Ask Peter: Turkey stuffing
We went to America last year and friends had an early Thanksgiving for us. They stuffed the turkey with lots of lovely vegetables and cooked the stuffing separately. Then they threw out the lovely vegetables! They said that the reason they didn’t stuff the turkey with stuffing, or eat the vegetables was because there was bacteria in the turkey, which wouldn’t get enough heat to kill germs, and the food wouldn’t be cooked. I couldn’t believe this, so I wonder if you have heard anything like this before.
Thank you, Mavis.
For years, whenever I ate turkey cooked by others, I was never that impressed. The meat was dry on the breast and the legs not particularly tasty — and as someone who knows a thing or two about cooking meat, I was always amazed that they’d truss these huge stuffed birds to cook it. I never truss a whole duck at home when I roast one, but instead I actually pull the legs slightly away (but still connected) to the carcass as the legs need much more cooking than the breast. About 5 years ago my brother Shaun from Dubai came to London for Christmas with his then Queensland-based son Carter. Shaun said he really wanted a classic English Christmas dinner after too many Christmases in the Middle East so I bought the best turkey I could find — a gorgeous 5kg beast of a bird from a company I knew well called Kelly Bronze Turkeys, the first whole turkey I’d bought for 15 years.
For several Christmas meals over previous years I’d bought breast-roasts from them which I thought were fab — enough for 6 or so and you didn’t need to worry about the leftovers taking over your eating between Xmas Day and New Year. I was really surprised to read their cooking instructions that to cook one of their (admittedly superior) birds, they said not to stuff it. The theory was that if you leave the cavity empty the heat goes inside it and cooks the bird from the inside as well as the outside, cooking it quicker, and more evenly. This is what I was inadvertently doing by pulling my duck legs away from the carcass — allowing the cooking heat to circulate more rapidly. Also, I’ve now realised, the leg bones were conducting heat into the flesh — also helping it cook more evenly and quicker.
So I did as I was instructed and brought my bird to room temperature for two hours before turning my fan-forced oven to 165C (180C if there is no fan). I put fresh thyme and rosemary in the cavity along with a knob of butter, crushed garlic and salt. Place it in the roasting dish initially with the breast facing down (the internal fat helps baste the breasts) and season the back of the bird. Half an hour before it’s ready, turn the bird over to colour the breasts — now facing up — and season. Their birds only take 2¼ hours to cook, but you do need to make sure it rests for 30-45 minutes before carving which helps keep it juicy. A bird is cooked when the juices run clear out of the thickest part of thigh — any hint of pink and they need more cooking. But resting is key to a succulent bird. Oh — and don’t put foil on the bird while it’s cooking unless your oven is small and you run the risk of burning the skin of the bird if it’s too large.
As for the stuffing, there’s a lot to be said about cooking this separately. You can bake stuffing in a terrine like a meatloaf, make it in muffin tins, bake it in a large lump in a flan tin, or skip it completely — which is what I did. In fact I cooked the bird in the oven on a paper lined baking tray, and cooked the veges separately. Firstly I par-boiled them (beetroot, carrots, potatoes, parsnips etc) and put them in roasting tins with very hot duck fat and fried them on the hob a little to colour them. Once the turkey came out for its resting — I put them in the oven at 180C and roasted till golden — basting them with the turkey juices and fat that came from the cooked bird while it was resting.
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