Turkey, Gravy, and Stuffing 101
The turkey is the most important part of your Thanksgiving meal. But it’s also the hardest to prepare. The legs cook slower than the white meat, which often turns out dry and chalky before the dark meat is safe to eat. What’s more, the skin often fails to crisp, and the meat tends to be bland. We’ve cooked hundreds of turkeys and know what works when it comes time to roast your holiday bird. And since no turkey is complete without gravy and stuffing, you’ll find our best tips for those recipes as well.
How to Prepare a Turkey for Roasting
A frozen 20-pound bird can take four days to thaw in the refrigerator. Plan on one day per five pounds of turkey, and always thaw in the refrigerator.
1. After removing the outer wrapping from the turkey, remove the neck and giblet package from the turkey cavity. Be sure to check both cavities of the turkey.
2. Pat the turkey thoroughly dry with paper towels.
3. Secure the legs by tucking the ankles of the bird into the band of skin at the tail end. If the band is missing, tie the legs together at the ankles with kitchen twine.
4. The bird will look neater if you tuck the wing tips under the bird. Grasp each wing tip and twist it toward the bird. Tuck it under the bottom of the bird.
5. Brush the breast and legs with melted butter.
6. Place the turkey breast-side down in the V-rack and brush with melted butter.
Turning the Turkey
Our favorite method for roasting a turkey calls for roasting the bird breast-side down for the first hour and then flipping it onto its back until it's done. We developed this unusual technique through much trial and error (and literally dozens of turkeys) to ensure the dark and white meat get done at the same time, thus preventing chalky, dry breast meat. The dark meat, exposed to the high heat of the oven at the start, gets a head start while the leaner breast is afforded some protection. We freely admit our technique adds a step, also that the cook will have to briefly tussle with a hot, cumbersome turkey. But the payoff is very much worth the effort. The method guarantees a moist, juicy turkey from tip to tail or, more accurately, breast to thigh. And did we mention the golden, crackling skin? One word of caution: The bigger the bird, the harder it is to flip. Make sure to insulate your hands with clean pot holders or kitchen towels.
TIP & FLIP
Tip the turkey so the juices in the cavity run into the pan. Then, with kitchen towels or potholders, flip the turkey and set breast-side up on the rack.
Turkey Cooking Times
Anyone who's cooked a turkey knows that timing the bird is tricky. No one wants to serve dinner in the middle of the football game, and a midnight supper is no good either. Use the chart below to help plan your meal. For absolute precision, gauge doneness according to the internal temperature—the thickest part of the thigh should register 170 to 175 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. If cooking a big bird—18 to 22 pounds—you may decide it's too heavy to rotate; in that case, roast it breast side up for the entire cooking time.
TURKEY WEIGHT: 12-15 pounds
Oven Temperature: 400 degrees
Roasting Time: 45 minutes breast side down, 50-60 minutes breast side up
Resting Time: 30 minutes
TURKEY WEIGHT: 15-18 pounds
Oven Temperature: 400 degrees
Roasting Time: 45 minutes breast side down, 1 hour, 15 minutes breast side up
Resting Time: 30 minutes
TURKEY WEIGHT: 18-22 pounds
Oven Temperature: 425 degrees, reduced to 325 degrees after 1 hour
Roasting Time: 1 hour breast side down, 2 hours breast side up
Resting Time: 35-40 minutes
How to Take the Temperature of Turkey
Nothing ruins turkey timing like a faulty temperature reading, leaving the turkey unpalatably dry or, worse, undercooked. To be sure we've cooked our turkey correctly, we take the temperature in multiple spots. And forget about those pop-up timers. They are set to go off when the turkey is overcooked.
TO TAKE THE TEMPERATURE OF THE BREAST:
Insert the thermometer at the neck end, holding it parallel to the bird. Confirm the temperature in both sides of the bird. The breast should reach 165 degrees.
TO TAKE THE TEMPERATURE OF THE THIGH:
Insert an instant-read thermometer between the breast and drumstick and into the thickest part of the thigh, staying away from the bone. The thigh should reach 175 degrees. Confirm the temperature in the other thigh.
Carve Turkey Like a Pro
Despite the clichés of proud dads slicing at the table, carving is a messy job. Better to get down and dirty in the kitchen, where you can break down the turkey and carve neat, picture-perfect slices without anyone seeing. To serve the meat, transfer it to a pretty platter and bring to the table.
Slice through the skin between the breast and leg and, using your hands, pull the leg quarters down until the joint between breast and leg is exposed. Remove the leg by cutting between the hip joint and any attached skin. Repeat with opposite leg. Remove the wings by cutting through the wing joints.
Separate the thighs from the drumsticks by cutting between the joint that connects the two. Leave the drumsticks whole and slice the thigh meat off the bone.
Remove the breast meat from the carcass by running the tip of the knife along the breastbone.
Use your other hand to hold and pry meat from the bone as you cut.
Slice the removed breast meat crosswise into slices. Repeat with the other breast.
Foolproof Make-Ahead Gravy
1. Brown, then sweat the onion, neck, heart, and gizzard (but not the liver) to build a deep base of flavor.
2. Deglaze with chicken broth and water, scraping the flavorful brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
3. Strain out (and discard) giblets and onion; the broth can be refrigerated until ready to use.
4. Stir flour into melted butter, whisking constantly, to make a roux, which thickens the gravy and adds nutty flavor.
5. Slowly add broth to roux, whisking constantly, until full incorporated. This mixture can be made a day in advance.
6. While the turkey rests, pour defatted drippings from the roasting pan into gravy for extra richness.
Although you might think a frozen bird is easier (no need to put in an order for a fresh bird from the butcher), a frozen turkey requires some planning, unless you want to deal with a rock-hard bird on Thanksgiving morning.
What’s the best way to thaw a frozen turkey?
Defrost the turkey in the refrigerator, calculating 1 day of defrosting for every 5 pounds of turkey. Say you’re cooking a 12-pound turkey. The frozen bird should be placed in the refrigerator on Monday so that it’s defrosted and ready to cook on Thanksgiving Day. If you plan on brining your bird the night before the big day (see question below), start thawing that 12-pound bird on Sunday.
What if I don’t thaw the turkey ahead of time?
Don’t panic. You can still save the situation. Fill a large bucket with cold water. For a 12-pound bird, thaw the turkey (still in its original wrapper) in the bucket for 6 to 8 hours (or 30 minutes per pound). Change the cold water every half hour to guard against bacteria growth.
How should I brine a turkey?
We sometimes brine turkey to make it moist and flavorful. Our overnight brine (12 to 14 hours) uses half a cup of table salt per gallon of cold water. For a quicker brine (4 to 6 hours), we use a whole cup of table salt per gallon of water. Depending on the size of the bird and your brining bucket, you will need 2 to 3 gallons of water. Keep the turkey in the refrigerator while brining to keep it at a safe temperature. If your refrigerator is full, use a big cooler and ice packs. Don’t leave the turkey in the brine longer than we suggest or it will be too salty. At the recommended hour, rinse off the salty water and pat the turkey dry with paper towels.
Is it better to stuff the turkey or serve dressing?
In the test kitchen, we prefer to cook the stuffing, or dressing, separately. Cooking the stuffing inside the bird to a safe internal temperature takes too long: By the time the stuffing is safe to eat, the meat is overcooked. Instead we bake our dressing in a dish alongside the turkey, or while the turkey rests. The crisp crust is an added bonus. Still, we recognize that every family has its own Thanksgiving traditions. If yours demands a stuffed bird, take the turkey out of the oven when the meat is done, scoop out the stuffing, and finish baking it in a dish while the turkey rests. Stuffing should reach a minimum temperature of 165 degrees.
Do I need to truss the bird?
To prevent the legs from splaying open, which could make them cook unevenly, we tuck them into the pocket of skin at the tail end. Not all turkeys have such a pocket. If yours doesn’t, simply tie the ankles together with kitchen twine. There is no need to fuss with trussing.
What about basting?
Despite what you’ve been told, basting does nothing to moisten dry breast meat. The liquid simply runs off the turkey, meanwhile turning the skin chewy and leathery. Also basting requires that you incessantly open and close the oven, which means you won’t be sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner anytime soon.
Does the turkey really need to rest before I carve it?
Yes. Thirty minutes or so gives it time to reabsorb the meat juices; otherwise they’ll dribble out when you slice, and the meat will be dry. Don’t tent the turkey with foil to keep it warm while it’s resting; it will make the skin soggy and is unnecessary. As long as the turkey is intact, it will cool quite slowly.
The Right Tools for Turkey, Gravy and Stuffing Recipes
You can’t roast a turkey without a decent roasting pan. Our favorite models feature sturdy handles and come with solid nonstick racks that can hold a stuffed bird high enough to allow air to circulate around it. A good roaster should also be safe to use on the stovetop, allowing you to deglaze it with ease.
With so much going on in the kitchen during the holidays, it’s hard to keep track of things. An excellent way to make life easier is with a multievent timer, which can keep track of how long several items have been in the oven.
A good instant-read thermometer is the only safe, reliable, fully guaranteed way to know if your turkey or stuffing is cooked to doneness. We prefer digital models with thin probes. Automatic shutoff features help preserve your battery life.
Slicing a turkey doesn’t require expert knife skills. But producing thin, even slices of meat can be next to impossible if you don’t have the right knife. The best slicing knives have a rounded end (pointed ends shred rather than slice meat) and feature long, narrow blades.
Electric knives might seem like relics of the 1960s, but they do have a place at your Thanksgiving table. These knives excel at slicing objects of different textures—like juicy turkey breast covered by crisp, crackly skin.
A good cutting board needs to be large enough to handle a Thanksgiving turkey. It also needs to be made of a material that won’t dull your knife. Our favorite models are easy to clean and sturdy (but not too heavy). We suggest that you look for wooden or plastic models (never glass).
If you are going to make gravy, you are going to need to separate the liquid fat from your drippings. Most models out there do a decent job, but the best of the bunch are wide enough to make it easy to pour drippings from your roasting pan, and they have an integrated strainer for helping you filter your pan drippings.
Key Ingredients for Turkey, Stuffing and Gravy
The turkey is the centerpiece at Thanksgiving dinner, but with so many choices at the supermarket, it’s hard to know which bird will produce a meal that your guests will enjoy. We tasted everything from “prebasted,” to “free-range,” to “all-natural” and found that kosher birds are our top recommendation for your Thursday-night feast.
Come Thanksgiving, you don’t have time to make your own slowly simmered chicken stock. That’s why packaged chicken broth is such an essential ingredient at your Thanksgiving dinner. You’ll find it in gravy, soup, stuffing, and other side dishes. And which brand you buy really does matter.
Liquid gravy seasonings claim to enhance homemade gravy. It’s a bold proclamation, and we put four brands to the test to find out if additives can really make your gravy better. Short answer: not so much.
Stuffing is only as good as the bread you use to make it, and if you don’t have time to make fresh bread from scratch (and who does come Thanksgiving?) you’ll need to dry out a loaf of store-brought sandwich slices. The good news is that two brands make for excellent stuffing.
Nothing beats homemade stuffing, but supermarket stuffing does have its place. It’s incredibly easy to use and it saves you precious time come Thanksgiving. Is the sacrifice in flavor and quality worth the convenience? Probably not. But we did identify two brands that could work in a pinch.
Our Favorite Turkey, Stuffing and Gravy Recipes
For a successful and simple roasted turkey recipe, we found that there was no need for an elaborate trussing. We just tucked the legs into the pocket of skin at the tail end or simply tied the ankles together with kitchen twine. And for an evenly cooked roasted turkey, flipping the bird midway through cooking produced excellent results.
For our foolproof Herb Butter–Roasted Turkey and Gravy recipe, which allows the herb flavor to shine through, roast the turkey at a gentler temperature to help it cook more evenly. This will also allow the butter to brown without scorching. Selecting the correct herbs (and the right proportions) is equally important for imparting flavor to the meat.
To keep the white meat of our turkey from drying out during the prolonged stay in the oven, we drew upon an age-old technique called larding. We pierced the skin and covered the breast with thin slices of salt pork. This insulated the breast and basted the turkey with flavorful and rich fat.
A giant holiday stuffed turkey is the Thanksgiving ideal. But if the stuffing doesn’t cook through completely it can be a food-safety concern. For a recipe that delivers perfectly cooked meat and moist stuffing—at the same time—we found a way to quickly remove the stuffing from the bird. Then, as the bird rests, we finished the stuffing in the oven.
Cooking turkey in an oven bag produces an especially moist bird. But the skin turns out pale and flabby and the meat can sometimes be too juicy—almost waterlogged. We set out to reinvent this old-fashioned technique.
Looking for a less stressful approach to Thanksgiving? Our Make-Ahead Roast Turkey and Gravy recipe takes a cue from restaurants. We cooked and carved the bird into quarters the day before. While the meat cooled, we made a fortified broth with the carcass to serve as the base of our gravy. Come Thanksgiving Day, all we had to do was finish off the gravy and reheat the meat.
The very best make-ahead turkey gravy is a two-step process. First we discovered that the giblets gave our gravy delicious depth and we could cook them days before tackling the bird. Equally important were the turkey drippings. When the bird was done roasting we simply made sure that the flavor from the drippings found its way into our prepped gravy.
For a more elegant Thanksgiving turkey dinner, we butterflied and stuffed a boneless, skinless turkey breast. Bread-based stuffings proved too bland, so we included full-flavored vegetables, strong cheeses, and lots of herbs in our stuffing recipe.
A bone-in, skin-on turkey breast is perfect for a small Thanksgiving gathering. The key is infusing the relatively bland white meat with some flavor (maple helps here) and keeping the white meat from turning dry.
Turkey and wild rice soup is a great way to make use of leftover Thanksgiving turkey, and this recipe employs both the leftover meat and the turkey carcass. We also found a way to speed up the cooking of the rice with a common pantry ingredient.
Sure, it’s easy to produce meaty bread stuffing when it cooks in the turkey, but we wanted the same flavor without the hassle of filling the bird. To perfect our Back to Basics Bread Stuffing, onion and celery were a must, and we got the meatiest flavor from poultry seasoning and concentrated chicken broth.
For our excellent Homemade Cornbread Dressing, you’ll need to make your own cornbread, as boxed mixes and prepared cornbreads produce sugary, mushy dressing. You can dry the bread overnight or get the same results in less than an hour by baking it at a low temperature.
This stress-reducing recipe for our Homemade Stuffing Mix frees up valuable time on Thanksgiving. For the make-ahead flavor base, we sautéed the vegetables and herbs in butter and then froze the mixture into logs. To finish the stuffing, just remove the frozen logs, melt them on the stovetop with some chicken broth, and add the bread.
We designed our Cornbread and Bacon Stuffing recipe to be rich and flavorful enough to stand on its own, even when cooked outside the bird. Bacon replaces the missing turkey fat while chicken broth adds the necessary poultry flavor.
Wild rice dressing makes for an excellent departure from the typical Thanksgiving Day bread stuffing, but it can be a tricky dish to create: Different varieties of wild rice absorb drastically different amounts of water. So when we developed our Wild Rice Dressing recipe, we boiled the rice in extra liquid and then drained the excess.
Cornflake stuffing is a fun twist on the typical bread stuffing. For the vegetables in our version, we stuck with celery ribs and onions. We also discovered that rendered chicken fat, which we found with the kosher foods in the freezer section at the supermarket, added unmatched flavor.