Holiday Turkey 101
The turkey is the most important part of your holiday 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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