How to cook the perfect Christmas turkey - according to award-winning chef

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Multi-award winning chef Gary Maclean gives his tips on how to cook the perfect Christmas turkey.

A multi-award winning chef has provided his tips on how to cook the best turkey for Christmas dinner.

Turkey has a long association with Christmas, as it has been on the tables of the well-heeled for over 500 years.

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Henry VIII was the first king documented to have eaten it at Christmas. During Victorian times, it became really popular due to the fact that Queen Victoria loved Christmas – she popularised many of the traditions we adhere to today.

Turkey also got a huge lift in popularity when it made an appearance in the Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol, as Ebenezer Scrooge presents the Cratchit family with a huge turkey on Christmas Day.

However, it was not until after the Second World War, when farming methods changed and made it less expensive for the average family, that it became the iconic must-have roast on the table at Christmas.

As most people only cook one turkey a year, it can sometimes be a daunting task. Everyone is seeking advice on their turkeys, from what size they need to how long to cook it.

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Masterchef: The Professionals winner, Gary Maclean gives advice on how to approach the cooking of Christmas turkey.

"I was once part of a campaign to save the equivalent of 100,000 turkeys from going in the bin due to people overcooking or buying a bird that is far too big for their needs. By following some basic principles, I can guarantee a perfectly moist, tender turkey, which should relieve some of the pressure on the big day.

"Use the best produce you can afford, so don’t scrimp on the turkey. It’s going to be the star of any Christmas meal. I would rather have less of something good, than more of something poor.

"I always buy as locally as possible, so I look for the country of origin, and high-welfare turkeys taste better. I prefer free-range, as it really makes a difference."

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How do I cook my Christmas turkey?

"Have a look inside the cavity and the neck end of the bird, and check for a bag of innards. Take them out and put them to one side. This bag will be used in the bottom of your tray when roasting. The bits and bobs will add loads of flavour to the gravy.

"Brining turkey has become very popular in recent years. If you have the time and a bucket big enough, it helps keep the moisture and adds extra crispiness to the skin, but it can make your gravy a little salty. The brine is made by adding around 50g (2oz) of salt to every litre (quart) of water; you can use other liquids, such as beer, wine or fruit juice. I would also suggest that you use a good quality salt. I find table salt far too harsh. You can also add herbs and spices to this brine solution. I would suggest that you should brine a turkey for no more than 1 hour per 500g (1Ib 2oz), so a 4kg (9Ib) bird would take 8 hours.

"Once you have brined the bird, rinse it off in cold water and pat dry, then pop it in the fridge to air dry. Do not stuff the turkey with stuffing!

"I know that sounds a bit strange but due to the shape of the cavity, the stuffing may not cook evenly and, except for the small amount that sticks out of the end, it does not develop a crust. More importantly, by the time the centre of the stuffing is cooked to a safe temperature, the breast meat on the turkey will be overcooked and dry.

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"Make your stuffing separately. I roll it up tightly in foil and bake it in the oven, allow it to cool and slice - use the recipe at the bottom of this page.

"Season the turkey thoroughly. You need to be generous with the salt and pepper – a pinch of salt is not going to season a 71⁄2kg (16lb 8oz) bird! And always season inside the cavity – I avoid seasoning the skin, as it won’t absorb salt and just leaves a crust; what I do is mix the salt and pepper into room temperature butter and push it between the skin and the flesh, which helps keep the meat moist and well-seasoned.

"Basting is the real key to getting a lovely moist turkey. Fat helps protect the meat and stops it from drying out in the cooking process. Trussing or tying the turkey is important because it does two things: one, it plumps the breasts for carving, and two, it keeps the legs close to the rest of the carcass, which stops the turkey from drying out.

"The legs protect the narrow part of the breast and help the bird cook evenly. Bring your turkey out of the fridge for one hour before roasting to take the chill off. Then take two carrots, two sticks of celery and and onion and cut them into large chunks and place them on the bottom of a deep roasting pan.

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"I put the turkey breast side down on top of the vegetables. The theory behind cooking it upside down is that all the juices are pulled into the turkey breast by gravity and not into the carcass that ends up in the bin.

"For the last 40 minutes, turn the turkey the correct way up to finish the cooking and to achieve a golden brown colour. Add about a half-inch of water to the roasting pan and place it in the preheated oven. This will help keep the oven moist and capture the juices that escape the turkey.

"This liquid can be used to baste the turkey while it cooks, along with all the juices and fats that are going to be released and eventually turned into golden-rich gravy.

"This little chart below will give you an idea of what size turkey to purchase. It is not an exact science, and some people eat more than others, but also leftover turkey can be turned into loads of amazing dishes."

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Maclean continues: "As a guide, if the bird is under 4kg (9Ib) I cook it for 20 minutes per kg and then I add 70 minutes on to that time. If the bird is over 4kg (9Ib) I still cook it for 20 minutes per kg, but I add 90 minutes on to that time. My timings are for a preheated fan-assisted oven at 190°C (375°F).

"You must let the turkey rest for at least 1 hour. When you remove it from the oven, turn the turkey upside down and rest it on its breasts. Cover it very loosely with foil and go about getting everything else ready. It won’t get cold; a covered turkey will stay hot for well over an hour.

"Letting it rest not only gives you time to finish the gravy, and the rest of the meal, but also allows the juices in the turkey to redistribute, which is the secret to the moist, tender meat.

Pork, apple and sage stuffing

"Traditionally, it is expected that you stuff the turkey – hence the name. But I always make the stuffing separately. It is easier to cook that way; it is also easier to portion and can be done in advance.

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"Stuffing is a real favourite in my house. It’s the one thing that everyone sneaks into the kitchen to grab an early taste of."


Small red onion, peeled and finely diced

1 stick celery, peeled and chopped into fine dice

1 green apple, peeled and finely diced

Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, shredded

1 egg

400g (14oz) pork sausage meat

85g (3oz) fresh breadcrumbs

Cracked black pepper

1 tsp dried sage

Splash of cooking oil


1. Prepare and chop all your ingredients.

2. Gently fry off the chopped onion and celery in a little oil in a frying pan.

3. Once cooked, allow to cool.

4. In a bowl, combine the diced apple, shredded parsley, egg, the celery

and onion mix, the sausage meat, and mix well.

5. Lastly, add the fresh breadcrumbs, a few turns of black pepper and sage.

Mix this all together.

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6. Split the mix into two equal balls. Take two sheets of tin foil and place

them onto the work surface.

7. Add a ball to the edge of each sheet and shape each ball into a long

sausage shape.

8. Carefully roll the sausage-shaped stuffing up in the foil.

9. Once you have rolled them up, twist the ends of the foil in opposite

directions to create a tight cylinder.

10. To cook, place in a preheated oven at 180°C (350°F) and bake for 20 to

25 minutes or until the core temperature reaches 75°C (167°F).

11. Allow to cool and remove the foil before slicing.

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