Plus, how to pick, prep, and carve the bird.
While turkey might not get the year-round love it deserves, the poultry option certainly has a chance to shine on Thanksgiving. And whether you’re hosting your first Thanksgiving celebration, or are an old pro, chances are you have some questions about how to pick, prep, cook, and carve your bird. That’s why we’ve laid out all of the steps you need to follow to ensure that your turkey is a hit with your guests on Thanksgiving Day, and beyond.
How to Buy a Turkey
The best way to shop for a turkey is to look for one that weighs between 12 and 14 pounds. Within this weight range, your turkey is big enough to feed about eight guests with a ton of leftovers. If you’re planning on cooking a larger bird for a bigger gathering, don’t go above 15 pounds. In this case, it’s better to roast two smaller birds, which will guarantee evenly cooked and succulent perfection all around.
And if you still haven’t secured your bird, don’t worry! Several retailers are still selling fresh and/or frozen turkeys that you can transform into one juicy Thanksgiving entree. If you’re buying a frozen turkey, which you can do several weeks (or even months) in advance as long as it stays frozen, make sure you have a plan for how to properly thaw your bird. More on that below.
How to Thaw a Turkey
Size matters when thawing a turkey. The best ways to thaw a turkey are by using the refrigerator method, in which you let the bird defrost in the fridge, or the cold water method, which involves placing the turkey in cold water. As a general rule of thumb, it will take one to three days to thaw a four to 12-pound turkey in the refrigerator set to 40 degrees or below, and just two to six hours to thaw the same sized bird in cold water that’s changed every 30 minutes. It typically takes one day for every four pounds of frozen turkey to defrost. Once thawed, the turkey will keep for up to two days in the refrigerator. For a chart that tells you how long you’ll need to thaw your turkey (and how to do it) click here.
If you missed the thawing window for your turkey, you can always cook it straight from frozen if you plan on roasting it. Just note that a frozen bird will take a lot longer to cook (about 50 percent more time) than one that has had several hours (or even days) to thaw.
Whatever you do, don’t thaw your turkey at room temperature on the kitchen counter. While this method might seem sensical, it can actually increase the risk of food-borne illnesses and bacteria growth, which can make you and your guests sick. The same goes for using hot water to thaw your bird.
You’ll know your turkey is sufficiently thawed when the meat feels soft to the touch, not frozen. If you can easily move the legs and wings and they don’t feel stiff, your turkey is ready for a one-way trip to the oven!
What If Your Turkey Is Still Frozen?
If your turkey still feels frozen after you thawed it in the fridge or used the cold water method, now is the time to turn on your microwave. Assuming your bird can fit in the microwave (or you’re cooking turkey parts), go ahead and remove all packaging from the turkey, including the giblets packet in the cavity, and place it in a microwave-safe dish that’s deep enough to catch the juices. Then, use the defrost function per weight of the turkey, and rotate and flip it often. It will take about six minutes per pound for a turkey to thaw completely, which is a little over an hour for a 12-pound turkey. (Note: You can also use this method to thaw your turkey, but it should really be a last resort.)
Once the turkey is thawed this way, it should be placed in the oven and cooked immediately. And while the turkey is cooking, be sure to give your microwave a good, clean scrub before you use it again.
How to Prepare a Turkey
If you’re roasting a turkey, which is one of the most common ways to cook a Thanksgiving bird, there are a few simple steps you should follow. These include removing whatever is inside the turkey, tucking the wings in, tying the drumsticks together, and transferring the turkey to a roasting pan. For a step-by-step guide on how to prepare a turkey for roasting (including illustrations) click here. And keep reading for details on how to prepare a turkey for other cooking methods.
The Easiest Way to Cook a Turkey
Congratulations, you’re finally ready to cook your turkey! The easiest way to take your bird from cold and raw to warm and delicious involves roasting it with aromatics, like onions, carrots, and lemons, and rubbing it with a generous amount of softened butter, plus a salt-and-pepper shower. And if you want to make gravy to go with your turkey, you can do it while the bird is resting, which allows you to use the flavorful juices from the roasting pan. For a step-by-step guide for the easiest way to cook a Thanksgiving turkey (including that gravy!) click here.
How to Roast a Turkey
Once you’ve prepared your turkey for roasting (see above), it’s time to go ahead and cook the bird. This roasting method, which is slightly more involved than the previous technique, calls for you to add a cup of water to the roasting pan after the turkey has been in the oven for approximately 45 minutes. This way, you don’t need to constantly baste the bird. This turkey is roasted with carrots, celery, and onions, and sports an impressive looking array of garnishes that includes navel orange wedges and fresh flat-leaf parsley or celery leaves.
How to Smoke a Turkey
A smoked turkey has a more complex, interesting flavor than a roasted bird, but calls for a more involved cooking process. For this method you’ll need a plug-in pellet smoker, which gives you full control with little effort.
To prep your turkey for a trip to the smoker, we recommend spatchcocking it so it cooks evenly. To spatchcock the bird, you’ll use shears to remove the backbone and flatten the turkey so that its two halves spread. From there, you can smoke at a higher heat and use a simple rub that won’t overwhelm the rich, smoky flavor.
Once the turkey is ready to be cooked, set your smoker to 325 to 350 degrees. Put the bird right on the grates at the center, and let the smoker puff away. Within this temperature range, a thawed turkey will take about 10 to 12 minutes a pound to smoke. For step-by-step instructions on how to smoke a turkey, click here.
And if you’d rather have a smoky-flavored turkey without the hassle of actually smoking your bird, take a look at this Smoky Maple Turkey recipe, which requires just 30 minutes of hands-on work.
How to Deep-Fry a Turkey
For a turkey that’s juicy and tender on the inside, but crispy on the outside, go the fried route. While this cooking method is a bit of a project, and one that requires its own setup, many say that it’s worth the hassle. For a step-by-step guide on how to fry a turkey both inside or outside your home, click here.
How to Grill a Turkey
Grilling a turkey frees up oven space for pies and Thanksgiving sides, and grilled turkey just so happens to taste delicious. The best way to grill turkey involves indirect heat, oiling the whole bird, and using a shallow pan to save any drippings. For a step-by-step guide on the best way to grill a turkey, click here.
How Long Do You Cook a Turkey For?
Generally speaking, the length of time it takes to cook a turkey depends on two key factors—how big the turkey is, and the method you’re using to cook it. If you’re roasting an eight to 12-pound turkey, for example, you should set your oven to at least 325 degrees and plan on cooking the turkey for about three hours. However, bigger turkeys will require more time in the oven—the same goes for stuffed birds.
How to Take a Turkey’s Temperature
There comes a point in every turkey-cooking adventure when you’re going to want to check the temperature of your bird, and taking a turkey’s temperature is actually a very important part of the process, because it’s how you know when it’s (almost) time to eat.
To take your turkey’s temperature, use a food thermometer. We like an instant-read meat thermometer, but you can also opt for an oven-proof food thermometer. To properly take your turkey’s temperature, remove the bird from the oven completely and close the oven door. Then, slip an instant-read meat thermometer into the thickest part of the turkey thigh. You should aim to prick the bird just above the crease between the thigh and the place where the turkey breast begins, but make sure you don’t hit bone because it will throw off the reading. When the instant thermometer reads 165, your turkey is ready and can come out of the oven. For a step-by-step guide on how to take your turkey’s temperature, click here.
And if you don’t have a meat thermometer, don’t fret! While we still recommend using a thermometer when possible, here’s how to tell when your turkey is done if you don’t have a thermometer on hand.
How to Carve a Turkey
Once you take the turkey out of the oven, or other cooking appliance, it should rest for about 30 to 40 minutes so it has a chance to reabsorb all of those delectable juices that keep it so moist and tasty.
As soon as the resting period is over, the carving can begin. Start by removing the string tying the legs together, then use a knife to remove the legs and thighs, and then remove the wings. At this point, you can find the breastbone and slice downward, as close to the bone as possible. Next, separate the drumstick and the thigh, and then slice the thigh meat and slice the breast meat against the grain. And you’re done! For a step-by-step guide (that includes photos) for how to carve a turkey, click here and enjoy!
Got leftover Thanksgiving turkey? Here’s how to store turkey properly so it won’t dry out.
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