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Read our expert guide to cooking turkey and find out how to defrost, prepare and roast a whole turkey, plus top tips to help you buy the best.
While it's the traditional Christmas bird, turkey is good to eat all year round, though it's only readily available in portions (rather than a whole bird) most of the year. Use our guide to learn how to cook a turkey to feed a crowd, including brining and carving.
Turkey has all the nutritional benefits of chicken but with a slightly lower fat content. This is better for your health, but it does mean that the flesh can be on the dry side. Older turkey recipes advise basting a turkey regularly to keep the meat moist, but newer recipes suggest cooking the turkey quickly while using dry brines. The latter method involves seasoning the turkey with salt and aromatics and leaving it for up to 48 hrs. This draws moisture out, then the turkey reabsorbs it, which seasons the meat and dries out the skin for a crisp finish in the oven.
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. If you're defrosting in the fridge, which should be set at 4C or below, allow 8-12 hrs per kg. In a cool room, which absolutely must stay below 17.5C, allow 3-4 hrs per kg. Read our guide on how to defrost a turkey to discover all our tips, tricks and safety advice.
If desired, certain cuts of fresh or defrosted turkey can be marinated (for a minimum of 4 hrs) before cooking to add flavour and moisture, and to tenderise it a little further. Slash the skin a couple of times to help the marinade penetrate deeply and keep covered in a glass or ceramic dish in the fridge.
The small change of simply seasoning your turkey up to 2 days in advance makes a massive difference and actually cuts down on the amount of salt you need. Known as dry-brining, this technique involves salting your turkey (inside and out) in advance. The salt has a chance to work its way into the protein, season it evenly from within and start to break it down, tenderise the meat and allows it to retain its succulence as it roasts. By seasoning in advance, the whole bird is evenly seasoned and you don’t have to heavily season just before roasting. The same applies to all birds but as they are smaller only a day in advance is needed.
Read more about how to brine a turkey and the difference between dry and wet brining techniques.
Your turkey will come with a bag containing the neck, the liver and the giblets. Go through it and set the liver aside for another dish (it can be used in the same way as chicken liver) and use the rest to make stock. Tip into a pan, cover with water and add a peeled onion, carrot, celery stick, bay leaf and a glass of red wine, if you like. Simmer for 40 mins, then strain for the perfect stock to use for deglazing your turkey roasting tin – it will help make a rich turkey-flavoured gravy.
The latest advice from the British Turkey information service is that the temperature of your oven should be 190C/170C fan/gas 5 and the cooking time calculated as follows:
If the turkey is over 4kg, calculate 20 mins per 1kg, plus 90 mins.
If the bird is under 4kg, calculate 20 mins per 1kg, plus 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.
Remember to weigh the turkey with any stuffing under the skin, bacon or other additions and check that it's cooked properly.
However, many turkey recipes specify a different oven temperature, and if you cook the crown at a higher or lower temperature as specified by the recipe you're following, you will have to adjust the time.
For example, at 200C/180C fan/gas 6, calculate the cooking at 20 mins per 450g.
You may also have to adjust the time for the type of crown you have bought.
For more information on cooking times, see our guide for how long to cook a turkey.
Turkey is available all year round, but whole birds are at their best in December, especially if you are looking for your Christmas Day centrepiece.
We recommend that for healthy and safety reasons, you should buy a fresh turkey within one or two days of when you plan to serve it, and in the meantime keep it chilled in the fridge. This is because fresh turkeys, like other fresh meat and poultry, are highly perishable.
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, such as 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.
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.
Whole birds should be roasted. Other portions are also available (either skin-on or skinless, bone-in 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 in fat and you can use it as you would any mince, in stir-fries, stews or oven-cooked casseroles. See our range of turkey mince recipes for more inspiration.
Wondering whether you need a whole turkey or how much it should weigh? See our infographic guide for determining the how much turkey to serve per person. As a rough guide, we recommend the following portion sizes:
1 turkey leg = 2 people
1 turkey crown (2-2.5kg) = 6 people
1 small turkey (3-4kg) = 6-8 people
1 medium turkey (4-4.5kg) = 8-10 people
1 large turkey (6-6.5kg) = 12-15 people
Put fresh turkey in the fridge as soon as you get it home. Take off all the wrappings, then wipe it all over (including 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 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' above), store it in the fridge straightaway, as above, unless you are going to cook it immediately.
Whole birds and pieces of turkey will keep in the fridge for up to two days. Turkey mince 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 two days of purchase.
If you are not a fan of turkey, try substituting for chicken instead or opt for gammon, roast pork or lamb. See our guide for the best alternative Christmas dinner ideas.