Every year at Thanksgiving, families gather around the table waiting for the most delicious of guests. And every year, the person responsible for the turkey stresses about cooking it perfectly.
To make your turkey stand out from the crowd, and to make sure you can feed the whole crowd, make sure you use a flavorful glaze, get creative with your stuffing, and expect each guest to eat 1 – 1.5 pounds of meat.
Tips to Get You Started
Plan ahead! Finding a turkey the day before Thanksgiving is just as hard as finding a pumpkin the day before Halloween. So clear out some freezer space and grab that bird at least a week ahead of time to spare yourself from running around town like a turkey with its head cut off.
Defrost!If you didn’t opt for a fresh bird, make sure you defrost it! Frozen birds can take up to a week to thaw in the fridge. Expect it to take 24 hours for each 4-5 pounds.
Turkey bag? Turkeys cook faster in an oven bag and there is less cleanup after the fact.
Assemble your tools! Grab a pan at least 2 inches deep with a rack, some oven mitts, a thermometer, some kitchen twine, small skewers, a baster, and aluminum foil.
Prep the bird! Remove the giblets and the neck from inside the turkey, peel back the neck skin and secure with skewers, flip the turkey breast side up, tuck the wings under, and tie the legs shut.
Season that bird! Brush the turkey with cooking oil or rub the surface with your choice of seasoning to prevent the skin from drying out. You can also stuff some flavored fat (butter, salt, herbs) under the skin, but don’t go overboard. Also, pouring two cups of broth or water in the roasting pan helps with the roasting.
Insert MEAT thermometer! Stick the thermometer in the center of an inside thigh muscle, but don’t touch the bone! Do not use an instant-read thermometer as they are not meant to stay in food while cooking. You want to minimize the amount of times you open the oven door, so make sure you can see the thermometer.
Put in oven! Place the pan on the lowest rack and baste occasionally. Ovens and cooking times vary, but it seems turkeys cook best between 325°F and 400°F.
In the last hour of cooking, try adding a baste of butter and hot sauce, herb butter and garlic, or fruit juice and preserves to boost flavor!
Check the bird! Turkey thigh meat is safe to eat at 165°F, but make sure you let the thermometer register for about 15 seconds. The thickest part of the drumstick should feel soft and they should move easily within their sockets.
We wouldn’t recommend stuffing the bird before roasting it due to the possibility of salmonella, but if you do, make sure the stuffing also has an internal temperature of 165°F.
Ovens and turkeys vary, (depending on the brine, the stuffing, etc) so adjust the times as needed by your turkey. This adjustment could be as much as an hour or more, but normally you need about 13 minutes per pound. No matter what, the turkey should be 165°F. Well-done, properly cooked turkey can have a pink color, so don’t worry about that.
This chart will help you find your ballpark cooking time for both stuffed and unstuffed turkeys:
Eat! Remove the turkey, but let it rest for 15-20 minutes before carving. Carve the turkey the same way you’d carve a chicken: wings first, thighs second, breast meat third. Once those are off, you can carve the meat into individual pieces.
You can recycle the juices in the bottom of the pan to make an excellent gravy. Just reduce the juice in a saucepan with some white wine and a little cornstarch and voila!
Choosing the Perfect Seasoning
You can use any number of flavorful concoctions to season your turkey, but there are 4 methods of applying the seasoning.
Want to keep your bird tender and moist? Brining your turkey locks in moisture while infusing flavors and reducing cooking time. Brining means soaking in salt, sugar, and water, and you should brine one hour for every pound of meat. Most recipes suggest one gallon of water with one cup each of both sugar and salt. Remember, you must rinse the bird off before you cook it and never brine a pre-salted/kosher or self-basting bird.
Dry Salt Rub
If you aren’t smitten with brining, try dry-rubbing the bird with kosher salt to help tenderize the meat while providing intense flavor and moisture. Let the salt sit on a thawed bird overnight (you can even rub salt under the skin) and don’t worry about rinsing the bird before cooking it.
Turkey is a mild meat you can enhance with many flavors. Just pick your flavors and let the bird swim in them overnight. You can google hundreds of options, but some suggest marinating with lemon juice, ginger, cloves, and soy sauce, and others suggest red wine, orange juice, and garlic.
When you marinate a turkey, you cannot guarantee an equal distribution of flavor. If this bothers you, you can purchase a meat injector that will ensure the flavors reach deep inside the bird’s breast and thighs. Want to shock some taste buds? Try a concoction of olive oil infused with garlic, or apple juice, or whiskey and surprise even the harshest critics.
A Myriad of Ways to Cook Your Turkey
Roasting a turkey is the traditional, and some say easiest, way to cook your Thanksgiving Day masterpiece. Simply butter and season above and below the skin and baste the turkey every 45 minutes in its own juices to cool the surface of the turkey and slow the cooking time. You can also follow the directions above, in “Tips to Get You Started.”
Show off your grill master skills because a true grilled turkey is cooked over direct heat to give it the charred and crispy skin one might expect. However, you can also cook the turkey adjacent to the heat in a grill by moving the charcoal to either side of the bird. Keep that meat moist with a water-filled drip pan placed directly under the bird – the water will keep the air moist, catch the drippings for gravy, and help you avoid flare-ups. Try to keep the grill between 300 and 350°F and you can grill a 12 pound bird in 2.4 hours.
Read more: How to Smoke a Turkey in a Wood Pellet Grill
Deep Fried Turkey
Feeling adventurous? Despite being the most dangerous method of cooking a turkey, positive deep-fried results can be delicious. The problem is that the results are either glorious or disastrous. You might have fall-off-the-bone meat or you might burn your house down. It only takes about 41 minutes to deep fry a turkey and hopefully only a few minutes before the fire department shows up. Find a safe spot, preferably outside, to set up the fryer (yes, you need an actual fryer), and make sure a fire extinguisher is nearby. It’s also crucial that your turkey is thaw and dry – if water hits hot oil it will spit like the devil. Also, make sure you have enough oil to submerge the bird and keep the temp up to 375°F. Get the temp up, turn off the burner, submerge the bird, relight the burner, and cross your fingers!
With the right hardwood, smoking a turkey is a great way to prepare tender meat with that smoky, right off the fire taste. This might be the most hands-off method to cooking turkey – just get the smoker ready, throw the turkey on, shut the lid, and rotate every hour until the bird is done. Using a brine and indirect heat is the best method to keep the turkey moist. Expect 7 hours of smoke time for a 13 pound turkey.
Read more: How Long to Smoke a Turkey
This method is not typically recommended, but it is sometimes necessary due to any number of holiday mishaps or lack of planning. However, microwaving a turkey works best if the bird is 12 pounds or less and you cook it 10 minutes per pound.
If you want all the flavor with no additional fat, turkeys retain the most nutrients when steamed. It seems to work best if you break the turkey up, however, and you only need 15 minutes if you are just cooking turkey breasts.
For the most evenly cooked meat ready within 2.5 hours, rotisserie is the way to go, however, it’s hard to do without a rotisserie spinner.
Beer Can Turkey
Want something a little different? Prop the bird on a partially full can of beer and cook in barbecue or a grill for a turkey no beer lover will be able to turn down.
Ready, Set, Cook!
Now all you need to do is find your perfect bird, choose your seasoning, and decide your cooking method. Take a deep breath and get ready to cook that turkey!