Thanksgiving Tips: Cooking the Turkey

A glimpse into a late-1980’s Thanksgiving. My cousins and I at the kids’ table at my Grandma’s, having ourselves a little toast with our plastic cups. The Cowboys playing their traditional Thanksgiving Day game on the TV in the background. And oh yes, we’re Italian – that’s pasta you see on more than one plate. We always had all of the traditional Thanksgiving fixings but there was always some sort of pasta option. Regardless of that, the turkey still always took center stage. We would wait impatiently for it to come out of the oven, and then hover around while my uncle carved it, little fingers constantly getting swatted away as we tried to sneak bites of the scraps.

I’ve never been tasked with making the turkey on my own since we’ve always had Thanksgiving at my grandma’s but I have learned many things throughout the years, both from my family and from my own turkey recipe reading and research. As everyone starts to make arrangements to buy their turkeys this weekend and into next week leading up to Thursday, I thought it would be a good time to share some great tips for cooking that turkey!

The Size: If you only need enough meat for Thanksgiving dinner, plan on ¾ to 1 pound of turkey per person. If you want enough to send leftovers home with guests or to make soup or casseroles over the weekend, up that amount to 1 to 1¼ pounds per person.

Fresh or Frozen? Fresh is always preferred, but let’s be honest – we’re still in a recession and frozen turkeys are much more economical. Don’t fret over it – my motto regarding food is to buy the best you can afford. Don’t break the bank – the whole purpose of the holiday is to enjoy time with loved ones.

Storage/Thawing: Keep fresh turkeys in their original packaging and place breast side up in a bowl or rimmed baking sheet to catch any juices that may escape, and keep on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Thaw frozen turkeys in the refrigerator, with the rule of thumb being 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds. So if you have a 15 lb. turkey estimate a 3-day thawing time. If you run short on time and forget to take the turkey out of the freezer, you can submerge the turkey (still packaged) in cold water, changing the water every 30 to 60 minutes. That method takes an estimated 30 minutes per pound, so that 15 lb turkey would take about 7 or 8 hours to thaw this way. NEVER thaw a turkey at room temperature, as bacteria can easily grow.

Brining: Brining a turkey is a great method for preparation. Since the birds are naturally low in fat and can dry out when roasting, brining helps to keep the turkey moist and juicy. Typically brining involves submerging the turkey in a solution of salt and water, and sometimes includes additional flavorings. One of the most popular recipes for a brined turkey is Alton Brown’s Good Eats Roast Turkey Recipe.

Prep: For any type of roast – beef, chicken,etc. – I have gotten into the habit of taking the meat out of the refrigerator an hour or two before I plan on putting it into the oven. Letting it come to room temperature helps to ensure that it will be evenly cooked throughout.

Seasoning: Make sure you season the turkey really well (be very generous with the salt!) before cooking it. It helps to allow the flavors to develop, and will result in much better flavor than meat that is seasoned after it is cooked. I like to rub or brush a bird with softened butter all over before seasoning – it creates an awesome, crispy skin!

If you cook your stuffing separately (and not inside the bird), you can fill the cavity with one or two quartered onions, carrot and celery pieces and some sprigs of fresh parsley, sage and thyme. This will help to add some subtle flavor to the turkey.

Checking for Doneness: I really, really encourage everyone to invest in an instant-read digital thermometer. There are some expensive ones out there, like the Thermapen (I lust after it), but the one I bought was less than $20. I use it on a weekly basis, at a minimum. Very worth it. A thermometer inserted into the thigh, near the socket but not touching any bone, should read at least 165 degrees F.

Let it Rest: Once removed from the oven, let the turkey rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before carving. This is the case with most meats and roasts, as it allows the juices to redistribute and settle. If you cut into it immediately, the juices will run out and you will be left with a rather dry turkey. Don’t cover it, or the skin will lose that great crispness.

Lastly, carve it up, pour the wine, sit down and enjoy some fabulous time with your friends and family!

Does your family have any turkey traditions?