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Julia Child's Top 5 Turkey Tips

Julia Child Scholar Exhibit WGBH OpenVault
Julia Child Scholar Exhibit / WGBH OpenVault

Julia Child, the legendary chef and host of WGBH's The French Chef, had a lot to say about turkey. In fact, she devoted an entire section to it in her fourth cookbook, From Julia Child's Kitchen. Many a Thanksgiving Day throughout the 1970s and '80s would find Child picking up her home phone and guiding frantic home chefs through preparing their turkeys (her phone number was still listed in the Cambridge, Mass. public directory). As reported in The New York Times, "No matter how busy, Mrs. Child would hand off whatever kitchen task she was doing, take the phone and talk the nervous cook down from the ledge." Here are five turkey tips from Child to make this year's bird your best:

How much turkey should you buy?
Count on ½ pound of whole turkey per serving, and that means about 1 pound per person if you want second helpings. Thus a 16-pound turkey will feed 16 to 20. But if you want leftovers buy a 20-pounder, which is a good size for taste and tenderness.

How long does it take a frozen turkey to defrost?
A 20-pound bird, I have found, takes 3 to 4 days to defrost in the refrigerator, or about 12 hours in a sinkful of water. In either case, leave the turkey in its original plastic wrapper until it seems thawed. Then unwrap as soon as possible, and pull out the package of giblets from inside the turkey. Often these are still frozen, indicating, too, that the inside of the turkey is also still frozen. Finish thawing either at room temperature or, if you’re not in a hurry, in the refrigerator. Keep thawed turkey under refrigeration, since it spoils more rapidly than fresh turkey, and plan to roast it within a day or at most two days of thawing.

Julia Child’s Turkey Roasting Timetable:

Julia Child Turkey Roasting Timetable

Indications that turkey is nearly done:
Juices are exuding from the turkey into the pan; you will have a cup or more when turkey is done. Thickest part of drumstick feels tender when pressed, and drumstick moves fairly easily in its socket. Lower part of thigh, when pricked deeply with a fork, exudes clear yellow juices. (Meat thermometer reading in thigh should be 180 to 185 degrees.) Do not let turkey over-cook or meat will dry out.

When turkey is done:
Remove to a platter, and discard skewers or strings. Turkey should sit half an hour before carving, for juices to retreat back into meat tissues. If you will not be ready to serve for some time, turn off oven and open door to cool it. In 20 to 30 minutes, reset thermostat to 140 degrees, and return turkey to oven, where it may sit for an hour or more. (Or return turkey to oven, and heat it to 250 degrees every half hour, then turn it off.)

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Excerpted from From Julia Child’s Kitchen by Julia Child, copyright © 1970 by Julia Child. Click here for more recipes from Julia Child, and learn more about Julia Child's life and legacy here.

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