Have you noticed that people just love to rave about the free-range, organic, Birkenstock-wearing, carbon-neutral bird they acquired from the local co-op (and for which they proudly took out a home equity loan)? Makes you want to just poke’em in the eye.

Despite the admitted health and flavor benefits, none of that haughty environmentalism counts for much if the bird isn’t prepared right. I get rave reviews every Thanksgiving about my roast turkey; “My mom/grandma/aunt/bookie never did it so well!” is a pretty common response. As much as I’d like to ride that ego trip and take all the credit, I think my own success is owed more to 1) years of experience (i.e., royally screwing it up a few times and learning the hard way), and I think more importantly, 2) finding a recipe that emphasizes technique over ingredients (in this case). One I’ve adopted over the last few years (and probably tweaked a little by now) is Alton Brown’s Good Eats Roast Turkey. As of this writing, the link to the now years-old recipe is still live, and there are also video excerpts of the show, wherein Brown breaks down some of the most crucial moments of the whole roasting process.

For instance, don’t listen to naysayers on the topic of brining. It’s easy and doesn’t require expensive ingredients or apparatus (anything beyond salt and brown sugar is just gravy…so to speak). I use a $5 plastic wastebasket for this task, and set it out in a cold garage overnight (tightly covered, of course).

A lot of people are afraid of basting, too, and so go the easy route of cooking the bird in a covered roasting pan for the full length of the oven time. This only steams the bird and, as the venerable Rombauers wrote long ago, doesn’t do much for flavor. The trick to basting is just making the effort to do it. So get yourself a cheap, loud timer and learn to obey it. After the first 90 minutes of roasting (during which the oven is not opened at all), I baste every 30 minutes until done. That’s it. I used to baste every 15 minutes, but that results in more time the oven is open, and the skin doesn’t quite get that classic, deep roasted appearance. The ONLY covering over the turkey is the thick piece of foil over the breast which Alton Brown suggests. During roasting, the foil is removed for basting and then quickly replaced.

Finally, you can’t get by without a good thermometer. I think this is what separates my bird from the one cooked by your grandma – God love her – until it had the texture of shredded wheat and it tasted like sand. Overcooking has to be the commonest blunder in turkey roasting, but it’s also the most preventable.

So let’s look at this from a toolbox perspective. If you screwed up the Thanksgiving turkey and want a do-over for Christmahaunakwansikah, you will need:

  • A medium to large sized plastic trash can (sans the swingy-lid) for brining. It should have a flat, level opening, so you can cover it with plastic wrap and then a heavy board while it sits out in the cold garage.
  • An instant-read meat thermometer
  • A turkey baster – using a spoon to baste is just asking for trouble
  • A heavy roasting pan with a lid (only use the lid after roasting, for when the bird has to rest about 10 min. before carving)
  • A sturdy, flat rack to set in the bottom of the pan, just to provide even a half inch of ‘breathing room’
  • A pair of substantial, take-no-prisoners oven mitts
  • A very sharp chef’s knife (or carving knife, whichever you prefer) and a meat fork
  • An annoyingly loud kitchen timer that will make you feel guilty if you don’t come when it calls

If you’re headed to the department store now to buy any of these things, remember: You will only have to buy them once and most of the items are not very expensive. But having the right tools makes the job so much easier that you will wonder why you were so scared to roast a turkey in the first place.

Just a further note on Alton’s recipe, a friend in San Francisco tried it for the first time this year, and he said the apple in the aromatic stuffing made for tasty pickings after dinner. I have not tried this and might not recommend it for the same reasons that cooking stuffing inside the bird cavity has fallen out of vogue. But if you decide to live dangerously, it may be a nice treat. I did include the aromatics with the carcass for making stock afterward.