How do I perfect the Christmas roast turkey?

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1. Talking turkey

We’ve been gobbling up turkeys at Christmas for hundreds of years. Henry VIII is said to have been the first British king who feasted on turkey, but Edward VII made it a festive fashion, and since the 1950s it’s been at the heart of the traditional family Christmas dinner.

Yet despite all our careful preparations, surveys show that 60% of us would prefer to serve the roast turkey overcooked and dried out than risk opening the oven to find it still pink when the family sits down for Christmas dinner.

As we flock to the shops for the biggest dinner of the year, there's the thorny question of which turkey to buy, with heritage birds often costing twice as much, or more, as the common white turkey. And when it comes to the roast, should you cook it with the legs on or off? Stuff the cavity or the neck? Start with a sizzle or cook at a constant temperature? This year, why wing it? Feast your eyes on the best way to select and cook your Christmas turkey.

2. Splash out or buy a basic bird?

Organic or free-range, fresh or frozen? Click on the labels to separate the facts from fiction.

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3. Get ready to roast

Stuff the main cavity or under the skin? Roast with the legs on or off? Click on the labels for a guide to preparing your turkey.

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4. Turkey timing is everything

Cooking times and temperatures to cook the perfect Christmas roast turkey.

Weigh the turkey with the stuffing inside, or weigh the turkey, stuffing and butter separately and add the three weights together. Sizzle the turkey for 15 minutes in an oven preheated to 200C/Gas 6, then turn the oven down to 180C/Gas 4 and roast the turkey for 15 minutes per 450g/1lb total weight. See the table above for a quick reference. Ovens vary, so keep an eye on the temperature inside your bird using a meat thermometer - it should be at least 74C when it is cooked.

5. Secrets of roasting and resting

Sizzle

Cooking the turkey at a high temperature for a short time caramelises the fats, creating a delicious flavour. It used to be believed that it sealed the bird and stopped moisture seeping out, but this has been disproved. The sizzle should be done at the start of the cooking as this extracts less moisture than it would at the end. The skin of a turkey is thin and burns easily, and the white meat is susceptible to drying out, so the sizzle should be shorter than it is for some meats.

Basting

Use a spoon or turkey baster to baste the buttery juices over the top of the bird every 30 minutes during cooking. This ensures the breast does not dry out. Always do it quickly to avoid letting the oven or turkey cool down, as this could alter the cooking time. Remove the muslin, if using, 15 minutes before the end of roasting and baste again.

Checking for doneness

The turkey is cooked when the thigh juices run clear. To test for this, insert a small knife into where the meat is thickest, between the thigh and breast. The juices that run should be clear, with no sign of pink. If there is pink, roast the turkey for another 15-20 minutes and test again.

Resting

Leave your turkey to rest for at least 30 minutes after roasting for the juices to redistribute themselves and the meat fibres to relax, otherwise you will have a dry bird (you can extend this resting time for up to one and a half hours). Cover it with parchment paper or foil, then place a clean tea towel over this. While you rest the turkey, make the gravy (follow the link to the roast turkey recipe in step eight).

6. Turkey carving made easy

Follow our slideshow for a guide to easy and impressive carving.

Remove the string. Take the legs off by cutting between the legs and breast and then grabbing each leg by the drumstick and pulling it until it comes away from the bird.

Take the wings off by pulling and twisting them away from the breast.

To carve the breast, position a knife at the fattest part and slice down at an angle.

Carve the breast into thin slices of meat and stuffing.

To carve each leg, pull apart the thigh and drumstick, carefully twisting at the bone. Carve the thigh meat into chunky slices and serve the drumsticks whole.

7. Turkey Christmas facts

Christmas cracker turkey facts

While you’re digesting your perfectly cooked Christmas turkey, spare a thought for the magnificence of the bird who has given you so much pleasure. Did you know…?