I was listening to the Brian Lehrer show on NPR after Thanksgiving...he had three of NY's "top chefs" (as Lehrer put it; but I know better. NY's top chef lives with me and he couldn't be on the show because he was playing ultimate frisbee in the Turkey Bowl at the time) on the program talking about incorporating recipes from other cultures into the traditional American Meal. The host invited recent immigrants to call in and talk about the alterations to the meal that they had made for their families.
It was a great program, but two of the "top chefs" said that it was impossible to cook a turkey like they show it in the magazines: perfectly bronzed and evenly cooked. One of them said that the only way to ensure that the legs were cooked the whole way through and the breasts weren't too dry was to separate the legs from the breast and cook them separately. I wanted to call in and tell them that they were mistaken, but Lehrer had asked immigrants to call in, so I felt like I shouldn't. But let me set the record straight here:
You can absolutely cook a magazine-cover beautiful turkey that's moist all the way through.
The secret? Brining, seasoning, and basting.
We brined our 20 lb turkey in a big trash bag in a cooler on our back porch for about two days. I used enough water to fully immerse the turkey, 2 cups of kosher salt, a healthy Tbsp of pepper,2 onions (quartered), a few cloves of garlic, and bunch of fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, a bit of oregano). You can throw in some carrots or celery cut into fours; I didn't this year, but it's worked in the past.
Don't stuff the turkey! Just season it well. We put a few stalks of celery, about 5 cloves or garlic, salt, pepper, and uncut herbs in the cavity (the same as above, thyme, rosemary, and oregano--on their stems)--all tossed with some olive oil. We brushed olive oil over and dusted the turkey with paprika, salt, pepper, and a bit of cumin and put it in the oven covered.
Every hour or so, we took a look and basted the turkey with the juices from the bottom of the pan, being careful to continually spread the herbs over the turkey with its juices.
We took the aluminum foil off of the turkey about 35 minutes before it was done and re-seasoned with paprika, pepper, and a little bit more salt so that the skin would get crispy and brown.
You don't need one of those pop-up things to tell you if the turkey is cooked. In general, you cook a turkey by calculating 20 minutes per pound at 375. When you think it should be done, stick a knife in the joint of the hip of the turkey (where the leg joins the body) to the bone, and if the juices are clear, it should be done.
If you're nervous, you can always slice into the turkey and take a look. If you slice neatly enough, no one will ever know.
So now you know. For next year.