On any big holiday, the bird is the word. Your centerpiece protein, your turkey de résistance, the masterpiece by which extended family will judge you for generations to come. They'll chatter about your side dishes, and they'll swoon over your pie, but that turkey will inspire gossip for years to come.
Got a holiday get-together on the horizon? Start with a tactical plan that will end with a mission success - that perfect, golden-brown turkey that's crispy on the outside and moist on the inside.
How Big a Turkey Do You Need?
The size of your turkey depends on the number of guests you expect at your feast. You should plan for about 1 to 1.5 pounds of turkey for every person you need to feed. For example, if you have 10 people, you need a 10-pound bird at the minimum, and a 15-pound bird if you want to be safe.
Do you love turkey soup, or delicious sandwiches for the week after you roast a bird? Buy a bigger turkey. Don't forget you can freeze the meat for a quick addition to stews and casseroles later!
Where to Get Your Turkey
You have a couple of options for buying your turkey. The easiest is the most obvious: hit your local grocery store. There, you can fish around in the poultry display, stub your finger at least once against a frozen bird, and locate your holiday dinner. (Don't forget to come back a few days after a major holiday to pick up another turkey on the cheap.)
There are other alternatives, though. Many smaller markets, local farms, and online retailers will sell you a bird that may better align with what you want. Options include:
- Fresh turkey. Some people prefer to acquire a fresh, unfrozen turkey. They believe the lack of freezer time retains more flavor. Others find the difference negligible. Your personal taste is most important here.
- Free range. Turkeys not raised in cages. Most were reared in an environment that allowed them to graze on the grass or grain in their enclosure. This is often considered a healthier, more humane animal husbandry practice.
- Organic. A cousin to the free-range practice, since the U.S.D.A. mandates that all turkeys with the "organic" label be raised free range. They must also be fed an organic, vegetarian diet that didn't utilize pesticides. No antibiotics, either.
- Kosher. Birds that were raised and killed within Jewish standards for kosher meat. This process includes salting, so you don't need to brine or season your kosher turkey. Some people might find them a little too salty.
- Self-basting. These turkeys come ready to conveniently flavor themselves while they cook. They've had butter or oil, probably some herbs or spices, and maybe preservatives injected into them. The label might not say "self-basting", so check the ingredients for non-turkey ingredients.
- Heritage and wild turkeys. The turkeys you buy at your supermarket come from a variety called the Broad Breasted White. These have been bred to grow with more breast meat, and they have significant divergences from older breeds. Some places will sell you a heritage turkey from breeds, such as the Narragansett or Norfolk Black turkey, that call back to wild turkeys. These have a much gamier flavor than store-bought birds.
Wild turkeys are a do-it-yourself proposition. Generally, you'll need to go hunt one yourself, or you'll need to connect with a hunter who will do it for you.
Check with your turkey suppliers for their deadlines regarding orders. They will probably require at least three weeks, if not a month or more.
What Equipment You Need to Cook a Turkey
Stores love to tempt holiday chefs with the latest turkey tech, but you can turn out a moist, delicious turkey with a bare minimum of equipment. You need:
- A roasting pan. Minimalist sorts, or those without much kitchen storage space, can get away with a disposable aluminum roasting pan. Otherwise, buy a roasting pan you can use year after year. A rack in the roasting pan will make it easier to lift out the turkey to rest or to carve. Alternately, line the bottom of the pan with chopped vegetables like carrots, onions, and potatoes. They'll both act like a rack and taste fantastic.
- An instant-read digital thermometer. If you invest in one piece of fancy equipment for your holiday meal, the instant-read digital thermometer is the way to go. You can use this throughout the year for other meals, and it will help you ensure your turkey is cooked to a safe temperature.
Thawing Your Turkey
Assuming you have purchased a turkey from the local grocery store, you will need to thaw it before you can roast it. This is best done in your refrigerator to inhibit bacterial growth. You should plan for 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey. If you intend to brine it, add an extra day.
Should you forget to take your turkey out of the freezer on time, you can speed up the process with a cold water bath. Place your turkey in cold water (never use warm water for safety reasons). Change the water every half hour until the turkey has finished thawing. This will take about 30 minutes per pound.
You can roast a partially frozen turkey. You can even roast an entirely frozen turkey. It will take longer, and you'll miss out on the opportunity for pre-roast flavoring, but that turkey will make its dinner debut.
Brining and Seasoning Your Turkey
You do not have to brine your turkey. Cooked right, it will still come out a culinary win. Brining can improve flavor and texture, though, and only requires a bit of extra effort.
A wet brine involves submerging your turkey in a saltwater solution. It will need to be kept at a safe temperature for the duration of the brining process. This means you will either need to keep it in the refrigerator, or in a cooler whose temperature you check often to ensure it remains within safe parameters (26 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, or -3 to 4 degrees Celcius).
Dry brining is easier and less messy. Use about .5 teaspoons of kosher salt per pound of turkey along with whatever aromatic herbs you prefer. Some people also add a bit of white or brown sugar to improve browning and add a little sweetness - up to one-quarter the amount of salt you used. Rub this spice mixture all over your turkey. Put it in the refrigerator for at least an hour or up to three days. You don't have to cover the turkey.
Don't wash your turkey before you brine! Washing a turkey spreads germs and bacteria over the surface of your sink. Just unwrap your bird, locate the packet of giblets (they could be in the body cavity, the neck cavity, or under the neck flap), and pat it dry.
Want extra flavor? Make herb butter. Use one stick of butter, plus your favorite herbs, and mix them until you have a spreadable paste. Rub that paste under the turkey's skin just before you roast it.
You can cook stuffing, or dressing, inside your turkey or outside of it in casserole dishes. While traditionalists may prefer the interior method, it does have drawbacks. Stuffed turkeys take longer to reach a safe temperature. This can leave parts of the turkey overdone and dry. You must ensure the center of the stuffing reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit (about 74 degrees Celsius).
An alternate technique involves stuffing your turkey with quartered fruits, such as apples, oranges, and lemons, along with a quartered onion and aromatic herbs. This both boosts your turkey's smell appeal and allows it to finish more quickly. It also mitigates the chances of unsafe stuffing.
If you don't stuff your turkey, you don't need to truss the legs together. Should you choose to put either stuffing or aromatics in your turkey, take butcher's twine and tie the drumsticks together at the ends so the turkey's precious cargo stays in place.
Turkey, meet hot oven. This is where you bring it all together. Before you reach this step, you should have made all the decisions about stuffing and seasoning, you should know how long to thaw and cook your turkey, and you should have all your equipment collected.
You'll need about two cups of liquid for the bottom of the pan. You can use turkey or chicken broth, vegetable broth, water, hard apple cider, or wine to add to the broth or water. This helps prevent your drippings from burning.
Some cooks like to baste the turkey every 30 to 45 minutes while it cooks. To do so, take the turkey out of the oven (don't forget to close the door so the heat stays in!), set it on a protected surface or stovetop, and use a brush, spoon, or baster to drizzle drippings over it. During the last 30-45 minutes of cooking, you can use melted butter to baste the turkey for a crispier skin and nicer brown.
You should plan on cooking your turkey for 13 minutes per pound. Your turkey will need to reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit in three places: the thickest part of the outer thigh, the inner thigh, and the thickest part of the breast. If at any time the skin on the turkey looks like it's browning too much, you can tent aluminum foil over it to protect it while the meat cooks to temperature.
Once it has finished roasting, it will need at least 20 minutes. 45 minutes is better. You don't have to tent it to keep it warm. An entire turkey cools quite slowly.
Your Tactical Turkey Timeline
Now we put it all together in one, cohesive battle plan that will result in a perfect bird served to your hungry guests.
One Week Before
- Decide what day you need to start defrosting the turkey. Calculate 24 hours for every 5 pounds, and a day or more for dry brining. Consider adding one more day just to be safe.
- Make room in your refrigerator for the turkey. If you're dry brining, ensure you have enough room to accommodate whatever container the turkey will sit on.
- Add an alert to your phone to remind you that you need to take the turkey out of the freezer.
- Plan what time you will need to start cooking your turkey to have it finished on time. Don't forget that it will need to rest for at least 15 minutes!
Several Days Before - Thawing Day
- Take your wrapped turkey out of the freezer and place it into the convenient spot you made in your fridge.
- Plan your brine and seasonings. Are you wet brining? Dry brining? Will you make herb butter?
Two or Three Days Before - Seasoning Day
- Remove your turkey from the packaging. Do not wash it.
- Remove the packet of giblets from the bird.
- Pat your turkey dry.
- Make your chosen brine. If dry brining, mix your kosher salt, herbs, and sugar, and rub the mixture all over the turkey. Place it uncovered in the refrigerator.
Day Of Cooking - Several Hours Before Roasting
- If you are making herb butter, set the sticks of butter on the counter to soften so they are easier to work with.
- Once the butter is soft, make your herb butter. You can use a fork, a potato masher, or a hand mixer to combine your herbs and the butter. Leave this mixture on the counter so it remains easy to work with.
- If you are roasting your turkey on vegetables, cut the vegetables into chunks and lay them on the baking sheet in a single, thick layer.
- If you are stuffing your turkey with fruits, herbs, and onions, cut these and store in a bowl.
- If you intend to use stuffing in your turkey, prepare it according to the package directions or your preferred recipe.
Day of Cooking - At Least an Hour Before Roasting
- Take your turkey out of the refrigerator or brine. Do not rinse it! Leave the salt in place for flavoring.
- Set your turkey breast side up on the baking sheet's rack, or on the layer of vegetables you prepared.
- Carefully lift the skin of the turkey and rub your herb butter all over the breast meat. Use the extra butter as a rub over the top of the skin if you can do so without disturbing your salt and seasonings.
- Stuff your turkey if you intend to. If you stuff it, use butcher's twine to tie the drumsticks together at the ends.
- Allow your turkey to sit on the counter for an hour to come to room temperature. It will still be cool to the touch when you roast it, but this step helps ensure an even roast and a faster cooking time.
- Preheat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit (about 233 Celcius). Ensure the cooking rack is in the lower third of the oven.
Day of Cooking - Go Time
- Place your turkey into the oven. Turn down the oven heat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (about 177 degrees Celsius).
- Allow your turkey to roast for about 13 minutes per pound. For example, a 15-pound turkey will need about 195 minutes, or 3.25 hours.
- Every 45 minutes, baste your turkey with the juices from the pan. For the last basting, consider using butter (or even oil).
- Use basting sessions to test the turkey's temperature, starting at about halfway through the cooking time. Test the temperature in the thickest part of the outer thigh, at the inner thigh (about where the leg meets the body), and the thickest part of the breast. It should reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius).
- When the turkey reaches the right temperature, set it on a prepared surface. Use the rack if you used one, or some sturdy kitchen implements, to tip the juice out of the turkey's cavity. Then set the bird aside to rest. You can use those drippings to make gravy in the meantime.
Talking Turkey - Rest of the Meal
The turkey might hold pride of place in your feast, but it's probably not the only thing you'll eat. Use this tactical plan as the framework around which you build the rest of your cooking plan. Now that you know what your centerpiece dish needs, you can add side dishes and desserts with confidence. Happy feasting!