TURKEY - A turkey can be an intimidating dish to attempt for a novice cook. Not only does it look odd, but you probably have a roomful of people counting on you to deliver the goods. Undercook it, and everyone ends up with food poisoning. Overcook it, and the turkey ends up dry and stringy. So a turkey is not an easy thing to cook. But, then again, it's not hard either. I've cooked a couple dozen birds in my lifetime. They were all delicious. Not because I'm a great cook, but because I followed the instructions very closely. Numerous experts have cooked countless turkeys to a delicious conclusion. Don't think you need to re-invent the wheel here. Keep it simple.
First, start the thawing process well in advance of your dinner. The rule-of-thumb is actually 5 hours per pound, so that's usaully more than two days. The best place is in a fridge and use a cookie try to collect the liquid. If you don't have any room in yoru refrigerator, just put it in a cooler. But put a baker's rack in the bottom so the bird is not sitting in the liquid. If you're really pressed for time, you can thaw it under running water. But do not leave it out, on the counter for instance, to thaw. The outside surface will warm much faster than the middle, and it allows bacteria to grow on the skin. A fridge or cooler prevents this. Even if you do it mostly in a fridge or cooler, many people use water to finish off the thawing process. To do it most effectively, make sure the bird is fully submerged, and you can have a little run-off. This really works well if you have a double sink. Put the bird in one side underwater and turn on a slow trickle of water, with the other side getting the overflow. Do not use hot or even warm water, but cold. Not ice-cold, but just cold running water.
Starting 24 hours before your dinner-time, you can brine the bird. The rule of thumb is at least one hour per pound, but I'm not getting up at 2am to brine a turkey. Just leave it overnight. Brining simply forces water into the bird's cells, allowing for a juicier bird when cooked. My brine is simple - 1 cup salt (kosher prefered), 1/2 cup brown sugar, enough water to dissolve - probably between 24 and 32 cups. You can add other spices, but I don't. At this link are various recipes for brine if you want to be more adventurous. Make sure the thawed bird is cleaned out - the giblets and neck are tucked away in cavities. I save them for the gravy mentioned below. Find a container that will hold not just the bird but you also need to be able to completely cover the bird with the brine and have a bit to spare on top. The bird should be at least an inch lower than the brine level. And that's really it. If you use a cooler, that should be fine. If not, put a couple of zip-loc bags with ice in them to keep the temperature down. You can also use a brine bag. But, don't use non-food grade plastic bags, like a garbage bag. Ideally, the brine should be 40F or cooler. When it's time to cook, remove the bird from the brine, let it drain, and pat it dry. Discard the brine down the sink. If you do this outside, try not to drain the brine onto a lawn or garden, as the salt is not great for plants.
Finally, it's time to cook the bird. Place it in a sturdy roasting pan with a rack underneath so the air can circulate all around it. Rub butter on the outside to brown the skin better. I prefer not to stuff the bird, and cook the stuffing in a separate casserole dish. How long does it take to cook an unstuffed turkey? Depends on a number of things - size of the bird and temperature of the oven being the key factors. The guide is roughly fifteen per pound. But it's longer per pound for smaller birds and shorter for big ones. And, what if you are like me and start at a one temp. and finish at another one? Take the guesswork out of cooking a turkey by getting a meat thermometer. It tells you the precise temperature and we can know exactly when it's done. Place the meat thermometer in the deepest part of the thigh, but not on the bone, and it's done when it reaches 165F.
So, let's say it's a sixteen pound bird. Here's my rough cooking calculations: at fifteen minutes per pound, count on four hours. Plus let the turkey rest at the end of cooking for a half-hour. So, four-and-a-half hours prior to serving, the turkey goes in the pre-heated oven at 350F. With a half-hour to go in cooking time, put the oven up to 400F to help brown the skin. If the skin is browning too much, you can turn it back down to 350F. When the meat thermometer says 165F, time to take it out. At this point, remove the turkey from the oven, and loosely foil it for at least thirty minutes. This will further cook the inside and help retain moisture.
Again, cooking a turkey is not super easy, but not really that hard.
Here's a slightly different but still great recipe to follow, thanks to Jessica McS. for the link. She swears by it, and Alton Brown really knows his stuff. He puts his heat up at the beginning whereas I do it at the end.
GRAVY - Ok, now for the ridiculously complex but amazing gravy, it consists of three parts - labeled A, B, & C. Start it at least a couple hours before dinner. This is not for the impatient or novice cook.
Ingredients: A) 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
The giblets, neck, and tail of the turkey.
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 quarts (1500 mL) turkey or chicken stock
2 sprigs fresh thyme OR 1/2 teaspoon dry thyme
8 stems fresh parsley or 1 tablespoon dry parsley
B) 3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
C) 1 cup dry white wine
salt & pepper
Preparation: A) At least two hours before - heat oil in stockpot, add giblets, neck and tail. Saute until golden brown, approx. 5 min
Add onion and continue to saute 3 to 4 minutes
Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until turkey and onion release thier juices - about 20 minutes
Add the stock and herbs, bring to a boil, then adjust to a low simmer, cook uncovered for thirty minutes.
Strain the broth into a large container - should have approx. 5 cups. You can keep the meat and dice and shred it for later, but most prefer not to have it in the final gravy.
B) At least one hour before - simmer the strained broth from above.
Heat butter in large suacepan
Vigourously whisk in flour. Cook slowly, stirring constantly, 10-15 min. The roux will be nutt-brown and fragrent when finished.
Take out one cup of the broth and set aside
Whisk roux into remaining 4 cups of broth.
Bring to a boil, and then let simmer, stirring occasionally for thirty minutes.
C) With turket transferred to rest, drain off as much fat as possible.
Deglaze roasting pan with wine, reducing by half - about 5 minutes - This gets all the caramelized bits off the bottom and adds tons of flavour
Add final cup of of broth to the roasting pan and bring to a boil.
Add the rest of the broth into the pan, bring to a slow boil, reduce to a simmer, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
POTATOES - Finally, my advice on mashed potatoes - use yellow flesh, preferably Yukon Gold. Slice in one-inch increments for more even cooking. Other than those two tips, I'm sure your recipe will be fine.