Turkey remains the roast of choice for Thanksgiving, with roughly 90% of Americans eating it on the big day. Quite why turkey became the definitive bird for both Christmas and Thanksgiving is a bit of a mystery, but wild turkeys – yep, originally a game bird (wouldn’t want to meet one in a dark alley!) – were in abundance in 17th century America, which probably explains much of its origin as a festive roast.
It’s popularity in the UK is equally unclear, but our favourite explanation has to be that the publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843 may have boosted the turkey’s popularity as a holiday delicacy, when Scrooge magnanimously sends the Cratchit family one for Christmas. Whether you’re ordering for Thanksgiving, Christmas or both(!), here’s the skinny on our big, juicy birds and how to make the best of ‘em.
Ours are a traditional broad-breasted Bronze bird reared by father and son Gerald and Richard Botterill. The birds are fed a natural diet of home-grown cereal and vegetable protein, and are left to free range over the Belvoir Estate, home of the posh elderflower cordial, where they can peck at grass and grubs. The birds grow slowly and naturally to slaughter weight at 5-7 months, and when the time comes are brought into the on-site abattoir on foot at dusk, to minimise stress levels as much as possible. After slaughter the birds are carefully dry-plucked and hung for 10-14 days, to give great depth of flavour and succulence.
A note on quills: one of the characteristics of the Bronze turkey is its dark plumage, and when dry-plucked a few dark marks and tiny pieces of quill can be left in the skin, especially around the wing and under carriage. You’ll notice these more in Thanksgiving birds as they haven’t yet all moulted, but they are absolutely nothing to worry about – they’ll disappear during cooking.
The first order we ever placed with the Botterills was for just 12 turkeys, and now they produce a little over 2,000* for our customers and a few local collections. You won’t find them anywhere else.
*that’s 0.0001% of the 18 million UK turkeys killed in 2012.
Take the vacuum-packed giblets out of the cavity, and rest the bird on a large plate at the bottom of your fridge – don’t be tempted to wrap it in cling film, as this can make the skin clammy and encourages bacteria.
If you’re not cooking your turkey for a day or two, it’s wise to use the giblets now. Make a simple stock using everything except the liver, and a few aromatic vegetables; this stock will keep 4-5 days if covered and placed in the fridge.
Possibly the most important thing to do when you’re cooking a big turkey, is to take it out of the fridge a long time before it goes in the oven – six hours should do the trick. If you only give it an hour or two then the bird will still be quite cold in the middle, and this is what leads to uneven cooking, meaning dry turkey or even worse – still raw in the middle. Just make sure the dog doesn’t get it while it comes up to room temperature…
Rub the skin with plenty of butter and pepper and cover the breast with lots of streaky bacon. Make a big tin foil cross inside your roasting pan, place the turkey in the middle and wrap the foil around to make a loose but closed parcel. Cook at 220˚C/ 425˚F/ Mark 7 for 40 mins. Reduce heat to 170˚C/ 325˚F/ Mark 3 and cook for approximately a further 3 hours (small turkey), 3 1/2 hours (medium), 4 1/2 hours (large) and 5 hours (X-large). Uncover for the last 30 minutes and remove the bacon to crisp the skin. Stick a long skewer in the fleshiest part to test for doneness; the juices should run clear. Rest the cooked bird for a good 40 minutes while you finish preparing your side dishes (and have a well-earned glass of wine). Use your giblet stock (and another glass of wine) to make a proper tasty gravy.