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Turkey tips: How to cook a Thanksgiving turkey the right way

11.14.17

Thanksgiving is coming, and it’s not just the turkeys that are getting nervous. Cooks who are about to prepare their first turkey or combat the memories of that last failed attempt also fear the upcoming holiday meal.

If you follow some basic turkey tips, you can proudly serve a perfectly prepared bird to your guests. When you’re wondering how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey the right way, here’s some help.

Fresh or frozen?

Don’t assume that a fresh turkey is the better choice. A frozen turkey is immediately frozen (“flash frozen”) after preparation, while a fresh bird could have been sitting in the refrigerator for days. If you buy a locally raised, fresh turkey, be advised that you should cook it within two to three days of the purchase. A commercially raised and prepared turkey will have a “Use By” date.

The long, cold thaw

For the best preparation and safest result, allow sufficient frozen turkey thawing time. Don’t plan to let it sit on the kitchen counter. Bacteria thrives at room temperature! Instead, thaw a turkey in the refrigerator, allowing a full 24 hours for every five pounds. Yes, a 20-pound turkey will take four days in the fridge!

If you’ve missed that window of opportunity, thaw the bird in a large, deep pan or bowl of cold water. You must keep changing the water, however, as it will warm up, which allows bacteria to grow. Change the water every 20 to 30 minutes, and allow 30 minutes of thawing for every pound on the turkey. It’s not fast, but still a better option when you have that “uh oh!” moment.

Roasting time

Here’s another issue that worries people who are planning to roast a turkey. It’s not a fast process—and cranking up the oven’s temperature is not the ideal solution. Plan ahead. The estimated roasting time for a turkey is 15 minutes per pound for an unstuffed turkey, and 20 minutes per pound for a stuffed bird. Don’t rely on the pop-up thing on the bird. Check the turkey as you get closer to the anticipated completion. Use a meat thermometer to more accurately gage the bird’s doneness. Remove it from the oven when you insert the meat thermometer into a thick area of the breast (away from any bone) and the temperate has reached 165ºF. If you’re planning to feed a large crowd, consider buying two smaller birds instead of one huge one. You’ll reduce the cooking time and have more wings and drumsticks to go around.

Bird bath

If you’ve ever roasted a turkey with the packet of giblets inside, you’re not alone. This paper packet is tucked inside the turkey’s cavity, along with the neck, which some people like to use for the gravy. Once the turkey is fully thawed, remove the packet, and the plastic handle, if there is one.

Rinse the bird, inside and out. Blot the outside of the turkey with a paper towel, and sprinkle salt inside the cavity.

Stuffed, trussed, and ready to roast.

Some people prefer not to stuff the turkey, because of the risk of bacteria. If you do choose the fill the bird, do not do it ahead of time! Stuffing left inside the cavity overnight is a recipe for disaster. The refrigerator’s temperature might be too close to the point at which bacteria grows.

Trussing a turkey is done more for appearance than flavor. Tying the bird’s legs together at the end and using baker’s twine to stitch up the opening to the cavity makes for a more attractive presentation.

Before you put your turkey in the oven, place it in a roasting pan that is at least two inches deep, and then put the roaster on a sturdy baking sheet or tray. Rub the exterior of the turkey with olive oil, and season with your preferences (e.g., tarragon, paprika, salt, pepper). Loosely cover the turkey with aluminum foil, to keep the moisture circulating in and around your roast, and avoid over-browning.

About 45 minutes to an hour before the anticipated completion of your roasted turkey, remove the foil to let the bird’s skin reach that lovely golden-brown color you want.

Done!

When your Thanksgiving turkey temperature is 165ºF, remove the bird and let it sit for 20 to 30 minutes before carving. This step lets the juices that have moved away from the center of the turkey to recirculate, for a moist bird from start to finish. Keep the turkey covered with foil while it’s resting, and use this time (and the juices) to make the gravy.

There’s nothing magic about preparing a Thanksgiving turkey. Give yourself plenty of time and you’ll serve a bird that looks and tastes great! From everyone at Epcon Communities, we wish you a safe, happy Thanksgiving!