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Countdown to Turkey Day

November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, with only 5 days remaining!  In order to cook that bird, and cook it good, here’s the And Cuisine For All breakdown on how to cook a Thanksgiving Turkey.

Also, in the top bar, the new tab Holiday Times is available, collecting all the Thanksgiving (and later, all Christmas) recipes in one page for easier finding.

Thawing and Cleaning

Always thaw the turkey in the refrigerator!  While it takes up a lot of space, leaving it out on the counter for long enough to thaw all the way through may cause the inside to remain frozen and the outside to spoil.  Depending on the size of your turkey, you need to start thawing it up to 6 days ahead of time.

Turkey Chart

The great chart to turkeys

Once the bird is thawed, remove the giblets (usually heart, liver and gizzards) and the neck from the body cavity, and rinse the bird inside and out under running cold water.



Only attempt this if your turkey is fully thawed, and you removed the giblets and neck from inside.  Brining the turkey is completely optional, but in my opinion, it’s worth it as it makes for a moister, nicer roast.  For the brine, you will need a large container, water, salt, sugar, and a LOT of space in your refrigerator or in a cooler.  Place the turkey in the container, and mix up the brine:  for each gallon of water, use 1 cup of salt and 1 cup of sugar.  You will definitely need quite a few gallons of this, but this is the ratio to shoot for.  Pour the brine over the turkey to completely cover it, and a few inches over it, even.  Now, place it in the refrigerator for 1 hour per pound (so about 12 hours for a 12-pounder, a whole day for a 24-pounder).

Be careful not to overbrine the bird – if you’re unsure about it, take it out earlier rather than later.  However, this salt bath saturates the meat with more water, hence it has “more to give” when the water evaporates during cooking, leaving the meat more tender and moist.

Once the brining time is over, rinse off the bird in cold running water until any last trace of salt is gone from it, inside or out – otherwise you may end up with a really, really salty roast this year.


Preparation, Seasoning and Cooking

Before getting started, preheat the oven to 475 degrees.  (Yes, you read it right – it seems high, but there’s a reason…)

Seasoning is completely optional and to taste – I recommend using rosemary, thyme, black and/or white pepper and garlic, but you can try mint, sage or oregano and basil as well.  First, separate the skin on the breast from the meat itself.  You will need to actually stick your hand inside – for food safety, take off any rings beforehand (both to avoid them getting stuck inside, and because of all the bacteria that lurk unwashed under rings), and if you’re easy to gross out, wear some disposable examination gloves (pharmacies usually carry them by the diabetic supplies).

Melt some butter, and rub it all on the breast meat under the skin.  This also helps keep the turkey moist, as well as it helps the flavors from the herbs and spices dissolve into the meat.  If you have the chance, put a whole sprig of rosemary and thyme (or whatever spices you opt to use) in this pocket under the skin; if not, use plenty of dried herbs.  Lightly salt and pepper the outside of the skin, but do not butter it – that’s what will make it crispy!  Concentrated salt will help the skin to lose water faster than the meat, and become crunchy while the meat that you didn’t salt remains moist and tender.

It has been pointed out at several places that you shouldn’t put the stuffing in the turkey.  The reason being is, if you cook the turkey until the bird is perfect, the stuffing will remain undercooked, and potentially hazardous – if you cook it until the stuffing is done, the meat dries out.  To avoid this catch-22, you should always prepare the stuffing on the side.  However, if you really crave that in-the-bird taste, try lining the inside of the turkey with cheesecloth before putting in the stuffing.  This way the juices will still get to it, but you can remove it after the first period of cooking (20-30 minutes) and mix it with more stuffing to make a big batch of amazing.

If you opt to put no stuffing inside the bird, put a generous amount of coarsely chopped garlic cloves – I wouldn’t stop under a whole head of garlic.

Place it in a roasting pan with a rack and a cover – if you can’t fit the cover over it, you may also use aluminum foil.  I usually put the bird breast side up, for easier temperature checks and removal, but you can put it breast side down, too.  Some people swear the breast-down method makes the bird juicier, but in my experience, it really doesn’t matter.  The rack is to prevent the back part from getting soggy, but if you don’t have one, it’s not the end of the world.  Put the turkey uncovered in the hot oven, but just for 20 minutes.  This is to sear and seal the bird, preventing the juices from evaporating and drying out the meat.  Once the 20 minutes are over, cover the bird and put it back, dropping the heat to 250 degrees.  Don’t wait for the oven to cool down – put the bird back first, and then turn the heat down.  This will promote a slow, even cooking where the juices remain inside the meat.  Count for about 25 minutes of cooking time per pound – however, calculate this to the exact, cleaned weight of the turkey!  The “net weight” you pay for contains also the giblets (at least 1-1.5 pounds), and sometimes some ice stuffed inside the bird to keep it fresh.  If there was ice in the bird, try to estimate its weight, or measure the cleaned turkey.  Also, fresh turkey cooks a lot faster than the store-bought frozen ones, so be sure to check the meat at about 2/3 of the time you estimated at first; so if your cooking time would be 6 hours, check in at 4 hours or so.

Even if the turkey was frozen, keep checking in the last hour or so – overbaked turkey tends to dry out, annulling all your hard work on it so far.  Be especially careful with that if you use a heavy, cast iron or similar roasting pan, as these tend to retain the higher heat for longer, cooking your turkey faster.  Measure the temperature in the breast meat and the thighs, using a meat thermometer.  To properly measure internal temperatures, insert the probe in the center of the meat, careful not to touch any bones or fat.  Wait with the readout until the thermometer settles at a number – with some analog ones it may take a while.  The inside of the breast should read 170 degrees, while the thighs should be at 180 – the difference comes from the thigh area containing more fatty tissue.

The best part – basting with this method is unnecessary!  So feel free to enjoy your Thanksgiving day, prepare your house and yourself, or all the other tasty meals you will serve today!


Be sure to let the meat rest before carving, at least for 20 minutes.  This will allow the turkey to cool, and for the juices to be bound to the fibers once again.  This way you won’t lose all juices pouring down on the cutting board, but they will remain inside each slice, making it tenderly wonderful.



Enjoy your meal!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2011 21:38

    Bought an 11-pounder yesterday and it went directly into the refrigerator to thaw. My greatest Thanksgiving food fear is that it won’t be thawed completely by Thursday morning. That happened the first year my husband and I were married and hosted the family meal. What a circus! Your post puts my mind at ease. Although if things don’t look good Wednesday night, I may risk spoilage and putting the bird on the countertop or at least in a tub of cold water…

    • November 20, 2011 22:30

      If it’s not all thawed, try repeatedly rinsing the inside of the turkey with cold water. This way it thaws from the “inside” as well, and may make things a little easier. Also, if the very center is a little too cold (right around freezing point), you can still just prepare it the same way – just add a little more to the cooking time.


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