Thanksgiving dinner usually revolves around a glorious, bronzed, succulent roast turkey. This is actually one of the easiest parts of the meal to prepare. And below, listed from hardest to easiest, are four ways to get that turkey on the table - and ways to avoid. These turkey tips and recipes are just what you need for the best Thanksgiving dinner ever.
First things first. Plan on about 1-1/2 pounds of turkey for each person.
You can buy a frozen turkey and thaw it ahead of time, or order a fresh bird. With a frozen bird, you have to plan ahead to thaw it. It takes at least 24 hours in the refrigerator for every 5 pounds of turkey, so a 20 pound bird will take 4 - 5 days to thaw. You can also thaw the turkey under cold running water, not warm, changing the water every 30 minutes and allowing 30 minutes per pound to thaw. Make sure that you thoroughly clean (with a bleach solution) the kitchen sink and surrounding area if you thaw the turkey in the sink, because odds are it is contaminated with pathogenic bacteria. Or, cook your turkey frozen to save time, hassle, refrigerator space, and keep your kitchen safer. See below for more info.
Traditional Roast Turkey
Never stuff your turkey ahead of time. It should be stuffed only when it's ready to go into the oven. The stuffing should be spooned lightly into the turkey's body cavity and neck cavity.
Don't pack it! The internal temperature of the stuffing must reach 165 degrees F, and if the stuffing is too tightly packed the interior won't get hot enough. Stuffing also expands as it absorbs moisture from the bird, so filling the turkey lightly will give you the best results. For the safest stuffing, follow instructions at Stuffing 101.
- Cornbread Stuffed Turkey
- Balsamic and Honey Glazed Roast Turkey
- My Favorite Roast Turkey and Stuffing
- Turkey with Cranberry Wild Rice Stuffing
- Stuffing Recipes
- Remove the gizzard packet from inside of the turkey and place the heart, neck, and gizzard in a pan of cold water and set on low heat to bring to a boil. (This will create stock for the gravy). Don't use the liver in this stock.
- Dry the turkey thoroughly with paper towels; don't rinse it, or you'll spread bacteria around the kitchen. Rinsing can aerosolize the bacteria, spreading it up to three feet away - which includes your face. Place the turkey in a large roasting pan on top of a cooking rack. Prepare the stuffing and spoon it lightly into the neck cavity. Pull the neck skin over the stuffing and fasten it to the back using a skewer.
- Lightly stuff the body cavity, then tie legs to the tail with cooking string or tuck the leg ends under the tail. I like to use a piece of sturdy bread to place over the stuffing; tuck it inside the cavity opening. Twist the wing tips under the back. Brush turkey with melted butter or olive oil and insert an oven-safe meat thermometer into the center of the thigh muscles, making sure you avoid hitting the bone with the thermometer. Or you can use an instant-read meat thermometer and check the turkey as it gets close to the end of cooking time.
- Now soak a four-layer piece of cheesecloth in the melted butter/shortening mixture and cover the turkey with the cheesecloth.
- Place the turkey in a 325 degree oven. Roast for 3/4 of the cooking time, basting every 30 minutes with the pan juices which will accumulate. The turkey will register 170 degrees F in the thigh when it is safely cooked. The stuffing should be 165 degrees F. Keep an eye on the giblet stock and remove it from the heat when it's simmered for 2 hours.
- Then cut the string (if that's what you used) holding the legs to the tail and uncover the turkey. You can leave it tied and covered if you wish - it just depends on how the turkey is browning. If it isn't browned enough for your taste, remove the cheesecloth. Roast for the remainder of the cooking time until the meat thermometer registers 180 degrees and stuffing registers 165 degrees.
- Remove from oven and remove stuffing to a serving bowl, cover with foil to keep warm. Cover turkey with foil and let rest 15-20 minutes before carving to allow juices to redistribute.
Easier Roast Turkey
Just follow the instructions above, but don't stuff the turkey! You can bake stuffing in the oven or better yet, use your crockpot. Many food safety experts recommend this method anyway, since it can be difficult to make sure the stuffing is hot enough to kill bacteria.
You can put a halved onion and some celery inside the turkey if you want to, but it's not necessary. Think about mixing some softened butter with herbs and rubbing it between the skin and flesh and over the skin before you start the roasting process. Make sure to check the cooking times. The roasting times for stuffed vs. unstuffed turkeys are different.
Still Easier Roast Turkey
Cook your turkey still frozen! Yes, it's true; you don't have to take up half of your refrigerator for days while the turkey thaws. Cook your turkey from frozen solid to tender and juicy with no muss, no fuss, and a lot less mess and risk of bacterial cross-contamination. And yes, you can still stuff the turkey when it's cooked this way - just follow my directions.
Roast the Turkey the Day Before Thanksgiving
You can roast the turkey the day before Thanksgiving, carve it, refrigerate it, and reheat it for about 45 minutes before you're ready to eat. This gives you drippings for the gravy, broth for the gravy, and much less hassle on the day itself. On Thanksgiving Day, just make the stuffing and pop it in the oven, get the potatoes ready, make the gravy, heat the turkey, and eat!
Easiest Roast Turkey
Buy your turkey already roasted from a restaurant or specialty store. Just reheat the bird according to their instructions in your own pan, place on a beautiful serving platter and garnish. No one will be the wiser.
There are many unsafe ways to cook a turkey. Despite being proven unsafe by professionals, many people still use these methods.
Please don't, especially if the people sitting at your Thanksgiving table are elderly, very young, or suffering from a chronic health condition.
- Roast Turkey Breast
Roast a turkey breast or two instead. These recipes are quick and easy and delicious. If your family likes white meat, this is the way to go.
- Brined Turkey
I've never tried this method myself because I don't like to slosh around with a raw turkey. Be sure you use a turkey that is completely untreated with no brine solution injected into the turkey if you want to brine it yourself, because it will be too salty.
- Roasted Turkey Breast
A turkey breast is much simpler to cook. Just place it on top of any stuffing recipe in a roasting pan and roast.
- Turkey on the Grill
This is a great way to free up the oven and get the men in the family involved in Thanksgiving cooking! Grilled turkey (unstuffed, please) is really fabulous.
- Crockpot Onion Turkey Breast with Stuffing
Cook your turkey breast and stuffing all in one crockpot! This has to be the easiest method.
- Smoked Turkey on the Grill
If you own a smoker, try using it to cook your turkey. This recipe will allow you to smoke a turkey on your outdoor grill. Unstuffed only, though!
- Deep-Fried Turkey
For a really dramatic approach, try deep frying your turkey this year. This method should only be attempted outdoors, if you have help, and the right tools.