Turkey Tips

Prepare and roast a whole bird with ease or choose smaller portions throughout the holiday season
panorama of thanksgiving dinner with turkey, Joshua Resnick - Adobe Stock

Joshua Resnick - Adobe Stock

While roasting a turkey for the big Thanksgiving feast or other upcoming winter holidays may seem daunting, it can be rather simple—you just need to allow plenty of time. Here are some basic steps to get you on your way to roasting a whole bird, plus some options to prepare only part of the turkey. Hopefully this will prevent frantic last-minute calls to a turkey hotline!

The Pan

While a disposable lightweight aluminum pan is certainly the cheapest option, it’s best to use a strong roasting pan with a sturdy roasting rack—a U-shaped one works well. Make sure the pan is at least 2 or 3 inches deep with a strong handle. If you don’t have a rack, upside down ramekins or balls of aluminum foil can help keep the turkey elevated to stop the bottom-facing skin from becoming flabby.

The Bird: Selection and Prepping

What size turkey will you need? If you figure on allowing about 1.5 pounds per person, a 13- to 14-pound turkey will feed about 10 to 12 people. If you’re serving more than 12 people, consider two birds.

“Bigger turkeys are problematic because they’re difficult to cook evenly (the breast meat tends to dry out before the leg meat is done) and they are not as naturally tender as smaller turkeys. If you have a larger crowd, consider roasting two smaller birds or roast an additional breast,” says culinary instructor Molly Stevens, who literally wrote the book on the subject, All About Roasting.

You will see a variety of terms on packaging including free range, self-basted, natural, and more. If you are interested in learning more about these selections and others, the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association (MTGA) provides details here.

Fresh or frozen? Fresh turkeys require no thawing, whereas frozen turkeys need several days to thaw. If you choose a frozen turkey, thaw it in the refrigerator. Keep the turkey in its original wrapper and place it on a baking sheet, breast up. Allow a full day in the refrigerator for every 4 pounds of turkey being thawed.

Thawing in cold water is not recommended. However, if you run out of time, the MTGA says that this method can be used. Keep turkey in its original wrap or water-tight plastic bag and submerge in cold water. Change water approximately every 30 minutes to keep it cold, and plan for approximately 30 minutes per pound to thaw the turkey.

To clean the turkey, start by removing the giblets and the neck found inside the turkey cavity. Either set them aside for gravy stock or other use or discard. In terms of food safety, do not wash poultry with water as you could spread bacteria in the sink and on countertops. Simply pat with some paper towels and season according to your recipe. See more food safety handling tips for turkey here.

Seasoning can be as simple as some salt and pepper or a little poultry seasoning, or it can involve a flavorful rub such as in Stevens’ recipe for Spice Rubbed Roast Turkey.

To Stuff or Not to Stuff?

Stuffing is certainly a favorite turkey dinner staple for many folks. While stuffing may be more flavorful when cooked inside of the turkey, this method can increase the risk of exposure to harmful bacteria. If you choose to stuff the turkey, fill the cavity loosely to allow the stuffing to expand in the oven. To test if the stuffing is cooked thoroughly, insert the thermometer into the center of the stuffing and your thermometer should reach 165°F.

If you would rather not cook it inside the bird, it is “dressing” and can be made in a buttered casserole dish covered with aluminum foil. To get that juicy taste, try basting the dressing every so often with turkey juices.

Roasting the Turkey

Preheat the oven 350°F, drain the juices from the turkey, and pat it with paper towels. To get a golden finish, lightly brush or spray the skin with cooking or vegetable oil. For an unstuffed turkey, use the calculation of 13 minutes per pound as a rough estimate of roasting time, with an additional half hour to an hour for a stuffed turkey, depending on the size of the bird. You can figure that 13- to 14-pound turkey will take about 2½ to 3 hours to roast.

After the turkey has been in the oven for an hour, baste it periodically with pan drippings to keep the meat moist. It’s best to use a thermometer to test if your turkey is fully cooked rather than relying on the pop-up variety that sometimes comes with the bird. Test in the thickest part of the thigh and the breast. Your turkey is done when the thermometer reaches 165°F in the breast and 180°F in the thigh. You’ll want to let the turkey rest for 20 to 30 minutes before carving.

“The rest period allows the proteins to firm up and the juices to redistribute so that the turkey remains moist once carved,” says Stevens. The turkey will cool down some, but it won’t be anywhere near cold. Also, this gives you time (and oven space) to finish up all those hot side dishes and the gravy.”

(For tips on carving, watch Martha Stewart teach comedian Andy Samberg how to carve a turkey or check out her Carving 101 video.)

More Turkey Options

Creating a festive feast doesn’t need to involve an entire bird. Try these recipes throughout the season or anytime turkey is sounding tasty:

Mary Subialka is the editor of Real Food and Drinks magazines, covering the flavorful world of food, wine, and spirits. She rarely meets a chicken she doesn’t like, and hopes that her son, who used to eat beets and Indian food as a preschooler, will one day again think of real food as more than something you need to eat before dessert and be inspired by his younger brother, who is now into trying new foods.