It's the unrivalled king of the Christmas feast, but it's not always the easiest bird to handle. Diana Pilkington gets to grips with turkey.


These days, few meats would look out of place as the centrepiece of your Christmas dinner.

Some people swear by a traditional goose, others are game for venison, while Marks & Spencer predicts chicken to be big this festive season. But the vast majority of us still gobble up turkey on December 25.

Chef Rachel Allen says: "A few years ago we decided to cook the most gorgeous bit of beef. We had it with horseradish, bearnaise and amazing roast potatoes. It was delicious, but it didn't taste like Christmas. For me, it's got to be turkey."

With a variety of types, retailers and prices available, it can be tricky knowing which bird go for. For Allen, supporting local producers is key.

"We get turkeys from a local farm. Personally, I believe in paying the extra to getting a really good quality one and I'll use every single bit of it. Last year we had a bronze turkey - it's lovely and moist."

Generally, bronze and black varieties of turkey have a gamier flavour and a denser texture, but a British Turkey Quality Mark indicates good standards of food safety, traceability and bird welfare.

Size is also important to consider, in terms of how many people you're feeding and how big your oven is.

Asda turkey expert Jim Viggers says: "A 2.5kg turkey, for example, would feed a family of four and you could have turkey sandwiches in the afternoon. A 4kg turkey would feed seven to eight people again with plenty of leftovers, so decide what you want to do with the bird first."

But according to the British Turkey Information Service, the most common mistake people make with turkey is overcooking it.

A spokeswoman advises: "Work out the cooking times well ahead of Christmas Day. To check it's cooked, insert a clean skewer in the thickest part of the thigh. Leave for at least one minute and if the juices run clear the turkey is cooked."

Cooking tips from the top

:: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: "Because the legs are tougher, ask a butcher to take them off and then cook them separately. Find a great recipe for coq au vin and cook them slowly in wine and onion and bit of bacon. Then you can concentrate on cooking the breast quickly and keeping it moist."

:: Nadia Sawalha: "Because it's just once a year, I put an entire packet of butter over my turkey and baste it every 20 minutes and it's always really lush. And I put streaky bacon on the breast and take it off towards the end."

:: Rachel Allen: "Cook it for the first hour breast side down and then turn it over and cook it breast side up for the remaining time. That way the juices soak down into the breast so it will be moist. But with a really good turkey you don't even need to do that."

Where to buy

Here are some of the top turkeys - and some festive alternatives - being championed at some of Britain's supermarkets this year:


Turkey: Heston from Waitrose turkey crown, complete with brining kit, herb butter and gravy serves a minimum of eight people, £55.

For something different: Waitrose Highland topside of beef, £14.99 per kg.


Turkey: The Woodland Trust Norfolk Black turkey is bred to be flavoursome and succulent, £9.99 per kg.

For something different: Four-bird roast featuring goose, duck, turkey and guinea fowl and a pork stuffing with fig and orange, £80 from the customer ordering brochure.


Turkey: Aldi's Roly Poly turkeys are reared at two farms that are exclusive to the supermarket. The birds have a talk radio station to listen to and are finished on oats, £35.99 (4kg-5.99kg).

For something different: Fresh whole goose, £34.99.


Turkey: The Extra Special Bourbon Gold is a cross between the Bourbon turkey and the Kelly Gold, said to result in a meatier bird, £8 per kg.

For something different: Extra Special venison rack with cranberry and port butter, £35 per kg.


Turkey: The Co-operative Truly Irresistible British Free Range Bronze Turkey has been matured under chilled conditions for at least 14 days to develop flavour, £40.00 for 5kg.

For something different: Fresh large unfatted British beef roasting joint. On offer over Christmas at £4.99 per kg.


Turkey: The Ultimate Turkey Crown is a free-range British turkey stuffed with pork, sage and onion and topped with streaky bacon, £9.50 per kg

For something different: Lamb with rosemary and pomegranate butter, £11 per kg.

Marks & Spencer

Turkey: the Turkey Wellington is made with British turkey breast fillet, a chestnut mushroom duxelles with Madeira and fresh thyme and wrapped in a pastry case. It takes just an hour to cook. £20 for 1kg.

For something different: Whole pheasant with bacon, £6.

Got your bird sorted? Here are some trimmings recipes for you to try...

Classic sage and onion stuffing

(Serves 4)

25g butter

1 large onion, finely chopped

10 chopped fresh sage leaves, from a pot of living sage

200g fresh while breadcrumbs

½tsp coarse ground black pepper

150ml chicken stock

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Melt the butter in a frying pan and fry the onion and sage for 5 minutes. Add the breadcrumbs and pepper and cook for 2-3 minutes. Stir in the stock and season to taste.

Press into an ovenproof serving dish and bake for 20 minutes until golden on top. Alternatively roll into 8 balls and place on a baking tray and cook for 10-15 minutes.

Tip: Add plenty of fresh lemon zest and try brioche crumbs instead of bread, to give a lovely light stuffing.

:: Recipe by the Fresh Herbs Company

Peas and brussels sprouts with hazelnut and orange glaze

(Serves 6)

200g prepared Brussels sprouts

400g frozen peas

50g butter

50g hazelnuts, roughly chopped

Zest and juice of one orange

1tsp sugar

Sea salt and black pepper

Cook the Brussels sprouts in boiling, salted water for 5 minutes or until nearly tender, then add the peas, bring to the boil again and simmer for a further 2 minutes. Drain and place into a warm serving dish. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small heavy-based frying pan. When the butter is foaming add the chopped nuts and fry for one minute until slightly golden. Add the orange juice and the sugar and boil for a further minute. Add the grated orange zest. Season with a little black pepper and pour over the sauce making sure that they are well covered.

:: For more recipes, go to

Roast potatoes, parsnips and shallots with pancetta and bay leaves

(Serves 6-8)

1.5kg potatoes, medium sized, peeled

900g parsnips, medium sized, peeled

2tbsp plain flour

1tbsp fresh thyme, chopped, plus a few sprigs

6-8 tbsp rapeseed oil

12 shallots, peeled

200g pancetta, roughly chopped

6 whole bay leaves

Sea salt and black pepper

Preheat oven to 200°C.

Cut large potatoes in half, and all the parsnips in half lengthways. Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 8 minutes or until par-boiled. Meanwhile, cook the parsnips in the same way in another pan for 4 minutes. Drain the potatoes well then return to the pan and cover, shake the pan to roughen the edges of the potatoes.

Drain the parsnips and toss them in the flour, chopped thyme and seasoning.

Pour the rapeseed oil into a large roasting tin and heat in the oven. You need around 1cm of oil in the tin. Add the potatoes and turn them over in the oil using a slotted spoon. Roast uncovered for 15-20 minutes, remove the tin from the oven and turn the potatoes, add the parsnips and shallots and turn them in the oil too. Roast for a further 35-40 minutes then turn all of the vegetables again, add the pancetta.

Increase the heat to 220°C for a further 15-20 minutes, adding the thyme sprigs and bay leaves for the final 10 minutes. Sprinkle with a little sea salt and black pepper and serve immediately.

:: Recipe from

Spiced cranberry, apple and sage stuffing cake

(Serves 10)

50g butter

1tbsp rapeseed oil

1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped

½tsp mixed spice

1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

200g fresh breadcrumbs

2 eating apples

250g cranberries

50g dried apple, cut into small pieces

2tbsp fresh sage leaves, chopped

750g sausage meat

2tbsp chopped parsley

Grated zest of a small orange

1 large egg, beaten

8 rashers rindless streaky bacon

Sea salt and black pepper

Preheat oven to 230°C.

To prepare the stuffing, heat the butter and rapeseed oil until the butter has melted. Add the onion and mixed spice, fry gently until well softened but not browned. Stir in the garlic and breadcrumbs and season well with sea salt and black pepper. Remove from the heat and place in a bowl, leave to cool.

Peel the apples, cut into quarters, remove the core and cut into small cubes. Mix the cubed apples, cranberries, dried apple, sage, sausage meat, parsley and orange zest with the onion mixture, season well with sea salt and black pepper using clean hands and then mix in the beaten egg. The mixture should be quite firm.

To make the stuffing cake, take a 18-20cm spring form cake tin and grease with a little rapeseed oil. Arrange the bacon slices in the tin, leaving a 5cm strip on the base, then lay them up around the sides, let the excess hang over the edge. Carefully fill the tin with the stuffing mixture, making sure it is level on top. Fold the bacon over the top of the stuffing, gathering and twisting the ends loosely over the centre. Place the tin on a baking sheet to catch any juices that escape, then bake for 40-45 minutes until the top is golden. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes before you remove onto a serving plate. Place some poached cranberries on top for decoration, cut into wedges and serve.

:: Recipe from

:: Rachel Allen will be appearing at Taste of Christmas at London's ExCel Centre, from December 7-9. Visit

:: For more information on turkeys visit (with pictures)