Turkey 411: All the basics for cooking your Thanksgiving bird

11/27/2013 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 11:13 AM

The big day is almost here. Here’s what you need to know to get the turkey on the table.

How much turkey?

Plan on buying 1 pound of bird for every guest, including children, to have enough for dinner and some leftovers. If you want a lot of leftovers, figure 1 1 / 2 pounds per person.

Thawing the bird

The easiest way is to thaw in the refrigerator (40 degrees or below). The USDA recommends allowing 24 hours of thaw time for every 4 to 5 pounds of bird: 4 to 12 pounds, 1 to 3 days; 12 to 16 pounds, 3 to 4 days; 16 to 20 pounds, 4 to 5 days; 20 to 24 pounds, 5 to 6 days.

Keep the turkey in its original wrapper and place it on a tray to catch drips. A properly thawed turkey will keep 1 to 2 days in the refrigerator before cooking.

If you bought a frozen turkey, you already should be defrosting it (in the refrigerator, please).

If you are short on time or forgot until today, you can thaw a turkey in cold water, but this method still takes some time and more attention than the refrigerator method (not to mention taking up the kitchen sink for hours). Place the bird in its wrapper in a sink filled with cold tap water. Change water every half-hour to make sure it stays cold. Thaw times using this method are approximately 30 minutes per pound: 4 to 12 pounds, 2 to 6 hours; 12 to 16 pounds, 6 to 8 hours; 16 to 20 pounds, 8 to 10 hours; 20 to 24 pounds, 10 to 12 hours.

Never thaw a turkey at room temperature.

Prepping the bird

Once the turkey is thawed, unwrap it and remove the neck and giblets from inside, rinse it and pat it dry with paper towels. Save the neck and giblets for making broth for gravy.

At this point, you may want to consider one of two methods for producing a juicy bird, brining or salting (dry-brining).

Brining is essentially soaking the bird in a salt water solution. The turkey pulls in the liquid, which will help keep it moist while it cooks. Be forewarned: Brined turkeys can have a pinkish cast to the meat after roasting, even when cooked properly.

For a basic brine, “How to Cook a Turkey” (by the editors of Fine Cooking,) recommends this method: 2 quarts of cold water, 1 cup of kosher salt and 1/4 cup of sugar. Simmer over high heat until salt and sugar dissolve. Cool. Stir in another 2 quarts of water and chill in refrigerator. At this point, you can add herbs, spices or other flavor enhancers like maple syrup. Soak the turkey in the brine in the refrigerator for 12 to 18 hours. Turkey roasting bags work well for this, and you may want to double-bag for security. Place turkey in the bags in a roasting pan in the refrigerator. When it’s time to cook, drain and discard the brine, rinse the turkey and dry with paper towels, and it’s ready for the oven.

To dry-brine or salt a turkey, simply salt the bird all over, inside and out, and let stand in the refrigerator overnight. Drain any liquid that has accumulated in the cavity and pat dry before roasting.

To stuff or not to stuff

This is the cook’s preference. Some argue that unstuffed turkeys cook more evenly. Others believe the stuffing tastes better when cooked inside the bird and imparts its flavors to the bird.

A stuffed turkey will take longer to roast and it is crucial that the stuffing reach 165 degrees when tested on a cooking thermometer. Stuffing can be cooked in a casserole or foil pouches outside of the bird. Remember to stuff the cavity loosely; you don’t want to pack in as much as you can.

If you don’t stuff, you can fill the cavity with chunks of celery, carrot, onion and herbs or even citrus fruits to add more flavor.

Getting it in the oven

Your bird is stuffed and ready to go. If you haven’t brined or dry-brined, now is when you want to season. Give the bird a rubdown with softened butter, both under the skin and on top of it. Salt and pepper the bird and add any herbs or seasonings.

You can truss the bird, tying its legs together with butcher’s twine, tucking the wings under it, and running the twine along the back of the bird to roast it in a nice neat package. This step isn’t necessary, but it does help to keep the turkey together, particularly if you want to carve it at the table. Untrussed birds cook just as well, and may cook faster.

Place the bird in a roasting pan (with rack or without) breast side up. Add a little water to the bottom of the pan. You can tent it with foil, which will help to keep in the heat and cook the bird more quickly. Remove the foil for browning later.

Another option is a roasting bag. Purists will argue that a bird in a bag isn’t roasting as much as steaming. The bag does keep the heat in and turkeys roasted in bags will cook faster than those in an open roaster, so they are a good option if time is an issue. Bags also collect a great amount of juices from the bird, which means more gravy, but you won’t get the caramelized pan scrapings prized for adding rich flavor to gravy.

Set the oven to 325 degrees and in it goes.

How long till it’s done?

Some cooks argue you should never open the oven door until the turkey is done. Others baste every hour. The choice is a personal one, and success can be found with both methods.

Mostly, for the next several hours, you will simply wait for the turkey to reach the proper level of doneness. For this you need a meat thermometer. Do not rely on the little plastic pop-up device that may come with the bird. In fact, it is perfectly acceptable to remove it and discard it before roasting. A thermometer keeps you from eating a potentially harmful undercooked turkey, or an overcooked, dried-out bird.

The bird is safe when meat and stuffing both reach 165 degrees. The white meat will be more tender if the bird reaches 170 in the breast and 180 degrees deep in the thigh.

Here is the USDA’s guide for approximate roasting times:


4 to 8 pounds (breast), 1 1/2 to 3 1/4 hours; 8 to 12 pounds, 2 3/4 to 3 hours; 12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3 3/4 hours; 14 to 18 pounds, 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours; 18 to 20 pounds, 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours 20 to 24 pounds, 4 1/2 to 5 hours.


6 to 8 pounds (breast), 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours; 8 to 12 pounds, 3 to 3 1/2 hours; 12 to 14 pounds, 3 1/2 to 4 hours; 14 to 18 pounds, 4 to 4 1/4 hours; 18 to 20 pounds, 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours; 20 to 24 pounds, 4 3/4 to 51/4 hours

When the turkey is done, remove it from the oven and place it on the countertop, loosely covered with foil. Let it rest for about 20 minutes. Remove trussing and all stuffing from cavity before carving.


At Thanksgiving, more than any other holiday, help is just a click or phone call away. Here are hotline numbers and websites to help get your bird on the table:

• www.butterball.com or 800-BUTTERBALL (800-288-8372). Lines are open today from 5 a.m. PST to 8 p.m.; on Thanksgiving, help will be available starting at 4 a.m. PST until 4 p.m.
• www.honeysucklewhite.com or 800-810-6325 for pre-recorded info; at 800-532-5756 to speak with a consumer specialist. Live help is not available on Thanksgiving Day.
•  www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/poultry-preparation/lets-talk-turkey USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 888-MPHotline (888-674-6854).
•  Need some assistance in the kitchen? We’re here to help. The Bee’s website features two dozen how-to videos that can provide answers to an assortment of culinary conundrums that may arise this week, including how to best carve a turkey or create the perfect caramel truffle. Go to www.sacbee.com/foodwine to check out what we’ve got cookin’.

And beyond the turkey

• Crisco Pie Hotline, (877) 367-7438 (until 4 p.m. PST today) or crisco.com.
• King Arthur Flour Co. Baker’s Hotline, (855) 371-BAKE (2253), open today until 6 p.m. PST, or see or go to kingarthurflour.com/contact.

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