Why It Works
- Placing the roasting pan on a preheated baking stone or baking steel helps the legs and thighs cook fast enough to catch up with the breast before it gets a chance to overcook.
- Lining the turkey cavity with cheesecloth to form a stuffing pouch makes it easier to transfer the stuffing in and out of the bird.
- Heating the pouch of stuffing separately to 180F degrees before returning it to the turkey cavity ensures that both the finished bird and stuffing will be moist and cooked to the perfect temperature.
- Cut off the end of the cheese cloth pouch for the last hour of baking to crisp up the stuffing.
We've all heard it before: you can't make a good roast turkey if you stuff it. Alton Brown's said it, and as far as recommendations go, that's pretty much the final word for me. Heck, even I've said it in the past.
See, here's the problem: turkey is a very fickle type of meat. Overcook pork, beef, or even chicken by a little bit and you aren't in deep trouble yet. They've all got enough fat in 'em to keep things relatively lubricated and moist. White meat turkey, on the other hand, is the absolute leanest of all meats. What this means for you is that there's no hiding an overcooked turkey breast. An entire boatload of gravy can't save it (though there's no reason to ever turn down extra gravy).
For turkey, the ideal temperature for perfectly moist breast meat is around 145°F or so. A bit higher and you're starting to enter drysville. Get it all the way up to 165°F as the USDA recommends in its utterly silly-for-the-average-intelligent-human-being safety recommendations*, and you might as well be chowing down on the roasted contents of your paper recycling bin.
*Check out the explanation here for more on cooking meat safely.
OK, fine, you're saying. So don't overcook my turkey. I get it. How does stuffing change that? Well, the thing is, when you fill the internal cavity of a turkey with porous, bready stuffing, the turkey's juices drip down into it as it's roasting. This is a good thing for your stuffing, which picks up the incomparable flavor of turkey drippings and comes out extra moist on tasty. On the other hand, it means that not only does the turkey need to be cooked to 145°F, but your raw-turkey-juice-infused stuffing must also be cooked to this temperature and rested in order to be safe for consumption.
See the problem yet? That's right. By the time the stuffing in the very center of the bird reaches 145°F, the breast meat will be hopelessly overcooked (remember, foods cook from the outside in, right?). Compounding this problem is the fact that legs and thighs, with all their connective tissue, need to be cooked to a much higher temperature—around 165°F at least—in order to be palatable.
This latter problem can be solved with a baking stone: placing the bird in a roasting pan on top of a preheated baking stone in a 500°F oven and immediately dropping the temperature down to 300°F ensures that the legs and thighs cook faster from the radiative heat given off by the stone while the breast cooks slower in the upper oven, but the stuffing problem is tougher.
I tried cooking a stuffed turkey using my standard Easy Herb-Rubbed Turkey method and baked it until the stuffing reached the requisite 145°F before pulling the whole thing out and allowing it to rest. By this stage, the breast meat of the turkey was at around 155°F near its center, and all the way up at 180°F on its exterior layers. Needless to say, it was dry as a bone.
So what's the solution?
It's actually quite simple, and even Alton himself has gone back and recommended a similar method since his earlier disdain for stuffing: Just heat the stuffing before you put it in the turkey.
By preheating the stuffing, you give it a jumpstart on the cooking process. That way, as long as it never cools down to a dangerous temperature range during the cooking process, you're completely in the clear.
To stuff a bird with hot stuffing is not an easy task. Believe me, I have the burnt fingertips to prove it. Much easier is to line the turkey with cheesecloth, place the cooled stuffing into the cheesecloth, tie it up into a pouch, then pull out that whole pouch to par-cook.
You can, if you'd like, roast it in the oven, but the microwave is much faster and actually delivers a better end product—less time spent heating up means less time for excess moisture loss. Unless you're a pacemaker or a suburban frog, you really have no reason to fear microwaves.
I tried par-cooking the stuffing bag to various internal temperatures ranging from 140°F up to 200°F, monitoring them inside their respective turkeys as they roasted. Here's what I found:
Turns out that every bag loses a great deal of heat during the first couple hours of roasting because it's surrounded by fridge-cold turkey. Eventually, around the 2 to 2 1/2 hour mark (depending on the starting temperature), it begins to climb back up again.
In order to be safe, we want to make sure that even if the stuffing dips down into dangerous territory, that it climbs back up into the safer 140°F+ range and stays there long enough to kill off any harmful bacteria (about half an hour is plenty of time). Clearly, a 140°F start is too low—the stuffing barely comes back up above 130° by the time the turkey is done roasted. 160°F is the way to go, delivering perfectly cooked breasts, legs, and stuffing, all in one pretty darn presentable package, if I do say so myself.
What's that you say? You really like the crispy bits of stuffing that form on the surface?
Simple: just cut off the end of the cheese cloth pouch for the last hour of baking. Your stuffing will crisp up just fine. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have an entire tray of stuffing (or dressing, if you will) baked off on the side. If your family is anything like mine, you're going to need it.
Actually, if your family is anything like mine, you're going to have one tray of delicious sausage stuffing, one tray of stuffing-hold-the-salt-add-dried-cranberries-and-chestnuts for your mom, one tray of all-sausage-hold-the-bread stuffing for your carb-free dad, one tray of nothing for your I-don't-eat-stuffing-little-sister, and one tray of crusty-bread-with-weird-fruits-whole-grains-and-probably-a-handful-of-quinoa-and-squash-shoved-in-for-good-measure stuffing for your hippie older sister.*
*In case you deny your hippie-hood, remember that you live in the woods, listen to the Dead and eat whole grains, sis.
- 1 whole turkey, neck and giblets reserved, about 10 to 12 pounds (4.5 to 5.4kg)
- 1 recipe classic sage and sausage stuffing or your favorite stuffing recipe, unbaked
- 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks; 170g) butter, divided
- 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh thyme leaves (or 2 teaspoons dried thyme)
- 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh sage leaves
- 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh rosemary leaves
- 2 medium garlic, minced or grated on microplane (about 2 teaspoons)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, roughly chopped
- 1 large carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
- 3 stalks celery, roughly chopped
- 1 1/2 quarts (1.4l) homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon marmite
- 1/4 cup (34g) flour
Set oven rack to lowest position and place a baking stone or Baking Steel on it. Preheat oven to 500°F. Allow to preheat for at least 45 minutes before adding turkey. Meanwhile, rinse turkey and carefully pat dry with paper towels. Set a V-rack into a rimmed baking sheet.
Cut a double layered piece of cheesecloth into a rectangle about 4 feet long and 2 feet wide. Line the interior cavity of the turkey with cheesecloth, leaving the ends hanging out the sides. Fill the cheesecloth-lined cavity until it is tightly packed and slightly overflowing with stuffing.Gather up ends of the cheesecloth and tie tightly with butcher's twine to seal.
Carefully remove pouch of stuffing. Place on a microwave-safe plate and microwave on high power until the center reaches at least 180°F, about 10 minutes, checking every two to three minutes.
Meanwhile, heat 8 tablespoons butter in small skillet or microwave until just melted (it should bubble). Transfer to a medium bowl. Whisk in parsley, thyme, sage, rosemary, garlic, and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Rub mixture evenly all over skin of bird (it should harden and clump a bit as it hits the cold bird).
Using rubber gloves, clean kitchen towels or tongs, carefully return the hot bag of stuffing to the interior of the turkey. Cross the turkey's legs and tie tightly to seal. Stuff the cavity on the large side of the breasts underneath the flap of skin with more stuffing. Transfer any remaining stuffing to an appropriately sized baking dish (you should have a couple quarts left). Refrigerate extra dish of stuffing until ready to roast after turkey is cooked.
Place turkey on a V-rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and transfer to baking stone. Reduce oven temperature to 300°F. Roast until golden brown and deepest part of breast registers 150°F on an instant read thermometer, stuffing registers at least 140°F, and legs register at least 165°F, 3 to 4 hours total, basting occasionally with browned butter from bottom of roasting pan.
While turkey is roasting, chop neck into 1-inch chunks with cleaver. Heat oil in medium saucepan over high heat until smoking. Add turkey neck, onions, carrots, and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until well browned, about 10 minutes total. Add stock, bay leaves, soy sauce, and marmite. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 1 hour then strain through fine mesh strainer. You should have a little over a quart of strained stock. If not, add water to equal 1 quart. Discard solids and set stock aside.
After turkey is cooked, transfer V-rack back to clean rimmed baking sheet. Pour hot melted butter from bottom of pan over turkey. Tent with foil and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes before carving. Increase oven heat to 350°F and set a rack in the middle. Roast extra tray of stuffing while turkey rests. Meanwhile, set roasting pan over burner and add reserved stock. Scrape up browned bits with wooden spoon. Pour stock through fine mesh strainer set in 1 quart glass measure.
Finely chop turkey gizzard and liver (if desired). Melt remaining 4 tablespoons butter in medium saucepan. Add chopped giblest and cook, stirring frequently, until just cooked through, about 1 minute. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Whisking constantly, add broth in thin steady stream. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until thickened and reduced to about 3 cups. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Remove stuffing bag from turkey and untie. Carve turkey and serve with all of the stuffing and gravy.
For best results, dry-brine your turkey by following the instructions here. If dry-brining, omit any additional salt in herb butter.
baking stone or baking steel