Most of the recipes I cook for Thanksgiving dinner are not very complicated. I’ve got my go to macaroni corn casserole and I could practically make mashed potatoes in my sleep. But there is one dish that I always question how to cook. That dish is the very intimidating Thanksgiving turkey. So I rounded up some of the best turkey cooking tips I could find, what mistakes we should avoid and how to cook the turkey without drying it out.
Choosing the right size turkey
If you are buying a whole turkey, figure on 1 pound of turkey (uncooked) per person. If you are buying a boneless turkey breast, figure about ½ pound per person. Feeding an army like my family? Instead of buying the biggest turkey you can find, get a whole turkey and one breast, or two smaller turkeys. Hopefully these estimates will leave you with lots of leftover turkey to enjoy after all of the hard work is done.
Plan ahead for turkey thawing
According to the USDA, the safest way to thaw turkey is in a refrigerator. This method is good because it is the most hands off and it results in an evenly defrosted bird that is ready to cook. How long does it take to thaw a frozen turkey in a refrigerator? You will want to allow 1 day in the refrigerator for every 4 pounds of turkey, so refrigerate a 12 pound turkey for 3 days and a 20 pound turkey for 5 days, and so on.
Dry brine your turkey
Thanksgiving turkey is something we patiently wait all year to eat, and most of the time it comes out dry and flavorless. Dry brining is one of the best ways to ensure the turkey is seasoned all the way through and not just on the surface, the skin will get extra crispy, and the rest of the turkey retains its moisture. The only thing you need to dry brine a turkey is salt; just rub the salt all over the raw turkey, place the turkey into a large plastic bag (or 2 bags) and refrigerate overnight or up to 2 days before cooking.
Skip stuffing the bird
Don’t of pack your turkey with bread cubes that will just turn soggy, try stuffing recipes baked outside of the turkey, in a deep casserole dish. This is the safest and tastiest option. Not only does this ensure that your stuffing avoids contact with the raw turkey, but the final product is a moist, crispy-topped, delicious creation!
Salt works well to bring the flavor out of the bland turkey, there are still a few more ways to add even more flavor. Most of these herbs you might have on hand during Thanksgiving, like thyme, sage, and rosemary. Since you are not putting your stuffing in the turkey, add those herbs into the turkey. This will be about 12 sprigs in total, along with a quartered onion. You can also add a head of garlic, just cut it in half and put that in there too. You can also add a small orange or a halved lemon. As your turkey cooks, all those seasonings in the cavity will flavor the rest of the turkey.
Don’t forget the roasting rack
The roasting rack will help keep the bottom of your turkey from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Don’t have a rack? Don’t worry! Try this trick: Create a bed of celery stalks and carrots to elevate your turkey. You will have some extra flavorful veggies to use later. Or, you can cut onions into 3/4-inch thick slices, arrange on the bottom of your pan, and place the turkey on top.
Forget the basting
It is true that basting can help to keep your turkey evenly brown, but it has little, if anything, to do with keeping your turkey moist and juicy. In fact, repeatedly opening the door of your oven will lower your oven temperature, which may increase the overall time to fully cook your turkey. If you are really wanting a more even brown turkey, rub it with butter and olive oil before roasting. This will help produce that crisp, golden brown skin you are looking for.
Take its temperature
Roasting a turkey is not something most of us do on a regularly basis and using the 15 minutes a pound rule, or even keeping your eye on that plastic popper are just not real good ways to tell if it is fully cooked. All sorts of factors from your fridge temperature to your oven accuracy will affect how long is actually takes to cook the turkey. An instant read thermometer is your best friend here. You can know that your turkey is fully cooked when you insert a your meat thermometer into the thickest part of its thigh (just don’t touch the bone) and the temperature reads at least 165°F. Its juices should also run clear when part of its thigh is poked with the tip of your knife.
Let it rest
Letting your turkey, or any piece of meat, rest will allow the juices to redistribute. If you carve it too soon, most of the juice will be on the cutting board and your turkey will be dry. So, don’t rush the resting period. When you take it out of the oven, very carefully tilt the turkey to drain all the juices from the cavity into your pan (you can save these juices for your gravy). Move the turkey to a cutting board and set both your turkey and cutting board into a rimmed baking sheet. This will catch most of your turkey’s juices while it rests and while you are carving. Cover loosely with foil and let your turkey rest for a minimum of 30 minutes before carving.
Don’t carve your turkey at the table
I know, that’s how they do it in the movies, but unless you are a doctor and want to show off your surgical skills, it is just better to carve your turkey in the kitchen. Follow these steps from Kitchn:
Remove the leg and thigh together. Slice through the skin that connects the breast and the drumstick until you hit bone. With your hands, pull the leg back and down until the joint pops out. Press down firmly on the joint to completely sever it. Run the knife between the thigh and the back bone to cleanly remove the leg piece. Place on the serving platter.
Remove the breast. Staying on the same side of the turkey, slice through the skin on the top of the turkey along the breastbone from the neck joint and the wishbone first. Then slowly work the knife through the breast meat, along the rib bone, removing as much meat as possible. Place this breast on the platter.
Remove the wing. Pull the wing back, as you did the legs, and cut at the joint. Place on the platter.
Turn the turkey and repeat steps 2 through 4 on the other side. Rotate the turkey 180 degrees and then repeat with removing the leg and thigh, breast, and wing on the other side.
Set aside the turkey carcass and wipe down the cutting board. Remove the turkey carcass from your work area (you can set it back in the roasting pan or set it directly into a pot if you plan on making stock). Wipe down your cutting board if desired.
Separate the thighs from the drumsticks. Place the leg pieces skin-side up on the cutting board. Cut right between the drumstick and thigh at the joint. Repeat with the other leg. Return the drumsticks to the platter.
Slice the thighs. Cut the thigh meat off the bone and into smaller pieces, if desired. Return to the platter.
Slice the breasts. Place the breasts skin-side up on the cutting board. Cut crosswise at a slight angle into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Return to the platter.