5 Ways to Prevent Your Turkey from Drying Out

Don’t be disappointed by yet another dry turkey this year.

Published Nov. 2, 2022.

Turkey is the centerpiece of many a Thanksgiving spread. All that crackly skin encasing juicy meat, just waiting for carving (and eating!).

But how disappointing is it to spend so much time defrosting, brining, trussing, and roasting a 20-lb bird just for the results to be dry and stringy?

No more. 

Here are five ways to keep that turkey juicy so that it can be the showstopping centerpiece it was always meant to be. (And no, the answer isn’t basting.)

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1. Cook Pieces Instead of a Whole Turkey

Sure, a whole turkey looks impressive and fills up the table, but by the time the dark meat is ready, the light meat is often overcooked.

Instead, this Thanksgiving, purchase turkey parts rather than an entire turkey. In addition to shortening your cooking time, this gives you the freedom to select cuts of meat you know your guests will enjoy. And best of all, you don’t have to stress about carving a whole bird—just arrange the parts on a platter and no one will know the difference. 

Put those turkey parts to good use by making Turkey Confit with them. Here's how.

2. If Cooking a Whole Turkey, Buy Frozen

Most “fresh” turkeys at the supermarket are stored around freezing temperatures. In these conditions, the turkeys can thaw and refreeze, repeatedly. All that contracting and expansion of the ice in the turkey meat can damage the cell membranes, resulting in a dry and mushy turkey.

Choose instead to purchase a frozen turkey (we recommend heritage turkeys, if you can find them) and thaw it yourself, just once.  

Always thaw your turkey in the refrigerator for food safety. Plan on a defrosting time of at least one day for every 5 pounds of turkey (round up if needed); this gives you some leeway as well as time to brine or salt the turkey, if desired. For example, if you have a 12-pound turkey, you'll need three full days to thaw it completely.

If you forgot this step, it is possible to thaw your turkey at the last minute, although it's much more labor intensive.

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3. Ditch the Plastic Pop-Up Timer; Use an Instant-Read Thermometer Instead

Do you see the little plastic thermometer that comes in the turkey you purchased? Pull it out and throw it away. It’s designed to pop out when the turkey reaches an internal temperature of 178 degrees F. By then, your meat will be practically cardboard.  

Choose instead to temp the turkey with an instant-read thermometer. You’ll get an accurate read in seconds. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Remove the turkey from the oven (safety first, people).
  2. Insert the thermometer into both sides of the breast meat, taking care not to hit the bone (this can result in an inaccurate temperature reading). You’re looking for an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.
  3. Repeat with the thickest part of the thigh meat. You’re looking for an internal temperature between 170-175 degrees F. 
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4. Elevate the Legs

You may have noticed the 10-degree temperature difference between a ready-to-eat turkey thigh and breast. Keep your breast from drying out before the dark meat is done by elevating or trussing the legs. Exposing the legs to more heat allows them to cook at the same rate as the breast meat. Combined with a good rub or brine, you’ll have a supermoist turkey everyone can enjoy.

5. Let the Turkey Rest

Once you’ve temped your turkey and confirmed it’s done, let it rest. Give the meat 45 minutes to reabsorb all those juices. If you cut into it right out of the oven, the juice dribbles out onto the cutting board—you want all those juices to stay in the meat (plus, it makes a mess otherwise). And don't cover the turkey during its rest, it just makes the skin soggy.

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