How to cook your Christmas turkey

Daylesford organic turkey
An organic turkey from Daylesford Organic

An organic, freerange turkey from Daylesford Organic

Naturally reared, free range turkeys are more flavoursome, says Irish chef Darina Allen. Here is her guide to cooking old-fashioned roast turkey with chestnut stuffing and bread sauce

Unlike geese, turkeys can be reared under intensive conditions, and so they often are. In the past there was a great tradition of farmers' wives rearing turkeys for the Christmas table. They'd get a couple of dozen poults in early autumn and fatten them up.

You could buy them ‘New York dressed', or plucked but with the insides intact. They'd be sold several weeks before Christmas at cattle marts around the country, and the prices would be announced on the radio. It was a great social occasion - all the neighbours would help pluck the turkeys, and this was an important source of income for Christmas.

Health and safety...

Then, along came the Health and Safety people and decided this was no longer acceptable.

One can understand why they thought the cattle marts weren't the ideal location to have turkey sales (despite the fact that there was no evidence of anyone suffering ill effects from a turkey purchased there), but they left consumers with no alternative other than an intensively reared bird.

The net result of it all was that a valuable part of a food tradition was lost, the skills were forgotten and the consumer was left with very little choice.

Turkeys used to be something you could only get at Christmas, but now you can buy them all year round and the specialness of turkeys has disappeared. In fact, turkey took on a taste of cotton wool most of the time.

In the past few years, however, some people have started to rear turkeys in the traditional way to satisfy the deep craving and growing demand for flavoursome and humanely reared birds. Ask around at your local farmers' market for these birds.


A period of brining greatly enhances the flavour of a turkey. I wouldn't necessarily do this with an organic turkey, but a less noble bird will benefit tremendously from 24 hours in brine.

275g (10oz) dairy salt

Dissolve the dairy salt in 15 litres (3.25 gallons) of water. Put the turkey into a clean, stainless-steel saucepan, plastic bucket or bin. Cover with the brine and a lid and chill for 24 hours. If you want to speed up the process, double the salt and brine the bird for 10 hours. Drain, dry, stuff and roast as in the recipe below.


To recapture the rich, sweet flavour of the roast turkey of years past, search for a naturally reared, free-range bird, preferably the old Bronze variety. This type of turkey may be expensive, but you economise on other ingredients that help fill up your guests, like the stuffing, and are delicious besides.

One dilemma that confronts most households when cooking a traditional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings is the oven space crisis just before the meal is served. You've got plates warming, vegetables warming, and the turkey needs to rest but also be kept warm after cooking while you make the gravy.

We transfer the turkey onto a hot carving dish, cover it with tin foil and place a folded bath towel over the tin foil, tucking it tightly underneath the plate. Years ago, country houses would have used silver cloches for this purpose.  Serves 12

4.5kg (10lb) free-range turkey with giblets


neck, gizzard, heart (save the liver for pâté)
2 carrots, sliced
2 onions, sliced
1 celery stalk
bouquet garni
4 peppercorns


450g (1lb) chestnuts
175g (6oz) butter
350g (12oz) onions, chopped
400g (14oz) soft breadcrumbs (see page 577)
50g (2oz) freshly chopped herbs, e.g. parsley, thyme. chives, marjoram, savoury, lemon balm
salt and freshly ground pepper


melted butter


large sprigs of fresh parsley or watercress

Remove the wishbone from the neck end of the turkey to make carving easier later. Then make the giblet stock by covering with cold water the neck, gizzard, heart, wishbone, vegetables, bouquet garni and black peppercorns. Bring to the boil. Simmer for 3 hours while the turkey is being prepared and cooked.

To make the stuffing, bring about 1.2 litres (2 pints) of water to the boil in a saucepan. Throw in the chestnuts and boil for 5-10 minutes, until the shell and inside skin peel off easily and the flesh should be soft. Pick them out one at a time and chop them finely. Melt the butter, and sweat the onions and chestnuts in it until soft. Add the breadcrumbs and herbs, taste and season carefully, mix well.

*Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4*

Weigh the turkey and calculate the cooking time, allowing about 15 minutes per 450g (1lb) and 15 minutes over. Brush the turkey with melted butter (alternatively, smear well the breast, legs and crop with soft butter) and season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Cover loosely with greaseproof paper and roast for about 11⁄2-2 hours.

The turkey is done when the juices run clear. To test, prick the thickest part at the base of the thigh and examine the juices to ensure they are clear. Remove the turkey to a carving dish, keep it warm and allow it to rest while you make the gravy.

To make the gravy, spoon off the surplus fat from the roasting tin. Deglaze the pan juices with the giblet stock. Using a whisk, stir and scrape well to dissolve the caramelised meat juices from the roasting tin. Boil it up, season and thicken with a little roux if you like. Taste and correct the seasoning and serve in a warmed gravy boat.

If possible, present the turkey on your largest serving dish, surrounded by golden crispy potatoes and garnished with large sprigs of parsley or watercress and maybe a sprig of holly (make sure no one eats the berries though).

Excerpted from Forgotten Skills of Cooking by Darina Allen (Kyle Cathie Ltd, £30). Readers can buy a copy for the special price of £25 (inc free p+p, UK mainland only) by calling 01903 828503 and quoting ref. KC FSC/EC. Or email:


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