The dribbling of hot pan juices over a roasting bird has always been one of the quintessential images of Thanksgiving.
But in recent years, I’ve noticed some recipes for roast turkey are leaving this step out. That makes me wonder how necessary basting really is. What do you think?
The main theory behind basting is to ensure moist and tender meat — usually by spooning pan juices over the roasting turkey, or using one of those basters that allow you to extract the natural juices into the baster, then squeezing the other end, releasing those same juices over the roasting breasts. The fat in the drippings melts into the skin and the meat closest to the surface, preventing it from drying out in the oven’s dry heat, while also adding flavor. At the same time, the liquid in the basting mixture evaporates and keeps the surface slightly cooler, helping the meat cook evenly.
If you’re cooking a smaller turkey that doesn’t need as much time in the oven, you can also simply rub the outside with butter or lay a few pieces of bacon over the quick-cooking breast meat. (Bacon!) But if basting is going to be a part of the regimen, there are a few suggestions you may wish to consider. It is often recommended that you remove the turkey from the oven to baste, closing the door immediately to ensure heat is not lost from the oven, which could add to the roasting time.
A few recipes I have reviewed also suggest laying a bed of herbs and vegetables under a rack on which the turkey is roasted. This ensures an already-turkey-juice-soaked base for the gravy. Try chopping carrots, onions, celery and garlic, and placing them and 3 cups of water in the bottom of a sturdy roasting pan to catch the drippings. After the bird is roasted, strain the pan drippings into a bowl, and use them as your gravy base.
Turning the turkey during cooking or tenting it with foil partway through the cooking process also helps to prevent it from drying out. All of these techniques protect the meat from direct oven heat and regulate cooking speed.
Perhaps the most unique method involving basting calls for melting butter and wine, the amount depending on the size of the bird. You then let cheesecloth soak in the butter and wine mixture while the turkey is prepped for roasting. When the turkey is almost ready for roasting, whatever your recipe calls for, brush some of the butter and wine into the cavity. When the bird is completely ready to go, directions call for wrapping it in the soaked cheesecloth, which is eventually removed for the final hour of cooking, and continuing to baste the turkey until roasting is complete.