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What You've Always Wanted to Know About Turkey

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

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What's the difference between brining and salting? Is it better to stuff the turkey or serve dressing? And all the turkey know-how you need between now and Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving can bring lots of turkey-related anxiety. Cooking a big bird is no small feat, especially given that a whole roasted turkey is probably not in your weekly dinner rotation. But that doesn’t mean it has to be difficult or intimidating, and to make sure you’re in the best possible position come Turkey Day, we’ve put together a list of common questions. Our answers are culled from the many turkey tests we’ve conducted over the years.

You can find more recipe ideas, kitchen tips, and a cooking timeline on our online Thanksgiving Guide.

Happy Thanksgiving from America's Test Kitchen to your kitchen.

What can the label tell me about my turkey?

Not all turkeys are the same, and the differences are spelled out on the label. The most common commercial turkey, the Broad-Breasted White, contains up to 70 percent white meat. Other breeds of turkey, called heritage birds, contain more dark meat.

The terms “kosher” and “prebasted” refer to the way the turkey was prepared. Prebasted turkeys have been injected with a mixture of salt, turkey broth, oil, sugar, and sodium phosphate to enhance flavor. Kosher birds are processed according to Jewish dietary law and under rabbinical supervision. The carcasses are covered in kosher salt and then rinsed multiple times in cold water, which works to season the meat, improve its texture, and help it retain moisture.

What’s the best way to thaw a frozen turkey?

Defrost the turkey in the refrigerator, calculating one day of defrosting for every 4 pounds of turkey. Say you’re cooking a 12-pound turkey. The frozen bird should be placed in the refrigerator on Monday so that it’s defrosted and ready to cook on Thanksgiving Day. If you plan on brining your bird the night before the big day (see question below), start thawing that 12-pound bird on Sunday.

What if I don’t thaw the turkey ahead of time?

Don’t panic. You can still save the situation. Fill a large bucket with cold water. Place the turkey (still in its original wrapper) in the bucket and let thaw for 30 minutes per pound; a 12-pound bird, for example, would take 6 to 8 hours. Change the cold water every half hour to guard against bacteria growth.

What are the turkey parts included with my bird? Do I use them or throw them away?

The turkey's cavities often contain the neck, heart, gizzard (part of the bird's stomach), and liver. Don’t be intimidated: The heart, neck, and gizzard are flavor powerhouses that can greatly enhance your gravy. We brown, then sweat and discard them to extract meaty flavor. The liver, however, has a potent, unpleasant flavor that can ruin a good gravy; do not use it.

What does salting a turkey do?

Salting poultry in advance is one way to season the meat and keep it juicy. When salt is applied to raw poultry, juices inside are drawn to the surface. The salt then dissolves in the exuded liquid, forming a brine that is eventually reabsorbed by the poultry. The salt changes the structure of the muscle proteins, allowing them to hold on to more of their own natural juices.

Salting requires time, but it won’t thwart the goal of crispy skin. We prefer to use kosher salt for salting because it’s easier to distribute the salt evenly. We use Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt; if using Morton Kosher Salt, reduce the amount listed by 33 percent (e.g. use 2/3 teaspoon Morton Kosher Salt or 1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal).

For salting a whole turkey: Apply 1 teaspoon salt per pound evenly inside cavity and under skin of breasts and legs, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and let rest in refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours.

What does brining a turkey do?

Brining works in much the same way as salting. Salt in the brine seasons the poultry and promotes a change in its protein structure, reducing its overall toughness and creating gaps that fill up with water and keep the meat juicy and flavorful. Brining works faster than salting and can also result in juicier lean cuts since it adds, versus merely retains, moisture. But note that brining inhibits browning, and it requires fitting a brining container in fridge. We prefer to use table salt for brining since it dissolves quickly in the water.

  • 1 whole turkey (12 to 17 pounds): Brine in 2 gallons cold water and 1 cup table salt for 6 to 12 hours
  • 1 whole turkey (18 to 24 pounds): Brine in 3 gallons of cold water and 1 1/2 cups table salt for 6 to 12 hours
  • 1 bone-in turkey breast (6 to 8 pounds): Brine in 1 gallon of cold water and 1/2 cup table salt for 3 to 6 hours

How should I brine a turkey?

Keep the turkey in the refrigerator while brining to keep it at a safe temperature. If your refrigerator is full, use a big cooler and ice packs. Don’t leave the turkey in the brine longer than we suggest or it will be too salty. At the recommended hour, rinse off the salty water and pat the turkey dry with paper towels.

Is it better to stuff the turkey or serve dressing?

In the test kitchen, we prefer to cook the stuffing, or dressing, separately. Cooking the stuffing inside the bird to a safe internal temperature takes too long: By the time the stuffing is safe to eat, the meat is overcooked. Instead we bake our dressing in a dish alongside the turkey, or while the turkey rests. The crisp crust is a bonus. Still, we recognize that every family has its own Thanksgiving traditions. If yours demands a stuffed bird, take the turkey out of the oven when the meat is done, scoop out the stuffing, and finish baking it in a dish while the turkey rests. Stuffing should reach a minimum temperature of 165 degrees.

Do I need to truss the bird?

To prevent the legs from splaying open, which could make them cook unevenly, we tuck them into the pocket of skin at the tail end. Not all turkeys have such a pocket. If yours doesn’t, tie the ankles together with kitchen twine. There’s no need to fuss with trussing.

What about basting?

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 incessantly open and close the oven, which means you won’t be sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner anytime soon.

How do I know if my turkey is done?

Many supermarket turkeys come with a preinserted timer set to pop when the temperature of the bird reaches 178 degrees Fahrenheit. But if you wait that long your breast meat will be dry and overcooked. We recommend that you remove the bird from the oven when the breast temperature reaches 165 degrees and the thickest part of the thighs reaches between 170 and 175 degrees.

To take the temperature of the breast, insert the thermometer into the deepest part of the breast, holding it parallel to the bird at the neck end. Confirm the temperature by inserting the thermometer in both sides of the breast, being careful to not go so deep as to hit the bone (which can compromise the reading).

To take the temperature of the thigh, insert the thermometer into the thickest portion of the thigh away from the bone. Confirm the temperature by inserting the thermometer in both thighs.

Why is turkey meat still pink sometimes, despite being fully cooked?

Just because a slice of turkey has a pinkish tint doesn't necessarily mean it’s underdone. In general, the red or pink color in meat comes from the red protein pigment called myoglobin in the muscle cells that store oxygen. When oxygen is attached to myoglobin in the cells, it is bright red. As turkey (or chicken) roasts in the oven, the oxygen attached to the myoglobin is released, and the meat becomes lighter and browner in color. However, if there are trace amounts of other gases formed in a hot oven or grill, they may react to the myoglobin to produce a pink color, even if the turkey is fully cooked. When cooking turkey or other poultry, don't be afraid if you see a little bit of pink. As long as the meat has registered the prescribed temperature on your thermometer, it’s perfectly safe to eat.

Why does it take longer for chicken’s or turkey’s dark meat to cook than the white meat?

Dark meat stores and uses oxygen differently than white meat. It consists of dark cells, which make up what are known as slow-twitch fibers and are necessary for long, slow, continuous activity. Thus the legs of chickens and turkeys, composed of long, slow, active muscles, are fattier and denser and require more time to cook.

Does the turkey really need to rest before I carve it?

Yes. Thirty minutes or so gives it time to reabsorb the juices; otherwise they’ll dribble out when you slice, and the meat will be dry. Don’t tent the turkey with foil to keep it warm while it’s resting; it’s unnecessary and will make the skin soggy. As long as the turkey is intact, it will cool quite slowly.

What’s the best way to carve a turkey?

Despite the clichéd image of the cook slicing at the table, carving is a messy job. Better to get down and dirty in the kitchen, where you can break down the turkey and carve neat, picture-perfect slices without anyone seeing.

VIDEO FOR MEMBERS: Watch our step-by-step video on carving a turkey.

RECIPE FOR MEMBERS: Turkey for a Crowd

For our big turkey recipe, we wanted a Norman Rockwell picture of perfection: crisp, mahogany skin wrapped around tender, moist meat.

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