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How to roast a turkey perfectly, according to the Reading Terminal’s expert

The trick, says the man who does 40 birds a day: Get a good meat thermometer and foil.

One of 40 turkeys that come out of the ovens at The Original Turkey at Reading Terminal Market.
One of 40 turkeys that come out of the ovens at The Original Turkey at Reading Terminal Market.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Thanksgiving starts this week at the Original Turkey stand at Reading Terminal Market, which roasts about 40 turkeys a day — every day, year-round — that wind up mainly in sandwiches and salad. But this season’s heightened demand is for whole turkeys and sides. Notifications from the website "start rolling in fast and furious,” owner Roger Bassett said. “And we can only cook so many, so there will be a limit.”

But wait. The Bassett name in Philadelphia is generally attached to the ice cream dipped at the old-time counter along the 12th Street windows at Reading Terminal.


Some history:

In 1980, the market was a much different place: drafty, unkempt, largely empty, poorly lit, rattling and roaring every time a commuter train barreled into the shed overhead. Bassett, then a college student, got word from his father, David, that he planned to close the ice cream stand that Roger’s great-great-grandfather, Lewis Dubois Bassett, had opened in 1892. The son, though, agreed to take over and renegotiated the lease.

Three years later, Roger Bassett was running not only the stand but also a sundae bar in the middle of the market. “My dad [who had a printing business nearby] said there’s no place to get a good turkey sandwich in the market. He said, ‘Why don’t you go and buy a loaf of bread at Edible Adventures and get a turkey from Godshall’s and I’ll lend you my little Farberware oven?’

"So I cooked him a little turkey and made him a sandwich. Someone saw him. Next day, he came back.”

Shortly after, turkey — carved to order — supplanted sundaes, and the Original Turkey was born. “The menu developed as people asked, ‘Can you put cranberry on that? Can you put coleslaw on that?'” Bassett said. “It grew just by the customers’ requests.” Along the way, Bassett opened and later closed a shop at the Cherry Hill Mall and also franchised the operation, but that didn’t work out. Bassett now also owns Market Bakery, which sells breads from local bakeries.

(As for the ice cream business, which now includes distribution for other brands? Roger Bassett’s cousin Michael Strange, also a great-great-grandson of the founder, joined in the mid-1980s. Strange is now president and Bassetts’ managing partner.)

The Original Turkey crew roasts their birds in a kitchen beneath the market, in high-tech ovens that control temperature and humidity, and then pops them into a chiller. Since Bassett’s turkey technique has evolved since he was futzing with a tabletop oven 35 years ago, I asked him for his tips for home cooks.

Take the mysteries out of this, please.

Make sure you have a good meat thermometer.

You want to coat the turkey with olive oil, salt, pepper, a little paprika. You can do a little rosemary. The biggest thing that people can’t figure out is how to cook the breast and the leg to be both done at the same time. The challenge is that you have to cook the leg like 15 to 20 degrees higher than the breast. But if you let the breast cook, and get it up to 175 degrees, it’s going to be as dry as a bone. So how do you solve that?

Set the oven to 325. The trick is to put foil on the breast, the leg tips, and the wing tips. Then you cook it until the breast gets up to about 140°F. You want to check the thigh meat till it gets to about 160°F. Then you take off the foil, and that will give it a nice brown. You want the breast to get to 160°F and want to get the legs to 175°F or 180°F. By covering the breast, it does slow it down the whole process. So you have to have a thermometer.

What else?

The other thing a lot of people don’t do is to thaw the turkey 100%. You have to let it sit in your refrigerator. The size we use [20 to 24 pounds] takes four days.

Put it in a shallow roasting pan. Some people have these deep roasting pans. It prevents the heat from getting underneath to get the bottom of the thigh meat, which is what we’re trying to get to 180°F. If you use a shallower, 2-inch-deep one vs. a 4-inch, that will help the cooking process.

Some people put water in the bottom of the pan to try and keep the moisture — I don’t like to do that because you want the drippings. If you’re trying to get good gravy, you don’t want to put in water.

You also don’t want to steam the turkey. A lot of people will cover the whole turkey and the pan, make it tight. Now they’re steaming it. You want to roast the turkey. Our ovens [made by Rational] have a whole system of cooking these turkeys that help them turn out perfect almost every time. But not everyone can afford a $30,000 oven.

I guess it gets busy as the holiday approaches but dies down the day before Thanksgiving, when people pick up their orders.

Just before Thanksgiving is actually slower as far as sandwiches. But we’re jamming with fulfilling all the orders. And the day after Thanksgiving used to be a dud. I mean, I used to say we’re not opening. But now it’s crazy. Families come in to Philadelphia to see the Reading Terminal, the Liberty Bell, whatever else is around, and that weekend is jamming for us.