With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, many of us have turned our thoughts to the holiday meal. We are dreaming about sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows or the traditional green bean casserole. For others, time with family and friends is most important as we enter the giving season. But for some, the ever-present thought of hosting Thanksgiving dinner and dealing with a turkey weighs heavy — especially if you are just beginning your holiday meal hosting journey.
There is so much anxiety about cooking the perfect turkey that Butterball started a Turkey Talk-Line more than 30 years ago! And it is open for business already this season. Nearly 100,000 people will connect with the Turkey Talk-Line this year over phone, social media, text, email, live chat and even Alexa. But with a little forethought and planning, you can remove a lot of that turkey anxiety and serve a beautiful and tasty Thanksgiving Day turkey.
The first decision to make is the size of turkey you need. For everyone to feel fully stuffed, plan for one to two pounds per person. If you want plenty of leftovers, lean more toward two pounds per person.
The most common turkey sold for Thanksgiving is frozen and readily available in your supermarket. It is imperative that you plan ahead if choosing to buy frozen. It will take one day for every five pounds of turkey for the bird to thaw safely in your refrigerator.
To thaw, leave the bird in its original packaging and place in on a baking sheet and thaw in your refrigerator. The baking sheet will catch any liquid that might escape during thawing. This is the safest method and is recommended by the USDA.
If you forget to put your turkey in the refrigerator in advance, you can thaw it safely using the cold water method. Leave the turkey in its original packaging and submerge it into a sink or large bowl of cold water. The cold water keeps the turkey at a safe temperature while it thaws. Change the water every 30 minutes to keep the bird in a safe temperature zone. This method will take 30 minutes per pound of turkey.
There are a few thawing procedures that might seem okay but are definitely not recommended because of food safety concerns and the potential of introducing harmful bacteria that could cause food-borne illness. Never set your turkey on the counter — inside or outside — to thaw. Never place a frozen turkey in hot water or under running hot water to thaw. Never use your hair dryer to thaw your turkey. All of these methods will thaw the outside of the bird much faster than the center. Once the outside rises above 40 degrees, it enters the temperature danger zone and the longer it sits at or above that temperature, the more likely bad bacteria will begin to grow.
If you are making stuffing for your meal, you might decide to stuff the cavity of your turkey. To be safe, always stuff a completely thawed turkey using cooked ingredients. If you use eggs as a stuffing binder, make sure they are pasteurized. Trying to cook raw stuffing inside the bird will introduce bacteria that could cause food-borne illness. Stuff your turkey just before roasting for this same reason. The stuffing should be 165 degrees in the center when cooked. Do not stuff a bird you plan to fry or cook on an outdoor fire or grill. These methods are faster than roasting and you will be left with a cooked bird and underdone stuffing.
Roast to a golden brown
After your turkey is completely thawed, remove the wrapping and place the bird on a baking sheet. The first thing to remember is to remove the giblets from the cavity. These will be in a small paper bag. Check the cavity near the legs and on the opposite end to make sure you remove everything. These extra parts include the neck, liver, gizzard, and heart. Keep these to add rich flavor to your gravy.
Pat the skin dry. You can also leave the bird in the refrigerator to dry out more. This will help crisp the skin during roasting. Allow the bird to come to room temperature before roasting. This helps with even cooking and should take no more than an hour.
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. While the oven is preheating, rub or inject your turkey and stuff it as desired. Place the turkey breast side up on a roasting rack set inside a roasting pan. Cook until the thickest part of the thigh reaches 165 degrees.
Transfer the turkey to a carving board or platter and let it rest for 30 minutes before carving so juices redistribute.
Cook from frozen
If you forget to thaw your turkey and wind up with a frozen or partially frozen bird on Thanksgiving morning, don’t panic. You can safely cook a frozen bird in your oven. It is not safe to cook a frozen bird in a deep fryer. You and your kitchen will deeply regret that decision. You won’t be able to use any brines, rubs or injections. Cooking a frozen turkey is as basic as it comes. It will take about 50 percent longer than normal to cook a bird from frozen.
Remove the wrapping and place your frozen bird in a roaster and into a cool oven. Turn the oven on and set it for 325 degrees. The turkey will cook as it thaws. The wings and drumsticks will cook faster, so you may want to cover these with foil when they are cooked through to prevent the skin from burning. Once the outside of the bird has thawed, you can rub it with butter or a spice rub as you wish.
An eight- to 12-pound turkey will take about four hours to cook while a larger 20-pound bird will take as much as seven hours to cook from frozen.