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!
I agree with all the above, but especially about the probe digital thermometer. My life has become heaven on earth since I bought one. Prime rib at xmas was perfect. It'd always been such a source of panic because it's very hard to ignore that if it's overcooked, you spent over $100 for a piece of dried-out gray stuff.
I got one of these therms at Costco for about $20, but if it had been $50, I'd have gone for it.
Since you're getting a fresh turkey, you don't have to worry about defrosting in time. This happened to me once a long time ago. The turkey ended up submerged in the bathtub and dinner was at 10 p.m.
Some info on thawing a frozen turkey: In his excellent book, Thanksgiving Dinner, Anthony Dias Blue says to defrost the turkey in the refrigerator allowing 5 hours per pound. So, for instance, it would take 75 hours to defrost a 15-ound turkey. I often buy a frozen Kosher turkey and this timing has always worked perfectly for me.
You have a lot of good advice above. I'd only add that I've been very happy with turkeys purchased at Whole Foods.
Here on the east coast, they usually feature Eberly free-range birds, which have been consistently excellent. There is often a less-expensive Whole Foods brand turkey (also fresh) that is also pretty good. I'd choose this turkey if you were going to use a highly-seasoned brine and the Eberly bird if you were not going to brine, or using a very basic brine. Good luck and I'm sure that you'll feel like a turkey pro at the day's end.
All the above posts offered some excellent advice. Here is mine take and one of the simplest way to roast a turkey. This is the method that I give to friends who don't cook much.
Always start with a fresh turkey. A 15 pound will serve 8 with leftovers.
Roasting: preheat oven to 400 degree. Remove the giblets and neck from the cavity. Rinse and dry the turkey. Leave it at room temperature for about an hour.
Place turkey on a v-shape roasting rack and in a large roasting pan. Salt the cavity and the outside of the turkey. If you've brined the turkey, salt is not necessary. Chunk up a large onion, a carrot and couple ribs of celery and place in roasting pan under the turkey. Pour about 2 cups of chicken stock in the roasting pan. Brush the turkey with melted butter. Place in the preheated oven and roast for about 45 minutes. Baste with pan juice and turn down the oven to 350 degree. Roast, basting with the liquid in the roasting pan every half an hour, until the turkey is done The internal temperature should be 160 degree for the breast, 170 for the thigh. It will take about 2 hours plus. Add some more stock or water to the pan if it becomes dry. If the breast gets too brown, make a "tent" with foil and loosely place over it. I don't truss or turn the turkey while roasting.
When done, remove the turkey with the rack and let it rest for about 30 minutes before serving. Strain and skim the roasting juice. Deglaze the pan with a little more stock. Add both to the turkey stock for gravy.
The texture will be better if one slice the turkey breast against the grain to serve.
Some options to make the turkey even better:
1). Brine it but it requires refrigerator space and a big container to fit a turkey and brine. Other have used heavy plastic bag and a large ice chest. My simple brine: 2 cups kosher salt, 1/2 cup sugar, a few bay leaves, few whole cloves, large pinch of dry thyme, 2 gallons of water (may need a little more to submerge the turkey). Mix together all the ingredients until salt and sugar are dissolved. Put turkey in the brine and refrigerate or keep cold for about 12 hours, less or more time is not important. Remove turkey and rinse thoroughly and dry with paper towel.
2). If there is time after brining, place turkey uncover in the refrigeration for a few hours to air dry.
I don't think it is a good idea to stuff the turkey because 1)chance for food poisoning 2) for the stuffing to cook through, the turkey will be overdone.
Don't worry. Just think of it like a big chicken. Find a recipe that looks good to you and go with it.
Don't cook the stuffing inside the bird. It will cause you to worry needlessly about food poisoning.
I've cooked a few Thanksgiving and Christmas family dinners (for about 16 people), and would like to offer you the one piece of advice that I think really makes things go smoothly: make a good, complete shopping list. Once you have everything you need, it's easy. But it's a total drag to be in the thick of it and realize that you forgot some minor but necessary ingredient.
Best of luck to you, and please do report back!
Ditto much of the advice above.
I strongly prefer fresh turkeys, because some turkeys still have frozen spots after a 3-day thawing, and that leads to uneven cooking (dry parts and underdone parts).
Also, if you are new to this, don't try to use the pan drippings to make gravy while the turkey rests; save the drippings for making gravy for the leftovers the next day. Instead, the weekend before T-Day, get some turkey parts (wings are especially good) and roast them with aromatic vegetables on a rack and then treat those pan drippings as you would the pan drippings on T-Day - you make your gravy base in advance and then on T-Day can make the gravy *while* the turkey is roasting instead of in that mad-dash time between removing it from the oven and carving (which is about a half hour -- more for large birds).
Another tip: if you remove the wishbone from the neck cavity of the breast before cooking, it will be much easier to carve lovely slices from the cooked breast. This is a standard professional trick, as it were.
To boost your confidence, I encourage you to take a dry run at it ahead of time, as it were.
re: Karl S
I agree with Karl about premaking the gravy, using fresh not frozen turkey, and removing the wishbone.
And don't worry. No one ever, EVER makes a perfect turkey. It is impossible to get it cooked perfectly without cooking the drumsticks and wings separate from the body because they cook differently. Just focus on the body/breast.
I also agree with not stuffing. If you must stuff only fill the cavity 1/3 of the way loosely packed. Breast stuffing can work well, but only a 1-2 max inch layer, lossely packed under the skin. Thicker or very packed and the breast won't cook. Sort of like insulating it.
If you have the time and space brining can be good. If it is too much hassle for you then don't worry about it.
I find that for me the easiest way to not worry about the turkey is to make lots of veggie side dishes in advance. Also make several quick and easy cranberry sauces in advance. And make a baked ham the day before, slice it just before the turkey is done, and wrap in foil and warm up for 20-30 minutes in the oven while the turkey rests before carving. Ham always comes out great and tastes great with the several cranberry sauces.
I strongly prefer fresh. Also, BRINE to avoid the dry issue, as well as cooking correctly. If you've never brined a turkey before, which it seems here, I suggest starting out with the brine bag from Williams Sonoma (Turkey brining bags- set of 2 $10)The recipe on the back of the box is a great one, especially for a beginner. I do Not recommend just using a large bag, as there could be chemicals from where it is made (not intended for fresh food). I actually do not put the turkey overnight in the refridgerator though, I put it in a cooler on ice in my garage- but obviously that depends on your space.
I also place the turkey breast side down for the first 2/3 of the baking time. Good Luck!
We did our first turkey last year too and were both pretty nervous. I do a lot of chickens, but still the big bird on the big day is intimidating. One thing that helped us was investing in one of those digital thermometers that you can mount on your oven door (has a wire that attaches to a probe in the bird). You can set both the oven temp, temp for the bird, and the time. This is good because we found ourselves getting distracted by our guests. This way, the thermometer just beeps when the turkey is at the right temp. We have a Polder brand thermometer (not cheap-- $40-- but I think worth it). My husband's family employs the "bacini" (bacon bikini) to help keep the breast moist. Just put a few strips of bacon on the turkey breast. I don't always do it-- the turkey flavor can stand up to the bacon, but sometimes I'd rather not have it. You can also apparently slow the cooking of the breast by icing it before cooking (not sure on the details-- think I learned this on an Alton Brown show).
I'll be the lonely voice for stuffing the bird. The stuffing cooked outside the bird is too dry & lacks the flavor of the stuffing from the cavity, which IMHO is one of the best parts of T-day dinner. Never tried the breast stuffing...sounds interesting; but does the turkey look funny? You needn't worry about food poisoning as long as you DO NOT put the stuffing in the night before, always just before putting in the oven. Agree with making the gravy ahead, but DO save the drippings for use with leftovers. And make as many sides ahead as you can.
I also wouldn't brine, because of salt issues already mentioned. Get the best quality bird you can afford. Your fresh WF option should be a pretty good option.
Here's a blast from the past: my college roomate's mother always roasted the turkey in a paper bag. This eliminates the need for basting. I did this for a number of years & wouldn't be averse to doing it now if I could be sure I had a non-toxic paper bag (with no dye on it, of course). This is so easy, (just fold the open end underneath to seal), & has produced some very good roasted turkeys.
One thing I've seen is to insert an all metal dinner knife directly into the middle of the stuffing. It'll carry heat into the stuffing and lessen the time to cook through.
I've also seen to cook the stuffing, then stuff it just before the bird goes in. So you don't have to cook all that way through.
You see, I deal with that problem with the roasting of turkey parts and aromatics the weekend before: in addition to deglazing the fond for the gravy, I use those roasted bits (and some uncooked turkey thighs and/or other poultry parts -- feet are wonderful -- go to Asian markets...) to make a turkey stock to use for the stuffing and the gravy. I also get about three pounds of chicken hearts (easiest place to get them in quantity is an Asian market), some gizzards and country sausage. I add the turkey gizzards and neck meat to those and divide them up between stuffing and gravy according to my pleaasure.
Another thing: it helps to add some freshly squeezed orange juice to the stuffing liquid - it brings out the flavors well.
You can add some pan dripping fat & juices to the stuffing after the turkey has roasted. It all works out much easier than stuffing the bird.
I have a reputation as a pretty darned good cook. I’ve been making the family T’giving dinner for probably 20 years now. And I do EVERYTHING this thread advises against. I use a frozen turkey (Kosher), I don’t brine, I stuff it, and I cook it in one of those Reynolds bags.
I’ve tried fresh turkeys, both free range and Kosher; I’ve tried brining; I’ve slathered flavored butter between the breast meat and skin; I’ve started the turkey breast-side down. Not one of those experiments turned out as well as the turkey in the bag.
Because it’s a Kosher turkey and has been salted during the butchering process, it’s already, in a sense, partially brined. By cooking it in a bag, it’s self-basting and doesn’t dry out. The breast is always moist, even when the bird is falling-apart tender. I’ve never understood why, but I always get glorious, crisp, darkly browned skin—just the way I like it. I don’t have to worry about covering the breast with foil to keep it from overcooking or charring. And although I do prefer the texture of my wild rice stuffing that’s baked in a separate dish, I also like the flavor of the stuffing that’s been infused with the turkey juices.
At the risk of losing any hard-earned credentials I might have on this board, I guess all I can say is, it works for me. And, grubn, perhaps this will encourage you to not worry too much about it. Twenty years from now you, too, will have found what works best for you.
I disagree with most of the above suggestions.I and I totally disagree with JMF,my trukeys are ALWAYS perfect.For the past 6 years, I have fried turkeys.They come out done,juicy,golden brown,cooks only 4 minutes per lb. and the best tasting turkey EVER! It takes a few essentials,fryer,gloves,etc but it's really a no brainer! Perfect everytime just need to use commonsense and be careful!
For the past 3 or 4 years I've done Alton Brown's brined turkey for TDay. Foolproof and delicous. The only things I do differently are adding juniper berries (mistaked them for allspice once and like the results)to the brine and I use half of an apple and half of an orange instead of a whole apple in the cavity.
I would never roast a bird without brining it, although I agree that brining kosher fowl is perhaps redundant.
I use a stock pot to hold the turkey, and by using the closest fitting pot I can (I have a couple) I get away with just a quart or two of brine liquid. Sometimes I use part vegetable stock for the brine, and I always a lot of aromatics.
And as I mention stock and stock pots, here is the one thing I want to suggest to grubn:
After your festive meal as you get around to cleaning up, DON'T CHUCK THE CARCASS!
Those turkey bones will make a fantastic stock. I know, you're too worn out to deal with it right then. (DId you have a second helping of tryptophan?) So take out the cleaver, cut it down to size and stash it in the freezer. You'll be happy you did.
My first two Thankgivings of roasting, I didn't save the bones, but now I'm planning ahead, even before the bird heats up for the first time (turkey noodle soup? risotto? turkey pot pie?), or as I quietly carry home the turkey carcass from my mother-in-law's, when she has done the roasting.
Absolutely save the carcass.
My big thing is the next day I make turkey and dumplin's with the leftovers. I use the carcass to make a stock to cook it in.
I also freeze the left over dressing and haul it out when I make roast chicken or turkey breast. That way, You don't have to make a whole batch of it.
In order to keep the breast meat more moist (no matter how you brine or cook it)after the bird is removed from the oven and allowed to rest make a cut down the breast bone and then around the entire breast.Remove it by hand place it on a cutting board and cut 1/2" "steaks" across the grain. It works very well
Thank you everyone, really so much. I knew I could rely on the vast expertise here. Do you think it's worth it to do a test run? Like try to make a turkey next weekend to see how it goes? (Then again, I'll have to post a question on what to do with all that turkey meat . . . . ) This is literally my first experience cooking poultry, let alone a turkey (am I the only person who has never roasted a chicken?), so all of your advice is really helpful in calming my anxiety. I'm going to get the WF fresh turkey just because I don't want to deal with the whole defrosting for several days issue. I'm sold on brining, and I'm going to get a probe thermometer too and leave the stuffing out. And then I'm going to start praying to the Thanksgiving gods to bless me with a decent turkey.
Until last year, I'd always done turkey they way my mom did, frozen, defrosted, stuffed, into the oven, baste.
Last year I bought a fresh turkey, brined it, cooked it (I think I still stuffed it).
Yes it was very moist and good. Yes it was probably better than the previous turkeys. It cost about 4 or 5 times as much of course. But you know, with all the stuff on the table that's a lot more interesting than the turkey (stuffing, sweet potatoes, beans, cranberry sauce)... do I think anyone *really* cared? Probably not. So don't obsess about the turkey! Feel free to do it the "right" way, but everyone will love it no matter what. It's Thanksgiving after all.
Grubn, all I can say is, relax and enjoy! Thanksgiving was the first proper meal I ever cooked. I have cooked over ten since then, and never have I had much difficulty. This is not because I am such a great cook, I just think it's a pretty easy meal to throw together, even for the uninitiated, once you get going.
I hate to risk jinxing my run, but I have never made a dry turkey. I have always used either fresh from Whole Foods or similar purveyor, or frozen heritage bird from a Virginia farmer. I have tried all sorts of tricks for turkeys--I have draped the bird in cheesecloth soaked in melted butter and white wine a la Martha Stewart, I have roasted stuffed and unstuffed, I have brined, not brined, and dry brined. I grew up on dry turkeys in a household devoid of people who liked to cook, so I know it's theoretically possible. But I think if you put any effort in you won't go wrong.
I would definitely brine, it really brings out the flavor. Last year I tried a modified Zuni style dry-brine--I liberally sprinked the bird (a Red Bourbon) with kosher salt and pepper on Wednesday morning. I then did nothing else and roasted it, unstuffed, in a 425 oven for two hours. That's it. This was the best turkey any of us at our dinner had ever had. I think in large part the bird takes the credit--such depth of flavor, slightly "gamy" in a good way but even the three-year-old at the table had multiple servings.
But I was completely won over by the method as well. It was the most relaxed Thanksgiving day I had ever experienced, and the turkey could not have been better. I had previously always stuffed, but no more. I cooked the stuffing (my husband's favorite food, although last year he said the turkey was even better) in a huge Le Creuset Dutch oven, and it was just about as good.
Have a great time, and report back!
I recall being in your spot several years ago. Then I got the following recipes from the newspaper -- they are great. Cooking just the turkey breast makes life much easier (no worrying about drying out the breast in order to fully cook the thighs). No brining necessary. I get a Diestel's organic breast from Whole foods -- it comes in its own jet net, saving a lot of hassle. (Note: do not remove breast from jet net, just clip away a few strands of the net to push in fruit stuffing, then "sew" up with kitchen twine.) These recipes are from a great restaurant in Austin, Texas, Hudson's on the Bend. (Also, while you don't have to smoke the breast, smoking it does produce great results.)
Smoked Turkey Breast With Brandied Fruit Stuffing
1 cup julienned yellow onions
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1⁄2 cup dried apples, large dice
1⁄2 cup dried apricots, julienned
1⁄2 cup dried golden raisins
1⁄2 cup dried cherries
2 jalapenos, seeded and diced
3⁄4 cup brown sugar
1 cup raspberry vinegar
salt and white pepper to taste
1 cup toasted walnuts
1⁄2 cup brandy
1⁄2 pound applewood smoked bacon, cooked and minced
1 tablespoon Pernod
Caramelize onions and butter. Add garlic and saute briefly. Add fruit, jalapenos, brown sugar and vinegar. Cook over medium heat, stirring. Add salt and white pepper to taste. Remove from heat. Add remaining ingredients. Cool.
5 pound boneless turkey breast in Jet-Net
Brandied Fruit Stuffing
Snip away a few strands of Jet-Net where you can access the interior of the breast. Stuff the breast with as much Brandied Fruit Stuffing as possible. Don’t worry if it oozes out the sides a bit.
Smoke the breast at roughly 300o for 11⁄2 to 2 hours; then roast in oven until internal temperature of meat is at least 145o (meat will continue cooking after it is removed from oven). Allow to sit at least 15 minutes before slicing.
Harvest Cider Sauce:
11⁄2 quarts turkey stock (see below)
1 quart apple juice concentrate
1⁄2 cup garlic, minced
1⁄2 cup shallots, minced
1⁄4 pound turkey livers and giblets
1 cup bourbon
1 tablespoon brown sugar
salt and white pepper to taste
6 tablespoons corn starch
Combine the stock, concentrate, garlic and shallots and bring to a boil in large saucepan; then reduce to simmer. Add gizzards and livers and poach remove them and cool. Dice them finely.
Return sauce to boil and skim any scum. Add bourbon, brown sugar, salt, and pepper, then thicken with cornstarch. Adjust seasonings and add diced livers and gizzards right before serving.
6 turkey legs, roughly chopped
1⁄2 cup white wine
2 ounces oil
4 ribs celery
1 onion, quartered
1 tablespoon peppercorns
3 bulbs garlic
3 bay leaves
11⁄2 gallons water
Heat a roasting pan in a 350o oven. Add oil and heat. Add turkey legs and roast, turning occasionally to brown on all sides, about 2 hours. Deglaze pan with white wine. Transfer legs and liquid to stock pot, and add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, and cook for 2 hours, down to about 3 quarts.
Cornbread Stuffing With Liver Pate
3 onions, diced
1 bunch celery, diced
4 tablespoons garlic, minced
4 tablespoons rubbed sage
1⁄2 pound butter
2 red bell peppers, diced
2 poblano peppers, diced
2 jalapenos, diced
3⁄4 cup liver pate, diced
2 cups corn kernels
16 cups cooked cornbread, crumbled
salt and black pepper to taste
1-2 cups turkey stock
In butter, sauté onions, celery, garlic and sage. Add peppers, sauté briefly, and remove from heat. Add liver and corn. Fold mixture into cornbread, season with salt and pepper, moisten with turkey stock as desired, and turn into a well-buttered 12x18x2 inch pan.
Bake at 350o until hot through and brown on top, about 45 minutes.
Cranberry Sauce With Pinot Noir
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cups cranberries (about 8 ounces)
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 cups Pinot Noir or other dry red wine
11⁄2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons chopped crystallized ginger
1 teaspoon curry powder
Large pinch of Chinese five-spice powder
Heat oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add cranberries and fresh ginger; stir until cranberries begin to burst, about 3 minutes. Add wine and sugar; boil until mixture is reduced to 21⁄2 cups, about 15 minutes. Add crystallized ginger, curry powder and five-spice powder. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 3 days ahead. Cover; chill.) Serve sauce cold or, if desired, rewarm over low heat, stirring often.
Makes 21⁄2 cups.