Learning how to cook a turkey isn't hard. The key is to handle the turkey safely before cooking, then cook it to the right temperature.
Most people overcook their turkeys, which is why turkey sometimes has a reputation for being dry. It's also why there are always new and creative techniques for cooking turkey, from brining to roasting upside down to de-boning to spatchcocking (don't worry if you don't know what that is -- only a true food professional would even try it).
But cooking a delicious Thanksgiving turkey doesn't have to be that complicated. Here's how to do it the easy way:
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- Buy the right amount of turkey. One pound per person is a good general rule of thumb. If you have small children or want leftovers, your estimate will be different. Butterball has a helpful turkey calculator on its web site that can show you how much turkey to buy, how much stuffing you'll need and how to estimate cooking times.
- If you are using a frozen turkey, thaw it properly. Although it is possible to thaw a frozen turkey in a water bath by immersing it in cold water and changing the water every 30 minutes, this method is not as safe or easy as thawing in the refrigerator. (There's more chance of bacterial contamination.)
- To thaw in the refrigerator, put the wrapped turkey on a tray or in a roasting pan to catch any raw juices that may leak out during thawing. (The juices are where the bacteria is, so you don't want your turkey leaking in the fridge.) Make sure the refrigerator is 40 degrees F or below. Allow 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of turkey. So you will need three days to thaw a 12-pound turkey.
- Never thaw a turkey on the counter at room temperature (unless, of course, you want your guests to spend the evening in the bathroom counting ceiling tiles).
- When you're ready to cook the turkey, remove the giblets and neck from inside the turkey cavity. This is a rookie mistake -- one I'd bet 50% of people who've cooked turkey have made (including myself). Just reach in there and pull out those packets. You don't want to smell burning plastic from your oven on Thanksgiving.
- Wash your hands, utensils, countertops and anything else that comes in contact with the raw turkey or wrapper.
- Place a shallow rack or turkey lifter inside the roasting pan before you put the turkey in it. Lifting a 15-pound turkey isn't easy when it's raw. Try lifting it when it's hot and you've got 15 hungry people looking at you.
- Don't stuff the turkey. Okay, I know. You like the turkey smell on your stuffing. You want to get the juices. Get over it. It's a pain and makes the process of cooking the turkey to the right temperature harder.
- Okay, if you must stuff the turkey, prepare the stuffing immediately before the turkey is ready to go into the oven. Stuff it loosely. Put the excess stuffing in a casserole dish. And make sure you cook the stuffing to 165 degrees F (check with a digital thermometer). Both the stuffing AND the turkey have to reach this temperature. If one is 165 and the other is not, you have to keep the turkey in until both reach 165 degrees. See? That's why I cook the stuffing separately; it virtually guarantees the turkey will be overcooked.
- There are lots of ways to flavor the turkey, from putting celery, herbs, oranges and onion in the cavity to rubbing butter under or over the skin. I like making a compound butter (butter mixed with herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage), then rubbing it under the turkey skin. This does two things. First, it flavors the turkey. Second, it keeps the breast meat moist, so even if you do overcook your Thanksgiving turkey, it won't be as dried out.
- Rub the outside of the turkey with melted butter or oil, too. This gives the turkey a nice brown color.
- Place the turkey on the lowest rack of the oven, uncovered, and roast at 400 degrees F. for 30 minutes. This should give you a nice brown color. Turn the oven temperature down to 325 degrees F., cover the turkey loosely with foil, and continue roasting until the thickest part of the breast and the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees F. on a instant read digital thermometer (compare prices).
- Consider cooking your turkey in an oven bag. Be sure to use an oven bag made for cooking turkey (not a brown paper bag). Here's an easy recipe for turkey in an oven bag.
- Let the turkey rest 20 minutes before carving. This allows the juices to redistribute, keeping the bird moist.
- If all else fails, have lots of Thanksgiving side dishes and pumpkin pie.