I'd like to believe Thanksgiving dinner is about getting the whole family together, at least one time for the year. I'd like to believe that it's more than just about the food. But when we think about Thanksgiving, especially if we're the host of this year's feast, we can't help but think first about the food and then about the family. After all, we wouldn't want to disappoint all the travelers who have made it over the river and through the woods for our feast, would we?
Thanksgiving is a feast that's full of recipes that carry memories and traditions, and they fill the table to the point of it sagging. We learn the family favorites at our mother's side while growing up. But often the one dish we don't learn the proper way to cook is the star of the day, the turkey. It almost seems like an after thought to all of the traditional side dishes and desserts and yet without it, many of our guests would feel like something was missing.
Unfortunately, as important as the turkey may be to your Thanksgiving dinner, it's not a dish we cook on a regular basis. Therefore, our familiarity with preparing the bird may be limited to one time each year, or even less if we take turns with other family members as host of the big feast. That makes many of us feel insecure about our ability to successfully prepare and present a beautiful turkey at our table.
Well, it's time to banish that worry from your kitchen. We'll start with basic rules for preparing a turkey to make sure it's done safely and in time for your meal. When you feel comfortable with the basics, you can turn to the recipes for different ways to add flavor to your turkey that will make it more than a necessary chore, and return it, with just cause, to the starring role of your feast!
Turkey Tips for Safe and Timely Preparation
Please note: These tips have been summarized from the USDA fact sheet on preparing turkeys. For further information, as well as detailed roasting times, you can visit them at Let's Talk Turkey.
Purchasing Fresh Turkeys
Plan on 1 pound of turkey per person.
Purchase your turkey only one or two days prior to cooking.
Keep it stored in your refrigerator until you cook it. Place it in a pan to catch any juices that might leak from the packaging in order to prevent contamination.
The USDA recommends that you do not purchase a fresh pre-stuffed turkey because if it's been handled improperly, bacteria can very quickly multiply.
Purchasing and Thawing Frozen Turkeys
Plan on 1 pound of frozen turkey per person.
Turkeys may be kept frozen indefinitely, but are best used within a year for best quality.
Keep turkey frozen until you're ready to thaw in preparation for cooking.
If you purchase a frozen pre-stuffed turkey, do not thaw before cooking. Instead, follow cooking instructions on the package. In this case, allow for an extra 1/4 pound per person.
It is safe to cook a turkey from a frozen state, but you'll need to plan on cooking it at least 50% longer than if it had been thawed.
Thawing in the Refrigerator
If you plan to thaw your turkey in the refrigerator, plan on 24 hours thawing time for every 4-5 pounds of turkey.
Keep turkey in original packaging, and place it on a pan to catch any juices that might escape as it thaws, to prevent contamination of your refrigerator.
Once thawed in the refrigerator, it may stay there uncooked for one to two days.
Thawing in Cold Water
You may also thaw your turkey in cold water. If so, begin by wrapping it well to make sure that no water seeps into the turkey packaging.
Change the water every 30 minutes.
Allow approximately 30 minutes per pound.
Cook immediately once it has been thawed.
Thawing in the Microwave Oven
Check your microwave owner's manual to determine what size turkey can fit, minutes per pound, and power level to set.
Remove turkey packaging and place on a large enough dish to catch juices as it thaws.
Cook immediately once thawed.
Preparing and Roasting Your Fresh or Thawed Frozen Turkey
Remove the giblets package from the turkey cavity. Cook separately if you intend to use them.
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F.
Place turkey on a rack inside a large enough roasting pan.
The USDA recommends for optimal safety and more even cooking, your stuffing should be cooked separately, not inside the bird. If you choose to disregard this advice, stuff the turkey right before you cook it, and your stuffing should be cooked until a thermometer indicates an internal stuffing temperature of 165 degrees F.
At a minimum your turkey should be cooked until a cooking thermometer inserted into the innermost part of a thigh or wing registers 165 degrees. You may choose to cook it longer according to personal preferences.
A stuffed turkey will take a little longer to cook than an unstuffed turkey.
For planning purposes, estimate approximately 15 minutes of cooking time per pound, but this will vary based on your oven, whether or not the turkey is stuffed, and how large your turkey is. For a detailed roasting table, visit the USDA at Let's Talk Turkey.
Once removed from the oven, allow the turkey to sit 20 minutes prior to carving which will allow the juices to set.
Turkey Safety Tips After the Feast
Toss any turkey, stuffing or gravy left out at room temperature longer than two hours.
Refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible. Use refrigerated turkey, stuffing and gravy within three to four days.
If you freeze the leftovers, use within two to six months for best quality.
Simple Recipes to Add Flavor to Your Turkey
Brined Turkey Breast - Many people swear by brining their turkey first for the most flavorful and moist results.
Herb Roasted Turkey - Here is a simple approach to getting maximum flavor from your bird.
Roast Turkey with Oyster Dressing - Every family has their own spin on the stuffing, or dressing as some call it, but this one is a classic.
Roast Turkey with Giblet Gravy - Just what should we do with that special little prize found inside the cavity? Well, after you remember to remove it, here's a great way to use its contents.
Orange Glazed Turkey Breast - Try this sweet spin on the classic for a little extra flavor boost.