Thanksgiving is almost here again! Are you ready to cook a turkey? Maybe this is the first time you are hosting, and you are wondering How to Cook a Turkey for Thanksgiving. Perhaps you are a veteran and looking for a new tips. Whatever your experience might be, I have been cooking turkeys for a few years, and more times than not, my turkeys turn out moist and delicious.
Ok, there were a couple times when the wild turkey I cooked turned out dry, but I firmly believe that it was the turkeys fault….right? I mean, wild turkey is not a Butterball turkey! I digress; this is a subject for a future blog post.
Thawing Your Frozen Turkey
Probably one of the biggest mistakes people make is the initial preparation of your turkey. You have to remember: these suckers are FROZEN solid, and you need to give your bird enough time to thaw out. I really didn’t talk about that last year in my article titled “Thanksgiving Cooking Tips and Failures,” but it is a big deal.
You have to give the bird enough time to thaw out. According to the USDA, there are two methods for safety thawing your turkey out: refrigerator thawing and cold water bath thawing.
I have used both methods, but I tend to use the cold water bath thawing method most.
- Plan ahead: allow approximately 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 °F or below.
- Place the turkey in a container to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods. This will also help contain any mess from a thawing bird. After all, thawing ice creates water, which can mix with blood in the bird and make a massive mess in the bottom of your refrigerator.
Cold Water Bath Thawing
- First be sure the turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing water, resulting in a watery turkey.
- Submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed.
- 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
Given the day this article is posted, if you are not thawing your bird in the refrigerator already, you will need to thaw the bird with the cold water bath.
Preparing the Turkey
Once you thaw out your bird, it is time to continue the prep work. Here are some things you should do:
- Remove the package of organs and neck. We USED to throw them away, but last time we made turkey (a couple weeks ago), I put the organ meat and neck into the stockpot to make the turkey soup’s base. I was talking with my friends Chris and Lauren at Yellow Hutch Farm, and they encouraged us to use those pieces parts in our soup. After giving it a try, we will use those parts to create the base from now on.
- STOP RIGHT THERE! UPDATED IN 2019: I used to rinse off the turkey and clean the internal cavity at this point. There has been research about poultry and the results indicate that rinsing off turkeys at this point can spread salmonella and campylobacte, which are two common causes of food poisoning. This happens as germs from the raw turkey are spread around the kitchen from our sinks, utensils and hands. We certainly do not want food poisoning from our awesome turkey dinner! For more information about NOT rinsing off the turkey prior to cooking it, check out the AP article dated November 27, 2019.
Special thanks to Bill Busse for his comments on this post in the MN-WI Get Stuff Done Group on Facebook. Click this text to join that group. I appreciate his comments that improve the quality of this article!
Brining the Turkey
Sometimes you do everything right and the white meat from the bird is just dry. One way to help with the “dry white meat” problem is to brine the turkey for 24 hours prior to cooking. That means soaking the turkey in a liquid solution (liquid + spices = yummy turkey). Brining the turkey will add a juice to your bird, and it will add some flavor to the meat as well.
I was inspired by Jack Spirko from The Survival Podcast about brining a bird prior to cooking it. Jack swears by it, and my friend Jay (Mr. Tactical) swears by it as well. I must defer to Jack Spirko for his Turkey Brine Recipe.
Mix these spices per gallon of water
- 1 Cup Salt
- 1 Cup Brown Sugar
- Handful of Black Peppercorns (whole)
- Small Handful of Whole Mustard Seed
- 4-6 Bay Leaves
- 8 Sage Leaves (1tbs dry)
- 2-4 Star Anise
- Small Handful of Whole Coriander
Note: this Brine Recipe is PER GALLON of water. So, if you have a 3 gallons of water, multiply all ingredients by 3!
Make enough brine to cover the bird completely. Mr. Tactical Jay soaked his bird in a clean, sterilized 5 gallon bucket last year. I used a large stainless steel beer pot (yes, I know, it is a beer pot, not a turkey pot). Soak the thawed bird in this brine 24 hours before cooking the bird.
This brine will soak into the meat of the turkey, giving it some great flavor. Additionally, the extra juices will help the cooking process rather than just relying on the natural juices of the bird and/or your basting sauce.
A Case for Quartering Your Turkey
One thing that I have started doing with turkeys and whole chickens (like the awesome ones we bought from Chris and Lauren at Yellow Hutch Farm) is quartering the birds.
Why did I start doing this?
“Cook [the quartered] pieces of [turkey] meat together, but you can remove the various pieces as they hit the right temperature. That means you can remove the wings (which usually cook first), then the breast meat, and finally the legs and thighs as they hit 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Using this method, you won’t have shriveled wings and Sahara-like breast meat!– Tom in Cooking Turkey and Making Soup – S2E31
The second, and arguably a more important, reason is that sometimes your bird is too big for the oven, roaster or smoker! If you are like me, you want a BIG bird, especially if you have a large crew coming over. It helps to quarter the bird so it will fit. Believe it or not, quartering the bird (or deboning your bird) works like a charm. Suddenly, the bird fits! I kid you not.
To quarter the bird, essentially you are:
- Removing the wings the first
- Then removing the thighs and legs
- Finally removing the breast from the skeleton
You remove these pieces by cutting in the joints with a sharp knife. Everything comes apart, and it really is amazing to see how the bottom of the bird separates from the breast. It seems a little intimidating at first, but I have some great videos linked to the post and discussed in the podcast titled “Cooking Turkey and Making Soup.”
Once you figure out the basics and start working with a chicken or turkey, it all starts to make sense. I didn’t care for biology much, but it is really interesting to learn this skill. You get a real appreciation for how the skeleton and bird is put together, and pretty soon this will be really easy to do!
Update 2019: Spatchcock a Turkey
A lot of folks spatchcock the turkey before seasoning it and cooking it. Spatchcocking the turkey involves removing the backbone of the bird and laying it flat to cook in the oven. The advantages to spatchcocking a bird is to get even heat on the bird, which speeds up the cooking time and allows the skin to crisp. I also think seasoning the turkey would be easier since the bird is relatively flat, not round!
While I am not an expert with this method, I will be testing it out in the future. To learn HOW to spatchcock a turkey, check out this article titled “How to Spatchcock a Turkey: The Secret Cooking Technique You’ve Been Missing Out On” at the attasteofhome.com. There is a step-by-step instructional video and pictures for you to follow.
Again, special thanks to Bill Busse for his comments on this post in the MN-WI Get Stuff Done Group on Facebook. Click this text to join that group. I appreciate his comments that improve the quality of this article!
How to Cook a Turkey
As I mentioned in an article titled “Thanksgiving Cooking Tips and Failures,” I have cooked several turkeys in my Hamilton Beach roaster over the years. It is always great to pass along how to cook a turkey, and I am sure I will be teaching my boys soon.
I have used a pretty straightforward method for cooking my birds (updated 2019):
- Line the Hamilton Beach Roaster with tinfoil (it REALLY makes for easier clean-up)
- Put the turkey into the tinfoil-lined roaster (this really helps with clean up afterward)
- Brush the turkey with honey
- Add seasonings and spices of your choice. I usually use a liberal mix of garlic powder, sage, rosemary, thyme, pepper and seasoning salt
- Cook the turkey at 325 degrees F until the meat thermometer reads 165 degrees F
- Remove the turkey, carve it and serve it to the family and guests
- Note: I do not put stuffing in the bird. We cook the stuffing separately.
- Save the leftovers for sandwiches and other meals (if there is anything left)
- Be aware of the time turkey is left out on the counter! Make sure you refrigerate turkey at most 2 hours after cooking it. Again, be careful and be safe. You don’t want your guests and/or family getting food poisoning!
This system has worked well for me for a number of years, and I usually have a moist turkey at the end of this process.
Putting It All Together
Cooking a Turkey for thanksgiving can seem like a massive project that is prone to failure. I mean, the meme that the newlywed couple burning the Thanksgiving turkey has been around forever. You remember the turkey dinner scene from Christmas Vacation, right?
I love teaching people how to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving It is a great accomplishment to pull this off and feed your family and groups of people! It is not impossible; you can do it! Coupled with Julie’s Pressure Cooker Cheesy Au Gratin Potatoes, and you are going to have some real happy folks around your dinner table!
Julie and I are going to her cousin’s place again in Becker, MN. We won’t be bringing a turkey, but we will be bringing a ham! I’ll have another post tomorrow that discusses my recipe for cooking a ham. You know what goes great with ham?
Yep….you guessed it: Julie’s Pressure Cooker Cheesy Au Gratin Potatoes (and some homemade wine).
Good luck with cooking your turkey for Thanksgiving. Let us know how it came out…good, bad or just plain ugly!
Just make sure you save the neck for me, Clark!