I've figured out, after cooking many whole turkeys with varying degrees of success, that the most you can expect is succulent dark meat and lovely crisp skin. The breasts will always be slightly dry and chalky, no matter how carefully and slowly you cook and baste the bird. This has everything to do with the anatomy of a turkey and nothing to do with your turkey-roasting skills. Breast meat on turkeys (and all other birds, for that matter) doesn't need to be cooked for long to achieve perfect tenderness and succulence, but dark, dense thigh and leg meat needs plenty of time.
I often butterfly roasting chickens when I'm in a hurry to get a meal on the table. There are two advantages to removing the backbone of a chicken and flattening it out. One, it cooks in just under an hour. Two, the breasts (wedged as they are in the middle) stay moist and tender while the legs (splayed on the outside of the bird) cook to perfection. I thought I'd try the same method with a small turkey, and it worked beautifully. The breasts were soft and juicy, and the thigh meat succulent. And, as a bonus, the bird was cooked through in an hour and fifty minutes. I left it to rest in its pan for 25 minutes, under a bonnet of foil, and I found it very easy to carve. (Have you noticed how people who fancy themselves expert carvers vanish when it's time to cut up the turkey? It's a thankless task. Even if you're an experienced carver, the bird always ends up looking as though a hand grenade detonated in its cavity. You only need to look at the photograph above for proof of this.)
Butterflying a whole turkey is not at all difficult, but you will need a pair of heavy kitchen scissors, or a heavy knife with a very sharp blade. Pushing the stuffing under the skin and deep into the thighs and drumsticks is also easy to do, although this is, I admit, not a job for the fainthearted. The turkey, when butterflied, looks faintly ridiculous, very like a fat, bossy school mommy with her hands on her hips (see picture below). I ended up with my arm shoved almost elbow-deep under the stretchy skin of the turkey, and couldn't stop laughing because I was irresistibly reminded of the scene in which Mr Bean climbs so far into a turkey that he gets it stuck on his head.
This is a long recipe - I thought it important to give you detailed instructions so there are no disappointments on the big day - but rest assured that this is really quite easy to make, provided that you take a little time with the stuffing and stock. You can prepare both of these well in advance.
The stuffing in this recipe contains fresh ricotta cheese which, I have found, has an almost magical tenderising effect on poultry breasts; I can only imagine it is the lactic acid in the cheese that (like yoghurt) helps soften the flesh. You can, however, use any poultry stuffing of your choice. Try my 2010 Turkey Stuffing with Green Peppercorns, Pork Sausage, Apple and Thyme, or my 2009 recipe Mango and Macadamia Turkey Stuffing with Sage and Sausage Meat.
The cooking time of a butterflied turkey will depend on its size and the ferocity your oven; see recipe and Cook's Notes (at the bottom of this page) for more information.
Roast Butterflied Turkey with a Ricotta, Almond and Apricot Stuffing
one turkey (about 3.5-4 kg is ideal), thawed
a large onion, roughly sliced, skin and all
3 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
a little olive oil
salt and milled black pepper
For the stuffing:
3 T (45 ml) olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
6 rashers streaky bacon, finely diced
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
finely grated zest and juice of an orange
1/3 cup (60 ml) chopped dried apricots (or fresh ones)1/3 cup (60 ml) chopped dried cranberries (optional; I used dried pomegranate arils)
1/3 cup (60 ml) flaked almonds (toast them if you have time)
3 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped
1 cup (250 ml) breadcrumbs, fresh or dried
1 cup (250 ml) ricotta cheese
3 T (45 ml) softened butter
1 extra-large free-range egg, lightly beaten
salt and milled pepper
For the stock and gravy:
3 Tbsp (45 ml) butter or vegetable oil
trimmings from the turkey (see recipe)
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
1 stick celery, finely sliced
1 large carrot
a few parsley stalks
4 cups (1 litre) water
3 T (45 ml) cake flour
1 cup (250 ml) white wine
1 T (15 ml) redcurrant jelly or smooth apricot jam
If you're going to cook the turkey right away, heat the oven to 170 ºC. Alternatively, you can butterfly and stuff the turkey and place it in the fridge for up to 8 hours before roasting it.
First make the stuffing. Heat the olive oil in a pan and fry the onions and bacon over a medium heat for 4-6 minutes, or until the onions are soft and golden. Stir in the garlic, orange zest and juice and let the mixture bubble for one minute. Tip the contents of the pan into a large mixing bowl and add all the remaining stuffing ingredients. Using your fingers, gently combine the mixture. Don't overwork it, or it will turn mushy. At this point, it's a good idea to test the stuffing for seasoning. Press a small ball of stuffing into a little patty and fry it in hot oil until lightly browned. Taste the mixture and add more salt, pepper and other seasonings of your choice if necessary. Cover the stuffing and set aside.
Now butterfly the turkey. Unwrap the bird and remove the plastic packet of giblets. (You can use these for the stock if you like but because I'm not a fan of gizzardy-looking or offally bits, I always fish out the neck of the bird and give the rest to the dogs.) Rinse the turkey with cold water, inside and out, and pat it dry using kitchen paper. Remove the pop-up plastic device (that is, the cooking indicator) stuck into the breast. Place the turkey, breast side down and with the ends of the drumsticks facing you, on a big chopping board. Cut off the pope's nose and set it aside for the gravy. Using a pair of heavy kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, cut out the backbone by making a long incision on either side of the spinal column, crunching right through any small ribs you encounter. This is a bit of a grisly task, but be bold, and don't worry if your cuts are ragged. Set the backbone aside for the stock. Turn the turkey around so the ends of the drumsticks are facing away from you and snip through the small, tough band of cartilage that connects the two breasts at the neck end. Now turn the bird over so it’s skin side up and bring your fist down smartly between the breasts to break the breast bone. Flatten out the turkey with the heel of your hand. Tuck the wing tips under and behind the bird. You'll end up with what looks like a buxom and knock-kneed person lying on her back with her hands on her hips (very comical, a butterflied turkey looks!).
Starting a the neck end, slip your hand under the skin over the breast and gently loosen it to form a pocket (use a hooked finger to break through the membrane connecting the breast to the skin). Now push your hand deeper under the turkey skin and separate the skin over the thighs and thicker parts of the drumsticks in the same way (turkey skin is elastic and quite tough, so have no fear about fearlessly plunging in, Mr Bean style). Pack half the stuffing into the pockets over the thighs and drumsticks, and the remaining half over the breasts. Gently pat the skin to smooth and even out the stuffing. Pull the neck skin down and under the turkey and secure it with toothpicks.
Put the onion slices, bay leaves and thyme in a large roasting pan and place the turkey, skin-side up, on top. Drizzle a little olive oil over the skin and season generously with salt and pepper. Cover the turkey loosely with a large piece of tin foil and roast at 170 ºC for an hour. Now remove the foil and roast for another 40-60 minutes (see Cook's Notes, below), or until the skin is crisp and golden, and the bird is cooked through to the bone. Baste the bird with a little melted butter now and then, and watch the breast portion like a hawk, because it will brown quickly. If the skin over the breasts looks as if it's darkening too quickly, tightly cover it with a triple layer of tin foil.
In the meantime, make a quick stock. Brown the turkey neck, the backbone, the pope's nose and the sliced onion in the olive oil or butter for a five minutes, or until golden. Add the celery, carrots, parsley stalks and water and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer very gently for an hour. Strain into a clean jug, cover and set aside.
Remove the turkey from the oven, lift it from the pan using two spatulas, place it on a platter and allow it to rest, lightly covered with foil, for up to 25 minutes while you make the gravy and get a any vegetable accompaniments ready.
Put the roasting pan - don't remove the onions or herbs - over a medium heat and, when the fat begins to sizzle, stir in the flour. Cook, stirring constantly, for a minute or two, then whisk in the white wine and two cups of turkey stock, scraping to dislodge any sediment on the bottom of the pan. Turn down the heat and let the gravy bubble very gently for 8 minutes. If it seems too thick, add more stock or water. If you'd like a thicker, gloopier gravy, thicken it with a little slaked cornflour.
Serve the turkey with gravy, peas, roast potatoes and (essential, in my opinion) bacon-wrapped pork cocktail sausages.
Serves 8, depending on the size of your turkey
I can't give you an exact time for cooking a butterflied turkey because this will depend on the size of the turkey and on your oven. It will certainly take a shorter time to cook than the time specified on its plastic wrapping. As a general rule of thumb, a spatchcocked turkey will cook through in well under two-thirds of the cooking time recommended on the packet. I suggest that you roast the a medium turkey for 90 minutes (see recipe, above) and then test it for 'done-ness'. Use a sharp knife to make a deep cut, right to the bone, in the thickest part of the thigh. If there is any trace of pinkness, or if the flesh and bone are lukewarm to the touch, roast the turkey for a little longer. The turkey is done when the biggest, deepest thigh bone is very hot to the touch and the juices run quite clear.