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Cooking the Perfect Turkey

We’ve all tasted it! Thanksgiving turkey that is so dry that it takes gallons of gravy to help it go down! Then there’s the turkey with the mushy outer skin or the tasteless turkey that requires tons of salt or other condiments to make it edible. Of course, there’s also the Thanksgiving turkey that still contains the neck and bags of giblets, even after it has reached the table!

While turkey might appear to be an easy dish to cook, nearly all home chefs have experienced a few turkey faux pas moments. Indeed, making the perfect turkey can be quite elusive but we all keep trying, especially since it’s such an important part of the classic Thanksgiving meal.

Experts, however, note that closely following a few simple steps will result in a juicy bird with a crisp golden skin that will have diners coming back for more again and again.

Thawing the Turkey

Many first-time or even experienced Thanksgiving cooks make their first error when it’s time to thaw the turkey. Because most of us purchase the frozen variety, it’s necessary to give the bird ample time to thaw, which is way more than just a few hours!
Turkeys literally take days to thaw and reach the point where even the innermost portions are no longer frozen. The mistake that many individuals make is that, in observing or touching the outside of the turkey, which thaws first, it may appear that the bird is totally thawed. That’s often not the case.

Even a small turkey of between 7 and 12 pounds requires about 2 to 3 days to thaw. Large turkeys in the 25 pound range may require as much as 6 days to reach the right temperature for cooking.

Do not thaw your turkey on the kitchen counter. Always make space for it in the refrigerator. This will insure that bacteria will not be a problem. Same goes for the microwave. Thawing a turkey in the microwave may also result in growth of dangerous bacteria that will make your family sick.

Preparing the Bird for Cooking

There are several schools of thought as to seasoning or greasing the turkey to prepare it for the oven. However, the general consensus among turkey experts, including those in the test kitchens of companies like Butterball™, suggest that after you remove the giblets and neck you brush the skin with cooking oil or spray. Others, however, suggest that the best way to create that moist texture is to separate the skin from the turkey without removing it and spread butter or oil beneath the skin. If you wish to add herbs, like thyme or rosemary, you may do it at this time as well, also under the skin. However, they are not required.

Though the most picturesque Thanksgiving turkey includes stuffing emerging from its inner cavity, most experts suggest you cook the stuffing by itself. Stuffing can really throw off cooking time and you’re turkey is more likely to be undercooked.

Roasting the Turkey

Most turkey wrappers suggest cooking the bird at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for the entire cooking time. Suggested cooking times are usually listed on the package, but a good rule of thumb is to calculate about 20 minutes per pound. Some turkeys come with a pop-up timer, which is a good tool for the novice Thanksgiving cook.

Others suggest preheating the oven to about 450 degrees and cooking the turkey at this temperature for about 15 minutes in a covered pan (to avoid burning the skin). The theory is that this will seal in the juices. After that, uncover the turkey, lower the temperature to 250 degrees, and cook the bird very slowly. This slow cooking method will require a much longer cooking time of about 30-35 minutes per pound, so it may be impractical unless you’re willing to get up in the middle of the night to put the turkey in the oven. Some chefs say it’s well worth the trouble!

Either way, a turkey is done when the breast meat reaches about 170 degrees and the thigh meat peaks at about 180. Any temperature substantially lower than that could result in food poisoning concerns or problems with e-coli.

And, remember, when you’re turkey is done, don’t carve it right away. Allow it to rest for about 20 minutes before bringing it to the table and showing it off to your guests!