How to Cook the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey
Thanksgiving turkey is one of the best-loved holiday dishes, but did you know thereâ€™s more than one way to cook it up? If youâ€™re in charge of the turkey this year, consider putting a twist on your traditional turkey with one of the techniques below for prepping, stuffing, cooking and serving.
No matter your chosen cooking method, brining the turkey beforehand will help your bird lock in moisture, resulting in juicier meat. Brining also adds flavor to what can be a relatively bland protein. There are two ways to brine:
- Wet-brining involves submerging an entire turkey in a solution of water, salt and sugar, then refrigerating it up to 48 hours. This works well if you have a container large enough for the turkey and brine, as well as enough space in a refrigerator to store it all for two days. You can also brine in a large cooler, provided you are vigilant about keeping it cold with frequent ice refills.
- Dry-brining requires less space as it only involves refrigerating a turkey. Place the turkey on a rack on a baking sheet, then rub a mixture of salt, sugar, spices and herbs under its skin. Place the baking sheet on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator and let it brine for two or three days. The brining salt draws moisture out of the meat, allowing the turkey to brine in its own juices. As expected, the resulting meat is juicy and flavorful.
Stuffed or Unstuffed?
One of the biggest quandaries for the host can be deciding whether to cook your stuffing in the turkeyâ€™s cavity or in a separate dish alongside. Food safety experts will always recommend roasting your turkey unstuffed, since itâ€™s easier to ensure that both the meat and the stuffing are cooked through. Both need to be cooked to 165Â°F, and cooking each dish separately offers you more control.
The tried-and-true cooking method for turkey is a long, slow roast. Temperature and time recommendations are included on turkey packaging, eliminating any guesswork on your part. If your turkey comes frozen, thawing it completely is important, so plan on 6 hours thawing time per pound in the refrigerator (unwrapped and on the bottom shelf in a pan to catch drippings). Plan roasting time accordingly, as larger turkeys may need up to 6 hours in the oven. Going for that final 165Â°F in the thigh meat is the goal. (Removing the turkey from the oven at 160Â°F and letting it rest 20 minutes will get you there.) Though the white breast meat may overcook by the time the darker meat reaches temperature, there are ways to get around this.
- Brining keeps moisture locked in the meat, preventing the turkey from drying out in the oven.
- Basting at the end of cooking time and drizzling sliced meat with warm chicken broth or turkey stock can also replace any lost moisture.
- Aluminum foil placed strategically over turkey parts that are browning too quickly can prevent the bird from overcooking.
- Cooking breast-side-down, then flipping for the last 20-30 minutes can also help the meat cook more evenly, though the bigger the bird, the more challenging this task is.
Another way around overcooked white meat and/or undercooked dark meat is to cook the legs and wings longer than the breast. This method involves extra steps, but offers a path to moist and tender white and dark meat. Place the turkey in a roasting pan, then fill the pan halfway with a mixture of wine and stock. After a brief stovetop boil, braise the turkey in the oven until the breast is almost cooked through. The breast is then removed and the legs and wings returned to the oven until they are done as well. Return the breast to the pan and broil briefly to bring it all to temperature and brown the meat. Then just slice and arrange the meat on a serving platter. This method wonâ€™t give you a full bird to bring to the table, but itâ€™s a good way to ensure that both white and dark meat lovers are happy.
Grilling Your Turkey
One of the biggest advantages to grilling a turkey is freeing up the oven for all of your sides! Itâ€™s harder in cooler temperatures and requires a large grill, but grilling an entire turkey over indirect heat promises a smoky flavor and juicy meat. Recipes found online or in print will provide temperatures and times.
Smoked turkeys promise amazing flavor, but this advanced method requires special equipment and plenty of time. Make sure to brine before smoking!
Spatchcocking (also known as butterflying) is another route to evenly cooked white and dark meat and is easier than it sounds: You remove the backbone of the bird, then lay the turkey flat on a rack in a roasting pan to cook up tender, juicy meat. Use a sharp knife to cut along both sides of the backbone for removal, then lay the turkey flat, breast-side-up, on the rack of a roasting pan. The meat will all cook at the same rate, and as bonus, there will be plenty of crispy skin on top. This method also can shave hours off a traditionally long cooking time, roasting an entire turkey in under two hours. A layer of chopped vegetables (onions, carrots, celery) placed under the roasting rack adds flavor and the veggies will absorb any drippings, preventing a scorched pan. Another upside: the removed backbone is available to flavor DIY stock for your gravy. The biggest drawback may be not having a whole turkey to present to your table, but you can easily slice and arrange the meat attractively on a platter for passing.
Starring Cranberry Sauce
Making your own cranberry sauce is incredibly simple and its fresh and vibrant colors and flavors will impress all your guests. But there are other ways for cranberry sauce to shine on your Thanksgiving table as well.
- Stir a few spoonfuls into whipped cream-based fruit salads for extra tang and a lovely pink color.
- Pre-meal, serve crackers topped with a spread of feta cheese and a dab of cranberry sauce.
- Give bottled vinaigrette salad dressing a colorful upgrade by stirring in a tablespoon or so of cranberry sauce.
- Pumpkin pie may reign supreme among Thanksgiving desserts, but you can also mix things up by spreading the bottom of a graham-cracker crust with cranberry sauce, then layering with softened vanilla ice cream, more cranberry sauce, more ice cream, whipped cream and a final drizzle of chocolate sauce. Freeze solid before serving.
- Stir together a few tablespoons of cranberry sauce and a stick of softened butter for a sweet and tangy twist on table butter.