15 Tips For Cooking A Perfect Turkey

Some foods and holidays were just made for each other, and turkey on Thanksgiving is truly the ultimate example. Still, perhaps no other meal stirs more anxiety for home chefs that the preparation and cooking of this seminal poultry. To help customers, Butterball offers a Turkey Talk-Line and is even available for assistance through your Alexa device by saying, "Alexa, ask Butterball..." Forbes says that the famous turkey company could field up to 100,000 turkey-related questions throughout the winter holiday season from Thanksgiving through late December.

Even though the prospect of making dinner for a large group may feel daunting, cooking a turkey is not overly complicated. Most people don't cook a large turkey on a regular basis, so the novelty of the experience may account for much of the anxiety often associated with the whole process. However, with some preparation and some simple advice, your holiday bird will come out deliciously juicy, golden, and provide the perfect centerpiece for your Thanksgiving table.

Follow a solid timeline

The best Thanksgiving meals will have an excellent plan of attack for preparation and follow a turkey timeline. This will help ensure that you're ready on the big cooking day and can actually enjoy the holiday as much as possible without feelings of anxiety that come from a lack of preparation.

It all begins a month before as you figure out how many people you'll be feeding. This will help determine many different aspects of your day, including how big of a turkey to get. With three weeks to go, it's time to start creating your grocery lists and understand precisely what ingredients you need. Pull those recipe cards out from last year and start making a plan. If you're reserving a fresh turkey, you'll want to make sure you've done that a minimum of three weeks before Thanksgiving. With two weeks to go, be sure all your preparation and organization spaces are ready for cooking and guests. There's nothing worse than an overcrowded fridge while you're trying to prepare cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving Day. 

By the time you're a week out, you should know when to put your frozen bird in the fridge for defrosting and the order in which you plan to cook your dishes. As the day comes closer, do your grocery shopping and knock out any early cooking to help cut down on the amount of work you'll do on the big day.

Consider the size of your turkey

When preparing for your Thanksgiving meal, one of the biggest factors is how many mouths you're planning to feed. Aside from the number of seats you'll need and the number of pies to be made, there's another question to be answered: What size turkey do you need to buy?

Generally, you'll want to plan for a pound of turkey for each adult in attendance, and half a pound for each child. Obviously, if there are vegans or vegetarians attending, there's no need to consider them as part of your calculation. So, if you are hosting Thanksgiving with 12 adults and three children, you'll want at least a 13½-pound turkey. If you want leftovers for everyone, plan for one and a half pounds for each adult. You can probably scale back on turkey size if you are serving other meat like chicken or ham.

Planning for the correctly sized turkey is an essential part of putting together an excellent meal, and it will help ensure that you are not feeling stressed on the big day.

Start with a brine

Brining your turkey equates to soaking it in a solution of water, Kosher salt, and sometimes sugar. This is a popular method many chefs use to prepare turkey. However, instead of filling a vat with salt and sugar water and then letting your bird chill for a few days, consider opting for a dry brine.

While this may seem odd, a dry brine is a great way to seal in those rich turkey juices. You'll rub the turkey down with salt and let it sit for the length of time you deem appropriate. This may mean your turkey is brining for hours to days. That's up to you.

After cooking, you'll enjoy a juicier, more turkey-flavored bird than you may have gotten with a wet brine. This is because a dry brine encourages those juices to flow, but they are all turkey juices rather than water. Because the skin had time to dry out in the process, you'll also enjoy crispy skin with a beautiful color.

Aside from skin texture, the difference between dry and wet brining really comes down to convenience. With wet brine, you know that the brine gets all over your turkey because it's dunked in the solution. With dry brine, though, you need to make sure the brine hits all of the skin, and that can be difficult. Wet brining also takes up a lot of room in your fridge as you prepare for a large meal.

Spatchcock your turkey

When you imagine cooking a turkey, you probably picture a large bird in a roasting pot surrounded by vegetables and seasonings. Though beautiful, this is not a great way to yield a turkey that is cooked evenly throughout. So, this Thanksgiving, consider learning how to spatchcock your turkey for a perfectly cooked bird.

The basics of spatchcocking involve revolving the backbone, flattening the bird out, and cooking it with the skin up. This will create a flatter, more even cooking area, and since turkeys tend to be quite large, this can be very helpful as it cooks. You'll also love that the skin gets that even, golden, crinkly look and texture. And if you like this method of preparation, you can also use it to cook other poultry, like chicken.

Though some butchers can take care of spatchcocking for you, it isn't a complicated process to do on your own. Begin by scoring the back of your bird and outlining where the spine is located. Then, beginning with the tail end, use sharp kitchen shears to remove that backbone. Be sure to save it for your turkey soup later. We recommend placing it in a freezer bag and storing it in your freezer until you need to for making stock. After removing and storing the spine, finish by pushing down on the breastbone to flatten the turkey out.

Add aromatics

There are many different brine ideas for cooking the juiciest turkey. One of the ways to make your bird extra flavorful is by adding aromatics to the brine. Aromatics are an important part of roasting poultry and usually consist of seasonings and vegetables that give the meat added flavor. George Mandes recommends mixing seasonal favorite spices like cinnamon and star anise as well as soup spices like bay leaves, fennel, coriander, and peppercorns.

You can also opt for simple replacements, as Chris Shepherd does. Instead of using sugar in his brine, this chef uses honey. This exchange changes the taste, but not the effectiveness of the brine. Matt Lambert, on the other hand, once added lime pickle and lemon to the brine. Now, however, he chooses to remove the sugar aspect of the brine and adds three simple spices: thyme, rosemary, and black pepper. This keeps the flavor profile tight and simplistic.

Thaw your bird

Chances are you are planning on purchasing a whole frozen turkey for your holiday feast. If that is the case, you're probably wondering how to defrost it. When thawing out your turkey, the first thing you'll need is time, so make sure you purchase your turkey well enough in advance and place it in your freezer until you're ready to begin the defrosting process.

When it comes to the best way to thaw that turkey, you should stick to one of two methods. Ideally, you will defrost your turkey in the fridge. You'll need one day per every four pounds of turkey. So, if you have a 20-pound turkey, it would, ideally, spend five days in the fridge. Be sure you put the turkey in a large pan to help make sure it doesn't make a mess in your refrigerator.

If you have less than the amount of time needed, you can also defrost your turkey by submerging it in water. For this method, you'll need a half hour of water time for every pound of turkey. So, the same 20-pound turkey would need to be submerged in water for 10 hours. This method does require that you replace the water every half hour, so it can become pretty labor-intensive and definitely ties you to your kitchen for the day.

Reserve a fresh turkey

Most families enjoy whole turkeys that have been defrosted on Thanksgiving, but if the prospect of defrosting such a large bird seems daunting, purchasing a frozen bird might be a mistake. Frozen turkeys don't just take a lot of time, they also take up a lot of room in your freezer and fridge.

In order to use a fresh turkey for your meal, you'll need to plan ahead a little and reserve a turkey, possibly as far as a month or more in advance. To reserve, you can call a local farm or grocery store that sells turkeys; you may also find that some farms allow you to reserve your fresh bird online. Then, you'll pick up your turkey very close to Thanksgiving. The USDA recommends picking it up the day or two before Thanksgiving. Your turkey may have a "best-by" or "use-by" date; if it does, keep it in your refrigerator unopened until you're ready to cook the bird. Don't use the "sell-by" date (if there is one) because this is not generally meant for consumers.

Season your turkey

Another mistake you may be making is not seasoning your turkey appropriately, which could result in a boring and poorly flavored bird. The good news is that seasoning doesn't need to be terribly complicated.

In fact, simplicity is often better when it comes to seasonings. Begin with salt and butter, and if the mood strikes, consider other options as well. You may find that as you continue cooking turkey, you'll begin feeling more and more comfortable experimenting and trying new seasonings. For example, this Sichuan-spiced turkey includes a dry brine of peppercorns, fennel, salt, Sichuan peppercorns, and several veggies. This brining process is its whole own way of seasoning turkey. On the other hand, you could always opt for store-bought poultry seasoning. Though you'll undoubtedly find a collection of spices typical for poultry seasonings on the shelves, there are plenty of specialty options on grocery store shelves, too.

Use a meat thermometer

While helpful, home cooks sometimes struggle with how to use a meat thermometer. Before your big cooking day comes, decide which kind of meat thermometer you plan to use and understand turkey thermometer guidelines to help ensure your turkey is thoroughly cooked.

The National Turkey Federation recommends one of two types of thermometers for cooking your turkey: an ovenproof thermometer or an instant-read thermometer. Oven-proof thermometers go in your turkey before you even place the bird in the oven. Then, it stays in throughout the entire cooking process. As your bird cooks, you'll see the temperature rise. These are great thermometers for cooking whole turkeys. Instant read thermometers, on the other hand, do not stay in throughout the cooking process and are instead used to spot-check temperature. To use, pull your turkey out of the oven, and stick the pointy probe into the turkey. As the name suggests, it'll give you a digital read quickly. While pop-up thermometers do offer a third option, you should, ideally, verify using one of the other thermometers. You'll know your turkey has fully cooked when it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Give your turkey a rest

When your turkey finishes cooking, it can be tempting to cut into it right away. But after being so patient during the entire process, don't let your guard down now. The New York Times Thanksgiving Help Line says that rest after cooking is absolutely nonnegotiable.

When you pull your turkey out of the oven, take it off the smoker, or pull it from the fryer, it needs time to just relax. It will continue cooking and rise between five and 10 degrees for a little bit during this process, and the time to rest away from heat will help ensure a juicy, flavorful bird. If you carve too early, you'll lose all of those juices on the cutting board. While 20 minutes is the minimum, depending on the size of your turkey, you may need to rest it for up to 40 minutes. This waiting can be difficult, but it is so worth it.

Use foil for a juicy turkey

Foil just may be the true hero of your turkey dinner. You can use foil for so much in your regular kitchen operations outside of the holiday season, but we find that it's especially helpful for wrapping your turkey at two critical points: During the resting process and when sending home leftovers.

While you're letting that turkey rest for 20 to 30 minutes, make a tent out of foil and cover the turkey. When you do this, you'll find that this only supports the resting process and enhances the juiciness of the meat, and you'll even find that carving goes a little smoother. Later, after the mashed potatoes have been eaten, the pie has been devoured, and you're saying goodbye to your guests, take out that foil again. Instead of sending home leftovers in plastic containers, wrap up some turkey in foil for your guests. There's not much better than a leftover turkey sandwich after Black Friday shopping.

Skip basting

Everyone feels like they have a sense of how turkey should be cooked, even if those methods may not actually be the best options for your bird. However, if there's someone to set the record straight, it's Alton Brown with his turkey-basting advice.

While many Thanksgiving cooks will do the same things they watched being done in their childhood kitchens, that's not always the best move. Basting is one such technique. Brown explains that basting a turkey only flavors the skin, but it does nothing to keep the meat underneath juicy or flavorful. Not only that, but each time you take the turkey out of the oven for basting, you're letting that heat out of the oven and messing with the cooking time of the turkey. This may mean that your turkey ends up cooking too long, and when turkey cooks too long, it drys out and loses that delicious juiciness. Give brining a try rather than basting.

Season under the skin

Flavorful turkey doesn't start and stop at the skin. Sure, a beautifully cooked turkey should, ideally, have a golden hue to it as well as nice crispiness, but a turkey should be more than tasty skin. So many preparation recommendations — basting, for example — attend to the turkey's skin but ignore the meat underneath.

This is a turkey trap you want to avoid. To help ensure that you create a flavorful experience throughout the turkey, take the time to season underneath the skin of your bird. The best way to do with is with a compound butter seasoned with appropriate spices throughout. All you need to do is separate the skin from the meat, massage the butter under the skin, and pat it down so it actually adheres to the turkey. This way, you'll flavor the meat with butter and spices to create a delicious experience without sacrificing the crispy skin everyone loves.

Pay attention to your rack location

Like many items, you'll want to cook your turkey in the center of your oven. However, because turkeys are so large, you'll need to take special care when you position your oven rack for roasting that turkey.

Open up your oven and take a look. You'll probably see racks filling that middle space. In order for your turkey to actually cook in the center of your oven, you'll probably need to remove most of the racks, but keep one down in the lowest space. That way, when your tall bird sits in the oven, it's filling up that middle cavity rather than hitting the top of the oven. This is an essential step because it helps ensure that your turkey will not be over or undercooked. However, after you've finished cooking your turkey, be sure to move that rack back up. Once the star of the show is resting, you're probably going to need it much higher to finish warming dishes like your grandma's sweet potato casserole and your aunt's famous green bean casserole.

Use tongs and a knife for carving

After your beautiful bird finishes cooking and resting, you'll want to carve it up in preparation for actually eating it. While there are many methods for carving a turkey, we think Alton Brown's carving tip may be the best one of them all. Instead of using an electric carver or other fancy tools, use a spring-loaded set of tongs, a great knife, and a cutting board.

To prepare your carving space, begin by wetting some paper towels and placing them underneath your cutting board. This will help to stabilize the cutting board and will prevent it from sliding around while you carve. Next, transfer your turkey from its resting place to your cutting board. Then, use the knife to cut off slices of meat while the tongs hold your turkey in place. You'll use those tongs to move the slices to your serving platter. This simple and efficient method will have you and your guests eating and enjoying your perfectly cooked turkey in no time.