How to Cook the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey
It's the centerpiece of the dining-room table and, well, let’s face it: Thanksgiving simply wouldn’t be the same without turkey. Americans gobble up more than 45 million birds every Thanksgiving. Sleep easy though, while turkey’s known for inducing sleepiness, it doesn’t actually contain that much tryptophan. Before you dive into your bird, someone's going to have to cook it. We've pulled together the best tips and hacks for how to craft the most beautiful, tastiest Thanksgiving turkey, from fridge to table. (If you're not cooking, just forward this on to your mother.)
Bird, Bird, Bird… Bird Is the Word
Since turkey is the main event, it’s important to pick the right one to fit the bill. Frozen birds are generally cheaper and more convenient, but look for air-chilled birds (find them at specialty markets and butcher shops), which will yield juicier and more flavorful meat—freezing dries out the meat. Steer clear of labels that read “salt-injected”—they’re just another sneaky drier-outer and can add a lot of extra salt and artificial flavoring.
Bigger Isn’t Always Better
Quick lesson: Toms are male turkeys, and hens are the ladybirds. Toms are usually bigger and can weigh more than 30 pounds, while hens usually weigh in around 12 to 14 pounds. Shoot for a pound to a pound and a half per person. If you’ve got a ton of guests, it may be best to roast two small birds instead of one big guy. Two small birds are easier to maneuver and take less time to thaw and cook (assuming you can fit both in the oven!).
The common way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator, breast-side up, in an unopened wrapper on a tray. For crispier skin, unwrap the turkey the night before Thanksgiving (or Friendsgiving) and let it chill in the fridge uncovered overnight. But if you’re in a pinch (a 15-pound bird can take three to four days to thaw in the fridge) then the next best bet is cold-water thawing. Fill a large tub with cold water (hot water can start to cook the meat), and gently let your turkey go for a swim, making sure the turkey is sealed in a leak-proof package. Plan on 30 minutes per pound to thaw (that’s seven and a half hours for a 15-pounder). Change the water every 30 minutes to keep it chilled. The key here is to avoid thawing at room temp on the counter, which can allow bacteria to grow.
Stuff Just Before Roasting, but Beware!
If your fam loves stuffing that’s been, well… stuffed, try wrapping the stuffing in cheesecloth before placing it in the turkey. When the turkey’s done, you can cleanly remove it in one swoop.
Pro tip: Since stuffing is all the way in the center of the bird, it takes longer to cook, and the meat around it can dry out. Instead, try dressing, which contains the same ingredients—usually cubed bread, broth, seasoning, celery, and onions— just minus the whole stuffing action. But if you do choose to go the traditional route, stuff the bird right before it goes in the oven so bacteria doesn’t grow (which can happen if the bird is stuffed the day before).
Pass on the Brine
Brining—soaking a turkey in a mix of salt and water—plumps the meat with moisture before the oven can dare dry it out. But there are some tradeoffs. While brining allows for juicy meat, it can result in over-salted meat and stuffing.
Skip the saltshaker like it's the plague. Not only will salt dry out the bird, it’ll jack up sodium levels on a day that may already involve some salty side dishes. Using flavorful rubs, especially ones with herbs such as rosemary, oregano, and parsley, can cut fat and salt compared to basting with oils.
Ice the Breasts
Since the dark thigh meat needs longer to cook than the white breast meat, it’s helpful to chill the turkey breasts with ice packs before roasting. Yeah, we said it. Once the turkey is thawed to room temperature, cover the breasts with ice packs and secure with an (unused!) ACE bandage to hold them in place. By icing down the white meat, you’re creating a temperature difference so the legs and breasts have a better chance at reaching the right temps at the same time.
Use a Thermometer
While many turkeys come with a cute and convenient little pop-up thermometer, they’re not so accurate. By the time it pops, you’re beloved bird will likely be overcooked. For a masterpiece turkey, use an oven thermometer to ensure a proper roasting temp (the oven should be set to 325 degrees for slow, even cooking). Then place a meat thermometer in the deepest part of the thigh (careful not to touch the bone), and pull the turkey out of the oven when the thigh reading reaches about 175 degrees (160 in the breast). Since internal temp will rise by 5 to 10 degrees after it’s been removed from the oven, it’s important to pull it out before reaching 180 in the thigh (which is the temperature the FDA approves).
Baste With Caution
While basting a turkey may sound fun (mostly because of its likeness to gin bucket), it might mess with even cooking. Continually opening the oven door to squeeze on hot pan juices (mostly fat) releases heat, which slows down the roasting process. Try to leave the oven be and admire your glistening bird getting all toasty and delicious with the help of the oven light.
Tent the Bird
For a golden turkey, shape heavy-duty aluminum foil into a tent and place on top of the bird. Some people even lay the tent so it attaches at each side of the roasting pan, and covers more of the bird. The fancy tent will keep the skin from burning while allowing the turkey ample time to finish cooking. Make sure to pop off the tent once the bird is removed from the oven, otherwise it will start to steam and you’ll be left with soggy skin.
Chose a Low Rack and Large Pan
Set the turkey in a large roasting pan to promote maximum air and heat circulation and to bank on even cooking. A sturdy pan with good handles will make it easier to transfer the bird into and out of the oven. Make sure the rack is on the lowest level to prevent burning and drying out.
While the oven seems like the go-to hang out for all the turkeys on the block, all the cool turkeys are hitting up the grill. Grill-roast a bird by heating a fire in a charcoal or gas grill, and cooking a small (10 to 12 pound) turkey over indirect heat. Throw a shallow pan on the charcoal or burner covers to catch any drippings. Grill for about 2 hours, but use a thermometer to be precise.
Give the Turkey a Breather
Listen, we understand the family is famished (or drunk already from cocktails), but your turkey needs a little resting time after it’s been violated by stuffing, rubbed, and thrown in an oven for hours. Your bird will also continue cooking while it’s chillaxin’, and 20 minutes of rest or more keeps the juices where they should be—in the meat, not on the carving plate.
Don’t Carve at the Dining Room Table
Everyone wants to be the Thanksgiving hero, but it may be wise to avoid an uncomfortable performance in front of family. Instead, carve the bird in the comfort of a secluded corner of the kitchen. Carving tableside may mean messy juices on Grandma’s tablecloth and arguments over carving technique.
Carve Like a Pro
To successfully carve a turkey, it’s important to enlist the proper arsenal of knives—a chef’s knife or a carving knife, and a carving fork. Ironically, a sharper knife is safer and more effective, and the longer the better for easy, even slicing. Celebrity chef Bobby Flay suggests cutting meat into thick slices to keep the moisture in. While traditional slices are usually 1/4-inch thick, he recommends cutting it much thicker. When carving, it’s best to go against the grain. Meat is made up of bundles of long, parallel muscle fibers. Slicing against the grain produces more tender meat because the fibers in each piece will be shorter.
Skip the Entire Bird
If you’re having a small party and would rather not wrangle a big ‘ole bird for the occasion, it’s completely OK to use just a part of the holiday staple. Try our herb-stuffed turkey breast to cut down on time, expense, and an irrational amount of leftovers (can there be such a thing?).
Originally posted November 2012. Updated November 2016.