Turkey is really easy to mess up. The skin can be flabby or burnt to a crisp, the middle can still be frozen while the outside is defrosted, it can be completely dried out, or it can be undercooked. Thankfully, though, years upon years of trial-and-error have yielded some foolproof methods to make sure your turkey comes out of the oven crisp-skinned, juicy and undeniably delicious.
Follow the below steps gathered from recipes by some of America’s foremost chefs, and your turkey will be a Thanksgiving showstopper.
The first step toward purchasing a turkey is figuring out exactly how big your bird should be. The accepted rule of thumb is that each guest should have at least one pound set aside for them. Most figure about a pound and a quarter per person and some go up to a pound and a half. So if you’re cooking for 10 people, aim for a 15-pound bird. If you’re cooking for a crowd larger than 10, consider buying two smaller birds. Gigantic turkeys take longer to defrost, can cook unevenly and are awkward to carve.
According to the Heritage Turkey Foundation, 99.99% of the turkeys sold at grocery stores are of one breed, the Broad-Breasted White turkey. As more people become interested in learning more about where their food comes from, some are choosing to invest in more expensive Heritage Turkeys, which encompass a variety of breeds including Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Narragansett and Jersey Buff. These turkeys taste the way they tasted over a hundred years ago and have more fat under their skin and a deeper turkey flavor without being gamey. And if the concept of giant factory farms turning out fast-growing turkeys makes you queasy, consider seeking out organic turkeys from smaller producers like Mary’s, D’Artagnan and Greensbury.
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There’s no major quality difference between a fresh and frozen turkey. If your grocery store is having a sale on frozen turkeys, then go for it. If you buy a fresh turkey, make sure that you’re planning on cooking it within two or three days or else it can start to turn.
If you go with a frozen turkey, make sure you give it plenty of time to thaw completely. To avoid harmful bacteria growth and to ensure even defrosting, the USDA recommends defrosting your bird in the refrigerator. You should plan for one full day of defrosting for every 4-5 pounds. So if your turkey weighs 15 pounds, budget four days for it to thaw. Don’t count Thanksgiving as a defrosting day; that’s a cooking day. So put that 15-pound bird in the fridge on Sunday morning at the latest. Once thawed, it’ll stay fresh for another three days, so don’t be afraid to give it even five or six days to fully thaw.
If you want to guarantee juicy white meat, consider brining your defrosted bird the night before Thanksgiving if it hasn’t already been pre-brined or salted. In a 5-gallon bucket, combine a cup of kosher salt, a half-cup of light brown sugar, herbs and spices including peppercorns, allspice berries and bay leaves, and a gallon of icy water. Submerge the turkey in the solution for 8–16 hours in the fridge or a cool area. Once it’s finished brining, you will need to give it a rinse to remove the excess brine, so make sure that you sanitize the area afterward.
In order to ensure even cooking, let the turkey rest for 1–2 hours at room temperature before putting it in the oven.
Set the oven to 325 degrees.
You’ll want to use a heavy metal roasting pan with a roasting rack — those disposable ones at the grocery store are too flimsy for a job of this magnitude. If you don’t have a heavy-duty roasting pan, consider investing in one or borrow one from a friend or relative.
Both the USDA and the National Turkey Foundation urge home cooks to not rinse their turkey before cooking (unless it’s brined); all that does is spread bacteria around your kitchen. Place the turkey breast side up onto the rack inside the pan. Make sure you remove the bag of giblets from the inside of the bird, and give it a thorough inspection, plucking out any stray pinfeathers. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels.
The seasoning choice is yours, but make sure you start with a liberal dose of salt and pepper all around the turkey and in the cavity. Popular seasoning options include lemon pepper, Cajun seasoning and a classic poultry rub of dried thyme, sage, rosemary and garlic powder.
Some people prefer to make stuffing (er, dressing) on the side instead of filling the bird with it and running the risk of foodborne illness. Instead, you can fill the cavity with aromatics like crushed garlic cloves, a quartered onion, roughly chopped carrots and celery, a halved lemon and fresh herbs including sage, rosemary and thyme.
If you want to rub a few sticks of clarified salted butter all over the turkey (and under the skin) before roasting, nobody’s going to stop you. This will add some serious flavor to the turkey and will also help keep it moist. Just make sure you use clarified butter, which has much less water in it than regular butter, to ensure a crispy skin.
Cross the legs and tie them up with kitchen string to help the turkey cook more evenly.
Tuck the wing flaps down under the breast to prevent them from scorching.
Loosely covering the breast with a piece of aluminum foil will prevent it from overcooking, as the breast cooks quicker than the thigh. To make sure the skin gets brown and crisp, remove the foil for the last hour of cooking. Alternately, you can wait until the breast is the desired shade of golden brown before tenting for the remaining cooking time.
To ensure a juicy bird, cook it low and slow. At 325 degrees, the USDA advises cooking an 8-to-12-pound turkey for 2 ¾–3 hours, a 12-to-14-pound bird for 3–3 ¾ hours and a 14-to-18-pound bird for 3 ¾–4 ¼ hours. These are just rough estimates, though. Pour a carton of stock into the bottom of the roasting pan before putting it in the oven to ensure a moist environment.
It’s one of Thanksgiving’s great questions: to baste your turkey or not? It may seem like basting your turkey will keep it moist, but all it accomplishes is wetting the skin. You might add some flavor to the skin, but you’re also letting out precious heat every time you open the oven door. As kitchen wizard Alton Brown told NPR, “that means the bird is going to be in there for a longer time cooking, which means it's going to dry out more.”
What is the only way to make sure your turkey is cooked through-and-through? It’s not cutting into it and seeing if the juices run clear, and it’s not seeing how cleanly the leg comes off. It’s all about getting an accurate temperature reading. According to the USDA, turkey needs to be cooked to a minimum temperature of 165 degrees in order to destroy bacteria and prevent foodborne illness. For properly gauging temperature, a probe thermometer is absolutely essential. Check both the innermost part of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast, and if they’ve both reached at least 165 degrees, you’re good.
You may be tempted to start carving the bird right away, but you should let it rest for at least a half-hour to let the juices redistribute. Remove it from the pan and let it rest on a cutting board. This also gives you plenty of time to make a gravy out of the drippings.
Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for: the carving. Instead of slicing right into the breast (and ensuring that only those first, awkward slices get all the skin), start by removing the legs and thighs by gently running your knife down the seam separating them from the breast, right through the joint, then remove the thigh bone and slice it lengthwise. Next, remove the wings, and finally the individual breasts, gently running the knife alongside the outside of the ribcage. Slice the breasts against the grain, making sure that each slice has some skin attached (here’s a handy video with step-by-step instructions). Finally, sit down and enjoy the fruits of your labor alongside your loved ones and a pile of all the best Thanksgiving side dishes.
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