How to Prepare and Carve a Thanksgiving Turkey
Making a turkey is a simple task, no matter how big the bird. Learn a few basic techniques and you’ll be ready to impress the whole family at your Thanksgiving dinner.
Step 1: Choose Your Recipe
What kind of turkey do you want to make? If it's your first Thanksgiving bird, you might want to try something simple and classic. If you're an old pro, consider a recipe with an unexpected flavor profile, like maple. Or maybe you want to grill your turkey. No matter what your preference is, there's a recipe out there with your name on it.
Turkey Buying Tip: How Many Pounds to Get
Not sure what size turkey to get? Get the right amount based on the number of guests you'll be having (plus extra for leftovers):
- 8 guests: 10-12 pounds
- 12 guests: 16-18 pounds
- 16 guests: 20-22 pounds
- 20 guests: 24-26 pounds
Step 2: To Brine or Not to Brine
Brining is a way of marinating and adding moisture to lean meat. The turkey is soaked in a mixture of salt and water for a few hours or days before cooking, making the meat juicier and more flavorful. Brining is also a cook’s insurance policy against accidentally overcooked meat. In other words: no more dry turkey. It's an optional step, but with just a few ingredients and a bit of extra time, it will bring your bird to the next level.
Step 3: Thaw the Turkey, Safely
If it’s early in the week and there’s no rush, thaw the turkey in the refrigerator. Keep it in the original packaging, and place it on a rimmed container to catch any juices, allowing approximately five hours per pound. If the turkey has been defrosting in the refrigerator for several days and it's still frozen, give it a cold bath. Fill a large bucket or the kitchen sink with cool water and plunge the bird in, in the original wrapper, breast-side down. If it's partially defrosted, a mere half hour may do the trick. If you need to defrost a fully frozen turkey on the double, allow half an hour per pound. The U.S. Department of Agriculture advises changing the water every 30 minutes or so. No matter how dire the situation, don’t thaw a turkey at room temperature.
Step 4: Prepare the Turkey for Roasting
What You Need: turkey, kitchen twine, roasting pan with rack, baking tray, paring knife
First, reach your hand into the turkey’s cavity and remove anything that’s in there, such as a packet of giblets, and set aside. Place the turkey, breast side up, on a rimmed baking tray or cookie sheet, which will catch any juices and make post-prep cleanup a snap.
Next, tuck the wings under. Holding a wing in your hand, lift that side of the turkey up a couple of inches and tuck the wing underneath the bird’s back. Lower the turkey and repeat with the other side. Tucking the wings will make for more even cooking and will keep them from burning.
Tie the drumsticks together. Cut a piece of kitchen twine to about eight inches in length. Cross the turkey legs at their “ankles”—the thinnest point, directly above the bottom joints. Then wrap the twine around the two ankles, tying it into a knot or bow to hold them together. This makes for a tidy-looking turkey.
Transfer the turkey to a roasting rack. For cooking, move the turkey from the baking tray to a rack set inside a roasting pan.
Step 5: Timing the Turkey
No Thanksgiving guest is more important than the turkey. But you might have a late arrival on your hands if you don’t get it in the oven on time. Here's how long to cook your turkey in a 325 degree F oven, based on weight:
- 8-12 pounds: 2 ¾-3 hours
- 12-14 pounds: 3-3 ¾ hours
- 14-18 pounds: 3 ¾-4 ¼ pounds
- 18-20 pounds: 4 ¼-4 ½ pounds
- 20-24 pounds: 4 ½-5 hours
Cook turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. For safety reasons, the USDA recommends cooking stuffing outside of the turkey to guarantee uniform doneness. If you do choose to stuff it, check the temp of the center of the stuffing to make sure it, too, reaches the safe 165 degrees F (otherwise bacteria could contaminate your cooked turkey).
Step 6: Take the Turkey's Temperature
To check the internal temperature of your Thanksgiving turkey, slip your meat thermometer into the thickest part of the turkey thigh, pricking the bird just above the crease between the thigh and the place where the turkey breast begins, and driving it into the thigh meat. When the counter reads 165 degrees, your turkey is ready. Tip: Make sure your thermometer doesn’t touch a bone, or you’ll get an inaccurate reading.
When the turkey is fully cooked, take it out of the oven, cover it loosely with aluminum foil, and let it sit for 30 minutes. This will allow the cooking juices to be reabsorbed by the turkey, which will ensure moist, tender meat.
Step 7: Carve the Turkey
What You Need: carving board, chef’s knife (or slicing knife), paper towels, platter, cutting board, long, flexible knife (or boning knife), tongs
- Remove the string. Place the turkey on a carving board. Remove the string tying the legs together, using the tip of your chef’s knife.
- Remove the legs and thighs. Cut through the skin that connects the breast and the drumstick. Slice down until you reach the joint. Using a paper towel, grab the leg and push down, separating the leg and thigh from the bird. Use your chef’s knife to slice through the joint.
- Remove the drumsticks. Separate the drumstick and the thigh by cutting through the joint that connects them. Transfer the drumstick to a platter; set aside the thigh meat on a cutting board to slice later. Repeat steps 2 and 3 with the other leg.
- Remove the wishbone. Find the wishbone at the front end of the breast. Use your fingers to pull it out. Tip: Removing the wishbone makes it easier to carve off the breast meat.
- Remove turkey breasts. Find the breastbone. Position a long, flexible knife (or a boning knife) on one side of it, and slice downward, as close to the bone as possible. As you slice, use your other hand to pull the meat away from the breastbone, until you’ve cut the breast off the carcass in one piece. Transfer to the cutting board.
- Remove the wings. Using the chef’s knife, slice through the joint to remove a wing, and transfer to the platter. Repeat steps 5 and 6 on the other side.
- Slice the thigh meat. Holding the thigh bone with tongs or a paper towel, remove the meat from the bone with the edge of the chef’s knife. Transfer meat to platter.
- Slice the breast meat. Using the tongs to steady the breast, position the meat so you’ll cut it at its shorter length. Slice against the grain, taking care to keep the skin attached. Transfer pieces neatly to a platter.
Turkey Serving Tip: How to Keep Sliced Turkey Warm and Juicy
It happens every year: By the time you’re done carving the bird, the first pieces on the platter have already begun to cool and dry out. Try this: Just before bringing the turkey to the table, drizzle the slices with a little hot chicken broth to warm and moisten the meat.
Leftover Turkey Enchiladas
The only thing tastier than a leftover turkey and cranberry sauce sandwich is this batch of enchiladas. What could be better than rolling up turkey in corn tortillas with a ton of cheese and a smattering of jalapeños? This recipe makes two casserole-sized dishes full of enchilada-sauce drenched goodness—enough for the night after turkey day, and another meal later. If enchiladas aren't your thing, here are 10 more ideas for using up leftover turkey.
Get the recipe: Leftover Turkey Enchiladas