Thanksgiving is all about the turkey, so you don’t want a big bird blunder to overshadow the rest of your painstakingly prepared meal.
Fortunately avoiding these common turkey-cooking mistakes is pretty simple. Once you know them, you’ll never have to worry about serving a subpar bird.
1. You choose the wrong turkey
The type of turkey you choose really does matter. For the best flavor, order a heritage breed bird. If that option is a little too pricey (or it’s already too late — they go fast), look for a free-range or organic turkey. If that still won’t do, kosher turkeys are a great option. But if you avoid the following pitfalls, even your standard grocery-store turkey will come out tasting great, if not as totally over-the-top tasty as a fancy heritage breed.
2. You forgo a brine
Brining can seem like a lot of work, especially if you don’t have a ton of fridge space. But a wet or dry brine can make a huge difference in how juicy of a turkey you end up serving on Thanksgiving. Once you try a dry brine, you’ll be hooked. Just be careful to not brine a kosher turkey or a turkey with added water and salt.
3. You forget to thaw it
There are many techniques for thawing a turkey, but most of them don’t account for what you should do if you fail to start days before Thanksgiving. If you’re pressed for time, try this quick-thaw method, which will help you thaw a 12-pound turkey in six hours instead of three days.
4. You don’t truss
Trussing isn’t just a way to make your bird look fancy (although it does help give it that traditional plump look). With the turkey legs pulled closer to the body of the bird, it’s more uniformly dense and cooks more evenly. Try this trussing method for a juicy and, well, voluptuous-looking bird. Then again, there are arguments against trussing. Regardless, do make an informed decision.
5. You fill it with stuffing
Stuffing is delicious, but actually, cooking stuffing inside your turkey isn’t a great idea. Not only will it make your turkey internally bulkier, resulting in a longer cooking time, but it’s also hard to make the stuffing reach a safe temperature before the meat is done. Instead, cook your stuffing (or dressing) in a separate pan, and fill your turkey’s cavity loosely with just a few aromatics instead of the dense bread.
6. You underseason
On its own, turkey has a very mild flavor that tastes best when well seasoned. For the simplest approach, rub butter all over the skin, and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. For extra flavor, make a compound butter (butter mixed with minced herbs or other flavorings), and rub that under the skin of the bird, right against the meat. You can insert fresh herbs and thin citrus slices under the skin as well. Inside the bird’s cavity, forgo stuffing, and fill loosely with a halved apple, a lemon and a few handfuls of fresh herbs like parsley, sage and thyme. As the bird cooks, these ingredients will steam, flavoring the turkey from the inside out while keeping it moist.
7. You baste your bird
Basting doesn’t keep your turkey moist. In fact, opening the oven door repeatedly causes your oven’s temperature to drop, meaning you have to keep your bird in the oven for longer. This longer cooking time may cause your meat to dry out.
8. You use the thermometer that came with your turkey
Don’t use the thermometer that comes with your turkey. Half of the time they’re broken, but even when they do work, they trick you into roasting too long. That’s because the pop-up style thermometers are usually set to alert you when the bird has reached 180-185 degrees F. In actuality, you should take your turkey out of the oven when it reaches 160 degrees F. It will reach around 180 while it rests. Letting the turkey cook in the oven to 180 degrees F will mean nothing but dry, dry meat. Instead of relying on the pop-up, use a probe thermometer for the most accurate reading.
9. You forget to wait
The temptation to cut into your turkey as soon as it’s out of the oven is strong, especially when you have hungry guests watching your every move. But everyone will benefit if you let your turkey rest for at least 20 but up to 40 minutes. This will allow for all the turkey’s juices to be redistributed throughout the meat, so it’s nice and juicy when you finally carve it.
10. You carve it wrong
Believe it or not, there is a right and a wrong way to carve a turkey — as anyone who has wound up with a ragged pile of shredded meat instead of a perfectly sliced platter can tell you. Learn the dos and don’ts of carving a turkey, and this year your serving plate will be picture perfect.