How to Cook your Turkey the Day Before ~ Perfectly!

I have just read on the Huffington Post that, according to a study by the Food Network ...

cooking Christmas Dinner is so difficult that it takes 47 years (!) to learn how to do it successfully and that a third of women (it doesn’t mention men) never manage to do it properly!

Well something that will help a lot is – cook as much of it as possible in advance!  This post concerns the turkey and the gravy.  My next post or two will concern other dishes to prepare in advance. 

As a chef, I have cooked and served numerous Christmas (and, as it happens, Thanksgiving) dinners and I always roasted the turkeys the day before.  Also, domestically, time and time again on Boxing Day when eating pretty much the same meal as the day before, people have remarked how it seems so much nicer the second day.


Now I always roast my turkey in advance, not only is it delicious it also means I can get up late and spend a lot of time sitting around opening presents, nibbling things and sipping festive beverages.

I’ll talk you through it.

~  The Turkey  ~

1.   If using a frozen turkey defrost in accordance with the instructions on the wrapper. Completely!!
2.  Cook your turkey on Christmas Eve and start in the morning so that it has plenty of time after cooking to cool before chilling overnight.
3.   Take the fresh or defrosted turkey out of the fridge about an hour before cooking to bring to room temperature.
4.   If the turkey has instructions on the wrapper follow them!
5.   If your turkey has not provided cooking times and instructions see here. 
6.   If there is a bag of giblets inside the turkey remove it. You can either throw it away or simmer the contents in water to make a light stock to add to the gravy. (When I was in the West Indies I seasoned and roasted all the turkey necks and the girls in the kitchen would fight over them – a local delicacy!)
7.   Don’t bother washing it; it is a messy job and cold contaminate your kitchen. Any bacteria will be killed by cooking.
8.   Don’t stuff it!  If you stuff the turkey that will add to the weight and the cooking time; two inconveniences, you don’t need. The stuffing will also cool more slowly than the meat and could be a health hazard. If you cook the stuffing separately it will have a lovely crispy top.
9.   Preheat the oven in accordance with the instructions on the turkey or on the aforementioned website. 
10.   I recommend that you un-truss your turkey, i.e. remove any string or whatever holding the legs together and make it assume the position with legs spread wide.  This way it will not only cook faster and more evenly but it will also result in more crispy skin.  See below for info on crisp skin.

11.   Dry the breasts and rub with a little oil, you can use butter; it is tasty but the skin will be softer and more prone to burning. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and maybe other seasonings if you like; herbs, spices etc. 
12.   Season inside the cavity and if you wish put in half a lemon, wedges of onion or  fresh herbs.
13.   Cover loosely with foil and cook in accordance with instructions.
14.   Take the foil off about 45 before the estimated end of cooking to allow the breast to brown.

Is it Done Yet?

I don’t think the pop-up timers that some turkeys come with are reliable so instead …

~   If you have a meat thermometer the bird is cooked when it reached 70oC/160oF and incidentally here’s an interesting point, the temperature will actually rise for a short while after taking it out the oven.

~   If you don’t have a thermometer then pierce the thigh meat with a sharp knife and see if the juices run clear.  If there is any blood in them, return the turkey to the oven for another 15 minutes then test again. Another indication of doneness is the drumstick should waggle freely at the joint if you move it.

Cooling & Storing the Turkey

~   When the turkey is cooked cover loosely with foil and set aside to cool.
~   After at least an hour cut the legs and breasts from the turkey – if you cut it too soon delicious juices will be lost, after an hour or so they will have been re-absorbed by the meat.
~   Wrap the cold pieces in cling film and arrange in a container that will easily fit in the fridge.

How to Reheat the Turkey

~  Get the meat out of the fridge half an hour or so before reheating.
~   The legs and maybe the wings – arrange on a baking try, skin side up, and roast in a hot oven 200°C/400°F/180ºC fan/gas 6 for 15-20 minutes to heat through fully and crisp up the skin.
~   The breast meat – there are two ways I would recommend for reheating this meat …

1.   This is the method I use at home when cooking for just a few people.

About 20 minutes before serving bring the gravy (see below for gravy information) just to a boil, turn down the heat and add the sliced breast meat and submerge it in the gravy. Over low heat, watching carefully, return to a simmer. DO NOT allow to boil or the meat will toughen. Cover and set aside.  This way the meat will warm through without the slightest chance of being anything but tender and juicy. Serve the meat from the hot gravy and then, if necessary, reheat the gravy.

2.   Lay the sliced meat in a shallow roasting pan or similar and drizzle with a little turkey broth (that you have made in the roasting pan - see here).  Cover tightly with foil and pop into a hot oven 200°C/400°F/180ºC fan/gas 6 for 10-12 minutes.

As luck would have it 200°C/400°F/180ºC fan/gas 6 is the same temperature you will be cooking the roast potatoes.

~   Crispy skin – obviously, the skin on the breasts will have softened overnight so strip it from the meat, cut into as many pieces as you have guests, spread on a baking tray and then a few minutes before serving pop them in a hot oven the crisp up.  Don’t, of course, get any gravy on them when serving or they will immediately go soggy again.

~  How to Make Gravy with a Bonus!  ~

According to the above quoted article in the Huffington Post ...

“10% of people admit to messing up the gravy”

I also read somewhere that 25% of British people would like to see more interesting flavours of gravy and, at the same time, gravy with more authentic ingredients. 


I would suggest making your own gravy and, if you cook your turkey on Christmas Eve you can calmly make the gravy the following morning rather than rush it at the last minute.  Believe me, making gravy is easy, I promise.  See here for how to make wonderful gravy. 


There is an added bonus to making gravy the day after cooking the turkey; instead of carefully pouring the liquid fat from the top of the meat juices, If you have chilled the meat juices left from the day before the fat will have risen and solidified and be so much easier to deal with. 

Dessert ~ incidentally

To Further Help with Christmas

Catering for Christmas can be time consuming, tiring and a bit stressy, so I thought I'd offer some suggestions to make it quicker, easier, more relaxed and perhaps more impressive. 

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