Break out the mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce – cooking a crisp-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the-inside roasted turkey or chicken is a snap when you know how it’s done. We suggest you practise your roasting skills on a chicken before tackling a holiday turkey. Once you’ve mastered the basics, tweak your favourite flavourings to suit any kind of meal, whether a classic Sunday roast or an inspired weeknight supper. Our ultimate guide offers expert advice, step-by-step how-tos and quick tips that will have you roasting poultry any day of the week.
Which cut of poultry you serve depends on how many people will be dining and how much time you have to prep. Roasting a whole bird gives larger gatherings a warm, traditional feel (and the leftover meat and bones make the perfect base for broth). A whole turkey takes time to defrost. Plus, if you choose to brine it, you’ll need to do so a day before cooking. So if you’re short on time, choose smaller cuts, such as turkey breasts. Cornish hens are a fancier option for intimate gatherings; one Cornish hen will feed two people.
What’s best – fresh or frozen? Both are of equal quality, but each comes with its own benefits, depending on your needs. Fresh chicken is readily available; fresh turkey often must be ordered in advance, but it’s ready to pop in the oven as soon as you get it home. If you have the freezer space, a frozen bird can be stored for up to 12 months. Thawing a turkey, however, can take up to three days or more for very large birds.
Choose poultry with creamy white or yellow skin and no bruising. Refrigerate raw poultry for up to three days. Store pieces in sealed bags or containers and whole birds on a tray wrapped in plastic. Keep raw poultry on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, so any juices don’t run down and contaminate other foods.
Aim for approximately four ounces (125 grams) of raw poultry for each guest – bigger is better if you want leftovers.
Place frozen poultry on a rimmed baking sheet set on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator and let thaw for five hours per pound (500 grams). You can speed up the thawing process by running cold water over poultry still sealed in its original package. Never thaw poultry at room temperature. Once thawed, cook immediately.
What You’ll Need
- Roasting pan, and a rack to keep the meat up off the bottom of the pan.
- Instant-read thermometer to check doneness.
- Foil for covering skin if it’s browning too quickly, and for tenting the poultry to keep it warm while it rests.
- Kitchen twine to tie (or truss) the legs together to maintain the bird’s shape and juices and to help the meat cook evenly.
- Long, sharp carving knife and fork to neatly slice meat.
A great-tasting turkey or chicken needs only a good sprinkling of salt and pepper on the skin. If you want to give the meat a flavour boost, mix together a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and try one of these combinations:
- garlic cloves + halved lemon + fresh oregano
- orange juice + white wine + honey
- coriander + ground cinnamon + ground cumin + sweet paprika + cayenne pepper
More Flavour Options
Mix butter with a combo of herbs, citrus zest, chopped cooked pancetta, shallots, garlic or Parmesan. Rub about two-thirds of the compound butter under the skin; melt the remainder and brush over the bird before roasting. Or place strips of raw bacon across the turkey before it goes into the oven. This will add flavour as the bird cooks, and create a crispy skin.
Ensure stuffing is loosely packed in chicken or turkey for even and safe cooking. The tricks to making a great stuffing: start cooking it on the stovetop to develop the flavours, and add enough broth to keep the bread moist. If you’re leaving a turkey unstuffed, placing chopped fruit, vegetables or herbs in the cavity will add flavour and moisture to your bird. After stuffing, tie the legs together in a double knot with kitchen twine.
Brining is more time consuming, but the juicy meat that it creates is worth the effort. You can use a special brining bag. Alternatively, use a clean glass, stainless-steel or food-grade plastic container like a cooler (not your mop bucket!) – one that's large enough to hold the poultry and brining solution. The ratio for the brine is one litre (four cups) of water to one-quarter cup (60 millilitres) of sea salt. Fully submerge an uncooked turkey in the brine for six to 24 hours; chicken takes about three to six hours. To be safe, both meat and water should be well chilled when you begin, and stored covered in either the refrigerator, a cooler filled with ice or a cold room – not at room temperature.
The traditional method for roasting poultry is cooking the meat in a pan at a medium to high temperature using very little liquid. Roasting whole turkey and chicken can take approximately one to five hours, but you can reduce the time by spatchcocking, a technique that involves removing the backbone and flattening the bird. Smaller cuts such as stuffed turkey breast or chicken leg quarters can be seared briefly in an ovenproof heavy-bottomed pan on top of the stove and then finished in the oven.
How to Roast Turkey and Chicken Like a Pro
- Plan your cooking so that you have time to let the bird rest for 20 minutes before eating. Tenting with foil gives the juices a chance to redistribute throughout the meat.
- If the skin over the breast begins to brown before cooking is complete, place aluminum foil over it to avoid scorching.
- To safely get the bird out of the roasting pan, insert strong tongs into the cavity and lift it onto a welled carving board or a cutting board set over a rimmed baking sheet or tray.
- For an instant side dish, set turkey or chicken breasts to roast over a mixture of chopped potatoes and onions scattered in the bottom of the roasting pan.
- Did the bird cook faster than you’d calculated? If dinner is more than an hour away, carve the meat, soak it in chicken broth to keep it moist, and store it in the fridge. Reheat before serving. (This is also a great way to rehydrate dry poultry.)
- Drippings burned? Discard the ruined liquid and use chicken or beef broth to make your gravy instead.
- Gravy too thin? Stir together a mixture of equal parts water and flour, or softened butter and flour, and slowly whisk it into the simmering gravy to thicken it.
- Stuffing not quite right? Bake the stuffing uncovered to make it crispier. If dryness is the problem, stir in a little hot chicken or beef broth to add moisture without diluting flavour.
Poultry is generally done when a fork pierces the meat easily and the juices run clear, but the safest indication of doneness is to check the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer in the inner thigh for whole poultry, or in the thickest part of the meat, away from the bone, for poultry pieces. Refer to our handy chart below for temps and times.
|Cut||Preheat oven to…||Roast for…||Cook until internal temp is…||Let rest for…|
|Chicken, whole, unstuffed||350°F (180°C)||1 hour 45 min. per 3 lb (1.5 kg)||185°F (85°C)||10 to 15 min.|
|Chicken, whole,stuffed||350°F (180°C)||2 hours 10 min. per 3 lb (1.5 kg)||185°F (85°C)(stuffing should be 165°F/74°C)||10 to 15 min.|
|Turkey, 9 lb (unstuffed)||350ºF (180ºC)||3 hrs.*||185°F (85°C)||10 to 15 min.|
|Turkey, 14 lb (stuffed)||350°F (180°C)||3-3.5 hrs.*||185°F (85°C) (stuffing should be 165°F/74°C)||10 to 15 min.|
*Or 20 min. per 1 lb.
How to Tie, Cut and Carve Turkey and Chicken
Before roasting, tie the legs together with kitchen twine, and tuck the wings under the back to prevent burning. After the bird is cooked, remove the legs: Hold and gently pull each drumstick away as you cut through the skin. Slice through the joint, removing the drumstick and thigh, and then separate one from the other to serve. To carve the remainder, begin at the front, about halfway up the breast. Cut downward, parallel to the wing. Thin slices of meat will fall away as they are cut.
The best reason to roast a whole bird is to get the delectable pan drippings that are left in the bottom. They’re ideal for scraping up and using as a sauce on their own or as a base for gravy (skim a little fat off the top first if there’s too much).
Whole roasted chicken and turkey can be garnished with fresh herbs, cranberries or Cape gooseberries and carved at the table. Or slice the meat and arrange on a platter ahead of time, ensuring that everyone gets a piece of the delicious crispy skin.