We're hosting our *first* Thanksgiving this year and to my surprise and horror, I realized that neither one of us have ever made a turkey before. I'm scared. I'm already starting to stress out about it. (We must not have been thinking. How could we have offered to do Thanksgiving - the most important food day of the year - without ever having made a turkey before?) We are both decent cooks, but neither of us have much experience with poultry: my SO makes a lot of beef and I cook a lot of seafood; obviously both are very different from turkey. Anyway, if you're willing to help out a couple of neophyte turkey basters, please share your secrets to a great Thanksgiving turkey. Of course there's lots of pressure (mostly self-imposed) to impress.
By the way, some specific questions:
1. Fresh or frozen turkey? Which is better for flavor and ease? We are planning on ordering a fresh turkey from Whole Foods. Any experience with either or both?
2. Why do people always complain about the turkey being dry? And how do we prevent this?
3. I'm paranoid about food poisoning and cooking the stuffing in the cavity of the bird. Any thoughts on this from more experienced folks?
4. Do we need any special equipment? Do we need a rack? We have a roasting pan and a meat thermometer. Anything else?
Any and all help is greatly appreciated!
For as many turkeys as have ever been cooked, there are as many recipes and techniques. I'll offer mine:
1. I don't worry about fresh or frozen. If you get frozen, give yourself PLENTY of time to thaw in the fridge. It takes a lot longer than you think. Like 3 or so days, depending on how deeply frozen.
More important to me than fresh or frozen is that the turkey isn't enhanced with a saline solution. Look for a bird that says something like 100% natural or something to that effect. If it says "self basting" or processed with 7% saline solution or something like that, steer way clear of it.
2. Dry turkey = overcooked turkey. your best and first way to prevent it is a good thermometer. don't go by time or feel or looks. Go by temperature. Breast to 165, thigh to 175. No higher. the challenge lies in that the breast often cooks earlier than the thigh. So some people flip the bird, etc.
The second best prevention - and one I really recommend for someone who doesn't cook poultry often is to brine it. It allows you to overshoot your temps by nearly 10 degrees without having it dry out too much.
3. Don't cook the stuffing in the cavity. Put in a few aromatics (apple, lemon, onion, garlic, herbs, etc.) but do the stuffing separately. If you HAVE to do the stuffing in the bird, remember the bird will take longer to cook and you'll still need to remove the stuffing and keep cooking until it comes to at least 160 all over.
4. A v-rack is nice, but not necessary. You will need a rack of some sort though to keep it off of the bottom of the roasting pan. As for the thermometer, I'd HIGHLY recommend getting a probe-style thermometer that can stay in the bird while roasting, connected to the monitor with a cable. They run about $20 from kitchen stores. Worth their weight in gold.
I think the best advice I can give you is "DON'T PANIC"
It's not rocket science. You can get a good bird your first time easily.
All the above are great.
My top 3 are:
Brine, it makes a huge difference in my mind. You get perfectly seasoned meat through and through.
Don't put dressing in it. It takes much longer to cook and will dry out.
Put the bird breast side down at first. Flip it later to crisp the skin.
There also seems to be some debate on basting your bird. The bottom line is, skin is water proof. Thus, basting it doesn't make the bird juicier. Just the skin nicer. Constantly opening the door will make the bird take longer to cook. Longer cooking time, drier bird. You know that already though.
Some other tips are:
Work your hand between the breast meat and skin and stuff it with butter/herbs/bacon/whatever you think would taste good.
Throw some carrots, onions and celery in the bottom of the roasting pan. It'll help flavour the gravy later.
Check out the Internet. There will be a million recipes/methods, especially around this time of year. You'll get the goods on all the above tips from pros.
Have a wonderful time with your first bird!
There are lots of great sources for complete turkey instructions so I'll just offer you a little bit of feedback! I DO believe that a fresh turkey is best. I've gotten mine from Whole Foods and it was good. But I later found a farmer at a local market that offers a superior product. You can also consider a heritage turkey, there are sure to be threads in the weeks to come about that. This year, why not stick with the WF Fresh bird as a reasonable benchmark.
Apart from the fresh/frozen debate do exactly what Adam has suggested, most importantly procure a probe thermometer! I just purchased five of them for my son to give to his Aunts for Christmas - a great gift for cooks and a godsend for non-cooks!
Oh and one other tip, I season the bird under the skin with a compound butter that includes orange zest, garlic and parsley. Then I bathe the bird in Grand Marnier toward the end of cooking. I also put a few leeks, shallots and a couple of oranges in the cavity while it roasts!
I am ambivalent about stuffing the bird - always had stuffed turkey (and baked chicken) at any family table, and love it, though it does complicate the process of preparing the carcass for broth production. However, my most successful turkeys ever have not had stuffing in the cavities, but under the breast skin. I use a stuffing with plenty of butter in it, and pack it in there to about an inch or more of thickness. It both bastes and insulates the breast meat, and this in addition to brining keeps the meat moist and not overcooked. We actually had a few members of my wife's white-meat-hating family eat some and like it!