The traditional Christmas bird, turkey is good to eat all year round though is only readily available as portions much of the year. It has all the nutritional plus points of chicken, but with a slightly lower fat content, which is good for health, but does mean that the flesh can be on the dry side. Counteract this with frequent basting during roasting or by marinading cuts before cooking them. Never eat raw turkey, and always thoroughly wash your hands, utensils and cutting board as soon as you've cut or handled raw turkey.
Turkeys are at their best in December.
Choose the best
As is the case with all meat, turkey should be bought from a source that you trust - a good supermarket, local butcher, farmers' market or shop, or a website mail order company. Of those five sources, the last four are perhaps more likely to be able to tell you the most about the turkey - where it came from and how it was reared. Traceability like that will give you assurance that the turkey has been humanely treated while alive; the higher the standard of welfare by which a turkey was reared, the better the quality of the meat.
Read more about turkey farming at Red Tractor.
Organic turkey is the most expensive, as the most stringent farming standards will have been adhered to at all stages of the animal's life, including being allowed to roam outside during the day and being fed a mainly organic diet. As they are allowed to mature slowly their flesh is firm and flavourful, though, because they have had lots of exercise during their lives, they may be less plump than indoor-reared birds.
Free-range turkeys should have had some access to the open air and are usually cheaper than organic.
Battery (or 'factory') reared turkey are the most commonly available kind. They are rarely labelled as such, but the low price is a giveaway. Although such turkeys are more affordable, the conditions they endure are extremely grim, packed at high densities, with little room to move around and no access to sunlight - all of which produces a noticeably inferior meat.
Good breeds to look out for include Norfolk Black, Kelly Bronze and Cambridge Bronze. Reared slowly, in free-range conditions, they all have densely textured meat that is more flavourful and succulent than indoor-reared types. The phrase 'farm fresh' means that birds have been handled traditionally once slaughtered - ie dry hand-plucked (as opposed to wet-plucked, by which the turkey is immersed in very hot water to loosen the feathers, which are then mechanically removed) and hung for 2 weeks, which gives the flesh an enjoyably gamey flavour.
Whole birds should be roasted. Other portions are also available (either skin on or off, on the bone or boneless), including breast joints (roast), crown joints (the bird without its legs and wings, also good for roasting), breast steaks, escalopes (very thin steaks of turkey breast, good for pan-frying) and drumsticks (roast or braise).
Turkey mince is also available - it's very low fat and you can use it as you would minced beef, pork, lamb or veal. Whichever breed or cut you go for, choose turkey that is plump and well-rounded, with clear, soft and evenly coloured skin. Avoid those that have been unevenly plucked.
If you buy a frozen turkey, make sure you allow enough time for it to defrost - it won't cook properly unless it is thoroughly defrosted at the start of cooking.
Take off all the wrappings, put on a tray or plate wide and deep enough to contain any blood or juice that might seep out, cover loosely with foil and leave in the fridge or in a cool room. For guidance on defrosting times, check out our at-a-glance defrosting guide.
After the turkey is defrosted, remove any giblets, check that there are no ice crystals inside the cavity and pat dry with kitchen paper both outside and in.
If desired, certain cuts of fresh or defrosted turkey can be marinated (for a minimum of 4 hours) before cooking, to add flavour and moisture and to tenderise a little further - slash the skin a couple of times to help the marinade penetrate further and keep covered in a glass or ceramic dish in the fridge.
Before it goes in the oven, turkey should be at room temperature, so take it out of the fridge (1 hour for a whole turkey; 30 minutes for a cut) before cooking. Keep it covered, in a cool place.
Put fresh turkey in the fridge as soon as you get it home. Take off all the wrappings, then wipe it all over (and inside the cavities) with kitchen paper. If it has come with giblets (the neck, gizzard, heart and liver) these should be removed and kept in a covered bowl in the fridge.
Put the turkey on a tray or a plate wide and deep enough to contain any blood or juice that might seep out. Cover loosely with foil. Make sure the turkey doesn't touch any other food in the fridge that's to be eaten raw, or meat that is already cooked.
Once a frozen turkey has defrosted (see 'prepare'), store it in the fridge straight away, as above, unless you are going to cook it immediately.
Whole birds and pieces of turkey will keep in the fridge for up to 2 days. Minced turkey should be cooked within 24 hours of purchase. Giblets can be used to make gravy and stock (but leave the liver out, as it can create quite a bitter taste) or stuffing, and should be cooked within 2 days of purchase.
Set your oven to 190C/170C fan/gas 5. For accurate timing, always weigh your turkey after it's been stuffed. If it's very large, you may need to use bathroom scales.
The latest advice from the British Turkey Information Service is that if the turkey is over 4kg, calculate 20 mins per kg + 90 mins. If the bird is under 4kg, calculate 20 mins per kg + 70 mins. To test if it's done, make sure the juices run clear when you pierce the thigh where it meets the body. If not, put it back in the oven for another 20 mins, then test again.
The British Turkey helpline, 0800 783 9994, is open from 9am-5pm every weekday right up to Christmas Eve. Or text the word 'turkey', followed by the weight of your bird in kilos, to 64446 and you you'll get an instant answer on the cooking time and how many it will feed. This service starts on 1 December and runs 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week. (Texts are charged at standard network rate.)
Try chicken, goose or duck.