The Definitive Guide to Pastured Turkey
Why You Need This Guide
There’s a lot of stress and uncertainty when it comes to cooking the Thanksgiving turkey. This is only heightened when it’s a high-quality, pastured turkey, rather than a bargain bin bird grabbed from the supermarket meat case. But it does not have to be intimidating. However you want to cook it, whole, spatchcocked, or in pieces, brined or unbrined, my aim here is to give you a complete, detailed description of how to get a great result.
Thawing Your Pastured Turkey
If you buy a turkey from us or another small farm, chances are it will be frozen on arrival. This means it must be thawed fully and safely. Notice that the linked article appears on the website of a company that happens to make the best thermometers in the world. Some of these are very fancy and cost quite a lot, but you don’t need any of these. The Thermopop does everything you need at a reasonable price. While you can find cheaper digital thermometers, in my experience they are far less reliable.
(Pastured) Turkey Theory
So now you have a good thermometer, which you have used to thaw your pastured turkey, but it will also let you roast it to perfection. A well raised pastured turkey has superior flavor to a conventional bird, but the goals in cooking it are the same. It should not need any unique preparation, unless you are used to cooking pre brined/self-basting turkeys.
Before we put the turkey in the oven, let’s take a step back and get some perspective.
Turkeys are the largest thing most of us ever cook. They are oddly shaped. Further, we are trying to roast them at different rates – we’re aiming for somewhere in the neighborhood of 155 for the breast meat, while we want the legs well north of 170. Some of us want other things, like crispy skin and perhaps the possibility of making a pan gravy, but the first consideration has to be cooking the meat well.
When you insist on roasting a turkey whole, you are fighting against nature. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it necessarily comes with compromises.
Iconoclasm, Practicality, or Tradition?
People try all sorts of things, like putting ice packs on the turkey breast, tenting it with foil, flipping it upside down, putting a preheated pizza stone beneath the roasting pan, and innumerable other tricks that aim to speed up the rate at which the legs cook relative to the breast meat.
Fancier chefs often spatchcock the turkey. This simply means removing the back while leaving the rest intact, which allows it to lay flat. Because this puts the legs are on the outside, they also cook faster than the breast, which means you can get everything closer to the right temperatures at about the same time.
But what if you want a whole, intact turkey? One interesting way that used to be popular was a slow, low roast, maybe even overnight. The benefit of a low temp roast is that the meat is theoretically less likely to dry out. Fears of pathogens caused this approach to decline in popularity, but these are mostly unfounded. Still, doing this safely assumes a properly calibrated oven and a lot of time. Personally, I wouldn’t try anything lower than a 225 degree oven.
I suspect most people want to stick the whole thing in the oven on Thanksgiving morning, even if this makes it harder to get an absolutely perfect result. This recipe is a good overview of a traditional approach.
To Brine or Not To Brine?
The recipe above uses a rather elaborate brine, with weird ingredients like chicken stock. With a pastured turkey this extra flavor should be unnecessary, so I’d recommend a more basic recipe like this one, with or without the wine. Roasting the whole, unaltered bird is the only situation in which a brine is really important. The extra moistness makes cooking much more forgiving, so one part of the turkey getting too hot doesn’t matter so much.
The downsides of brining are pan juices that are too salty for use in gravy and meat that has a slightly altered texture, which some people find off putting. If you do not want to brine your turkey, get your hands on some poultry shears and start spatchcocking. At the absolute minimum salt the thawed turkey beneath the skin a day before cooking.
Halfcocked Roast Turkey
Still, I’m left thinking that all of these approaches involve unnecessary compromise, particularly since the solution is so obvious – simply cut the legs and wings off the turkey. Roast them together, removing each as it reaches temperature. I call this a halfcocked turkey, and I’ve written a more in depth description of its hows and whys. But everything you need to know is in the recipe.
Halfcocked Roast Turkey
- 1 pastured turkey 14-18 lbs
- Heat oven to 275°Using a sharp knife, remove legs from the turkey. Cut down between the body and the leg while pulling gently on the drumstick, until you locate the ball joint. Cut it free, bringing as much thigh meat as possible with it. Then, using the same method, cut free the wings.
- Lightly salt the pieces of turkey, then arrange on a baking rack over a sheet pan. To keep the breast upright you may need to use two balls of aluminum foil. Depending on the size of the turkey and the size of your pan, you may be using multiple dishes.
- Roast the turkey, taking the temperature regularly. Remove the breast when it has reached 157° in the thickest part, and remove the legs when they have reached 180°.
- Tent with foil and let rest at least 20 minutes before carving. To carve, first remove each breast from the bone, then slice crosswise. Debone the thighs and do the same. Keep drumsticks and wings intact for exceptionally hungry guests.
- Arrange cut meat on an ovenproof tray or platter. It's likely the meat will not be piping host by the time everything else is ready, so put it in the oven on a low temperature – perhaps 200° – for at least 20 minutes immediately before serving.
What About Stuffing?
You’re right to wonder, since stuffing is not-so-secretly the very best thing on the Thanksgiving table. The first, ironclad rule is that you should not put it inside the turkey. If you insist that this means it must be called dressing instead, I don’t care. DO NOT PUT STUFFING IN THE TURKEY! I am so emphatic about this because it makes an already difficult task – properly cooking each part of a turkey to the appropriate temperature – impossible. By the time the very center of the stuffing has reached a safe temperature everything else will be a dried out husk, period.
Instead, make a pan of incredible stuffing (or dressing) on the side. As it happens, I know the absolute best stuffing recipe. The recipes itself is immediately below, but I recommend reading the whole post for an examination of why stuffing matters so much. But whether you follow my superlative recipe or settle for pale imitation, don’t even think about cooking it anywhere except in its own dish.
Ultimate Chestnut Stuffing
- 1 loaf hearty white bread approximately 1 lb
- 1 quart turkey or chicken stock preferably homemade, though high quality store-bought is fine.
- 1 lb peeled chestnuts (see note below)
- 8 tbsp butter
- 1 lb ground pork
- 1 medium onion
- 3 stalks celery
- 12 sage leaves
- 2 tsp salt omit if you are using store bought broth.
- 2 large eggs
- Heat oven to 275°.Cut bread into roughly 1" cubes, then lay them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake in the oven, turning regularly, until the cubes are completely dry but not browned. (A little is fine, but you're going for dry, not toasted.) This will take about 20-30 minutes, but it will vary depending on the bread you're using. Put dried bread cubes in a large mixing bowl.
- Meanwhile, put the peeled chestnuts into a small pot and add half the turkey broth, then start cooking them at a low simmer. Let them cook, stirring occasionally, while you prepare the rest of the stuffing.
- Heat oven to 350°.Dice onion and celery. Melt butter in a large skillet, then add celery, onion, ground pork, and salt. (Omit the salt if using store-bought brother – see note!) Sauté until the onion is translucent, the ground pork is cooked, and any excess liquid has evaporated. Mince sage leaves and add them, then remove from heat.
- Add sautéed pork and vegetables to the bread cubes and mix thoroughly, then add the chestnuts and the broth they've been cooking in and mix. Begin adding the other half of the broth at a leisurely pace to let the bread absorb it. Continue until you are confident all of the bread is soft, then add a splash more – far better to add too much broth than too little. You might have a little broth left over, but it won't be much.Lightly beat eggs, then incorporate them.
- Spread in a 9" x 13" baking dish or two 9" pie dishes. Bake for 45 minutes.
I Suppose You Have Strong Opinions About Gravy As Well?
While pan gravy has an appeal, it is not worth it. There are the risks of overly salty or burnt juices, and there is the high wire act of preparing the gravy while all the other dishes are slowly getting too cool. A better solution is to make a bunch of gravy ahead of time, then heat it up as needed. This recipe, using homemade rather than store bough stock if possible, is the way to go.
This Has All Been Interesting, But Can You Please Just Tell Me What To Do In a Reasonably Straightforward Manner?
Fine. If you just want to roast a whole, pastured turkey on Thanksgiving day, here’s what you should do:
1.) Buy this thermometer
2.) Thaw Your Turkey
3.) Cook according to this recipe using this brine.
4.) Make a bunch of gravy ahead of time.
5.) Cook stuffing in a separate pan.
What about boneless turkey breasts?
Hi Joe, thanks for checking out the post.
Boneless turkey breast is a lot easier, because it will cook very evenly. I still highly recommend a good digital meat thermometer, which will go a long way to making sure you don’t overcook it. Here’s a good recipe, though I think my stuffing recipe is better.
Love your epistemic posts. Might you know of an online article or video that explains how to carve a turkey?
Thank you! Yes, I do have a great video of the method I always use: turkey carving
It’s not the way you’d carve a turkey surrounded by family at the dinner table, but it is efficient and gets the most meat possible. Carve at your leisure one a good cutting board, and all the meat on a platter. Keep it warm in a 150 oven if you can, or just cover it with foil. Wear disposable gloves if it will make you more comfortable pulling the breast away as you separate it from the ribs.