Roasting is the most common cooking method for large cuts of meat or a whole turkey. The process consists of putting the meat in a pan and placing it in the oven until it’s cooked. With this inattention to detail, you create a passable meal for your family or guests without much cooking knowledge. But when you fine tune the roasting process with attention to detail, equipment and spices, you can produce an exquisite meal fit for the most discerning palate. Roasting may be simple, but it has the ability to bring out a wealth of flavors in a big hunk of meat.
As you perfect your roasting technique, don’t worry too much about the quality of the meat. Roasting is the preferred method of cooking for some of the less expensive, less tender cuts. Slow roasting allows the fats to melt into the meat and the ropey flesh to soften. The result is delicious, tender fare for your dinner party.
Roasting is the best way to cook a large whole turkey, as well. While some people stand in their driveways performing the dangerous practice of deep-frying a turkey, you can deliver a moist and succulent feast to your dinner guests from inside the house. The secret to roasting any sort of meat is in the details.
The Secret to Perfect Roasting
The most essential tool for cooking a roast is a roasting pan, of course. The pan you choose should be large enough to accommodate the meat with two to three inches of empty space all around. The proper air circulation around the roast is part of what ensures even cooking.
Slow, even cooking is the key to a delicious, moist turkey. Unlike other large pieces of meat, turkey has the added cooking benefit of having a whole in the middle of it, so hot air can circulate through the center of the bird, as well as around the outside.
Whether you’re cooking a large turkey or some other cut of meat, the roasting pan should be deep enough to hold the hot air in around the sides of the meat. It also needs to contain any vegetable you want to roast along with it. One of the biggest mistakes in cooking a roast or whole chicken or turkey is using a pan that is too small. When it is crowded into the pan with other ingredients, the meat doesn’t cook evenly.
A roasting pan jammed with food doesn’t actually roast the meat. In fact, part of your meat and vegetables will steam in this crowded environment, eliminating the chance to gain that slow-roasted flavor. Your roast will cook, but it won’t have a savory brown exterior, and the vegetables won’t get the benefit of cooking in the meat juices.
The vegetables, if you’re roasting a whole chicken or turkey, should remain outside of the bird. You can flavor the inside of your turkey with butter and herbs, but the cavity should remain mostly empty. Air circulation is key when roasting.
When choosing a roasting pan, look for the following criteria:
- Two to three inches larger than the meat you’re cooking
- Deep enough to hold in the hot air against the sides of the meat
- Large enough to allow for air circulation between meat and vegetables
- A lid or foil covering
Why Use a Roasting Rack?
Some people think the roasting pan is the only equipment required for cooking a large cut of meat or whole turkey, but a roasting rack is standard. It’s a structure that fits inside the roasting pan and cradles the meat, keeping it off the bottom of the pan.
Perfect roasting involves air circulation around the meat, so a roasting rack is necessary. The rack allows heat to circulate evenly underneath the meat, as well as around the sides. The more air circulation in the pan, the more evenly the meat will cook.
A roast or a whole turkey is too large to turn over in the pan. It would be difficult and dangerous to reposition the meat during the cooking process. With a roasting rack, there’s no need to move the meat around. It’ll receive optimum heating and air circulation on all sides at all times.
When you place your roast or turkey on the bottom of the roasting pan, you expose it to direct heat from the metal. In time, it will overcook and stick to the bottom of your pan. The bottom of the meat will be fully cooked long before the rest of it. And without air exposure on that side of the meat, it will steam rather than roast.
Roasting is a slow method of cooking that usually takes an hour or more, and it melts the fat in the meat and causes it to drip down into the bottom of the pan. The drippings create the best gravy stock, but it’s not the best place for your roast to sit.
A roasting rack holds the meat out of the pooling fat at the bottom of the pan. Slow cooking a large cut of meat retains enough of the juices in the meat for flavor, but it allows the meat to shed its excess fat. You don’t want to serve your guests a piece of meat that’s been marinating in fat for over an hour.
Proper Use of a Roasting Rack
The main purpose of the roasting rack is to allow 2-3 inches of space underneath the roast for air to circulate. This technique is exclusive to roasting meat or a whole turkey. For other types of cooking, where the meat is meant to be cooked in liquids, like marinades or sauces, a rack is unnecessary.
Some cookbooks offer an alternative to using a roasting rack. They usually suggest piling your meat on top of the vegetables to keep it off the bottom of the pan. This is not a proper technique, because air cannot circulate through the vegetables. The meat might not be touching the bottom of the pan, but it’s also not cooking evenly.
Regardless of the size of your pan, the rack you choose should fit the piece of meat you’re roasting. It doesn’t have to fill the entire roasting pan, as long as it holds the meat 2-3 inches off the bottom. Do not fill in the space underneath the rack, or you will defeat the purpose.
The Basting Debate
When roasting a whole turkey in particular, you may be concerned with basting, which is the act of pouring liquid, usually fat, over the turkey during the cooking process. The idea is that by basting the turkey, you keep it moist.
Using a roasting rack for your turkey doesn’t interfere with your basting practices. The rack allows the fat, which is melting and running off the turkey, a place to fall. Without the rack, your turkey would be sitting in fat in the roasting pan.
The fat on the bottom of the turkey doesn’t eliminate the need to baste. You still have to manually move the liquid fat from the bottom of the pan to the top of the turkey, where the delicate breast meat is exposed to heat under a thin layer of skin.
The rack helps your basting technique by allowing the turkey to be evenly coated. Some recipes call for the use of fruit juice or even soda to baste the turkey. These add sweetness to the turkey flavor, but you don’t want to overdo it. If the turkey is not on a rack, it will sit in the excess basting juices in the bottom of the pan, which could result in an unpleasant concentration of flavor in a portion of the turkey meat.
Time and Temperature
Two important details for perfectly roasted meat are time and temperature. They’re related, of course, because the lower the temperature, the longer the time required. Roasting is the act of bringing the core temperature of a piece of meat to an acceptable range for safe consumption.
The hot air circulating around the meat in the oven will eventually sink in and raise the core temperature. You want this to happen slowly and evenly. If it happens too quickly, the outer layer of meat will be overcooked and dried out before the inside is fully cooked.
Conventional wisdom for a well-cooked roast was always to seer the outside in a hot pan, then place it in the oven on a low temperature. The theory reversed recently, when someone realized that the nicely browned outside of the meat continues to cook in the oven, and then can become dry and tough.
The new theory on browning the outside of the roast is that it can be done at the end of the cooking process. You can cook your roast slowly at about 200 degrees until it’s almost finished. Then, raise the oven temperature to 500 degrees to brown the outside of the meat in the last several minutes of cooking.
Before increasing the cooking temperature, make sure the roast or turkey is adequately coated in fat to protect it from the extreme heat. The fat coating will also help create a crusty brown exterior that’s wonderfully flavorful.
The amount of time required to cook a cut of meat is mostly determined by its size. A solid roast generally takes longer than a whole turkey by weight because the meat is thicker. You can use a general estimate of cooking time of twenty minutes per pound. Cooking time for any large piece of meat is only an estimate. The real determination is the temperature.
Using a meat thermometer, you can measure the temperature in the core of your roast. You want to bring that core temperature up to at least 130 degrees for safe consumption. If you prefer well-done meat, the temperature can go as high as 160 degrees. The thermometer will tell you when the roast is finished cooking.
Roasting is a fairly easy means of preparing a big meal. The oven does most of the work, leaving you free to prepare other parts of the meal or entertain your guests. Simply check the temperature every 20 minutes or so.
After a few hours of cooking, the meat needs to rest before you cut or serve it. About ten to fifteen minutes are needed for the juices to reabsorb into the meat. If you cut it too soon, all of those juices will run out and the meat will become dry.
Keep in mind that your turkey or roast will continue cooking after it’s removed from the oven. A large, dense hunk of meat will hold the heat for quite a while. The heat will continue to seep into the center of the meat throughout the resting time. You should notice at least a 10 degree rise in temperature during this time.
Be sure to account for this final increase in temperature when deciding to take the meat out of the oven. You should take it out when it’s about ten degrees cooler than your optimum temperature. If you’re roasting a turkey that has a pop-up button in it, take the turkey out of the oven before the button pops.
While you turkey is resting, cover it in foil to avoid losing heat too quickly. The plastic button will pop up. If you wait until the button pops to take the turkey out of the oven, it will be over cooked by the time you serve it.
Time to Roast
Roasting a whole turkey or other large piece of meat is a great way to serve a succulent meal to a large group. With the proper equipment, including a roasting pan, roasting rack and meat thermometer, you can make a delicious meal with very little effort.
By adding your potatoes and other root vegetables around the roast in the same pan, you can sit back and let the oven do all the work. When your roast is cooked, your vegetables will also be roasted in the juices from the meat. After the appropriate resting time, the rack allows you to easily lift the meat from the pan and transfer it to a platter for carving.
Scoop your roasted vegetables from the pan with a slotted spoon to leave the tastiest gravy stock behind. Making gravy without lumps in it will be the only difficult part of this delicious feast.