How To Cook a Turkey

Avoid committing common turkey roasting fouls with this easy guide.
Andria Scott Hurst

Roasting Turkey 101

  • Place a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh (being sure not to touch the bone). The turkey is done when the thermometer registers 180°. Breast meat, which has less fat, only needs to come to 170°; it also applies if you're doing a turkey breast rather than a whole turkey.
  • Don't seal turkey with foil or a roaster lid because it will steam rather than roast. If you choose to use an oven cooking bag, follow instructions on the box for moist, succulent turkey.
  • Allow turkey to stand 15 to 20 minutes before carving.

What to Buy? Fresh or Frozen Turkey
There's not much difference between a fresh or frozen turkey. Fresh is more convenient if you're pushed for time, but will cost more per pound than frozen. Fresh turkeys may occasionally have ice crystals (from being refrigerated and transported at very cold temperatures) that will need to thaw. When selecting a turkey, keep in mind that two smaller turkeys may serve your needs better than one large.

How To Thaw a Frozen Turkey

  • Thaw a frozen turkey in the refrigerator in its original wrap. Place it on a tray or pan to catch any drips. Allow two to three days for an 8- to 12-pound turkey; a 12- to 16-pounder will require three to four days.
  • To thaw the bird in less time, place the turkey in its unopened bag in a large container, and cover it with cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes to keep it cold (and safe). This will thaw an 8- to 12-pound turkey in four to six hours, while a 12- to 16-pound turkey takes six to nine hours.

How To Prepare a Turkey for Cooking

  • When the turkey is completely thawed, remove the giblets and the neck from the body cavity (usually in a sack inside the bird).
  • Rinse inside and out with cold water.
  • Truss the turkey so that it will cook evenly, retain moisture, and have a compact shape. Here's how.
     Step 1: Secure the legs. Some turkeys come with a metal clip; if yours doesn't, use cotton twine (ask your butcher for some).
     Step 2: Tuck excess skin down between the breast and the legs so the skin won't split as the turkey cooks.
     Step 3: Lift the tips of the wings up and over the breast, and tuck them under the turkey; secure excess of the neck flap (use a wooden pick if necessary).
     Step 4: Line the bottom of the roasting pan with foil for easier cleanup.
  • Place the turkey on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. If you don't have a roasting pan, use a large foil roasting pan from the supermarket, and place it on a baking sheet for extra support.

How To Store Turkey Leftovers
Don't tie up valuable space in the refrigerator with the turkey carcass. Remove the meat from the bones. Place white meat slices and dark meat pieces in separate zip-top plastic bags--ready for sandwiches or other recipes. For additional information, call the 24-hour Butterball Turkey Talk-Line at 1-800-BUTTERBALL (1-800-288-8372), or visit www.butterball.com.

A Few More Turkey Cooking Tips
Do as much as possible ahead of time to enjoy a stress-free Thanksgiving feast. These hints will make your meal planning easier.

  • Bake, crumble, and store cornbread for dressing in a zip-top plastic bag in the refrigerator up to five days ahead.
  • Cranberry sauce and relish can be made two or three days ahead.
  • Chop onion, celery, and green pepper for dressing up to three days ahead, and store in zip-top plastic bags in the refrigerator.
  • Don't forget about your microwave oven. Use it to melt chocolate, soften butter, and steam vegetables.