12 things you need to know about Christmas turkey
Why is it worth buying a premium turkey? How should I prepare my turkey? What temperature should turkey be cooked to? How do I get crispy turkey skin?
A gloriously burnished, crisp-skinned bird is the centrepiece of a traditional Christmas dinner, but most people only eat turkey once a year – so it’s not surprising many are unsure about how to choose, prepare and cook it well. Never fear: we asked turkey farmer Paul Kelly to answer your queries and share his expert advice on how to ensure your Christmas roast is spot-on perfect.
Paul’s parents Mollie and Derek launched Kelly Turkeys in Essex 50 years ago and, at Paul’s suggestion, began rearing bronze turkeys in the 1980s. Bronzes had been the traditional breed but were replaced by fast-growing white turkeys in the preceding decades. The farm is now run by Paul, and its unique slow-growing KellyBronze turkeys have been recommended by scores of expert cooks including Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith – and the delicious. food team. Paul answers your top Christmas turkey questions below…
1. How old are turkeys that we eat?
The average age of a standard fresh turkey will be between nine and 13 weeks. A fully mature turkey like a KellyBronze would be six months of age and hatched in its natural season, which is late spring/early summer. This difference in age is the biggest single factor for flavour and eating quality. The saying ‘The older the bird the better the flavour’ is so true.
The final three stages of development in all animals are skeletal development, muscle development and then, in the final stage of maturity, fat is laid down. Fat, of course, is what gives meat flavour and texture.
The fast-growing commercial turkey, when harvested at nine to 13 weeks, is still in its skeletal development stage, so it has very little muscle and has certainly not laid down any fat. It’s harvested when it’s the right weight, rather than when it’s ready to eat. It’s these cheap young birds that give turkey a bad reputation for being dry and tasteless.
2. What type of turkey is best for Christmas? Why buy a premium turkey?
A fully mature turkey, while maybe over twice the price, has relatively more meat and natural fat to give it eating quality and flavour. It’s not as expensive as you think when you look at cost per serving. More importantly, you’ll have a turkey that has the wow-factor and isn’t a disappointment on Christmas Day.
“Cheap young turkeys give turkey a bad reputation for being dry and tasteless”
3. Don’t forget the turkey legs…
So many people buy a crown nowadays, which I don’t understand for two reasons:
- When the legs and backbone are cut off the turkey, the loss or weight is added onto the price of the crown. So when you buy a crown, you have pretty much paid for the whole bird it came off anyway!
- The legs and the back part of the turkey are where there’s lots of bone marrow and fat. Losing them means you won’t get all the flavourful dark meat as well as the amazing stock and gravy that they help create.
If you want the best value and flavour, buy the whole bird. It’s also the traditional – and in my opinion best – centrepiece for Christmas Day! It isn’t that hard to cook: just think of it as a big chicken…
As some shoppers really do just want the crown, this year we’ve launched a new product to get the most out of our birds and reduce waste: Kelly confit turkey thighs. Pre-cooked and ready to serve, they make a great alternative roast dinner or can be shredded into pasta dishes or wraps with hoisin sauce.
4. Why are KellyBronze turkeys not labelled free range?
Our ‘wild woodland’ turkeys cannot be called free range because regulations stipulate that every turkey needs to be provided with a certain amount of area in a building. A KellyBronze has the cover of forest trees and the canopy, but not a building – so cannot be called free range. It’s madness… but I don’t mind, as the name ‘wild woodland’ is much sexier than ‘free range’!
5 & 6. What’s the difference between dry-plucked and wet-plucked turkey? And what’s the benefit of hanging turkey?
The standard commercial method of preparing a turkey is to immerse it in warm water before plucking. These big tanks of warm water are a possible source of cross-contamination and can enable bacterial growth. There’s nothing wrong with warm water processing, but you have to immediately prepare the turkey for the oven, then deep chill it ready for sale, as the increased bacterial load and damage to the skin caused by the plucking machines during processing will not allow you to hang and dry-age the turkey in a fridge.
At KellyBronze, we remove the warm water from the process, so there’s no cross-contamination and any bacteria present doesn’t have the opportunity to grow.
Because we have arrested any bacterial growth, we can therefore dry-age and hang our turkeys. During this hanging period the connective tissue in the meat breaks down due to an enzyme process in the muscle, making it more tender.
7. How do you prepare a turkey before cooking? Should I cover turkey with foil when cooking?
If you start off with a fully mature turkey like a KellyBronze I wouldn’t bother doing anything other than roasting it plain, as per the instructions on our website. It has all the natural requirements (fat and a mature carcass) to not need any help, such as brining, basting, stuffing, using foil etc. These methods are all attempts to get some flavour and moisture back into the birds, because the turkeys have been harvested at a young age. I just put my favourite veg in the roasting tin – red onions (loads of them), with garlic and a couple of star anise – along with 500ml of water to mix with all the juices.
If your budget will not stretch to a premium turkey, then I do think it’s a good idea to put butter under the breast skin and to cover it in tin foil. Brining is another option: submerge the turkey in a two per cent salt solution for 24 hours in the fridge (you’ll need a big bucket and a big fridge!). The cheapest turkeys will need all the help they can get…
8. What temperature should you cook turkey to?
To get the best out of a turkey you need a meat thermometer, as turkey meat is not very forgiving and if you overcook it the texture of the meat goes downhill very quickly. Using a meat thermometer takes all the guesswork out of cooking the turkey. Time is purely a guideline, as temperature is the critical measurement.
The turkey should reach a core temperature of 75°C for a standard wet-processed turkey (check the thickest parts of the bird, in the thigh and the breast) and 60°C for a KellyBronze (because they don’t have the level of bacteria present in wet-processed turkeys). The temperature at the core will rise for 20 minutes or so after you take it out of the oven.
9. Should you cover a cooked turkey with tin foil?
No! It amazes me that people seem to think the turkey is going to get cold very quickly once out of the oven. Once up to temperature, the important thing is now to get the heat out of the bird and let it cool down. Covering it in tin foil – I’ve even heard of people using blankets and sleeping bags! – once out of the oven is a disaster, as that will create another oven and the bird will continue to cook for much longer.
10. How long should turkey rest?
Let the bird stand uncovered at room temperature for at least an hour before carving. It will take 2-3 hours for the turkey to become tepid. It’s easy to bring the meat up to temperature if needed by getting the gravy piping hot before pouring onto the meat, too.
“Covering the turkey in tin foil – I’ve even heard of people using blankets and sleeping bags! – once out of the oven is a disaster, as the bird will continue to cook”
11. How to carve turkey
You’ll find a step-by-step guide on the KellyBronze website, but the basic principles are to break the bird down into its primal parts before cutting into portions to serve. Take the wings off, then the legs and then cut the breasts off. Once off the bone, cut slices for serving.
12. How to get crispy turkey skin
Peeling all the skin off and laying it on a baking tray before popping it back into the oven for 20 minutes is a top tip to get the best ‘turkey crackling’. Delicious!
When should you order a Christmas turkey? Our advice is to order as early as possible to avoid disappointment. With the turkey sorted, browse our collection of Christmas trimmings, sides and sauces to polish off your festive feast…
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