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The Knack

How To Cook A Christmas Turkey

Everything you need to know to make sure your bird-roasting game is spot-on come the big day

The turkey is a bird with one hell of a reputation. Not only is it the glistening golden centrepiece of our Christmas feast and the most expensive piece of meat many of us will fork out for all year, but somehow it’s developed a quite unwarranted name for itself in the difficulty department. Grown men have been known to weep when faced with cooking something the size of a small child.

Allow us to let you into a little secret. A turkey is basically a big chicken. Quite a big chicken, it’s true, but all that means is it takes a bit longer to cook. There’s no vast mystery to it. You don’t need to brine the bird in a mop bucket in the shed for 48 hours or faff about air drying it like an enormous Peking duck. To do that would take you away from your single malt and your fireplace.

Instead, follow a few simple guidelines and turkey won’t be the miserably dry price you pay for all those pigs in blankets, but a treat in its own right, with creamy, deeply savoury flesh and crisp, golden skin to die for. Frankly, you might struggle to save enough for the traditional Boxing Day curry. (Oh well, takeaway it is then.) Here are the five need-to-know steps – and the ultimate recipe – for a fine festive bird. 


OK, there is one slightly irritating thing about being in charge of the Christmas turkey, and that’s tracking down a good one in time – butchers and farms that sell direct often close their order books a week before Christmas, so don’t leave it until the last minute. And turkey is one thing it’s really worth splashing the cash on, because the better the bird has been treated, the better it will taste.

Free-range traditional breeds, which grow more slowly than their tightly packed counterparts, will have the chance to develop more muscle during their longer, active lives, which in turn translates to better-quality meat. Top producers will also hang their turkeys, just as you would with game birds, so they have a chance to develop yet more flavour before the big day.

Really good birds don’t come cheap, but Christmas comes but once a year – so think of it as an investment in your own pleasure, much like shelling out for a Burberry trench rather than a high-street imitation. You can always tell the difference.


As you might expect from a food popular with gym goers, the turkey is a naturally lean bird, which means you’ll have to take steps to prevent it drying out during cooking. It’s become quite fashionable to brine them, as they often do in North America for Thanksgiving, but this is only worth doing if you like your Christmas dinner to taste like a Subway sandwich. Basting is a far easier way to keep the meat juicy. To prevent having to dance attendance on the oven when you should be opening presents, soak a piece of cheesecloth (available from cookery shops or department stores) in melted butter, give it a chance to absorb, then drape it over the bird like a shroud. It will take care of the basting bit, leaving you to get on with the crab starter.


From a roast so rare the best tablecloth still bears the bloodstains to meat so dry and so overcooked an uncle choked on it, everyone has a turkey-related horror story – which is why it’s best to trust science and invest in a thermometer (preferably digital) so you actually know when the bird is done, rather than incinerating it “just to be on the safe side”.

Roasting times for turkeys tend to be hopelessly over-generous, a legacy of the days when frozen birds were popular, and cookery writers had to contend with the very real possibility of inadequate defrosting with all its attendant health hazards. But even more realistic times can be unreliable. Not only are oven thermostats often inaccurate, but even turkeys of the same weight vary in their cooking speed – slower-grown birds have had more chance to lay down a decent layer of fat, which conducts heat better, so they will cook faster than their battery counterparts.

To avoid disappointment, use the timings below as a guide to when to start checking the bird’s internal temperature to see if it’s done, rather than as definitive instructions.


Turkeys these days don’t always come with giblets, or offal – which just shows how little supermarkets think we value our food. The tiny organs may not look very appetising, sealed in their grisly little pouch along with the neck (that’s the long bony bit), but they are absolutely essential for great gravy. If you’re unsure whether or not your bird comes with them, reach inside and feel around (be brave) for a plastic bag. Don’t, as we did one year, remember halfway through cooking, when the bag had already melted into our family’s Christmas dinner. Arrange them around the turkey, add a few aromatics and a splash of water, and sit back and watch your gravy make itself.


Many people, we have observed, believe that all food should be served “piping hot”. These people are mostly, though certainly not exclusively, elderly, and often have similarly strong feelings about things like fish knives. To them we say: you have a choice. You can either have dry, hot turkey, or cool, juicy stuff covered in piping hot gravy and bread sauce, and served with roast potatoes so sizzling they’ll take the skin off the roof off your mouth. Meat should always be rested, uncovered, after cooking to allow its internal temperature to come down, the muscle fibres to relax, and the juices to be reabsorbed back into the flesh. Trust us on this, not your Great Aunt Mabel. If she’s that bothered, there’s always the microwave.

The perfect turkey

1 free-range turkey, with giblets (as a rough guide, a 3kg bird should feed six adults easily)
175g butter
1 onion, cut in half
1 lemon, cut in half
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp plain flour
4 tbsp madeira or sweet sherry
600ml hot chicken stock

You will also need a large piece of cook’s muslin/cheesecloth and a meat thermometer for this recipe


Take the turkey out of the fridge a good couple of hours before you roast it to bring it to room temperature.


Heat the oven to 180ºC. Melt the butter in a pan or the microwave and then pour into a large bowl. Soak the muslin in it until it’s all absorbed.


Remove the giblets from inside the turkey if necessary, and season the bird well, inside and out. Put half the onion and lemon inside the bird, and scatter the other halves and the bay leaf around it in the roasting tin, along with the giblets and 300ml cold water. Drape the muslin over the bird, covering it completely.


The turkey is done when the temperature of the thickest part of the thigh reaches 75ºC and the juices run clear. Begin checking on it after the following times, bearing in mind that, depending on the bird it may well take longer to cook through: 3kg = 1¾ hours; 4kg = 2¼ hours; 5kg = 2¾ hours; 6kg = 3¼ hours; 7kg = 3¾ hours; 8kg = 4¼ hours; 9kg = 4¾ hours.


Remove the muslin and rest the turkey, uncovered, on a carving dish or board, for at least 40 minutes before carving.


Meanwhile, to make the gravy, pour the juices from the tin into a gravy separator, or pour into a jug and skim as much of the fat off with a spoon as possible. Mix the flour to a paste with a couple of tablespoons of the juices, then put the empty turkey roasting tin on the hob on a medium heat. Add the flour paste and cook, stirring, for a minute or so, then gradually whisk in the juices and madeira until smooth. Finally, stir in the stock and simmer, stirring, until thickened. Season to taste – and enjoy.

What to wear

  • J.Crew Alta Fair Isle Wool Sweater

  • Oliver Spencer Slim-Fit Grandad-Collar Checked Cotton-Flannel Shirt

  • Officine Generale New Fisherman Cotton-Twill Chinos

  • The Workers Club Mélange Cotton-Blend Socks

  • Edward Green Gresham Buckled Textured-Leather Boots

  • NOMOS Glashütte Club Automat Automatic 40mm Stainless Steel and Cordovan Leather Watch, Ref. No. 751