Here are some tips for cooking your Thanksgiving turkey:
- Determine the turkey size: To determine the right size for your needs, start with 1¼ pounds of turkey per person. If you have hearty eaters and/or want to have significant leftovers, plan on more than that (1½ – 2 lbs. per person). If you are cooking for a very large crowd, consider cooking two smaller turkeys rather than one huge one.
- Consider Brining ahead of time: Brining creates a succulent and savory meat that is moist and can be cooked perfectly. However, you do need to start the brining process 12-24 hours before serving time (depending on turkey size). First, make sure the turkey is thawed and ready to cook–giblets are removed from the neck cavity. Then, brine. Here is what I do: I use 1/3 cup sugar and 1/3 cup table salt to ½ gallon water and stir until it is all dissolved. Adjust the quantity to make sure you have enough to cover the bird with the brine. I have a chest cooler I use for brining. (I just bleach it out when I am done.) To keep the bird safely cold while brining, I use half-gallon plastic jugs filled with water and frozen. I put them in with the bird and brine. This is better than ice to keep the temperature safely cold, as it does not dilute the solution as it thaws, as blocks of ice would. I always have a variety of different-sized jugs sitting in my freezer. I brine my turkeys for about 12 hours. I recommend at least 8 hours for smaller birds, up to 24 hours for larger ones. After the brining period, rinse the turkey well. I often do this in the same cooler so I don’t slop raw poultry liquid around the kitchen. Don’t salt the bird before you roast it. Remember, it has been sitting in salt for hours. Only use the brine once as it loses its potency. (For food safety, always discard after use and clean brining container well. Do not use this brining liquid for anything else.)
- Decide upon Flavoring: Now it is up to you to decide how you want to do to flavor the bird. I prefer turkey as-is. I may throw a little sage in the cavity and I definitely season the bird with freshly-cracked pepper, but I like the turkey to taste like turkey. The main reason for this is the leftovers. If you season the bird heavily and give it a pronounced taste (with herbs or citrus, etc.), you end up with leftover turkey that tastes like that. Anything you make with the leftover meat will have that taste, too. Also, often times on the Thanksgiving meal table, there is so much else going on flavor-wise. It is okay to let the taste of the turkey speak for itself.
- Roast the Turkey: Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Put the turkey breast-side-up in a roasting pan or any other pan that will collect the juices that escape from the turkey during the cooking process. Just remember when choosing the pan, you need to be able to take the pan out of the oven after the turkey is done cooking without pouring juice everywhere, so high sides are better. Place your bird in the oven and roast for 30-40 minutes until golden brown. Reduce the heat to 350ºF and continue cooking until the temperature in the thickest part of the breast meat near the breast bone reaches 165ºF, when checked with an instant-read thermometer. If the skin starts to get a little too dark for your liking, place a piece of tinfoil on top to protect it a little bit, deflecting the heat.
- Make your Dressing/Stuffing: I do not put dressing into my turkey. I roast my turkeys empty because it’s easier to cook the turkey to perfection. (By the time the stuffing is safely hot, the turkey will be over-cooked.) I prefer to make and cook dressing separately. But the topic of dressing is a whole other blog, too.
- Let the Meat Rest: After you have taken the turkey out of the oven, let it sit for one quarter of the time it cooked. So if you cooked the turkey for three hours, let it sit for 45 minutes. This allows the muscle fibers a chance to relax and the juices a chance to redistribute from the interior of the muscle where they were chased by the heat to the outside edges where they belong, making every bite of your bird juicy. I do not worry that the meat is not right-out-of-the-oven piping hot. I just don’t let it get really cold. I make sure the plates are warm, the gravy is piping hot and the mashed potatoes steam as they slide off the spoon onto your plate.
- Carve the Turkey: To carve the turkey (which I do in the kitchen), I begin by slicing each whole breast lobe away from the breastbone. Next, I cut the thigh and leg away from the backbone, including the “oyster.” I cut apart the thighs and legs, and then cut the bone out of each thigh and remove any skin. Typically, I do not serve much of the skin attached to each piece, although I do include some on the platter so that people who like it may take it. Once I have these nice pieces of meat I slice them thinly. After slicing thinly, I slice large pieces of the breast in half. The smaller pieces from the leg and thigh I leave whole, rather than making them look chopped. The goal is to allow people to take the amount they wish, which may be just a small piece.
- Enjoy your Thanksgiving!