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A Beginner’s Guide to Thanksgiving Turkey

If you have years of experience preparing Thanksgiving turkey with a tried-and-true favorite recipe, you don’t need this post.  You’ve probably already learned all these tips, or have successfully cooked turkeys without them.  For the rest, no need to fear your encounter with a Thanksgiving bird - help is on the way.

carving thanksgiving turkey.jpg

My dad, carving the Thanksgiving turkey in 1985.

I cooked my first major Thanksgiving turkey just a few years ago.  (Before then, we had always gone to my mom’s house for the holiday.  I helped prepare those dinners, but never went within a yard of the turkey.)  Amazingly, it wasn’t that difficult.  I've now cooked several turkeys  - with lots of help from my husband and an occasional call to my mom - and have even tried different methods.  I haven't had a disaster yet, and have even earned a few accolades.  

A few tips and knowing where to turn for more help can turn your Thanksgiving turkey adventure into a story with a happy ending.  Try these:

Buying a turkey

How much and what to buy?  Most sources I checked estimate 1 pound per person, which allows for leftovers.  (In my family that translates to 1 pound per meat-eater, with more non-meat dishes for the vegetarians.)  If you’re having a small gathering, or like only white meat, consider buying a turkey breast, either bone-in or boneless, as it is easier to prepare and contains no dark meat. 

Fresh or frozen?

Frozen turkey need not be defrosted before cooking, but without thawing, it will take 50% longer to cook.  If you buy turkey frozen, don't thaw it by leaving it on the kitchen counter for hours. Turkey is safely thawed in the refrigerator, in cold water or in a microwave. (I know, it’s hard to imagine a microwave big enough to fit a large turkey.)  Also, don’t buy a frozen turkey that has defrosted (even partially) in the store.  A turkey labeled as frozen should be rock hard when you buy it.

Fresh turkey– Some, but not all, turkeys sold as fresh are labeled “roasters.”  Those turkeys are fine for roasting, but so are others without that label.  Turkeys stored between 0 and 26 degrees are considered “hard chilled”, while those kept at 26 degrees or above are considered fresh.  Don’t buy a fresh or “hard chilled” turkey more than a few days in advance and refrigerate it until cooking.  Fresh turkey is highly perishable. Also, do not buy one pre-stuffed, as the filled cavity is more prone to grow harmful bacteria and cause food poisoning than an unstuffed turkey.  Turkey’s labeled as “pre-basted” contain a solution of salt and flavorings already injected into the turkey.  I find those too salty.

Stuffing

Stuffing baked outside of the turkey is crispy, while stuffing cooked inside the bird is moist to the point of being like cereal that has sat in milk.  Can you tell that I prefer mine baked?  If you do stuff the bird, take the stuffing out of the cavity and put it in a separate bowl immediately after the turkey comes out of the oven.  Leaving the stuffing inside the turkey even after the turkey is fully cooked is unsafe, as bacteria grow well in that environment. 

Stuffing is typically made with either bread crumbs or bread cubes as its main component, with other chopped vegetables and herbs, liquid, oil or butter, and sometimes egg.  Other variations include fruit and sausage or other meat. Although traditional stuffing recipes contain turkey or other meat broth, I make vegetarian stuffing using vegetable broth and leaving out meat; it is delicious and the flavor is reminiscent of the traditional stuffing because I use the same herbs and other ingredients as I would for a meat-based version.  

Cooking

There are lots of ways to cook a turkey.  You can roast, grill, braise, microwave or even deep-fry a turkey.  If you plan to brine it (submerging turkey in salt water for hours to tenderize it), follow a brining recipe or the result may be too salty when cooked.  Whichever method you pick, make sure to take out the gizzards, which are typically in a small paper package in the cavity of the turkey.  

Do not brine a kosher or pre-basted turkey, as those turkeys already contain salt.

White meat cooks faster than dark, so when roasting a whole turkey, keep the white (breast) meat from drying out while the dark meat (legs and thighs) cook to the proper temperature.  You can do that by roasting for time breast side down, then turning the turkey or by covering the breast with foil or doubled over cheesecloth.

Whole turkeys should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees and should “rest” outside of the oven after they reach that temperature for about 20 minutes.  Ideally, you should use a meat thermometer in the inner part of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast.  If you don't have a thermometer, at least make sure the juice runs clear and there is no sign of pink in the meat.

More turkey preparation guidance, including hotlines

If you're a research-and-learn type of cook, here are some handy resources:

Turkey buying tips

FAQs on turkey buying and preparation

Overview of turkey cooking techniques 

How to thaw and roast turkey safely

And if you have a last minute question, or prefer to "wing it" (pardon the pun) but then find you're in turkey trouble, here are 2 turkey hotlines:

USDA - 1-888-674-6854 Weekdays 10 am - 4 pm EST, except Thanksgiving, when open 8 am - 2 pm EST Thanksgiving day. This hotline is focused on food safety, but that covers a lot of ground.

Butterball - 1-800-288-8372 Weekdays 8 am - 5 pm CST, the weekend before Thanksgiving 8 am - 6 pm CST, Thanksgiving Day 6 am - 5:30 pm CST.

If you're in the mood for a laugh, check out these amusing turkey hotline stories.

Wednesday –I do cranberry sauce 3 ways. Find out how to impress your guests with cranberries and barely any effort!

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