Preparing and cooking a turkey can be very intimidating, especially if you haven’t made one before. The first turkey I cooked was a turkey breast – the free turkey breast from ShopRite in fact. Unfortunately, although I thought I had cooked it enough and the outside looked brown and delicious the inside was raw! It was very embarrassing, but it happens to the best of us. The following tips will hopefully help you prepare your turkey so it comes out moist and delicious, impressing your guests for Thanksgiving or any special meal.
- Don’t Forget to Defrost
Most turkeys are bought frozen and depending on size can take hours or days to defrost. The average size of a frozen turkey on Thanksgiving is between 12 and 15 lbs., this size turkey can take 3 to 4 days to defrost in the refrigerator. Defrosting in the refrigerator is the safest way to defrost any meat/poultry as it prevents harmful bacteria from developing. If you are using the refrigerator method plan 24 hours of defrosting for every 4 pounds of turkey. To defrost, place the turkey breast side up in its packaging on baking tray that fits on a shelf in your refrigerator.
Another method that could be used to defrost the turkey is using cold water. Submerge the turkey breast side down in its packaging in cold water. You will need to change the water every 30 minutes, and it will take about 30 minutes per pound to defrost.
- Cleaning the Bird
Once the turkey has been defrosted it is important to remove the packaging and clean the bird properly. Before you start the process make sure you have a clean surface to prepare the turkey, it may be best to work over an empty sink to prevent some of the liquid from getting on your counters. Also before you start snap a picture of the cooking instructions on the packaging if that is what you will be following to cook the turkey.
After you remove the packaging and drain the liquid in the sink you should rinse the bird with cold water. Next place the turkey on a paper towel covered tray and start to remove the innards. Most turkeys have a bag of giblets in the large cavity near the legs; the neck may be stuffed in the top of the bird. If you are having trouble removing these due to frost, run the areas under cold water to loosen the packaging. Save the innards for your gravy or stuffing as they will add tremendous flavor to either. Finally pat the turkey dry with paper towels prior to seasoning.
- The Brine Bath
Seasoning your turkey is key to ensuring your turkey tastes good. Whether using a salt water brine or a dry brine it is important to season your turkey ahead of time. Usually a salt brine is a combination of seasonings, broth, and water that you boil and let cool prior to pouring on the raw turkey. Most liquid salt brine recipes suggest submerging the turkey for at least 12 hours. If you don’t have time for the brine, you can simply season the turkey the morning of Thanksgiving by generously salting and peppering the bird, making sure to get under the skin and letting stand in the refrigerator prior to cooking.
- To Stuff or Not to Stuff
Stuffing your turkey is another way to add flavor to the meat, however keep in mind the following. Never put hot stuffing in the raw bird as that can cause harmful bacteria to grow. Stuffing the bird will impact the cooking time of the turkey so keep that in mind with the timing of your meal. If you do not want to stuff the bird with the traditional bread or rice stuffing, you can always stuff it with some aromatics such as pieces of onions, cloves of garlic, lemons, celery, or carrots. Stuffing the bird with vegetables is an easy way to flavor the turkey just as well as a traditional stuffing.
- The Final Rub
If you used a salt brine, you may not want to add much more seasoning to the bird, however ensuring it is properly greased will guarantee that beautiful deep brown color at the end of cooking. I prefer using a nice butter rub mixed with fresh herbs like sage, parsley, and rosemary. If you are not a butter fan you can use olive oil or avocado oil instead or even half butter half oil. Usually I do this step right before I put the bird in the oven, when it has already been stuffed and is sitting in the roasting pan. When rubbing the bird with the butter or oil mixture make sure to gently pull up the skin and rub the mixture under the skin. This will help keep the bird moist as well as help give it that picture perfect brown look.
- The Basics of Basting
Keeping the turkey moist is one of the most important steps of ensuring a flavorful turkey. No one wants to serve a turkey that is dry and brittle. Basting the turkey is the easiest way to ensure your turkey will be moist. Prior to putting the turkey in the oven make sure to pour some chicken stock, broth, and/or wine over the bird so that there is plenty of liquid in the roasting pan. The liquid will evaporate during the cooking, so if you didn’t pour enough at the start you can always add more. You should baste the bird at least every 30 minutes of the cooking time.
- Total Cook Time
As mentioned the cooking time of the turkey depends if it is stuffed or not, it also obviously depends on the size, and other factors like the temperature you cook it at. The best way to tell if your turkey is done is to use a meat thermometer. An inexpensive thermometer can be found at most grocery stores. The thermometer temperature should reach 180°F in the thigh and 170°F in the breast and the liquid between the breast and thigh should be running clear. On average it takes about 15 minutes per pound of an unstuffed turkey and 20 minutes per pound of a stuffed turkey in a 350° oven.
- Resting the Turkey
After you have determined the turkey is cooked it is important to let it rest prior to carving and serving. This is an important step as it is another way to ensure your turkey will be moist. Resting the turkey allows the juices to settle and absorb into the meat. Rest the turkey for about 30 minutes prior to carving, tenting it with aluminum foil.
- Gravy Basics
A turkey isn’t a turkey without gravy, and make sure you have plenty. While you let the turkey rest you can easily start the gravy. After you remove the turkey from the roasting pan, drain the drippings from the pan in a strainer and set aside. Make a simple roux by melting butter in a pan and slowly adding flour until the mixture thickens. You can add the drippings and broth to the pan at this time whisking rigorously to avoid lumps – or a great way to prevent lumps is to place the roux, broth, and drippings in a clean jar with a tight fitting lid. Shake the mixture until combined. Next add the gravy back to a pot, season with salt and pepper, add a little milk or cream if desired. If at all fails, leverage the Williams Sonoma Gravy Base, it is an easy certain way your gravy will be a hit.
- The Perfect Carve
Carving the turkey can be a daunting task and you may want to look at a YouTube video to see how it is done in live time. First and foremost make sure the turkey has cooled and place on a large cutting board. To ensure the cutting board doesn’t slip while carving, place a damp paper towel underneath it. Use a sharp carving knife and start by gently removing the legs, thighs, and wings. If the turkey is cooked properly these should easily fall off the bird with little effort. Next find the breast bone and cut straight down as far as you can on one side of the bone. Angle the knife and remove the rest of the breast by slicing towards the outside of the turkey. Once the breasts and other parts are safely removed from the turkey you can slice them.
I really hope these tips help you learn the basics about preparing a turkey and give you a good starting point for planning your Turkey dinner. Remember a good chef is a prepared chef – and just by doing your research and planning properly your dinner is sure to be a great success.