When I was 12, for some mysterious reason, my dad put me and my little brothers in charge of cooking the Thanksgiving turkey. Naturally, my brothers and I spent the rest of the day playing hide-in-seek in the backyard and forgot all about the humble bird defrosting in the sink. When we realized our dad would be back soon, we ran into the kitchen, shoved the turkey into the oven and—reasoning that time was short—set the temperature to 500°F.
When our dad got back, balancing a tower of pies in one hand, he opened the oven only to find a turkey that was charred black on the outside and raw in the inside. This mishap inspired me to create this quick guide on avoiding the most common turkey mistakes and cooking your bird to perfection.
Remember: if all else fails, it's always wise to bring extra pie.
Words of wisdom: Don't wait until the day-of to thaw your turkey. As a general rule of thumb, you'll need at least 24 hours for every five pounds you plan to thaw. So, if you've got a ten-pound turkey, it's going to take a day and a half for it to fully defrost.
The best method to thawing your turkey is in the refrigerator. Note: that means your bird—or any other type of meat—should not be thawed on your counter. According to the USDA, while "the center of the package may still be frozen as it thaws on the counter, the outer layer of the food could be in the 'Danger Zone,' between 40 and 140°F—temperatures where bacteria multiply rapidly." A fridge's constant, cool temperature slows the growth of harmful bacteria and helps your turkey thaw evenly.
If you're crunched for time, and as a last resort, give the turkey a cold water bath. Make sure to secure it in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent surrounding bacteria from attacking it and to change the water every 30 minutes. Expect to wait 30 minutes for every pound you plan to thaw.
Like a good (or cheap!) chunk of steak, it's important to season your turkey to enhance its savoriness. While lavishing it in your choice of herbs and salt, make sure to season it both inside and out. As The Kitchn notes, the salt breaks down the proteins in meat, tenderizing it and making it easier to chew.
Brining and applying a spice rub to your turkey is an easy way to make it flavorful and tender, too. You can get the full rundown on the process here.
PS: When stuffing the cavity with aromatics—rosemary, fennel, onions—pack it loosely. If you over-stuff your turkey, it won't cook evenly.
Alright, so your turkey is thawed, seasoned and ready to go. You stick it in a large pan and let it sit in the oven for the next few hours. STOP. Roasting your bird directly on the pan's surface is a guaranteed way to overcook and burn the bottom of your turkey.
A roasting rack creates space between your turkey and the pan's hot surface. This allows the oven's heat to circulate around the entire surface of the bird, cooking every part at a consistent temperature.
We get it, your relatives are coming over in the afternoon, and you need that turkey to be roasted, plated, and ready to carve up when they get here. Whatever you do, don't ramp up the heat in some delusion that it will magically be ready in an hour. You'll get a sad turkey with burnt skin and pink insides.
Instead, plan ahead. Give yourself a little over one hour for every five pounds of raw turkey. For the average fifteen pound turkey, that means allocating almost four hours for it to properly roast. If you're still unsure on the exact numbers, here's a helpful calculator that figures out approximate cooking times for both stuffed and un-stuffed turkeys.
(And here's a helpful guide on how to tell if turkey or any other meat is done without a thermometer!)
My heart breaks every time I hear of someone tossing out the liquid gold drippings from the turkey. These caramelized drippings are the fatty, concentrated juices left at the bottom of the pan once the turkey is ready to eat and are rich in flavor.
For more Thanksgiving tips and tricks, check out these 7 alternatives to stuffing (psst: crispy waffle stuffing ahead) along with these weird, tasty ways to cook turkey. If you do end up in a hopeless turkey situation, there's always the option of heading somewhere that does the cooking for you.