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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Turkey Time The 411 on Preparing a Great Turkey

I shared these turkey tips last year, and thought it might be nice to re-post with Thanksgiving on it's way.

Since most of us only prepare a turkey once a year, I thought I would do a little review of the basics, a little turkey 411 if you will.  

1.  Deciding what size bird to buy.  If you are buying an unstuffed whole turkey, you should plan on buying about 1 pound (uncooked weight) of turkey per a person, more if you want leftovers.  

2.  Defrosting your bird.  If you purchase a frozen bird, you should plan to defrost it in your refrigerator up to 5 hours per every pound.  That means your average birds, 14 to 19 pounds , will take 3 to 4 days to defrost completely. You should set your bird on a tray, in its original packaging in your refrigerator to defrost. This is why it is important to purchase your bird now, today, if you haven't already.  It is never recommended to defrost a turkey at room temperature.  However if you prefer you can defrost your turkey in your kitchen sink, in it's original packaging, in a cold water bath.  This method will take about 30 minutes per a pound, meaning it will take on average 5 to 10 hours per a bird.  Although this is quicker, I do not find it easier, since you have to change the water every 1/2 hour to maintain the right temperature.

3. To Brine or Not to Brine, That is the Question?  From personal experience, I can tell you that brining, if done correctly, adds moisture and flavor to your protein.  I like to think of it as gobbler protection, an insurance policy, that will help you guarantee a moist bird come dinner time.  However, I have made and enjoyed birds that were moist and juicy with out a brine as well.  Last year I brined my turkey, this year I am preparing a lower sodium bird, and will be skipping the brining process.  Studies have shown low sodium brines don't make a significant difference in your juiciness.  If you are not concerned about sodium content, then I suggest brining.  A basic brine consists of water and salt only.  You can add any herbs, spices, or sweeteners such as sugar, honey, maple syrup, and molasses to your desired taste.  A good ratio of water to salt is 1 cup of salt per 2 gallons of water.  Remember not all salt is equal.  If you are using Kosher salt instead of regular table salt, you will need to use 1 1/2 cups of salt per 2 gallons of water.  You should also allow your bird to brine for 10 to 12 hours at least, in a stock pot or brining bag,  in your refrigerator.  I recommend rinsing your bird off, and patting it dry, after brining and before seasoning prior to cooking.

4. How to Season your Bird.  There are many great recipes to choose from when preparing your Turkey.    I always have on my turkey, sage, black pepper, rosemary, and thyme, not only for flavor but for that nostalgic Thanksgiving turkey aroma I grew up with.  I season the inside and outside of the bird.  I recommend for saving time and money using McCormick's Poultry Seasoning which has thyme, sage, marjoram, rosemary, black pepper, and nutmeg in it.  This is what I will be using this year, along with a little, onion and garlic powder.

5. To Stuff or Not to Stuff your Turkey.  I choose to serve dressing not stuffing at my Thanksgiving table.  I grew up having my mom's delicious stuffed turkey, so it came as a surprise when she found out I prefer not to stuff my bird.  But wait, I do stuff my bird, just not with the dressing, instead I stuff it with fresh onions, garlic, and oranges.  I do not plan on serving these items, so I do not have to worry about overcooking my bird to guarantee a safe internal stuffing temperature.  These items will add great flavor and provide moisture for your turkey as it cooks.  Another reason I prefer not to stuff my bird is that I enjoy the crunchy part of the stuffing, and there simply isn't enough of this to go around if you only have it in your bird.  If you do decide to stuff your bird with your dressing/stuffing, then you should plan to only stuff it with about 3/4 cup of stuffing per a pound of bird.  If you are stuffing your bird at home, you should  not stuff it early, only just prior to baking, to reduce chances of bacterial growth. If you over stuff your bird,  it will be hard to reach a safe internal temperature without drying out the rest of your bird.  If you stuff your bird, make sure to check the temperature of the center of the stuffing, it should be at least 165 degrees just like your turkey.

6. How Long To Cook Your Bird.  A good plan is for 15 minutes cooking time for every pound of bird, in a 325 F degree oven, on a roasting rack, in a large roasting pan.   If your bird is stuffed plan for an additional 15 minutes to that total time.  It is also a good idea to tuck the wings of the bird under so they don't burn or dry out, or as I will do this year, cover them with a bit of foil, then remove towards end of cooking time for browning. With that being said, I think the biggest problem most people have is overcooking their bird.  Remember that you can plan on the birds internal temperature rising a bit after you take it out of the oven.  I like to use an electric meat thermometer to check the thickest part of the thigh.  I recommend purchasing one with an alarm that will sound when you reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit. At that point I remove my bird from the oven, or outdoor BBQ as we will be doing this year, cover it with foil, and let it rest, for 15 to 20 minutes, then test the temperate of the bird again to make sure it is at least 165 degrees.

7. Basting, Bagging, or Cheeseclothing, You Decide.  I have used with much success in the past an oven safe turkey bag, to guarantee a moist and juicy bird.  This is the method my mom uses every year.  The only thing I dislike about the bag is you sometimes don't get that real crispy turkey skin that many of us love to eat.  The great thing about it is you don't have to worry about basting your bird every 30 to 40 minutes, which can sometimes be tedious on an already busy day.  This year, as I already mentioned we will be trying out our outdoor gas grill for cooking our bird.  Since we are choosing this method, I have decided to use cheesecloth soaked in butter to self baste the bird.  We are expecting to have snow come Thanksgiving, and I don't think I will be wanting to spend a lot of time running outside to baste or letting the grill cool down in that cold when I open the lid either. I plan to remove the cheesecloth for the last bit of cooking time so that the skin can get nice and crispy.  In the past I have also used a large covered roaster, which works well at keeping your bird moist.  I usually remove the lid, for the last 15 to 20 minutes of cooking to get the skin nice and crispy.

8. When and How to Carve  Your Bird.  You should always let your bird rest 20 to 30 minutes before carving to let the juices redistribute.  This is a great time to plate your bird, remember we eat with our eyes first.  I like to keep it simple and garnish with items that I have used to flavor the bird.  This year I will simply garnish my turkey with fresh rosemary sprigs, a few fresh orange slices, and a bit of fresh cranberries that I have reserved, for a nice pop of color.  You will need a sharp chefs knife or carving knife as well as a carving fork to stabilize the bird. You should, if your turkey is stuffed with stuffing, remove it prior to carving.  I prefer to remove all of the breast meat at once and then slice pieces of it on a cutting board so that everyone has a chance at enjoying some of the crispy skin.  I have always been a visual learner so here is a link to a great turkey carving video from the funny and  knowledgeable Alton Brown at the Food Network.  He prefers to use an electric carving knife.  He also has some great tips for storing  leftover turkey.  You can safely store your leftover turkey in the freezer for up to 1 month.


Turkey Lifters Make Your  Life and Lift Easier

Help self baste your bird and lock in juices.

Can be soaked in butter to lay over bird for self basting.
 I hope these tips have been a helpful reminder of how to prepare a nice, flavorful, and juicy bird this year.  I know it helps me to go over the basics, since I usually only prepare a turkey once a year for my smaller family of four.  I remember many years back, when my turkey wasn't completely defrosted come turkey   day. I thought they had forgot the giblets and neck inside, and was unaware that I had missed them since they were frozen to the inside cavity of the bird still.  I eventually found them come carving time, boy was I embarrassed.  Well I have certainly learned a thing or two, through trial and error, observation, and research over the years.  I feel confident that we will be happy to gobble up that bird come thanksgiving, and gravy will be wanted, but not needed to choke down a dry bird.


  1. That turkey picture...that is a funny looking turkey! :) I will bookmark this because I will be needing it...I'm not a good turkey maker!

  2. Super helpful! Especially the carving. We're terrible carvers.:)


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