Thanksgiving is, for many, the biggest food-focused holiday of the year. And the biggest, most scrutinized item on the menu? The turkey. This centerpiece has the ability to steal the show with crispy, burnished skin and moist, perfectly cooked meat. To make sure your turkey lives up to the hype, we’ve compiled a list of tips based on our collective years of turkey cooking experience, both in and out of the test kitchen. Here’s what you need to know.
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Buy the Right Size Turkey
To make sure you’ll have enough turkey for all your guests (and some for the best part of Thanksgiving: the leftovers), follow our guidance below.
For 10 to 12 servings: 12–15 pounds
For 14 to 16 servings: 15–18 pounds
For 20 to 22 servings: 18–22 pounds
Bone-In Turkey Breast
For 8 to 10 servings: 6–7 pounds
Boneless Turkey Breast
For 6 to 8 servings: 3–4 pounds
Thawing, brining, dry-rubbing . . . these things all take time. Be sure to assess your turkey and your recipes well in advance, so you’ll know if you need to get going days in advance. Plan on one day of defrosting for every 4 pounds of turkey. So if you have a 12-pound frozen turkey, you’ll want to transfer it to the fridge on Monday so it’s ready to cook on Thanksgiving Day. But if you’re planning to do an overnight brine, you need to take that into account and start defrosting the bird on Sunday.
Don’t Stuff the Bird
We know this is controversial; some people absolutely love stuffing cooked inside the turkey, but that’s a pretty surefire way to end up with overcooked turkey. By the time the stuffing comes to a safe temperature, the meat will be overdone.
Instead, bake your stuffing, or dressing, in a dish alongside the turkey or while the turkey rests. Instead of wet, mushy stuffing, you’ll get a nice dish of baked stuffing with a crispy crust.
If you simply must stuff, once the turkey is cooked, remove it from the oven, scoop out the stuffing, and transfer the stuffing to a baking dish. Bake it until it reaches a safe serving temperature of 165 degrees.
Keep Tabs on the Turkey
This one might seem obvious, but it’s very easy to get distracted and take your eye off the prize, especially on Thanksgiving Day. Don’t take your eye off the prize! Stay focused, and keep your instant-read thermometer close by (don’t trust the pop-up thermometer in the turkey breast). Always err on the side of caution and check the bird early, since different factors can affect the cooking time.
Turkey is done when the breasts register 160 degrees and the thighs register 175 degrees. Check the temperatures of the breast and thigh on both sides of the bird.
To take the temperature of the breast, insert the thermometer at the neck end, holding it parallel to the bird. To take the temperature of the thigh, insert the thermometer between the breast and drumstick and into the thickest part of the thigh, staying away from the bone.
Baste = Waste
This one is really going to save you some time and agony. Basting isn’t worth it. Truly. The liquid simply runs off the turkey, so it doesn’t moisten the meat at all. It actually causes a problem: It turns the skin chewy and leathery. So instead of constantly running over to open and close the oven, which will only let heat out and delay the turkey, maybe grab a glass of wine and put your feet up for a couple minutes.
Give It a Rest
A large bird like a turkey needs at least a 30-minute rest to allow the meat time to reabsorb the juices. Cut into it too soon and the juices will run all over your carving board. That’s not helpful to anyone. But let it rest, and the juices will remain in the meat and it will be moist and succulent. And don’t worry about leaving the turkey to rest for even longer; it will stay hot for quite some time. So if you want to set it aside while you’re heating up side dishes, it will be just fine. Serve it with some piping-hot gravy.