It's impossible to get a perfectly roasted turkey without a meat thermometer, says cookbook author and teacher James Beard. That's the tool that takes the guesswork out of holiday feasts and allows the delicate balance between pink joints and dried-out breasts.
"The whole damn thing is a gamble," Beard says. "I don't think it's possible to go by times because birds and their construction differ so much. At 185 the recommended USDA internal temperature for turkey it's ruined because the white meat is dry as hell." He recommends cooking a stuffed turkey to 170 degrees in a 375- or 400-degree oven, approximately 15 minutes per pound.
Before you can roast the turkey, however, it must be cleaned, seasoned and stuffed. If the turkey is frozen, thaw it before cooking. Wash it and pat it dry. Just before you are ready to cook it, rub it inside and out with salt and pepper and pack the cavity loosely with stuffing.
To minimize bacteria growth or spoilage from stuffing, cookbook author Jean Anderson recommends adding acid in the form of chopped cranberries or raisins, or substituting orange juice or cranberry juice for half of the liquid called for in your stuffing recipe. Avoid using ingredients that increase the likelihood of spoilage, such as broth, giblets, raw egg, cornbread and oysters, she says in her new book, "Jean Anderson Cooks." Any remaining stuffing can be cooked separately in a shallow buttered baking dish during the last hour of cooking.
Sew up the cavity opening or close it with skewers. Truss the bird if you want and rub it with melted butter, shortening or oil. Insert a meat thermometer in the thigh, but not touching the bone. A good trick to ensure a golden, smooth skin is to soak a piece of cheesecloth in melted butter and place it over the turkey's breast.
Then place the turkey breast side up or breast side down -- on a rack in a shallow pan and roast uncovered. Baste every 20 minutes. After the first 30 minutes add 1 cup of water. A tent of aluminum foil may be placed over sections of the turkey as they begin to brown so that they do not burn. In order to ensure even browning, Beard says he turns the turkey one-quarter every hour or so.
When the turkey is done, remove and discard the cheesecloth. Untruss the turkey and transfer it to a heated platter. Let it stand in a warm place for 20 minutes before carving, to allow the juices to set. Cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep the surface warm.
Pour off the juices from the roasting pan, scraping up any browned bits that stick to the surface. Skim off the fat and reserve. In a saucepan heat 1/4 cup of the fat. Add 1/4 cup flour and whisk or stir until blended. Then slowly stir in enough pan juices, turkey stock (made from simmering neck and giblets in water for 2 to 3 hours), sherry and wine to equal 2 cups. Cook and stir the gravy until smooth and simmer 5 minutes. Add chopped cooked giblets, if you desire. Simmer until thickened. If you prefer you may omit the flour and substitute arrowroot or cornstarch dissolved in cold water.
To carve a turkey, remove the stuffing immediately. Remove the drumsticks and thighs. Thigh meat should be sliced parallel to the bone. To carve the breast, place knife as close to the wing as possible, keeping it parallel. Make a deep cut into the breast to the bone. This is called the base cut. Begin to slice, carving downward, and ending at the base. Each new cut should begin higher up than the last and be about 1/4-inch thick.