Turkey Tips

Nov 12th, 2013 | By | Category: blog, cook something, meat and poultry
Roast Turkey, Image from: butterballblog.wordpress.com

Roast Turkey, Image from: butterballblog.wordpress.com

There’s something about cooking a turkey that gives a lot of us the heebeegeebees. It’s not especially difficult, but because it is the centerpiece of many Thanksgiving and Christmas meals (when most of us prepare one), the stakes are high. Cook it too long and the meat can become dry, stringy and flavorless.  Undercook it and the skin is flabby, the fat will not have rendered properly, and…well…raw turkey could cause your guests to become ill. Ah, but when you get it right, the meat will be juicy, tender and explode with flavor. Everyone and their taste buds will be singing your praises. It’s gonna get noisy up in here!

To help you out, we’ve provided answers to the most common questions about cooking turkey in a long and (we  hope) thorough post. For your convenience, when you click on a question, you will be taken the corresponding answer. To return to the questions, just hit your “back” arrow/button:

What size turkey do I need for the number of people I’m planning to feed?

Most of us enjoy turkey, but don’t want to have so much leftover we’re eating it through year’s end. Conversely, we don’t want to skimp on servings on the big day because we bought an undersized fowl, or run out before everyone’s had their yearly fill of sleep-inducing tryptophan. So just how big should the holiday bird be for your soiree?

Caterers suggest having one pound of turkey for each guest at the table.

That’s not to say everyone’s going to pile a pound of white or dark on their plate at once (although some might). This amount also takes into account after dinner snacking throughout the evening for those who still have room for such things. In reality, what most of us are really after on Thanksgiving is a turkey sandwich. Last year at Field & Feast HQ, we skipped the big dinner altogether and went straight to sandwiches. We roasted a turkey and created a sandwich bar, with a variety of breads, fixings and appropriate sides, and our guests served themselves. Everyone loved the casual vibe and being in charge of the destiny of their sammies.

NOTE: Lots of folks only like white meat. If that sounds like your guests, and it doesn’t bust your holiday meal budget, you might also cook up an additional turkey breast so everyone who wants white meat will be able to have some.

What’s the best way and length of time to thaw a frozen turkey?

Thawing your Thanksgiving turkey before cooking it is imperative if you have any hope of presenting a properly cooked bird, and one that gets to the dinner table before your guests start eying the family pet as a tasty alternative to poultry. We like to buy fresh turkeys in order to skip thawing (and because we like more immediate gratification), but not every grocery store offers that option. Just remember to give your bird enough time to thaw before the big day.

In the fridge: You can easily thaw a turkey in the refrigerator; just remember if you also intend to brine the bird, you need to factor that time in as well, and get your turkey out of the freezer in enough time to both thaw and then brine. How to: Keep the bird in its shrink wrap plastic covering and place it in a baking pan or rimmed sheet pan breast side up. You’ll need approximately 24 hours of thaw time (that’s one full day) for every four pounds of bird.

Turkey Weight

Time in Fridge to Thaw

10 pounds 2 days 12 hours
12 pounds 3 days
15 pounds 3 days 18  hours
20 pounds 5 days

In water: Okay, so you didn’t get your turkey out of the freezer in enough time to thaw it slowly in the refrigerator (or you bought it at the last minute) — these things happen. There is a way to speed the process, but it takes more of your time: submerge it in cold water. How to: You will need a large insulated cooler, or other food safe container  that can accommodate the size turkey you have. Fill the container with cold water, and place your turkey — still sealed in its plastic wrap — breast side down. You’ll need to change the water every 30 minutes to keep the meat properly chilled. Again, the table below offers approximate times. And as with the refrigerator thawed bird, if you are also planning to brine  your turkey, you need to start thawing the bird up to a couple of days before you are planning to cook it to accommodate brine time.

Turkey Weight

Time in Water to Thaw

10 pounds 5 hours
12 pounds 6 hours
15 pounds 7 hours and 30 minutes
20 pounds 10 hours

What’s better — brining or salting a turkey?

If you want to brine or salt your holiday turkey before cooking it — have at it. Both techniques return results that provide a modicum of insurance your entree will be juicier and more tender than a typical roasted bird — but not always  by much. Plus, in the case of brining, your turkey might actually end up being less flavorful.

Brining turkeys before cooking is popular among home cooks as a way to theoretically ensure juicy, flavorful meat. Brining involves submerging the bird in liquid saturated with salt. Cooks also add other flavorings to the brine, such as stock, sugar, herbs and additional seasonings, to ostensibly turn the flavor up several notches.   The good news is brined birds do hold onto more juices, but the bad news is those juices usually taste like the salt water from whence they came.

Juicy, brined turkeys can actually taste less like turkey than the dried out turkey cooks are trying to avoid. True story. Still interested? Continue reading.

How to brine your bird: You’ll need a food safe container — or super sized self-sealing plastic storage bag — large enough to accommodate the size turkey you have. If you are using a container such as a cooler or bucket, you will need a supply of ice to keep the bird cold, and the container needs to provide the turkey enough room for you to rotate it in the salty water once or twice during the process. If you are using a bag, you just need a pan or baking dish to put it in, and some real estate in your refrigerator; you or your designee must be willing to rotate the turkey and bag several times during the brining process. You will also need enough brine to cover the turkey completely when it is in your container of choice. It’s recommended to brine your turkey from over night to 72 hours. It depends on the brine recipe you decide to use.

How much salt do you use in a brine depends the kind of salt you use. Ideally, you will use Kosher salt as it is more pure than standard issue table salt — and especially more pure than iodized table salt. Table salt, even when not iodized, has additives in it that prevent caking. Do you really want iodine and additives in your brine? Didn’t think so. Another consideration is weight of salt. Many brine recipes tell you to add 1 cup of salt to 1 gallon of water.  That’s true if you’re using table salt, which weighs 10 ounces per cup. Kosher salt is much lighter — and there is variation in weight between the two most popular Kosher salts on the market. We’ve put together the following table for your use:

Type of Salt

Amount to use

Non-iodized table salt 1 cup per gallon of water
Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt 2 cups per gallon of water
Morton Kosher Salt 1 1/2 cups per gallon of water

You may reduce the amount of salt for your brine by 25% if sodium is a health concern for you or a family member. Need a brine recipe? The Food Network website has an  interesting selection from which to choose.

An alternative to brining is salting your turkey. Salting turkeys  is said to promote a juicier, more flavorful bird. It involves sprinkling the skin of the turkey with Kosher salt, making it look like a lovely dusting of snow. Place the salted fowl on a rimmed baking sheet, and cover it with plastic wrap or muslin, and slide it into the refrigerator overnight. The salt will pull moisture from the meat, which will eventually be sucked back through the skin and into the muscles, taking the salt with it. This osmotic action does not add any additional liquid to the meat. While a salted turkey may not be as juicy as a brined bird, because the flavor has not been diluted with additional water, it tends to be juicier than a non-salted fowl, and tastes more like turkey than salt water. To cook a salted bird, remove it from the refrigerator and wipe the salt from the skin — or leave it on if you like salty, crispy skin — and cook as you would  normally.

Can I make gravy from the pan drippings of a brined or salted turkey?

Great question. You get an unequivocal “yes” when it comes to making gravy from the pan drippings of salted turkeys. Why? Because you have used a very small fraction of the salt that’s normally used in brines; the turkey does not soak for a day or more in salty water, absorbing sodium. Which is why we advise if you decide to use pan drippings from a brined turkey: proceed with caution. The additional salt  from the brine mixes with the drippings. In addition, during the cooking process, the saltiness becomes more concentrated as the liquids evaporate. Some cooks suggest rinsing the bird in cold water BEFORE cooking to release some of the salt on the surface of the skin. Others suggest brining a fresh, not frozen turkey (or a locally raised bird), as frozen turkeys are often injected with a sodium solution prior to the big chill (read labels). When a home cook brines a previously frozen turkey, they are adding salt on top of salt. Does this mean no gravy for you?

All is not lost. Go ahead and use rendered fat from the brined bird and some flour to make a roux, and then add sodium free or low sodium chicken stock, or make homemade sodium free turkey stock from the neck and giblets. You’ll still get some of that rich, delicious turkey flavor in the gravy with much less salt. You’re welcome.

How do I roast a whole turkey?

Even if you’re not a fan of turkey, there’s no denying its show-stopping appeal when a whole cooked bird with crisp, glistening, golden to mahogany colored skin, is paraded in front of guests before being taken back into the kitchen for carving, or is carved tableside.

A traditional way to cook turkey is to roast it whole; roasting is dry-heat cooking. The technique is just as it sounds: you use hot, dry air to cook your food (and, no, your blow dryer is not a good tool for this purpose – but you could use it to dry up excess moisture from the bird’s cavity). You can also deep fry your turkey, which provides a crisp skin and juicy meat in half the time as roasting (but can be dangerous if you do not know what you are doing), or you can grill or smoke your turkey, which imparts a wonderful flavor and leaves the oven free for your side dishes. We’re just focusing on roasting.  How to: You will need a roasting pan large enough to accommodate your turkey, a rack or something to raise it above the bottom of the pan so it does not stew in its own juices as it cooks (if you do not have a rack, you can fill the bottom of the pan with root vegetables and set the bird on top of those), and an instant read thermometer.

Be sure your thermometer is accurate. CLICK HERE for instructions on calibrating an analog instant read thermometer.

Set the oven at 500° F, dry the turkey of excess moisture inside and out using paper towels. You dry the bird because you do not want to steam the meat, you want to roast it. Place it on the rack in the roasting pan breast side up.  Salt and pepper the cavity, and rub or brush cooking oil (canola olive, walnut, or pecan are all good choices) on the bird’s skin. If you are not stuffing the bird, consider placing aromatics inside the cavity, such as sliced apples and onions, sage, thyme, garlic or rosemary. Doing this “perfumes” the meat from the inside. Place the turkey in the oven UNCOVERED on the lowest rack and cook for 30 minutes at 500° F. After 30 minutes, reduce the heat to 350° F and continue roasting, removing the bird from the oven every 45 minutes to baste with its juices — using a spoon or a baster. When you put the turkey back into the oven rotate the pan: if the neck end was originally closest to the left side of the oven wall, when you put it back in after basting, the neck end should be closest to the right side of the oven wall. This helps to take into account any hot spots in your oven, and allows the turkey to cook more evenly. During the last 45 minutes of cooking, consider tenting the bird with aluminum foil to keep the breast skin from getting too brown. Remove the bird when an instant read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast reads 160° F. Remove the bird from the oven and let it rest. It will continue to cook, and the temperature will rise to the government’s recommended safe temperature for turkey, which is 165° F.

NOTE: Some cooks remove their turkeys from the fridge and let them sit on the counter for an hour or two before cooking; this won’t cause any health concerns. The idea is to bring the bird to room temperature so it cooks more quickly. However, because of the mass of most turkeys, you’d have to leave it out at least four hours to take off the chill — and that is not advised.  In an hour or so, the outer half inch to an inch only reaches room temperture-ish, so it’s not a huge advantage — plus it takes up precious counter space you need for prepping the rest of the meal.

To stuff or not to stuff — that is the question.

What’s turkey without stuffing? That wonderful bready filling, saturated with the savory juices of your holiday bird is heaven — until it makes someone sick.  The challenges of  cooking a stuffed bird is getting the stuffing to reach the food safe temperature of the cooked turkey — 165° F. It generally takes longer to reach that temperature, and by the time it does, you have overcooked the meat. As the stuffing ingredients were imbued with the raw turkey juices when you first introduced it into the cavity, if you do not allow it to reach a safe temperature, you could be subjecting your family and guests to some gastrointestinal distress or worse. One suggestion is to cook the stuffing in advance, bringing it to at least 145° F before spooning it into the raw bird, giving it a big head start. We recommend simply cooking it outside of the turkey, at which time it is renamed dressing. It is still delicious, and it is safe.

Of course, if you want to stuff your bird, by all means do. Just remember to: Use cooked ingredients in your stuffing; stuff your turkey just before cooking, not the night before; and stuff both the neck and body cavities of a completely thawed turkey.

To help you with cooking times of a stuffed bird, we offer the following chart:

Stuffed

Unstuffed

8 to 12 pounds 3 to 3 1/2 hours 8 to 12 pounds 2 3/4 to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 1/2 to 4 hours 12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3 3/4 hours
14 to 18 pounds 4 to 4 1/4 hours 14 to 18 pounds 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours 18 to 20 pounds 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
20 to 24 pounds 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours 20 to 24 pounds 4 1/2 to 5 hours

What is the best way to carve a turkey?

While we love those Norman Rockwell moments of watching the turkey being carved tableside, with thin slices of breast meat being cut away from the whole, it’s a little cumbersome, and leaves diners waiting quite awhile before its their turn for turkey. There is another way to carve a turkey that is easier, and does not involve performance anxiety for  carver.  Do bring the fully cooked bird out to the table to impress your guests, and then shuttle it back into the kitchen where you can make short work of it. This is something best seen than explained, and so I allow Alton Brown of The Food Network do the honors.

What can I do with leftover turkey?

There are worse problems to have than leftover turkey. Of course you can make turkey sandwiches, a favorite of turkey lovers everywhere. But I will leave suggestions for using up the holiday bird to our friends at Allrecipes.com. Their community of cooks have come up with some creative and delicious options for using up that turkey in so many way you will wonder why you only eat it once a year.

LEFTOVER TURKEY RECIPES FROM ALL RECIPES

We welcome you to add your tips and tricks for preparing great tasting turkey, or even your turkey alternative. Also let us know the side dishes you like to serve with your turkey. Until then…

Wishing you a wonderful holiday season
filled with family, friends,and great tasting turkey.

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2 comments
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  1. yes! This is great, Cecilia – thank you!
    i think i will salt instead of brine. :)

  2. Thanks, Miranda. Let us know how it works for you. Salting is going to be the route we take this year, too.
    Cecilia

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