There are many dishes people traditionally look forward to on Thanksgiving-mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, etc.-but the most important of all is the turkey. When you set a nice, big, well-roasted turkey down in the center of your table, you know you’ve taken care of the single most important element of the meal.
Though there are some less conventional ways of cooking the Thanksgiving turkey that people have come up with over the years that can be quite good, including cooking it in a deep fryer or a smoker, we’ll be looking at the tried and true standard method of oven roasting.
Assuming you’re starting with a frozen turkey, you’ll need to allow sufficient time to defrost it. As a rule of thumb, figure at least five hours per pound in the refrigerator to defrost. So if you have an 18 pound bird, and you intend to start cooking it at noon on Thursday, count back a good 90 hours. Figure Sunday afternoon as a good time to transfer it from the freezer to the refrigerator.
Make sure that it’s in some kind of a pan or something to catch the drippings, because as it thaws it can leak out of its bag.
When it comes time to prepare your turkey, first ensure that you have washed your hands, and every kitchen surface you will use is clean. (Clean them thoroughly after you’re done as well, as raw poultry can have dangerous bacteria, and you don’t want to contaminate other food.)
Preheat your oven to 325-350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the neck and giblets from the body cavities. Refrigerate them if you’re going to use them, otherwise discard them. Rinse the turkey inside and out with cold water. Pat dry with paper towels.
Rubbing some butter or olive oil on the outside of the turkey will help the skin to brown in the oven. Then rub salt and pepper and your preferred spices into the turkey.
Place the turkey onto a roasting pan. If you are stuffing your turkey, now is the time to add the stuffing. If the turkey did not come pre-tied, or you undid it to add the stuffing, tie the legs together with kitchen twine and tuck the wings under the shoulders so no part of the turkey is sticking out and absorbing extra heat.
If you cook the turkey breast up, as you will likely want to serve it, there is a danger of the breast meat overcooking, as the white meat tends to cook faster. There are different ways to deal with this. The most radical is to cut up the turkey and cook the white meat and the dark meat separately, but you don’t have to go that far. Instead you can cook it with the breast side down, and then flip it breast side up for the last hour. Or you can cook it breast side up with foil covering the breast, removing the foil the last hour to allow the skin to brown.
Basting is optional. It may help the skin to brown, but probably does little to moisten the meat inside, plus you’re losing heat every time you open the oven door. If you do choose to baste, simply use a spoon or turkey baster to pour the juices that have cooked out of the turkey and collected in the pan back over the turkey about every half hour.
Your turkey is done when it reaches an internal temperature of at least 180. The temperature can be ascertained with the use of a meat thermometer. But because it continues to cook for awhile after you remove it from the oven, as soon as it reaches at least 165 you can take it out and it should subsequently get up to 180. Some people find this temperature dries out the meat too much, and they prefer to take it out when their thermometer reads in the 150s, with the temperature then going up to 170 or so after it is taken out of the oven. The risk in doing that-though the risk is less with an organic or heritage turkey-is that that may not be hot enough to kill all the potentially harmful bacteria. So go for 180 if you really want to be safe.
Many turkeys nowadays come with a special heat sensor that pops out when the turkey is done. However, these are generally set to at least 180, which does not account for the fact that the turkey will cook some more once it’s removed from the oven. So relying on that indicator instead of a meat thermometer will likely result in a slightly overcooked turkey.
Anticipate about an hour or so of cooking time per five pounds of turkey, so approximately three hours for a 12-18 pound turkey. If the turkey is stuffed, it will take a little longer to cook. But again, rely on a thermometer, not any estimated cooking time like that.
When you have confirmed that the turkey is done and taken it out of the oven, let it sit for at least 20 minutes before carving and serving it.
“Guide to Roasting a Turkey.” Help With Cooking.
“How to Roast a Turkey.” eHow.
“Talking Turkey.” Epicurious.