A beginner's guide to cooking turkey

Our ultimate foolproof guide on how not to stuff up the turkey, whether it's your first or fiftieth, we've got your back. Just follow our turkey timeline and tips.

Buying a turkey
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Choosing the right size

Allow 400 g meat on the bone per person to be generous and ensure some leftovers (for example, to feed 10 people, a 4 kg turkey is ideal).

  • 3 kg turkey serves 7-8
  • 4 kg turkey serves 10
  • 5 kg turkey serves 12-13
  • 6 kg turkey serves 15

Also consider the size of your oven, and if you have a roasting tray that's large enough.

Whether fresh or frozen, price and quality can vary markedly. More butchers and supermarkets are stocking free-range as well as commercially produced birds. Buy the best quality you can afford.

Look for pink, moist plump flesh with no tears in the skin.

 

Thaw safely

If buying a frozen turkey, allow 1 day per 2 kg to thaw in the refrigerator. Place in a tray in its original packaging on the lowest shelf to avoid cross-contaminating other foods. This is the safest method, you should never defrost at room temperature, or under running water or in a sink of water  – dangerous bacteria that cause food poisoning grow rapidly in warm temperatures. Once thawed, it can be kept in the refrigerator 1 additional day before roasting.

  • 3 kg turkey, thaw in fridge for 1.5 days
  • 4 kg turkey serves 10, thaw in fridge for 2 days
  • 5 kg turkey serves 12-13, thaw in fridge for 2.5 days
  • 6 kg turkey serves 15, thaw in fridge for 3 days

 

Preparation

Remove the neck and giblets. Rinse inside and out with cold water and pat dry with paper towel.

Consider whether you wish to brine your turkey – this is a good idea as the breast meat of a whole turkey tends to dry out during cooking (see below). Some turkey lovers insist brining is essential to making the bird juicy and tender.

An alternative is to place softened butter (see below) under the skin on the breast to keep the meat moist.

Allow the turkey to come to room temperature before you roast it – this will take about 1 hour.

When you first remove it from the refrigerator, this is a good time to loosen the skin on the breast. Use the back of a dessertspoon to ease between the skin and the breast meat to release the skin from the flesh, but take care not to split the skin.

To brine or not to brine?
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To brine a 4 kg turkey, bring 1 cup sea salt, 1 cup sugar, 3 bay leaves, half bunch thyme, 1 tablespoon black peppercorns and 6 litres of water to the boil in a large stockpot. Boil for 5 minutes, cool to room temperature, transfer to a large, deep non-reactive container (big enough to fit your turkey) and refrigerate until chilled completely.

Submerge the turkey and refrigerate for 24 hours. Before roasting, remove the bird from the brine, then rinse and pat dry, inside and out, with paper towel.

Allow the turkey to come to room temperature before you roast it – this will take about 1 hour.

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Get flavour into your bird: butter up
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If you don't want to mess with brining, one of the easiest ways to infuse the turkey meat with flavour and keep it moist and delicious is to push some flavoured butter under the skin.

The following flavoured butters make enough for a 4 kg turkey.

 

Lemon and parsley

Combine 80 g softened butter, finely grated zest of 1 lemon, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, salt and pepper.

 

Garlic and tarragon

Combine 80 g softened butter, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons chopped tarragon, salt and pepper.

 

Chipotle and lime

Combine 80 g softened butter, 1 tablespoon minced chipotle chilli in adobo sauce, finely grated zest of 2 limes, 2 tablespoons chopped coriander, salt and pepper.

 

When ready to roast, preheat the oven and tuck the wings under the body. Gently push the softened or flavoured butter under the skin on the breast.

What's better than crispy skin? Spiced crispy skin!
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How can you beat the crunch of crispy caramelised turkey skin? Smother it in a spice rub, of course.

These are our favourite spice saviours, which make enough to cover a 4 kg turkey. Simply combine the dried spices with 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and rub over the skin before cooking.

Rubs are a quick way to add flavour to a jointed or spatchcocked turkey too.

 

Asian

1 tablespoon Chinese five spice.

 

Spanish

2 teaspoons Spanish smoked paprika.

 

Deep South

1 tablespoon Creole spice mix (available from specialty spice shops).

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Simple stuffing basics
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Ensure the stuffing is at room temperature (i.e. no residual heat, if it is a cooked stuffing).

Loosely stuff the bird’s neck and body cavity.

Secure the cavity with a skewer and tuck the neck skin underneath and secure with a toothpick.

Make sure you weigh the bird after stuffing to calculate the cooking time.

 

Sage and onion stuffing

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat, add 2 sliced onions and cook, stirring occasionally for 10–15 minutes or until golden brown and lightly caramelised. Cool to room temperature. When ready to stuff the turkey, combine the onion with 4 cups sourdough breadcrumbs, 2 tablespoons roughly chopped sage, 50 g softened butter, salt and pepper.

Makes enough to stuff a 4 kg turkey.

 

Chorizo and roast capsicum stuffing

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat, add 2 finely chopped chorizo sausages and 2 chopped onions, cook, stirring occasionally for 8–10 minutes or until golden and the onion has softened. Cool to room temperature. When ready to stuff the turkey, combine the chorizo mixture with 5 cups fresh white breadcrumbs, 150 g chopped roasted red capsicum, 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley and 50 g softened butter, salt and pepper. 

Makes enough to stuff a 4 kg turkey.

Roasting a turkey
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How to truss a turkey

This gives a nice shape by bringing the legs close up against the body, and helps to prevent them drying out. Take a long piece of string (about 80 cm), pass it under the bird between the legs and the wings so you have an even amount of string on each side. Pass the string along the gap between the legs and the body, and up and around each drumstick. Tie together tightly. Place on a rack in a roasting tray.

 

Roast with confidence

For juicy, tender meat, place the turkey on a greased rack in a roasting tray. For a 4 kg turkey, brush with 2 tablespoons of olive oil (and a spice rub, if using, see above) and season well with sea salt and cracked black pepper.

Add 125 ml (½ cup) water into the tray. Roast on the lowest shelf, turning halfway through, and baste every 30 minutes.

Add more water to the tray if needed to avoid the juices burning. Cover loosely with greased foil if the turkey is browning too much.

 

Roasting times

Here’s our guide on how long to roast a turkey. Ovens vary, so check regularly throughout cooking. No matter what the cut of turkey, baste regularly, test with a skewer, and rest.

 

Type – Temp – Time – Weight

Whole turkey, 180°C, 35-40 minutes, per kg
Breast fillet, 200°C, 30 minutes, per kg
Rolled, 200°C, 30 minutes, per kg
Jointed, 200°C, 40-50 minutes, 4 kg turkey
Spatchcocked, 220°C, 40-50 minutes, 4 kg turkey

 

How do you tell the turkey is cooked?

Pierce the thickest part of the leg with a skewer; if the juices run clear, the turkey is cooked. If not, return to the oven for a further 15 minutes, then test again.

The Food Safety Information Council says the safe way to test is by using a digital thermometer in the thickest part of the leg. The internal temperature of the thigh should be 80°C.

To check the stuffing is hot at the centre, insert a metal skewer and leave for 10 seconds; the skewer should be hot to the touch when removed.

 

Resting the turkey

Remove from the oven and set aside in a warm place loosely covered in foil for 20–30 minutes. This allows the meat to relax and the juices to reabsorb into the bird.

All turkey, no matter what cut, needs to be rested.

This is a good time to make the gravy and assemble the side dishes.

How to carve a turkey
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Yes, it's daunting if this is your first go at breaking down a whole bird. The good news is once you've got the hang of carving, you're flying, and you'll end up with a pretty plate just like this one:

First thing: it seems too obvious to point out, but using a sharp knife will make carving so much easier, give cleaner cuts, and will keep the meat juicier. 

In brief, approach carving your turkey by parts: 

1. Remove the drumsticks

2. Remove the thighs

3. Carve the breasts

4. Remove the wings

5. Remove the wishbone 

Now here are our hand-holding, detailed step-by-step instructions below:

Gravy or salsa verde?
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In Australia’s hot climate, it makes sense to serve a lighter sauce, such as zingy herbaceous salsa verde, instead of gravy with the turkey. We've given you both options below. These make enough for a 4 kg turkey.

 

Lump-free gravy

Pour the roasting tray juices into a jug and spoon off any fat. Place the tray over medium heat (make sure it’s a flameproof tray), add 2 tablespoons plain flour, and stir for 2 minutes, scraping the caramelised bits from the base of the tray. Add 200 ml dry white wine and stir as it reduces. Add 375 ml (1½ cups) chicken stock and the reserved tray juices and bring to the boil, stirring until smooth. You could also add ¼ cup quince paste or cranberry jelly at this stage.

 

Salsa verde

Place 125 ml (½ cup) olive oil, 1 cup basil leaves, 1 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, 1 tablespoon salted capers (rinsed and drained), 2 teaspoons lemon juice and 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts in a small food processor and blitz until smooth, season with salt and pepper.

I really don't want to cook a whole turkey ...
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If you don’t have time (or the inclination) to roast a whole turkey, consider jointing the bird before cooking, or spatchcocking it (cut out the backbone with poultry shears and press to flatten).

Another alternative is to roast a turkey breast fillet, skin on (1.6 kg would be enough for 8 people).

If roasting a breast fillet only, you can still put some butter under the skin.

Also add stuffing if you like (you will only need about half the amount of typical stuffing recipes).

To stuff a breast fillet, turn the breast skin side down, remove the tenderloin and make a 1 cm-deep cut along the centre of the breast. Place some stuffing along the cut, cover with the tenderloin, roll to enclose and tie with kitchen string.

With all of these options, you can simply place the meat skin-side up on a large heavy-based baking tray, brush with olive oil, season well with sea salt and cracked black pepper, and roast.