A Recipe-Free Guide to Roasting Chickens, Ducks and Turkeys
Roasting is one of the easiest and most under-used techniques available to the modern cook. It’s so simple that I do it at least once a week, especially when I’m pressed for time or when I need a quick meal that will generate a lot of leftovers for snacks and lunches.
The theory of roasting is simple: the seasoned bird is placed whole in the oven and left to cook, uncovered, until it is done. There are some arguments about whether you should set the oven at a moderate temperature and leave it, or brown the skin at a higher temperature and then turn the heat down. Some people also baste (pour liquid over) their roasts periodically. But really, that’s all there is to it.
Choosing the Bird
You can roast virtually any bird whole. Your choice will depend on a combination of taste, time, money and the amount of food you need to make. From the teeniest of quails to the hugest of turkeys, the process of choosing, cleaning and preparing the bird to roast is exactly the same.
Poultry must always be as fresh as possible, and cooked within a day or two of purchase. Fresh birds are better than frozen. I use organically raised and prepared fowl. I think they taste better, but your mileage may vary.
Domestic turkeys, chickens, cornish game hens and quail are all sweet, mild meats, bred to be less fatty and less “gamey” tasting than their wild brethren. Wild birds, domestic ducks and geese are all stronger tasting. Ducks are fatty and geese are even more so. To keep the skin crisp it’s best to slice the very fatty parts open with a knife (try not to cut down into the meat of the bird), creating a channel through which the liquified fat will drain as the bird heats up.
All birds should be thoroughly washed before roasting, and any packages of innards or sauce removed from the cavity. (Often the livers and neck are included inside the bird.) You can toss out the innards or you can use them in another dish.
You may or may not choose to brine your bird before serving. I do it with turkey, but not with anything smaller. The process calls for filling your sink or other large container with cold water and pouring in a cup of table salt (2 cups of coarse kosher salt) per gallon water for 4-8 hours. (You can leave the bird in the salt bath overnight if you like, but cut the amount of salt in half.)
A similar effect is achieved by “koshering” (the traditional Jewish process for preparing turkey, although strictly speaking no bird is kosher unless it has both been prepared traditionally and blessed by a rabbi). To kosher your turkey soak it in unsalted cold water for about thirty minutes. Then crust it with coarse kosher salt and let it sit on an incline for between 1-2 hours; a cutting board propped to drain into the sink works fine. When the time is up, rinse it thoroughly with cold water at three or four time. I find brining works just as well as koshering for tenderizing, and it is a lot easier to do.
If you have the time and the inclination you can air dry your bird before putting it in the oven. It makes the skin crispier. But only do this with brined or koshered birds. Let it dry uncovered in the refrigerator or out on the counter as you let it come to room temperature.
Trussing is tying up the limbs of the bird so that they lie close to the body. This prevents the limbs from burning or overcooking. It’s necessary only for large birds, in my opinion. Use only natural-color cotton kitchen string. Accidentally using a synthetic string causes disaster both for your kitchen (it smells awful) and for your health (it’s poisonous).
This is the creative part of roasting. I won’t go into a detailed explanation of seasoning here because I focus on it in other articles, but here are the basics. You can choose between two ways of seasoning your bird — dry and wet. A dry seasoning is called a “rub” and is rubbed into the skin and cavities of the bird before it goes in the oven. A wet seasoning is usually a fairly thick sauce that gets poured or smeared over the skin and cavities. A dry roast should be rubbed with oil or butter before being season. A wet seasoning should contain some sort of oil. The oil will help to keep the meat of the bird moist while it cooks.
Personally I prefer dry seasonings for roasting, mainly because wet seasonings often require basting and I like just to put the bird in the oven and forget about it until the timer goes off. In either case the seasoning should contain only ingredients that do not burn at the temperature at which the oven will be set (usually 350 degree Farenheit). There is nothing worse than finding your sauce has burned and ruined the flavor of the meat. (Teriyaki and soy sauce are particularly known for this.)
Combine spices that work well together. You can flavor your bird to match any kind of cuisine, from Mexican to Chinese. For ideas about seasoning, visit the Guide to Spicing. Be creative. Or be simple. Plain salt and pepper tastes remarkably good on a well-roasted bird and the cooked meat can always be covered with sauce later, before serving.
Heating the Oven
Preheating is a good idea when you’re going to roast. For most small birds I just set it at 350 F and leave it there. For larger birds like geese and turkey, I like to set the temperature to 425 for 12-20 minutes and let the skin on the back brown, then flip the bird over, turn the heat down to 350 and leave it there the rest of the time. You’ll hear a lot of argument about how long a bird should stay in the oven.
I think that most of the disagreement stems from the fact that one’s oven temperature gauge does not often match the actual temperature inside one’s oven. If you cook a lot you should have an oven thermometer and you should be aware of how far off your gauges are. Compensate if your oven runs hot or cold and really try to make sure the temperature inside the oven is within a few degrees of 350 F. If you don’t have a thermometer and you know your oven is off, you’ll just have to play it by ear (recommendations on how to do that will follow).
There are some real disagreements over the proper cooking time. I don’t worry much about how long I’m cooking a bird if it’s been properly oiled and seasoned. I count on about 90 minutes for an average 5 pound chicken, and 90 minutes for an 8 pound duck, and about 4-4.5 hours for a 20-25 pound turkey. The only bird I use a meat thermometer on is a large turkey. The temperature of the middle of the breast meat should be over 160 before you remove it from the oven, but it doesn’t have to be much over it.
A turkey is also the only bird I roast at two different temperatures, or that I turn over. I roast it face down at 425 F in a preheated oven for 15-20 minutes. Then I take it out (carefully) and flip it over and put it back in the oven, turning the heat down to 350 for the rest of the time it’s cooking.
I gave up basting birds years ago, since I like to keep things simple. If I want a wet sauce I tend to braise instead of roast. But if you feel compelled to baste, keep it to a minimum of once every 15 minutes for the first hour, and once every half hour thereafter. You can stop basting when the skin on the bird has turned brown since it doesn’t do any good after that point anyway.
I used to use a regular roasting pan. My favorite are All Clad or similar brands because they clean so easily. It’s important, in roasting, to lift the bird up above the area where the fat drains. Roasting pans have wire trays inset especially for that purpose. I still use traditional roasting pans for turkeys but a Russian friend taught me a trick that I now use every time I roast chickens or ducks.
Depending on the size of the chicken or duck, I use either a beer bottle or a wine bottle set upright in a pan. Usually I use an oven-tempered glass casserole dish (the large lasagne-size can hold two chickens). When the bottle is standing upright, lift up the bird. Slide the bird, with its legs pointing down, over the bottle neck. It should balance there, with the drumsticks and tail barely touching the pan. Cooking them in this upright position also has the advantage of exposing more of the skin to the air, so it is crispier.
Use only beer or wine bottles, since other glass bottles are not thick enough to withstand the heat of the oven.
Whatever pan or method you use, make sure that the bird is lifted above the surface where the fat drains or you will have fat-soaked pieces of bird sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning.
How Do I Know It’s Done?
You can go by the temperature thermometer, but don’t open and close the oven door too often to check how it’s progressing. Every time you do that the heat in the oven fluctuates and you slow down the cooking process. If you have a modern oven, the oven runs a lot hotter to bring itself back up to the proper temperature quickly — this is not good for the bird either. So be patient and check only when you really need to.
Trust your eyes more than your thermometer when checking for doneness, since thermometers aren’t always accurate. A bird is done when its juice runs clear (not red) after you poke a hole in it. Again, you want to keep this sort of checking to a minimum since the clear juice is tastier inside your bird than out of it. You also know your bird is done when its extremities (drumsticks, wings) rotate easily in their sockets. This change takes place when the cartilage holding the bones together softens. If the wing or leg falls off, you know you’ve overdone it.
Fatty birds need to be more well done than lean ones, so it’s okay to cook your duck or your goose until the wings are quite loose.
Resting the Bird
When your bird is finished, take it out of the oven and let it cool, untouched, for 15-30 minutes depending on its size. This is an important step, so don’t skip it. Your bird will taste a lot better if you let the juices redistribute themselves without disturbance. If you skip this step and carve immediately you’ll end up with a drier, less tasty bird.
And that’s all there is to roasting. It is actually more time-consuming to explain than to do. While I was writing this article I roasted two ducks. I spent approximately 15 minutes getting them ready to go into the oven. I checked the temperature once as I wrote. A few minutes ago I removed them to cool. And about fifteen minutes from now, after I proofread, I’ll go carve them up.
In addition to being a scholar, Shawn Scott, Ph.D., is a culinary enthusiast and has worked as a professional caterer and chef. Now retired from teaching, Scott has decided to share the collected wit and wisdom of almost forty years of cooking and food lore.