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Monthly Feature:
Roasting a holiday Turkey

Cooking turkey for the holiday

Turkey is the main attraction on many menus when friends and families gather for special occasions. Yet, while the tradition of serving this delicious bird continues, the customary methods of preparing it have changed. So it's worth noting that in 1995, the USDA and the Canadian Turkey Marketing Agency reduced the times recommended for roasting turkey.

Why the change? The old end-point temperature of 185° F (85° C) afforded such a large safety margin that turkeys were overcooked and dry. Now it's lowered to 180° F (82° C) a temperature that improves texture and tenderness but is still high enough to destroy bacteria.

This new end-point temperature also makes quite a difference in how long a turkey should spend in the oven. As we look at our penciled notations of cooking times over the years, it's interesting to see the changes we've made in timing. For Thanksgiving in 1994, we cooked a stuffed, 25-pound turkey for 7 hours. Last year, a bird of the same weight cooked in just 5 1/2 hours. And ... it was more moist and tender.

Roasting timetables give approximate times for each weight range. For instance, a stuffed 12- to 14-pound (5.5- to 6.3-kilogram) turkey takes 3 1/2 to 4 hours (unstuffed, approximately 1/2 hour less). And though a 20-pound bird is twice the weight of a 10-pound bird, the former doesn't take twice as long to cook. There are several factors at work here, such as considerably more surface area for distributing the heat in the larger bird. So use an up-to-date turkey-roasting timetable rather than calculating minutes per pound as you would when cooking a beef roast.

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Let's take a look at some of the factors that can affect the ultimate cooking time. To begin, consider the temperature of the bird going into the oven. Thaw unstuffed, frozen turkeys completely. If there is still a little frost inside, run cool water into the cavity, then dry thoroughly. Roasting times are based on turkeys just removed from the refrigerator, roughly 40° F (5° C).

A dark roasting pan absorbs more heat and therefore cooks a turkey faster than a shiny pan does. Likewise, aluminum foil deflects heat and can slow cooking quite dramatically. If you use foil, do so for only a portion of the cooking time.

A large roasting pan touching the oven wall blocks heat waves. Turn the pan several times during roasting to compensate for factors that may cause variations in cooking temperatures within your oven.

Don't use a lid. It raises the temperature inside the roasting pan, so cooking happens faster than desirable. You'll end up with a bird that's tough and cooked an hour early. Lids also hold in moisture, so a turkey stews in its juices rather than roasting by dry heat. A crisp, golden skin only happens when the surface reaches 300° F to 400° F (149° C to 205° C), much higher than the temperatures reached in the turkey's moist interior.

While the recommended temperature for cooking turkey is 325° F (163° C), ovens are often inaccurate another reason one turkey takes longer than another.

So when is a turkey cooked? Eliminate the guesswork by inserting a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh without touching the bone. Take into account that the temperature will rise another few degrees after the turkey is removed from the oven, A 10- to 20-minute "standing time" allows the juices to settle, making the meat easier to carve. When ready to eat, the meat should register 180° F (82° C) and the stuffing 165° F (74° C).

A golden turkey, with a fat bunch of fresh sage on a large platter, is a sight to behold as it's carried to the table. Here's a toast to the cook, to the bounty of our lands, and good wishes to all.

Anne and Sue



Anne Gardiner & Sue Wilson are the authors, with the Exploratorium, of the book The Inquisitive Cook.


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