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Your Quick & Dirty Guide to a Perfectly Cooked Holiday Roast

A quick-and-dirty guide to figuring out when your holiday foods are cooked correctly.

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Do you stress over cooking holiday meals, because you only cook a turkey, leg of lamb, or prime rib once a year? Are you constantly Googling cooking time guides? Here's a quick and dirty guide to being able to tell when your food is done... and cooked to perfection.

One advance tip: Remember, when using instant-read thermometers, the temperature taken at the time of reading will not be the final temperature of meat. Temperatures will increase about another 5 degrees Farenheit (about 3 degrees Celcius) or so after being removed from the oven as it rests. So if you're a mere couple degrees under "done"... take it out!

Whole Roasted Chickens

Most people overcook chickens because a lot of recipes say that the temperature should be 160F (71C), which results in an overdone bird. The problem is that a perfectly cooked, juicy chicken breast takes less time than the thighs.

Using an instant-read thermometer: insert the thermometer in the section of skin that separates thigh from breast. Slide the thermometer in along the inner thigh until you touch the joint. Withdraw the thermometer from the bone about 1/4 inch, wait 5 seconds, and check the reading. The correct temperature, taken at this location, should be 140F (60C).

Without a thermometer: chicken is a little more difficult than turkey to determine without cutting open along the leg, but the easiest way to to tell is to check the juices inside the cavity. They should be clear and streaked with dark red--and there will not be much of it, unless you added liquid. An undercooked bird's juices will be cloudy and pink-red. An overcooked bird's juices will be completely clear. Thigh meat will still have a little pink to it, but pink does not equal raw.

If you prefer your thighs to be more cooked, sever them at the joint and return them to the oven for five minutes, and keep the rest of the chicken warm.


To get a ballpark estimate on cooking time for planning's sake, It's ABOUT 12 minutes per pound when the turkey is unstuffed and fully thawed. Unstuffed turkeys between 9-18 lbs (approx 4.08-8.16kg) will take 3 to 3.5 hours at 325F. Larger turkeys, 18-22 lbs (8.16-10kg), will be about 3.5-4 hours. 

Like chickens, the dark meat of the turkey takes longer to be well done than the breast meat, but because of their size, the time it takes is much more pronounced! Help slow the cooking time of the turkey breast by covering just the breast portion with oiled aluminum foil for about 2/3 of the cook time.

Using an instant-read thermometer: The temperature of the dark meat should be 140F (60C) with an instant read thermometer, taken in the same location as in a chicken--close to the thigh joint, but not touching the bone.

Without a thermometer: Like in a chicken, juices only within the cavity will be mostly clear but streaked with a little red.  Juices from the breast will run clear.

Roast leg of Lamb:

Legs of lamb are awkwardly-shaped pieces of meat--impossible to roast to one uniform temperature. So don't even try! Like beef, lamb can be done to varying degrees of doneness to people's preferences, so use the shape and the location you cut from to please everyone. 

Using an instant-read thermometer: Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, making sure to not contact bone. 125F (52C) is medium rare; 130F is medium

Without a thermometer: More guesswork is involved, but there are some key indicators... when blood begins to leak onto the surface of the meat, you have a good indication that heat has begun to penetrate the middle. At this point, the lamb is rare, and will move to medium rare within a few minutes. When pressed with a finger, at medium-rare the meat will have a texture approximately the same as the pad of your palm at the base of your thumb as you make a circle that touches your middle finger to your thumb with a relaxed hand. At medium, it should feel like the pad at the base of your thumb when you touch your ring finger to your thumb.

I strongly recommend a thermometer for lamb, since the touch-test can take some practice to be comfortable with!

Prime Rib:

A well-cooked prime rib can be a thing of true beauty in the home-chef's cooking repertoire, but it can be a tricky thing to master. 

Low and slow is the name of the game to prevent the outer edges from cooking too much faster than the inside. Be prepared to invest a good chunk of oven time at 225F. Your oven's actual temperature will dictate time some depending on whether it runs high or low; you know your equipment best. At low temperatures, whether your cut has bones or not should not affect the overall cook time per pound. 

You're still going to look at a very rough ballpark of 24 minutes per pound at 225F, give or take a minute or two depending on whether your oven runs high or low.

An instant-read thermometer is an absolute must. Since the meat will continue to rise in temperature as it rests (and you will let it rest, right?), for a perfect medium rare, you must pull the roast out at 115-120F. For medium, the digital readout should be 125-130F. 

Do not pre-sear the meat. Let the meat rest outside of the oven while you're raising it to its maximum temperature (500F or so, depending on your oven) and then stick it back in to develop the crust. It's less likely to overcook the outside. I learned this awesome tip years ago from the prime rib king at Serious Eats, and it works.

No matter what you celebrate, treat yourself to some homemade eggnog to stay sane, and have a happy holiday season!

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