Martha Stewart: Don’t overcook that turkey

Q How can I make sure that a roast turkey will be warm when I serve it?

A: There’s nothing more disappointing than finding out that your sliced turkey has gotten cold before anyone has taken a bite.

The key is to time your carving so that it coincides precisely with guests’ sitting down to eat. Electric warming trays and chafing dishes will keep the bird at an appropriate serving temperature, but they will also quickly dry it out.

As you finish in the kitchen, enlist a friend or family member to pour wine and gather everyone at the table. Then, after saying grace or making any toasts, invite guests to help themselves to the other dishes while you carve the turkey, either at the end of the table or on the kitchen counter.

You might slice “to order,” placing the turkey on individual plates while heeding the usual white- and dark-meat requests. Or arrange the meat on a warmed platter: Place an empty dish in the oven — after it has been turned off but while it is still warm from cooking the turkey — just until the platter is hot to the touch.

And be sure to use a trivet. Cut only enough for first helpings, and then cover the remainder of the bird with parchment paper and then foil. When your guests are ready for second helpings, you can carve more.

The most crucial element in guaranteeing a warm, juicy turkey, however, involves not the carving station, but the oven. Quite simply, don’t overcook the bird.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and most professional cooks say that dark meat, which cooks more slowly than white, should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees before the turkey is removed from the oven (check this with an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh). Then let it rest on the counter at room temperature for about 30 minutes.

During this time, the bird’s temperature will continue to rise from the residual heat, and the juices will be redistributed evenly throughout. Not only will the turkey remain sufficiently warm, but it will also be wonderfully succulent.

Q: What is the best way to thicken gravy? I generally prefer to use flour, but it tends to clump.

A: Most gravies and sauces are thickened with some kind of starch, usually flour or cornstarch. Each thickening ingredient has its advantages. The key is not so much choosing the right one, but adding it properly.

If you try to thicken a pan sauce or gravy by simply stirring flour into the simmering liquid, you will inevitably end up with lumps. To prevent this, there are a number of techniques you can employ.

One is to use what’s called a roux. Made from a mixture of fat — either pan drippings or butter — and flour, a roux is cooked slowly on its own before the liquid is added.

The fat helps the starch expand and separate and also lubricates the starch so it can be smoothly incorporated into the liquid. Precooking also eliminates the unpleasant raw-flour taste that tends to occur if a sauce isn’t simmered long enough.

Another option is to use beurre manie, or kneaded butter. This is essentially the same as a roux, except that the flour is worked into the butter by hand or with a fork and then formed into small balls and added, uncooked, to a simmering sauce.

This works as a last-minute thickener, but it should be used sparingly. Too much may still result in that dreaded floury taste.

Perhaps the easiest and quickest thickening method is to use a slurry, made by stirring cornstarch into a small amount of cold water or stock. The slurry is whisked into a simmering sauce, which thickens almost immediately and takes on a slightly glossy appearance.

Each recipe has different requirements. But as a rule, if you want a medium-thick sauce or gravy, you should add about 2 tablespoons of flour for every cup of liquid. If you’re using cornstarch, you’ll need less, 2 to 2½ teaspoons per cup.

It’s important to avoid using excess starch (the result may be undesirably thick) and to not overheat the sauce. The latter can cause the starch to break down and the sauce to thin.

Address questions to Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 601 W. 26th St., Ninth floor, New York, NY 10001. Send e-mail to mslletters@marthastewart.com.

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