It's worthwhile taking time-saving shortcuts on Thanksgiving—as long as they work, of course. We encourage you to read through these 10 frequently asked questions to ensure your Thanksgiving timeline aligns with what we've learned after decades of experience in the test kitchen.
1. How should you defrost a frozen turkey?
Believe it or not, a frozen turkey can take up to 5 days to defrost. That’s because you MUST defrost the turkey in a refrigerator. (Set the turkey on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any drips.) Plan on one day for every four pounds. For example, a 12-pound bird needs three full days. If you’re brining or salting the bird a day or two ahead, work backwards from the time you plan to start brining, not the time you plan to serve the bird.
2. How do I fit the brining bucket with the turkey in my fridge?
Unless you have an extra refrigerator in the basement or garage, you probably don’t have room for a big bucket. We suggest a large insulated cooler, with some ice packs. The temperature will stay below 40 degrees and your refrigerator space won’t be compromised. When you’re done, make sure to wash the empty cooler with hot, soapy water.
3. How can I prevent breast meat from overcooking?
Both brining and starting the bird breast-side down allow the white meat to stay juicy and tender while the dark meat fully cooks. If you skip brining, the turkey will be bland and the white meat will be so dry that it will need to be smothered in gravy to be edible. In addition to brining, starting the bird breast side down and then flipping it is key to getting the legs to cook faster than the breast meat. If you skip this step (and simply cook the turkey breast side up, as recommended in most recipes), you will need to overcook the white meat while you wait for the dark meat to come up to temperature.
4. Can I rely on the thermometer already in the turkey?
The pop-up thermometers inserted in the breasts on many turkeys are generally set to pop when the temperature reaches 178 degrees. Since we recommending removing the turkey from the oven when the breast reaches 160 degrees, relying on these thermometers will guarantee an overcooked bird. Don’t bother removing the thermometer before the turkey goes into the oven. Just ignore it until carving time.
5. Do I need to truss the turkey?
It depends on what you mean by trussing. Traditionally, turkeys were tied up tight with string, but we’ve found that this can prevent the dark meat from cooking through. These days we simply tuck the wing tips under the bird (to prevent the tips from burning), and tuck the legs into the skin at the tail. If there’s not enough skin at the tail to hold the legs securely, we simply tie the ends of the legs together.
6. Do I have to baste the turkey?
Despite what you’ve been told, basting does nothing to moisten dry breast meat. The liquid simply runs off the turkey, at the same time turning the skin chewy and leathery. Basting also requires that you frequently open and close the oven, which slows down the cooking time—meaning you won’t be sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner anytime soon.
7. Can I peel potatoes in advance?
Once peeled, potatoes will turn brown. You can keep this process at bay by placing the peeled whole potatoes into a bowl of cold water and refrigerating them for up to 24 hours.
8. What’s the best way to fix lumpy gravy?
Our recipe will yield lump-free results! But if your recipe turns out lumpy, throw the gravy in a blender (filled no more than halfway).
9. What if I don’t own a fat separator?
Gravies, stocks, and soups often call for a fat separator to skim fat from pan drippings or liquids. If you don’t have a fat separator, we advise using a large cooking spoon to skim the fat from the surface after it’s settled. Just turn off the heat and let the liquid settle for 10 minutes. The fat will naturally rise to the top. If the pan drippings are in a wide roasting pan, pour them into a measuring cup before defatting.
10. Do I really need to use pie weights?
When prebaking a pie shell for pecan or pumpkin pie, we prefer ceramic or metal pie weights to those old standbys, rice and beans. Pie weights conduct heat better and ensure better browning. If you don’t have pie weights, use pennies instead. The metal is a better conductor of heat than rice or beans. Make sure to line the raw pie shell with a sheet of foil and place the weights or pennies on top. Once the crust is set, use the foil to remove the weights and continue to bake the pie shell as directed in recipes.