Anyone can bring a side dish to a Thanksgiving (or Friendsgiving) feast, but if you’re the one preparing the turkey, there’s a whole lot of tradition that needs to be accounted for. Whether it’s brined, rubbed, basted, spatchcocked, or otherwise, everyone has an opinion about how the bird should be cooked. We’ve all had good turkey and we’ve all had turkey that misses the mark.
The meaty centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table comes with a gravy boat full of expectation. We want that glossy, mahogany bird with crisp skin and a moist interior that’s not a minute overdone—and in this day and age, one that also photographs fabulously on Instagram. And that’s a hard bill to deliver, even if it’s your 100th bird.
No matter if you’re a seasoned cook or a newbie, arm yourself with these five essential tips for roasting the perfect Thanksgiving turkey.
Choosing the Turkey: 1 Pound per Person
The rule of thumb when it comes to turkey is to assume a pound a person. (Sixteen people equals a 16-pound turkey.) To ensure next-day turkey sandwiches and other grand plans for your leftover meat, The Kitchn suggests 1½ pounds per person. If you’re hosting a smaller affair—with six or fewer people—Martha Stewart suggests two pounds per person because smaller birds tend to have a greater bone-to-meat ratio. (Photo: Popsugar)
Thawing a Frozen Turkey: Keep it Cold
While it seems counterintuitive, the best way to defrost your bird is to keep it cold. Because most butterballs are so massive, thawing them the conventional way—on your kitchen countertop or alone in your sink—makes it vulnerable to food-borne bacteria (read food poisoning your guests). We recommend thawing in your refrigerator, allowing 24 hours for every four to five pounds; but depending on how much time you have before the big day, you can put your store-packaged bird in a sink or cooler with cold water (make sure to change it out every 30 minutes)—you need about 30 minutes in the cold-water bath for every pound. (The New York Times recommends using ice or ice packs to keep the water at a steady 40 degrees.)
If you’re really in a pinch, the USDA says you can microwave your bird, but overnuking will ultimately make your turkey tough. Fitting it in the microwave might also be a challenge. (Photo: Everyday with Rachel Ray)
Brining: It’s Up to You
Before you brine (or before you choose not to brine), you first need to clean your bird. Our sources are pretty split on whether or not rinsing off the turkey is necessary—a long cycle in the oven will kill any harmful bacteria, says The New York Times—but make sure to remove any giblets from inside the bird before it goes into a brine or gets filled with stuffing. (Those giblets are a great addition to a turkey stock or stuffing.)
Some say brining a day before is the only way to get moist, well-seasoned meat. Others think it’s a total mess and a waste of time. It’s a personal choice. Brining is a great opportunity to infuse your bird with unique flavor—Design Mom used leeks, garlic, and aromatics, and Bon Appétit likes star anise, soy sauce, and ginger for an Asian flair—but there are a number of other ways of seasoning your turkey, like rubbing the skin (and under the skin) with spices. Choose what’s best for the amount of time you’re working with, and the kitchen you’re cooking in. (Photo: Design Mom)
Roasting Your Bird: 165°F = Done
Find a pan that fits your bird—it’s the best way to preserve the pan juices, which are essential for basting and making delicious gravy. While it’s not totally essential to cook in a formal roasting pan, it should be at least 1½ inches high around the sides, and large enough to lay down your turkey. Prop the bird up on a roasting rack or pile sturdy vegetables (carrots, celery, and onions are fine) to ensure the whole thing has a chance to get crisp. Then stick it a hot oven.
While the bird roasts, dribble the pan juices all over the skin every 30 minutes, using a large spoon or a baster. Basting helps the meat cook more evenly and, as the pan juices evaporate, they will flavor and color the skin. For a color boost, brush the skin with maple syrup and butter just before pulling it out of the oven.
Use the cooking time as guidelines, not hard rules for when to pull the turkey out of the oven. Depending on how evenly your oven cooks, this could be between an half hour to an hour earlier or later than what the cooking instructions advise. For best results, insert a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh just between where the thigh stops and the breast begins. When it reads 165°F, your turkey is ready to come out of the oven. Cover the outside with foil and let it rest for 30 minutes to allow all the juices to redistribute inside the bird. (Photo: Bon Appétit)
Carving the Turkey: Remove the Breast First
Disassemble your bird like a pro by removing the breast first. We recommend cutting along the breast bone, then along the structure of the ribs. From there, slice the breast on diagonal. Cut away the drumstick from the thigh by slicing it at the joint, and separate the thigh from the body by pulling it away with your hands or a fork and cutting through the final bit of bit. Reserve the carcass for stock or soup. Present on a cutting board or a large platter, then feast. (Photo: Food Network)