if you have a pretty one) and a nice big carving fork.

First, cut the string holding the two drumsticks together. Grab a drumstick and bend it backwards on the bird, away from the other drumstick. As this exposes the bird's "armpit", slice in there with a knife. As you bend the drumstick further back and continue slicing you'll start to see cartilage. Look for the middle of the joint where the two pieces of cartilage come together and slice right through it. Keep cutting through until the drumstick comes off easily.

Next, make a horizontal cut deep into the bottom of the breast meat along the full length of it. Then, make vertical cuts down into the breast meat parallel to the side of the bird until they meet the horizontal cut. The breast meat will then easily come off in neat slices. Note: The wishbone is in the back of the breast, and you may have to cut around it. If the bird is a chicken, you may choose to remove the whole breast instead of slicing it. To do so, slice along the top center of the bird just to the side of the center (there's a bone in the center). Then insert the knife between bone and breast and push the meat away from the bird.As it comes away, slice under it with the knife to finish separating it from the bird. I chop it in half and serve as two pieces.

The thigh is the big piece of dark meat under where the drumstick was. Insert a knife into it from its top and you'll find it has a big bone running down its center. Using the point of the knife, poke around until you feel where that bone meets the rest of the bird's skeleton. Insert the point of the knife into the joint and break the joint by cutting through it. You may then easily cut the thigh meat around where it meets the bird and remove the thigh.

Repeat the entire process on the other side of the chicken.

When you're done, the very lower breast meat (there's always some that doesn't come off neatly during carving) will be left and may be removed with clean hands. There will also be breast meat under the wishbone, in a bigger chunk which may be removed with a knife. Be careful of the wishbone, it's nastily sharp when broken.

What to do with the carcass

Coarsely chop up the carcass, throw it in a big stock pot with all the bones and all the cartilage and any leftover sauce or gravy, add two to three cups of coarsely chopped carrots and celery (the celery is vital) and 1/4 cup salt, cover with water and simmer for 24 hours. (Yes, really.) Strain it, discard all solids, and you'll have the best soup stock you've ever tasted. Note that it's normal that it will turn to jello when refridgerated. That's because the cartilage dissolves into the soup stock, which makes it nicely thick without having to add starch. (It may well also be good for your joints.) If you want your stock to be just a little thicker, add one envelope of unflavored gelatine, which you'll usually find in the section with the Jello in your supermarket.

Yummy Sauce

I'm really bad at making gravy so I invented a sauce to serve on the meat instead. My friends liked it so much they named it "Yummy Sauce". This is really easy and takes about 15 minutes to make.

Ingredients:

After removing the bird from the pan, place the pan on the stovetop, across two burners. We'll get back to it.

Finely chop 3 to 4 shallots, or mince them. Throw the shallots into the pan. Turn on the burners under the pan.

Add butter. The amount to use is half a stick for every 4 pounds of bird that you cooked in the pan. So, if you cooked a 12 pound bird, that's a stick and a half of butter. Yes, really, I want you to use that much butter.

Add wine. There's no correct amount here - basically I just uncork the bottle and splash it across the inside of the pan once for a small bird or twice for a large bird. I'd guess that it's generally between half a cup and a cup of wine. If you want to accentuate a fruityness in the flavor of the sauce, add more wine and plan to cook the sauce down a little longer. You can serve the rest of the wine with the meal, white zin may be heresy to wine snobs but it tastes nice with poultry.

Cook the mixture until first the butter melts, then you'll have a yellow sauce, then keep cooking until it browns slightly. If it's very watery in consistency, keep cooking it until it's slightly thicker than water. While cooking it, scrape around the bottom of the pan with a spatula or spoon, and keep splashing the sauce around inside the bottom of the pan to keep it mixing nicely.

After done cooking, use a mitt to upend the pan to pour the sauce into a nice big bowl. Serve hot! If you let it cool it will solidify.

I like to cut my meat up, add salt and lots of freshly ground pepper, and then spoon lots of the sauce over the whole mess. Heaven.

A final warning

Once you've served this, your friends and family will ask for it all the time. Get used to eating luxuriously.