How long do you cook a turkey? What's the best temp? All your Thanksgiving questions answered

There's no question that when it comes to the Thanksgiving food narrative, turkey is the main character.

With that role comes natural pressure for the chef preparing the holiday centerpiece. But don't worry. We've got you covered. It's not so intimidating once you have a plan.

USA TODAY tapped chef Michael Symon, of ABC's "The Chew", and Herve Guillard, dean of students and director of education at the Institute of Culinary Education, to share their expertise to help you cook the perfect turkey. Plus, we have a few of our own tips. And, if all else fails, just fill your plate with sides. We have plenty of recipes for great sides, too.

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How do you defrost a turkey?

According to the National Turkey Federation, Americans consume 46 million turkeys at Thanksgiving. It's estimated that some 50 percent of those are bought frozen.

The USDA recommends thawing your frozen turkey in a refrigerator as the safest method of defrosting it and suggests allowing one day for each 4-5 pounds of weight. So if your turkey weighs 16 pounds, it will take about four days to thaw. Once thawed, the turkey is safe for another two to four days before you cook it.

If you’ve missed that window, you can thaw it in cold water. Place the turkey breast side down, still in its original unopened wrapper, with enough cold water to cover it completely. Change water every 30 minutes.

You can expect 30 minutes of thawing per pound of turkey. That’s still a long time. If you have a 12 pound turkey, which is on the smaller side, you’re looking at around 6 hours.

Here's a how-to video from Problem Solved to walk you through thawing with cold water:

If you don’t want to fuss with basically giving your turkey a cold bath, then just cook it from frozen. The USDA says it’s perfectly safe to cook a turkey from the frozen; it just takes longer. They say a solidly frozen turkey takes at least 50 percent longer to cook than a thawed turkey. If your turkey is only partially frozen, there’s not an equation to follow so use a food thermometer, and when your bird hits 165˚F-170˚F in the innermost part of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast, it is ready.

How to avoid cross contamination while cooking a turkey

One worry that often comes with prepping raw meat — especially a big bird like turkey — is cross contamination.

But, according to Symon, there are a few easy ways to avoid any risk while you prep your Thanksgiving meal.

It's a better-safe-than-sorry situation when working with raw meat. You're better off cleaning more and taking precautions, such as hand washing, throughout your cooking process. Symon walked USA TODAY through the step-by-step process to avoid cross contamination. The process begins with a clean, clear cooking space and washed hands.

How to brine a turkey

Many birds come pre-brined, Guillard says. So, check to make sure what you've purchased needs a brine before starting. If you do need to brine a turkey, there are a couple ways to do it.

Wet brining is the process of soaking meat in a salt-water solution. The salty bath locks moisture into the meat. This method yields tender and tasty turkey, with a crispy golden skin.

A dry brine involves rubbing salt directly on your chosen meat (in this case, turkey), it helps to draw moisture out — and then over time, juices and salt will be reabsorbed into the meat, Southern Living says.

Guillard says he often uses a basic brine with water, salt and sugar, though you can add different seasonings, too.

"I like to go with flavors that are very typical fall: Mushroom, onions, garlic, thyme, rosemary and brown sugar," he says. "So you can chop up a bunch of spices and aromatics like carrots, onions, garlic, and then fluids in your boiling liquid which releases the flavor and then I would leave them in liquid when you submerged."

If you're looking for an exact recipe, here's Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond's recipe for her favorite turkey brine.

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What temperature to cook a turkey

The bigger the bird, the lower the temperature you should cook it (and for a longer time), Guillard says. "You want to make sure it's (cooked) throughout without getting too brown on the outside," he says.

For example, if he had a 20 pound turkey, Guillard says he would cook it at around 300 degrees. That's less than the 350 degrees people most often cook turkey.

When roasting a turkey, Guillard says, some people like to start at a very high temperature and drop it down to a lower temp to finish cooking.

But not everyone cooks a turkey the same way. And there's no right way, technically.

"Some people go completely the other way by starting slow at around 250 and then picking it up at the end to get browning on the skin," Guillard explains. "The key thing to balance on this is having the right textures and making sure it's properly (cooked) throughout but to not have a dried meat."

That's why chefs often rely on two temperatures. "A low temperature will cook the meat very nicely inside and keep it juicy without drying it but you want to high temperature at some point whether it's at the beginning of the end to crisp up the skin and the melted butter to get an extra crispy skin," Guillard says.

How long to cook your turkey

Guillard recommends cooking your turkey 12 to 13 minutes per pound if you're cooking an unstuffed bird it at 350 degrees (that’s about 3 hours for a 12- to 14-lb. turkey). If it's stuffed, up the cooking time to 15 minutes per pound.

But, size, cook time and temperature change in coordination. So make sure to follow a recipe and adjust accordingly.

How to garnish your turkey

Once you've cooked and carved your turkey, there's one final step before it disappears under a mound of gravy or cranberry sauce. You have to garnish the meat.

Decorative accompaniments such as apples, oranges, lemons, limes, and fresh herbs like parsley and chives add to the aesthetics and also help mark the meal and the occasion as something special.

How to carve your turkey

Carving a turkey, whether for Thanksgiving or any other holiday celebration, is a necessity that somehow became a grandiose tradition. In popular culture, the honor has traditionally gone to the family's patriarch. That practice dates to the Middle Ages.

Check out the video below for a full how-to:

Contributing: Grateful

Check out these recipes to up your kitchen game: 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How to cook a turkey: Everything you need to know about time and temp