It can be a lot of pressure to prepare Thanksgiving turkey for guests. From picking the right size to cooking times it is a lot to consider. Here are the critical steps you need to make your turkey day go smoothly.
Tips to prepare Thanksgiving Turkey
This time of year all of the grocery stores and specialty foods shops have tons of turkeys to choose from. You can get frozen turkeys to prepare yourself, or most of the big grocery chains will cook it for you along with sides. So if you are feeling too overwhelmed, it is ok to just order a cooked turkey and sides and pick it up the day before. This way you only have to heat it up and add any extras you want to the meal.
If you decide to buy a frozen turkey, here are some things to consider.
A general rule of thumb is about 1 pound per person. If you want a lot of leftovers, increase that number. This gives you an idea of the size of the turkey. A 12 – 16 pound turkey is pretty common for a family. If it is just you or one other person go for a smaller size unless you like to eat a lot of turkey dishes for days.
If you are uncertain in the store, just ask an employee in the meat department. I shop at Publix and they are always helpful with any of my questions. Check for any specials the store may be having on turkeys or sides as well as any cooking ideas they may offer. Sometimes there are Thanksgiving displays that can help with ideas.
Thawing the bird
No way around it, it takes a good bit of time to thaw a turkey. The bigger the bird, the more time needed. Check out this USDA link for all you need to know about thawing.
In general, the rule of thumb on thawing is:
Refrigerator Thawing Times:
4 to 12 pounds — 1 to 3 days
12 to 16 pounds — 3 to 4 days
16 to 20 pounds — 4 to 5 days
20 to 24 pounds —5 to 6 days
Place the turkey in a leak proof container to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods.
Cold Water Thawing Times
4 to 12 pounds — 2 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds — 6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 pounds — 8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 pounds — 10 to 12 hours
Put the turkey in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing water. Submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed.
Follow the microwave oven manufacturer’s instruction when defrosting a turkey. Plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. A turkey thawed in the microwave must be cooked immediately. Also, make sure you wash your hands when handling any raw meat.
Cooking the turkey
Now we get to the cooking. Below are guidelines for safe cooking. Add your favorite seasonings and touches to make your turkey stand out.
1 turkey, any size
2 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth, water, or other liquid
2 sticks (1 cup) butter, melted, for basting (optional), salt/pepper/seasoning of choice
Roasting pan (or an alternative roasting dish)
Roasting rack (or something to lift the turkey off the pan)
Turkey baster, brush, or ladle (optional, if basting)
Prepping the turkey
About 30 minutes to 1 hour before roasting, take the turkey out of the refrigerator. Remove any packaging and the bag of giblets (check in the body cavity and in the neck cavity). You do not want your guests to find a gross surprise inside the turkey, believe me.
Set the turkey breast-side up on a roasting rack and let it sit while the oven preheats. This gives the skin time to dry out, which promotes browning and crisping.
Position an oven rack in the bottom third of the oven, remove any racks above it. Preheat the oven to 450°F.
Rub some salt and pepper or your favorite seasoning on the turkey before putting it in the oven. It is recommended to leave your turkey un-stuffed to ensure proper cooking. That is entirely up to you as to your preference. If you do put stuffing inside the turkey, make sure the bird and stuffing are at an internal temp of at least 165°F. Sometimes the stuffing takes so much longer to cook that the bird starts to get dry, thus the reason many people cook it separately.
Add liquid to the roasting pan. When ready to roast, pour the broth or water into a roasting pan. Place the turkey in the oven and immediately turn down the heat to 350°F. We usually recommend roasting turkeys breast-side up, again that is up to your preference and if you want to flip the bird later.
The rule of thumb for cooking a turkey is 13 minutes per pound. So a 16-pound turkey is estimated to cook in about 3 1/2 hours. Start checking the temperature of your turkey about halfway through the scheduled cooking time to gauge how fast it’s cooking.
Baste the turkey every 45 minutes. Every 45 minutes, remove the turkey from the oven, close the oven door, and baste the turkey all over. To baste, tilt the pan and use a turkey baster or spoon to scoop up the pan liquids and drizzle them on top of the turkey. Basting with pan juices cools the surface of the turkey and slows down cooking, which in turn keeps the breast meat cooking at close to the same rate as the legs and thighs.
In the last 45 minutes or so of cooking, you can also baste the turkey with melted butter or oil. This helps crisp up the skin and turn it a golden brown. If your turkey is getting too browned, shield the breast meat loosely with aluminum foil toward the end of cooking.
Begin checking the turkey’s temperature about halfway through the estimated cooking time. Check the temperature in 3 places: the breast, outer thigh, and inside thigh. In every case, the meat should be at least 165°F when the turkey has finished cooking. If any place is under that temperature, put the turkey back in the oven for another 20 minutes. Shield the breast meat with foil if needed to keep it from overcooking.
Making the sides
While the turkey is cooking it is the time to make your side dishes. You can even prep some the night before and just heat them up before the meal. Mashed potatoes, stuffing, veggies and pies can all be prepped the night before to take the pressure off on Thanksgiving day.
Carving the turkey
Rest the turkey before carving. Grab one side of the roasting rack with an oven mitt and tilt the whole pan so the liquids inside the turkey cavity run out into the pan. These juices can be used to make the gravy.
Lift the whole turkey (still on the rack) and transfer it to a cutting board. Tent the turkey with aluminum foil and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. This gives time for the meat to firm up and the juices to be re-absorbed, making the turkey easier to slice. While the turkey is resting, it is a great time to heat up rolls and side dishes.
Carve the turkey the same way you would carve a chicken. Remove the wings first, then the thighs, then the breast meat. Once you have the meat off, you can separate into thighs and drumsticks and carve the breast meat into individual slices.
Enjoy your meal
You made it! Your turkey is cooked, basted and carved. The sides are all ready and you can serve the meal. Remember to put the leftover turkey meat in the fridge within 2 hours of cooking. Now you can start planning all the uses for the leftover turkey from soups to sandwiches.