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Buying and Cooking a Turkey

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A roast turkey, fresh from the oven.

The turkey is thought to have first made an appearance in England in 1526 when a certain trader, William Strickland, bought six birds from American Indian traders whilst in America and sold them for tuppence each in Bristol. Henry VIII was the first English Monarch to try it when its popularity as an alternative to the more usual Royal fayre of beef, venison, red deer, mutton, swan (alternating with goose or stork), capon, coney, carp, pheasants, herons, bitterns, shovelards, partridges, quails, cocks, plovers, gulls, pigeons, larks, pullets, chickens, lamb, kid and rabbit, not forgetting the boars head bedecked with rosemary and bay,1 grew because the turkey was cheap, domesticated and fast to fatten up.

By the 18th Century turkeys were driven to market in large flocks, on occasion their feet being protected by little boots. Unlike their wild cousins, the domesticated turkey cannot fly.

As tastes changed and consumers preferred 'white' meat to the 'dark' meat of the wings and thighs, the turkey was bred to produce larger breasts. Most modern 'tom' turkeys are unable to fertilise the female eggs because of the size of their chests, so nearly all breeding is by artificial insemination.

Turkey breeding and rearing in Britain is regulated by the British Turkey Industry which aims to guarantee quality, traceability and good bird welfare.

Which Bird?

The range of turkey products has increased dramatically in the last few years. Where once it was only possible to buy a whole bird, now, with the advent of freezing, there are far more choices; minced, turkey chunks, breast steak, escallops, drumsticks, sausages, stir fry strips, burgers, bacon rashers and crown roasts. Out of the 10 million units of turkey sold last Christmas, 87% of people in the UK chose a traditional roast turkey - two out of every three whole birds were frozen.


Allow at least 1lb - 0.5kg - per person for a small bird and 0.75lb - 250grams - per person for a large one.


  • Fresh from a butcher or poulterer - Order at least four weeks in advance to make sure of delivery. Remember to specify whether you require the giblets.

  • Free range from a farm2 - Again, early ordering is essential. You may be asked to pick the bird up quite a few days before you need it. Place it in a cool place or the refrigerator if possible.

  • Fresh or standard fresh3 - These are often available in supermarkets a few days before Christmas. Numbers are usually limited so shop early!

  • Ready-basted or Butterball - Vegetable oil, butter or stock is injected under the skin to keep the meat moist during cooking. Some supermarkets include herbs and other ingredients.


Available throughout the year in supermarkets and other outlets. Allow plenty of time for defrosting.

  • Standard frozen - These are quickly frozen in the bag by immersion in salted) water at a temperature of -20°C.

  • Ready basted - Prepared the same as the fresh basted bird. These are usually frozen in fresh water.

  • Free-range - Frozen quickly without water.

  • Standard brine frozen - Chilled in water spin chillers, and then quickly frozen by immersion in salt water.

  • Air frozen - Quickly frozen without water.

Alternatives to the whole bird

  • Turkey crown - A whole bird with the legs removed.

  • Saddle of turkey - Usually weighing from 6.5lb - 3kg - to 12.75lb - 6 kg, this cut comprises of two breasts of fillet meat, boned with wings inserted.

  • Butterfly breast - Two breasts of fillet meat weighing from 4.5lb - 2kg - to 10.75lb - 5 kg

  • Breast roll - Skinless meat weighing around 2lb - 900g - and wrapped with netting.

  • Boned and rolled white and dark meat - As above.

Cooking the Turkey

If using a frozen bird make sure that it is completely defrosted by following the guidelines given on the packaging. A small bird of around 5lb - 2.25kg - will take at least 20 hours, a larger bird of 25lb - 11.25kg - two whole days! Very small birds up to 5lb - 2.25kg - may be defrosted in a microwave. This option is not recommended for larger ones.

Contrary to older recipes, it is not now thought safe to put stuffing in the body of a turkey, only the neck, but the cavity may be filled with sliced onion, lemon, orange or fresh herbs to taste. Stuffing can be prepared weeks in advance and frozen or made the day before. It should be allowed to cool completely before use. Sadly the older tradition of cooking the turkey overnight so that the smells greet you on Christmas morning is also considered dangerous.

As a general guide, allow 18 minutes per pound - 450grams. Weigh the turkey after stuffing to calculate the cooking time. Fan-assisted ovens cook at a higher temperature so remember to take this into account.

  1. Cover loosely with foil and cook in a conventional oven at Gas Mark 5 - 190C - 375F.

  2. Remove the foil for the last 40 minutes to allow the skin to brown.

  3. To test that the bird is completely cooked insert a clean skewer into the thickest part of the thigh. If, after leaving for one minute, the juices run clear the turkey is cooked - if still pink leave a little longer.

  4. Allow the bird to stand for at least 20 minutes as this makes it easier to carve.


There are plenty of ready-to-use stuffings of all flavours and textures on the market. Usually made with boiling water, the addition of a beaten egg (before the water) will produce a lighter mixture. Try mixing two or more bread-based packet stuffings together and adding a little finely chopped onion.

Chestnut Stuffing

  • 2lb - 1kg - sweet chestnuts
  • 1oz - 25 grams - butter or margarine
  • 0.5 pint - 10fl oz - stock or milk
  • 0.5tspn sugar
  • Salt and pepper
  1. Cut the tops off the chestnuts and roast in a fairly hot oven - Gas Mark 6 - 200C - 400F. Remove the outer and inner skins and put the chestnuts to simmer in a pan with the stock until they are tender.

    Drain, allow to cool and rub through a sieve or liquidise.

  2. Beat in the fat, salt and sugar and place in a cool place until required.

  3. For a richer flavour a little beer or brandy may be used in place of some of the stock.

Sage and Onion Stuffing

  • 1lb - 0.5kg - onions
  • 4oz - 100 grams - breadcrumbs
  • 1 tsp powdered or finely chopped fresh sage
  • Salt and pepper
  1. Peel and cut the onions into quarters, drop into boiling, salted water and boil gently for 15 minutes.

  2. Drain them well, chop them and mix with all the other ingredients.

  3. For variation try adding a little fresh, chopped parsley or cook thinly pared lemon peel with the onions and chop and mix into the finished stuffing.

Other Ideas and Accompaniments

If you would rather stuff the neck of your turkey with sausagemeat then cook the stuffing for 20 minutes in a small baking tray towards the end of the cooking time. Either grease the pan, smooth in the mixture and dab a few pieces of butter or margarine over the top or form into balls. If you like a crunchy stuffing then cook uncovered, if you prefer a softer result cover with cooking foil.

Try putting beef chipolata (small, thin sausages) around the edge of the tray with the turkey an hour before cooking time is due to end. They will absorb the flavour!

No turkey dinner is complete without cranberry sauce. Again there is a wide choice of ready-to-use ones on the market, but it is delicious and easy to make at home.

Finally; a rich gravy. There are many brands of gravy browning and many flavours, but one made from the juices of the cooked bird is by far the best.

Cranberry Sauce

  • 1pt - 20 fl oz - fresh or defrosted frozen cranberries
  • 4oz - 100 grams - sugar
  • 0.25pt - 5 fl oz - cold water
  • Rind of 1 lemon, thinly pared
  • Rind of 0.5 orange, thinly pared
  • A little brandy, port or fruit liqueur (optional)
  1. Boil the water, rind and sugar over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved.

  2. Add the cranberries, cover and boil gently for about 10 minutes - the berries should all pop and break open. Remove any which don't.

  3. If a smooth sauce is required, push through a sieve or liquidise.

  4. If adding alcohol, reduce the amount of water used slightly and add the spirit after completing the cooking.


After removing the turkey from the baking tin, pour off the clear fat which has formed, leaving just the brown sediment. Sprinkle on a little salt and pepper and add 1oz - 25 grams - of plain flour, stirring all the time over a low heat. Make 0.5 pint - 10fl oz - of stock, use chicken or vegetable flavour if possible, add to the tin and stir constantly until the gravy boils. Strain into a warmed gravy boat. If you want a more substantial gravy, fry some finely chopped onions or shallots in the original juices before straining off the fat. Cook them until soft but not brown.

1All items on a menu served to Henry VIII.2This term may only been used where the birds have had, during at least half their lifetime, continuous daytime access to open air runs.3The turkeys are chilled quickly with blasts of cold air.

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