There is probably no culinary challenge in this world more daunting than cooking your first turkey. But take a deep breath and relax; we’re here to talk you through it.
As with any meat, there isn’t just one way to cook a turkey. You can do it in a multitude of ways depending on what result you want. But to get the ball rolling, let’s start with the traditional method of a nice oven-roasted turkey.
Traditional roast turkey
The important thing to remember with a roast turkey is it really isn’t as overwhelming as it may initially seem. Once your cooking calculations are done, it’s just a little bit of prep work and a touch of basting, and the bird is good to go. So don’t stress — you’ve got this.
- 1 turkey (count on 1 pound per person or 1-1/2 pounds if you want leftovers)
- 1 large roasting pan with a wire rack
- 1 turkey baster
- Cooking string
- Stuffing (of your choosing, optional)
- If you’re working with a frozen turkey, it is absolutely crucial that it thaws completely before use. Thawing takes about 5 hours in the refrigerator for every 5 pounds of meat. Two days should be suitable for most birds. Thawing should always be done in the fridge, never on the counter. If you do need it to thaw a little more quickly, place it in the sink in cool water, and change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey has thawed completely.
- Place the oven rack on the lower shelf so the turkey will fit into the oven easily. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
- Reach into the turkey, and remove the giblets (i.e., neck, heart, liver, etc.). Rinse the inside and outside of the bird. If stuffing, insert it through both ends of the bird, and firmly pack it in. Make your stuffing right before putting the bird into the oven, never in advance. If you’re not using stuffing, season the inside of the bird with salt and pepper. You can also place a peeled onion in there for added moisture. Using the cooking string, tie the legs and tail together, and place a skewer into the neck to close it up.
- Place the turkey on the rack in the roasting pan with the breast facing up. Cover lightly with aluminum foil, then place the turkey into oven.
- As the turkey cooks, it will release juices. Every 45 minutes, remove the turkey from the oven, close the oven door, and use the turkey baster to distribute the juices over the whole bird. This is crucial to ensure it stays moist.
- Plan on about 20 minutes of cook time for every pound of meat. About a half hour before the expected done-time arrives, begin checking the temperature of the bird both in the breast and thighs. Once all points have reached a temperature of about 165 degrees F, the turkey is done and can be removed from the oven. Don’t wait for it to go over 170 degrees, or it may overcook.
- Remove the turkey from the oven, and let it sit for 30 minutes. Transferring the turkey from the pan to the cutting area can be a challenge, so you may want to enlist the help of someone else to hold down the rack while you pull the turkey out. You can cut and serve it immediately or keep cuttings on a dish in the oven on low heat until ready to eat.
Once you’ve tried the basic route, you can consider getting a little more courageous with your cooking methods. If you have a barbecue pit or smoker, you can cook the turkey at a low temperature for a longer period of time (about 1 hour per pound at 250 degrees F). Or you can experiment with high-heat roasting, where you cook the turkey in just a couple of hours by cranking the oven as high as it will go. Or if you really feel like expanding your waistline this holiday and are a risk taker, you can even consider deep frying your turkey. Alternatively, to keep things simple, basic swaps on the herbs used to rub down your turkey as well as what you put in your stuffing are great places to start.