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Recipes and Stories

23 November 2022: Mastering Thanksgiving VII—Damon Lee Talks Turkey (and Dressing)

My Favorite Roast Turkey


Hands down the best turkey roasting advice of 2022 is "Just put the ******* turkey in the oven!"


The more you fuss and stress over it, the more you're opening yourself to angst and disappointment. Relax: It roasts just like a REALLY BIG chicken; it just takes longer. Allow plenty of time, use a reliable meat thermometer to gage doneness, and remember the only thing that matters is how it tastes. It doesn't have to look a magazine cover shot.


So, before we turn in for the night, here are a few thoughts on that bird and its quintessential accompaniment—the dressing.


Attacking the frozen bird: If you bought a frozen turkey and tomorrow morning it's still not quite thawed, unwrap it, remove the neck and giblets and submerge COMPLETELY it in COLD salted water (1 tablespoon kosher salt per quart). Salt will speed the thawing, keep it juicy, and help prevent bacterial growth. Never try to speed it up with warm water or you're risking a salmonella party on your bird.

Brining and so-called "dry-brining" (it's proper name is "corning") a turkey will help make it more tender and juicy, but if you haven't started that process by now, it's a little late for it. I've never done either one and don't plan to, so I can't offer you any advice. I've never a bird that had been so treated that I thought was worth the extra work and trouble.

Sometimes I loosen the breast skin and smear butter between the skin and meat. It's messy, kind of fun in a weird way, and, well, we all know everything's better with butter.

To stuff or not to stuff: the choice is yours. Stuffing adds flavor, and basting in the juices, is exceptionally moist and delicious, but it also slows down the cooking and can make the meat dry. I prefer dressing, and fill the bird's cavity with moisture-rich aromatic vegetables and herbs – giving me the best of both worlds.

·         If you usually stuff the bird, consider putting your stuffing into a covered dish and baste it several times with roasting juices while it bakes. Your turkey will be done quicker and you won't be able to tell the difference.


If you want to stuff it anyway, heat the stuffing in a large skillet before putting it in the bird and cook the turkey the moment it's filled. Never stuff and refrigerate it: this invites bacteria to come for dinner and you have enough weird relatives coming as it is.

Loosely spoon stuffing into the turkey to give it room to swell. Let it remain in the bird for 15 minutes after cooking, but then remove it ALL to a serving bowl.

Roast at a high temperature, beginning at 450-500 Degrees F. for 20 minutes to sear the outside, then reduce the temperature in stages (see Damon Lee's Favorite Roast Turkey, following). This makes a mess of the oven, but it's worth it.

Roast the bird mostly breast down. This makes it automatically "self-basting". Start it breast up, rub well with fat after it is seared, and turn it breast down until it is nearly done (150 degrees on a meat thermometer), then turn it breast up to let the skin crisp and brown during the last bit of cooking.

Have trouble flipping the bird or obliged to cook a big one that you can't handle? Do the butter under the breast skin trick described above and, after the initial searing, loosely cover ONLY the breast with buttered heavy-duty foil, then remove it for the last 20 minutes to finish browning and crisping the skin.

Testing for doneness: Use a reliable "instant read" thermometer. Insert it into the thickest part of the inner thigh without touching bones. It's safely done at 160 degrees, overdone at 170. If the bird is stuffed, the center of the stuffing should read 165 degrees. To test without a thermometer, pierce the thigh: the juices should run clear. If they're pink or red, it's not done. If there are no juices, you're in trouble: it's overcooked. Make lots of gravy.

Cover leftovers well and refrigerate promptly, but let them cool first: don't tightly cover and refrigerate hot food. That's another sure bacterial party invitation.

Use common sense: wash your hands immediately after handling raw poultry. Always scrub cutting boards, knives, and your hands with disinfectant before they touch anything that won't be – or already is – cooked.

My Favorite Roast Turkey

Serves 8 to 12 (with plenty of leftovers)


1 small young fresh turkey, weighing from 12 to no more than 16 pounds

Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill

4 large sprigs fresh sage, or 1 tablespoon or so crumbled dried sage

1 large onion, peeled and cut lengthwise into wedges

2 large or 3 medium leafy ribs celery, cut into 1-inch lengths (leave leafy tops whole)



1. Remove the neck and giblets from the cavity of the turkey and use them (except for the liver) in the broth pot (this can be done a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate turkey until ready to cook, but let sit at room temperature 30 minutes before cooking). Position a rack in lower third of the oven and preheat to 450-500° F. Wash the turkey inside and out with cold water and wipe it dry.


2. Rub the cavity well with salt and pepper. If using dried sage, rub this into cavity; simply put the fresh sage sprigs in the cavity with the onion and celery. Close with trussing needle and twine or small metal skewers. You may tie the legs together or not. I always do, but suit yourself. Rub the outside with butter. Choose a close fitting roasting pan fitted with a buttered rack and place turkey breast-side up on rack. (If you don't have a rack, rub the pan bottom thickly with butter and put turkey directly on pan.


3. Roast in lower third of oven 20 minutes until the skin is seared and beginning to brown. Rub it with more butter and turn the bird breast down. (Use oven mitts and tongs if needed – it may not yet be too hot to handle.) Pour in enough broth or water to cover pan by ¼-inch.


4. Reduce heat to 400° degrees and roast, basting occasionally, if liked (basting isn't necessary) about an hour longer, then drop the temperature to 375° and roast another 20 to 30 minutes, or until it's almost done (at least 150 degrees on the meat thermometer). Turn it breast up for last 15 minutes, baste well, and roast until the skin is brown and the thigh reaches 160 degrees. Don't let the broth completely dry up, but add more as needed to keep the roasting juices in the pan from drying out and burning.


5. Remove turkey to a warm platter, loosely cover with foil, and let it rest no less than 15 and up to 30 minutes before carving.


Mama's Sage and Onion Cornbread Dressing (Sort Of)


This is, more or less, my mother's dressing. I've never gotten mine quite like hers. But this year I am making yet another attempt to reproduce my mother-in-law's stuffing. It's probably never going to happen, but I enjoy trying and we're a family: It's not just about my own traditions anymore.


Makes about 7 cups, serving 12


2 cups (about 2 medium) chopped yellow onions

1½ to 2 cups (about 4 large ribs) diced celery, to taste

3 tablespoons bacon drippings or unsalted butter

4 cups stale (day old) finely crumbled cornbread

4 cups finely crumbled stale biscuits

1 tablespoon crumbled, dried sage (or 2 heaped tablespoons, chopped fresh)

Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill

2 large eggs, well beaten

About 2 cups turkey broth (or more)


1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 350° F. Put the onion, celery, and 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium heat. Sauté until it is soft and transparent, but not colored. Turn off the heat.


2. Put both bread crumbs in a large bowl. Add the onions and celery, the sage, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss until it is well mixed. Add eggs and enough broth to make it pretty wet, almost like a thick batter.


3. Lightly butter a 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish or pan that will hold it in a layer about 1-inch deep. Pour in the dressing and level it with a spatula. Dot the top with remaining butter and bake until the center is set and the top golden brown, about 45 minutes.

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