With cooler air, decorative gourds around every bend, and a plethora of woolly coats in sight, November marks the beginning of the holiday season in the U.S. Thanksgiving conjures up images of family gatherings, sweet seasonal pies, and picture-perfect turkeys straight from the oven — if only that last item were as easy to make into a reality as movies and television would have you believe!
Being tasked with preparing this big autumn feast also means accepting responsibility for producing a 15-pound, golden-brown-on-the-outside, impossibly-juicy-on-the-inside turkey that everyone can ooh and aah about. That’s a lot of pressure. Whether it’s your first time or your tenth time roasting a bird this big, the job is rife with challenges. Luckily, when you do it right, you and your guests are rewarded with dreamy turkey meat that prompts the loosening of belt buckles and halfhearted claims about being "too full" for dessert. (This isn’t true. There’s always room for dessert.)
Between choosing your seasonal turkey and prepping it to roasting and carving, you’d be just as happy if someone else volunteered for the gig. Just kidding! Cooking Thanksgiving turkey is fun and rewarding, and it’s a privilege to be cho- … yada yada yada. To help you produce delicious results on the big day without losing your mind, here is a list of common mistakes to avoid when dealing with this finicky bird.
Not buying your turkey at the right time
If you’re buying frozen turkey like many people do, you can bring yours home up to two weeks in advance and keep it frozen. However, if you opt for a fresh turkey, you’ll lose the convenience of buying that far ahead. With this option, you’ll want to wait until closer to cooking time so the bird doesn’t spoil. Even so, be sure to reserve one at least two weeks before you need it so you know you won’t be left empty-handed. For a cream-of-the-crop turkey from a place like Heritage Foods USA, a gourmet meat and poultry purveyor, expect to place your order about one month in advance. While turkeys are plentiful during other times of the year, demand always seems to increase significantly in November. Plan ahead to reduce turkey-induced stress.
Forgetting to leave time for thawing
Turkeys are big birds, and frozen ones require quite a bit of time to thaw. Don’t give yourself a Thanksgiving heart attack by discovering your turkey is frozen solid on Thursday morning. The safest way to thaw meat and poultry is in the refrigerator, but if you can’t spare the real estate, you can also leave yours in a vessel of cold water sitting at room temperature in the sink. Depending on the size of your turkey, thawing it in the fridge can require anywhere from one to six days. It isn’t hard to skip the annual headache if you’re prepared.
Actually stuffing your bird with stuffing
While the name suggests that it should be cooked inside the turkey, stuffing should actually be prepared separately and not in the cavity. Your turkey is safe to consume once the internal temperature has reached 165°, but there’s no surefire way of know if the turkey-juiced stuffing has reached that temp as well. Avoid the food hazard. Bake your stuffing outside of the bird instead of in. As a bonus, your stuffing definitely won’t be soggy; it’ll be fully cooked, deliciously crispy at the edges, and tender in the center.
Not drying the turkey completely
As with most meats and poultry, a crisp, evenly browned crust on your turkey is the Platonic ideal. In order to achieve this deeply caramelized skin (and decidedly un-soggy meat), it’s crucial that you dry your turkey thoroughly from the inside out. Any remaining moisture interacts with the heat and creates steam instead of browning beautifully. Use clean, dry paper towels to absorb any excess droplets, and you’ll find yourself on your way to Insta-ready turkey for Thanksgiving Day.
Not seasoning the turkey properly
Any self-respecting chef will extol the virtues of seasoning well. Bland turkey is almost as bad as dry turkey. To keep yourself from becoming the victim of a turkey that looks good but tastes blah, remember to season your bird thoroughly — on the inside, too. Start with basic kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper on the outside and in the cavity, then follow your palate for further enhancing the flavors from the inside. While you don’t want to risk cooking stuffing inside your turkey for fear of foodborne illnesses, you still want to infuse the meat with aromatics such as herbs and spices.
Skipping the meat thermometer
There’s no fate worse than carving into your Thanksgiving turkey only to realize that it’s still a little cold and uncooked on the inside. On the flip side, overcooking means the inevitable curse of super-dry meat. This is a common pitfall and a true bummer. To keep you and your loved ones safe during the holidays and enjoy perfectly cooked turkey, be sure to invest in a food thermometer so you can be certain your turkey is cooked through and safe to eat but not too dry. The USDA says 165° is the internal temperature of safe-for-consumption turkey, so get your bird there, get your thermometer to verify it, and then carve away.
Not using a roasting rack
Plop your prepped turkey into a roasting pan, transfer it to the oven, and wait for the good smells. That’s it, right? Nope. You want to make sure you place your turkey on a rack that fits inside the pan. Doing so helps you avoid the sad mess of burnt turkey skin and aridly dry meat — not to mention the need to disassemble your smoke alarm. Oh, there will be smoke if you skip the rack. This roasting rack from the people who bring you the Thanksgiving Day Parade is a classic that’s both effective and affordable.
Roasting a cold turkey
Please, please, please do not roast a cold turkey like it’s no big thang. It is a huge deal! When you’re cooking a protein as large as turkey, there’s an increased risk of uneven cooking. Be sure to allow your turkey to completely come to room temperature before cooking it. Doing so ensures even cooking throughout by eliminating the pockets of varying coldness.
Roasting the turkey at the wrong temp
My philosophy for roasting turkey also applies to baking pie. Anything with a crust — whether it’s turkey skin or buttery pastry — requires extra care where temperature is concerned. You want to brown the crust but not too quickly since the inside might not have fully cooked. The best way to ensure crispy skin and cooked meat? Start your oven off at a high temperature — I recommend 475° — to get that browning crust started. After 15-20 minutes, you’ll notice the skin starting to color. This is the time to reduce the heat to 400° to continue cooking.
Basting your turkey
Sure we’ve all seen characterizations of 1950s housewives meticulously basting their turkeys, but that doesn’t mean you should take your cooking cues from these media images. Frequently opening the oven to baste your turkey means letting heat escape. When you’re aiming for efficient, even cooking, this is the last thing you want. Using the pan drippings to baste your meat theoretically keeps it moist, but it actually just reincorporates moisture into the skin you worked so hard to dry, making it a soggy mess.
Not allowing your turkey to rest before carving
Even if you and your guests are eager to eat, set the finished turkey aside for 10-15 minutes before carving it. The wait time will make dinner all the more delicious. This resting period allows the released juices inside the turkey to absorb back into the meat, making it tender and juicy. Once you go to carve, you’ll happily discover that the flavorful juices are trapped in the turkey meat instead of splattered on the platter.
Butchering your turkey to oblivion
Admittedly, I am a terrible turkey carver, but my dad is skilled at carving meat. I’ve been a witness to the art is all I’m saying. If, like me, this isn’t your strongest suit, I suggest letting someone else do the honors. Hey, you already made the whole turkey. What else do these people want? If you want to try your hand at it anyway, here are some detailed tips from the folks at Fine Cooking magazine on how to effectively carve and serve turkey.
Here’s hoping you’ll turn out a spectacular turkey on the big day. I have a good feeling about this. Happy Thanksgiving!