The Rules for the Best Thanksgiving Turkey

If we’re honest with ourselves the turkey can be one of the most frightening parts of Thanksgiving – even more than dealing with your in-laws. There is nothing like the all-American aspiration of bringing a perfectly cooked turkey to your Thanksgiving table – and having it carved beautifully at the head of the table while the family stares in awe.

Then reality sits in, and instead of a precious holiday moment  you’re hacking away at a dry, overcooked bird.

Cooking a turkey is not to be underestimated. There are all these rules – how to defrost, where to cook – do you baste or don’t baste? If it weren’t serious Butterball would not host a hotline every year to bring cooks back from the brink of disaster. What is a cook to do?

Don’t panic. Instead of stressing, why not follow these great tips we’ve complied from all over – from the likes of Food Network and Fine Cooking. You can have a great turkey on Thanksgiving with planning and prep.

Size matters

Just like buying a house, getting the square footage of your Thanksgiving can be tricky. Too small and the masses go hungry, too big and well it will take days to cook. You should allocate 1 pound of turkey per guest if the bird is under 16 pounds. When the bird is over 16 pounds you shouldn’t need a full pound per person as there is more meat. If you’re looking for larger portions or great leftovers then you’ll want to add a 1/2 pound per person.

Here are some measurements:

Turkey Weight (in pounds)                      Average Servings                     Ample Servings with Leftovers

12                                                                   12                                                 8

14                                                                   14                                                 9

16                                                                   16                                                 10

18                                                                   20                                                12

20                                                                   22                                                14

You should consider cooking two smaller turkeys for a larger crowd rather than one large turkey. Smaller birds are easier to managing in terms of roasting pans and they cook more evenly.

Defrosting the Bird

Whenever possible purchase a fresh bird – even go for kosher or organic. If you already have a frozen bird, it’s important to know how to defrost it correctly to limit bacteria to grow. It is best to thaw the turkey in the fridge, on the bottom shelf. The turkey should be left in it’s original packaging but placed on a rimmed baking sheet to collect any drips.  You’ll want to give a full day for every 4 pounds being thawed.

Cleaning the Bird

Once the bird has been thawed out, or if you purchased a fresh bird, you’ll want to remove the giblets. You should save those to make gravy and stock. Then rinse the turkey under cool running water and dry it inside and out with paper towels. It is important to clean thoroughly any areas where raw poultry has touched to prevent cross contamination.

Want a Moist Turkey – Brine, don’t Baste

The folks at love brining turkeys to ensure they remain moist during cooking. Alton Brown has a really good brine method using salt, vegetable stock, and spices. The bird should brine for 8 to 16 hours.

And the FoodNetwork chefs have strong opinions on basting – don’t. They believe that basting creates temperature fluctuations that can dry out the bird because the oven door keeps opening and shutting.

How to Stuff the Bird

Part of that all-American fantasy is a perfectly roasted bird with beautiful stuffing. The problem is that yummy stuffing becomes a nest for nasty harmful bacteria, and there is nothing to be thankful about that. Instead use your traditional recipe but cook it on the side. A stuffed bird will take longer to cook and could become dry. Instead loosely fill the cavity of the bird with aromatics like fresh spices, seasonal fruit, and onions.

A Trussed Up Bird Means a Better Bird

Many professional chefs rely on trussing (or tying) the bird to ensure even cooking. You tuck the wings under the bird and tie the legs together.

Use an Edible Cooking Rack

Layer aromatic vegetables like carrots, celery, and onion along the bottom of the roasting pan. Cooking the turkey off the bottom of the pan helps increase circulation around the whole bird to encourage crispy skin. Plus the veggies will add flavor to the drippings that you’ll use to make gravy.

For Brown Skin Try Vermouth

About 15 minutes before removing the bird from the oven, brush the skin with white vermouth. The sugars will help brown the skin.

Have a Good Meat Thermometer

A cook’s best friend and a life saver to prevent overcooking, or under-cooking, your turkey. The turkey should read 165 degrees F when you put an instant read thermometer in the thickest part of the bird around the thigh – just make sure to avoid the bone. And remember that the turkey should continue to cook as it rest – it will rise about 10 more degrees in temperature.

Allow the Bird to Rest

We know you’re hungry but to lock in all those juices you just spent days defrosting, brining, and trussing make sure to rest the turkey covered loosely with foil for at least 15 to 20 minutes before carving.

Carve the Bird

This is often where the best laid plans go to waste. Carve the bird in the kitchen on a nice size cutting board. Start by untying the bird, then remove the aromatics from the cavity. Next you’ll remove the legs and thighs, wings, then deal with breast.