Look, we get it: Making Thanksgiving dinner can be challenging. Sure, none of the classic recipes are that complicated on their own, but getting them all on the table at the same time while keeping everyone happy and feeling sane can be tricky — and the meal's main star, the turkey, takes some planning. Don't panic. Check out our tried-and-tested turkey cooking tips for how to season a turkey, what mistakes to avoid, how to cook a turkey, how to know when your turkey is done, and everything in between — and you'll be a Thanksgiving pro in no time.
Choose the right size turkey
If you're buying a whole turkey (read: not just the breast), figure 1 pound (uncooked) per person. If you have more than 12 to 14 people, consider getting one 12- to 14-pound turkey, and then a turkey breast. It will take less time to cook both the whole turkey and the breast than it would to cook up a super large bird. Plus, depending on the size of your oven, you can likely cook them both at the same time. For the breast, count on just 1/2 pound per person.
Plan for the long thaw
If you buy a frozen turkey, allow 24 hours for each 4 pounds of weight. So if you do opt for a 20-pound turkey, it needs to start its fridge thaw (never thaw at room temperature) on Saturday morning to be ready to roast on Thursday.
Season, season, season!
Turkey is pretty bland and needs some seasoning to help. Most herbs you might have on hand during Thanksgiving (think: rosemary, thyme, and sage) will work great. Stuff them into the cavity of the bird (about 12 sprigs total), along with a quartered onion. If you have an extra head of garlic, cut it in half and pop that in (skin and all!), too. You can also add a halved lemon or small orange. As the turkey roasts, the seasonings in the cavity will flavor the rest of the bird.
Use a roasting rack
The rack helps keep the bottom of your turkey from steaming and sticking to the bottom of the pan. No rack? No worries! Just cut onions into 3/4-inch thick slices, arrange in two parallel rows, and place the bird on top. Or, try this trick from our 1968 issue: Create a bed of celery stalks and carrots to elevate your roast — and you'll have extra flavorful veggies to use later, too.
Forget about basting
While it is true that basting can help to keep the turkey evenly brown, it has little — if anything! —to do with keeping the bird moist and juicy. In fact, opening the door for frequent basting lowers the oven temperature, which may prolong the overall cooking time of your bird. Instead, we rub the bird with olive oil and butter before roasting, which helps produce that crisp, golden brown skin.
Take its temperature
Roasting a turkey is not something most of us do regularly and tricks like jiggling the leg, using the 15-minutes-a-pound rule, or even keeping your eye on that plastic popper are just not exact enough to make sure you don't get all of your guests sick. All sorts of factors from fridge temperature to oven accuracy will affect how your bird cooks. An instant read thermometer is your friend here. You can know that your turkey is done cooking when you insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of its thigh (without touching the bone) and the temperature reads 165°F. Its juices should also run clear when this part of its thigh is pierced with the tip of a knife.
Let it rest
Letting the bird, or any piece of meat, rest allows the juices (read: moisture) to redistribute. If you carve too soon, the liquid will be mostly on the cutting board and your meat will be dry. So, don't make the mistake of rushing the resting period. When you take it out of the oven, carefully tilt the turkey to empty the juices from the cavity into the pan (you'll want to save these juices for your gravy). Transfer the turkey to a carving board set within a rimmed baking sheet. This will catch the bird's juices while it rests and as you're carving, which you can also add to your gravy (and won't have to mop off the floor!). Cover loosely with foil and let the turkey rest at least 30 minutes before carving.
Do not carve the turkey at the table
Yes, that's how they do it in the movies — but, unless you have a resident surgeon who wants to show off her skills, it's better to carve your turkey in the kitchen. For our foolproof carving method, follow these steps: First, remove the twine. Then, remove the legs. Cut down in between where the leg meets the breast to remove the entire leg. Transfer to another cutting board. Repeat with the other leg. Next, remove the breast and the wing. Cut along one side of the breast bone and using the non-knife hand, gently pull the breast meat away from the bone. Cut as closely to the bone and ribs as possible, and then cut through the wing joint. Transfer to the other cutting board. Next, separate the drumsticks from the thighs. Transfer the drumsticks to a platter. Remove the thigh bones, then slice the thigh meat and transfer to the platter. Remove the wings from the breasts and transfer to the platter, if your family and guests like the wings. Now, all that's left is the breast. Slice the turkey breast crosswise (that is against the grain), and arrange on the platter. Garnish with herbs and fresh fruit (oranges, clementines, figs, or grapes) for an equally pretty presentation.
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