Cooking Your Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey
Posted on November 21, 2011 by Jessica Kolifrath
Whether you’re hosting your first Thanksgiving dinner or you’ve been cooking a turkey each November for decades, it’s helpful to learn the tested ways for producing a perfectly moist and flavorful bird. Even if you’re a turkey roasting expert there are a few tricks and tips you’ll probably never tried. Make your Thanksgiving preparation and cooking plans easier and smoother by walking through the steps for cooking your perfect whole turkey before the big day arrives so that you’re not overwhelmed or left without the essential tools you need.
You can’t just defrost the bird and stuff it in the oven. Proper preparation keeps the meat moist and ensures that stray bacteria won’t cause food poisoning to interrupt your holiday celebration. Keeping the turkey frozen until you’re ready to cook is a good way to prevent spoilage, especially if you don’t have much room in the fridge. Cooking from frozen will add a 50% increase in the total time needed. If you’ll need to get the turkey cooked as quickly as possible, defrost it slowly over the course of a few days in the refrigerator. Defrosting it at room temperature is dangerous because the surface thaws early, and reaches temperatures that allow bacteria to breed, long before the center melts.
For added moisture and flavor, consider brining the turkey. This involves soaking the bird in a salt water solution that helps the meat retain moisture when cooking. If you can find a new, clean bucket or pan that the bird will be fit in once submerged, check that it fits in your refrigerator. Brining must take place in the temperature controlled environment over a few hours or overnight. Use between 1 cup of salt per gallon to ½ cup of salt per gallon, with less salt for longer soaks. Don’t stuff the bird if you brine it or the stuffing will be too salty to eat.
Once the turkey is ready for cooking, check the interior for any leftover giblets and place it in a roasting pan with a roasting rack. Start the cooking process with the bird upside down, or cover the breast with aluminum foil. The tender meat of the breast becomes tough if overcooked, so keeping it covered allows the thigh and wing meat around the bone to cook fully without ruining the rest of the bird. Brush the bird with a layer of melted butter for crispier, browner skin and stick it in the oven at a temperature around 350 degrees Fahrenheit. 325 and 375 degrees F will also work, but should be adjusted for a smaller or larger bird.
Avoid the urge to constantly open the oven door to peek in. This causes temperature variations that makes it hard for the bird to reach a consistent internal temperature. Baste the bird just once, about an hour after it goes in, to allow the skin to crisp instead of staying soft. Remove the aluminum foil or flip the bird halfway through the process so the breast meat finishes cooking properly.
When you begin to suspect that your turkey might be done, use an instant read meat thermometer in the joint of the leg to check the temperature around the bone. The meat must reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit to be safe to consume. Take the turkey out at that point and give it about half an hour to rest. You may need to cover it to prevent hungry guests or pets from trying to get a piece of it early, but keep the covering loose so that heat doesn’t build up and dry it out. After this rest the turkey’s juices will be distributed evenly throughout and the meat will be much easier to cut.