Cooking a Turkey for the Holidays

Learn the secrets to achieving a perfectly cooked turkey.

Turkey comic

A perfectly cooked turkey for the holidays is what most folks are hoping for.

Illustration by Brad Anderson

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The pressure is on to make the perfect holiday meal, and turkey is often the main feature. Many home cooks don’t prepare turkey on a regular basis, and when the time comes, they aren’t sure how to cook it. Luckily, there are several options for cooking turkey, and you can serve a wonderful bird every time if you remember a few key rules.

Commercially produced turkeys are bred for rapid weight gain, not flavor, so if you go this route, it’s up to you to develop flavor via your cooking method. Farm-raised heritage breeds offer fantastic flavor if you’re willing to spend a little extra money or raise your own.

Temperature

The focus is usually on cooking the bird without rendering it dry. If overcooked, the white breast meat will dry out first, as it has less fat than dark meat. As long as the breast meat has enough moisture so that it isn’t dry or chewy, it will be fine. And a good rule of thumb for defrosting a frozen turkey is to let it thaw in the refrigerator one day per 5 pounds of bird.

The normal range for roasting a turkey is between 300 and 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Typically, birds are placed in a roasting pan, breast side up, and roasted at a constant temperature. If you have a small trivet you can place in the roasting pan beneath the turkey, use it.

As soon as the internal temperature of the bird reaches 165 degrees, it is safe to eat, but the best flavor develops when you let the internal temperature reach between 175 and 180 degrees. When doing so, you will sacrifice a small amount of moisture for more color, crisper skin, and deeper flavor.

When checking the internal temperature, probe at least two of the thickest parts of the turkey. The thigh and breast are ideal places. Don’t let the thermometer probe touch bone when you do this.

One fairly common variant on basic roasting is to preheat the oven above your target roasting temperature, then allow the bird to cook for 15 to 20 minutes before lowering the temperature to 300 or 350 degrees. The reason for this is to crisp the skin. However, in most cases, you can produce wonderfully crispy skin by roasting at a constant temperature.

You can also roast your bird on a grill or in a smoker at the same temperature, or lower the temperature to about 275 degrees and get a roasted flavor similar to oven roasting. Additionally, the meat and skin will have the flavor of being cooked over fire. Use an oven thermometer to monitor the temperature in your grill or smoker.

Low-temperature cooking and smoking

The flavor of wood smoke and the succulent juiciness of the meat cooked “low and slow” can be delicious. If you have a smoker, or are used to barbecuing on your grill, you can smoke a turkey at lower temperatures between 230 and 250 degrees. Low-temperature cooking takes longer, and the flavor of the turkey is different. A smoked turkey cooked around 230 degrees will have a ring of pink meat around the outside of the bird, and the skin will not have crisped to any appreciable degree. If you like crisp turkey skin, you can always finish the bird off in the oven, at a higher temperature, between 400 and 500 degrees, but be sure to monitor the color and remove the bird as soon as the skin browns and begins to crisp.

Oven-roasted turkeys cooked below 300 degrees have moister white meat, but can lack flavor. Likewise, the skin browns less and may not crisp up properly. If flavor is added with heavy basting, the results can still be good.

High-temperature roasting

If you can cook turkey at lower temperatures for longer amounts of time, is it possible to cook it at higher temperatures (500 degrees) for less time? The answer is yes – if you’re careful. High-temperature roasting produces a very flavorful bird, but there are a couple potential pitfalls.

To roast the bird at 500 degrees, you need a clean oven and a shallow roasting pan that can withstand high temperatures. (If the oven isn’t clean, leftover food will smoke while the bird is roasting.) This method works best on turkeys less than 15 pounds.

In order to roast the bird at high temperatures, it must be thoroughly thawed and warmer than refrigerator temperature (38 degrees Fahrenheit). Let it sit at room temperature for two hours prior to roasting, or place the bird in tepid water and let it sit for 20 to 30 minutes. Do not stuff the turkey.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Place the bird, breast side up, in your pan, and add a small water pan on the rack below the turkey. Place the turkey in the oven, and let it cook, undisturbed, until it is almost done. If you have a thermometer probe you can leave in the turkey, use that as an indicator. If not, watch the skin of the turkey as it browns. Remove the turkey when it reaches 165 degrees. The temperature will actually continue to rise a bit after you take the bird from the oven.

Wait to season the bird until after it is out of the oven. You can add salt before cooking, but other spices may burn at high temperatures. Let the bird rest for 10 to 20 minutes before carving.

Frying

Birds in the 8- to 10-pound range are the best for frying. The most common way to fry a turkey is outside, using a propane burner and large pot. Turkey fryer combos are sold at many sporting goods stores and contain all the hardware you will need: propane burner, pot, and turkey holder or frying basket. Frying a turkey can be fun, but it can also be dangerous.

If a turkey is not completely thawed when placed in hot oil, the ice will quickly turn into steam, and hot oil will spray out of the top of the cooker. This can cause serious injury, and the oil can catch fire when it drips into the propane burner. If you have too much oil in your pot, it will overflow when the turkey is lowered into it and catch fire. Turkey frying accidents are responsible for numerous injuries and home fires every year. However, if you are reasonably safety minded, you can fry a turkey with no problems.

The day before you plan to fry your turkey, place the frozen bird, still in its wrapper, in the pot. Pour water over it until it is fully submerged. This will help you determine how much oil you will need to use. Remove the bird from the pot and return it to the refrigerator, dump the water, and dry the pot thoroughly.

The day you plan to fry the bird, set up your propane cooker a reasonable distance from your house, on a level, fire-resistant surface. Place a large sheet of cardboard under the propane cooker to catch the inevitable oil spatter. Take the turkey out of the refrigerator and let it stand for 30 minutes to 2 hours at room temperature. After the allotted time, make sure the turkey is completely thawed and that there are no ice crystals in the cavity.

Wear heat-resistant gloves and a thick, long-sleeved shirt. Safety goggles are also a good idea. Add your oil to the pot, and heat it to 375 degrees. While the oil is heating, pat the turkey dry inside and out, and then place it in the holder or basket. The holder will have a handle to lower the turkey into the oil.

When the oil reaches the correct temperature, turn off the burner and slowly lower the bird into the pot until submerged. Always have the burner off whenever the bird is being moved. Clean up any spilled oil, and then restart the burner and begin frying.

As with roasting, there are guides that tell you how long to fry birds of various weights – usually 3 to 5 minutes per pound. The temperature of the oil will drop when the bird is first submerged. Bring it back up to 350 degrees and hold it there while frying.

At the end of the allotted time, set out a serving platter, turn off the burner, and slowly lift the bird out of the oil. Place the bird on the platter, and check its internal temperature. It should be between 175 and 180. If it’s not, return the bird to the pot and continue frying until done. It takes a lot of oil to fry a turkey, and peanut oil is a good choice, both for flavor and because it can be reused three or four times.

Whether your preferred method is roasting, smoking or frying, you’re now set to impress family and guests on the big day with a delicious, perfectly cooked turkey.


Turkey Techniques

Many methods for cooking turkey include recipes that go beyond the bird. Here’s a run-down of common cooking techniques and how they affect the final product.

Stuffing

Filling the cavity with bread stuffing used to be de rigueur, or proper etiquette, but today many popular cooking information sources recommend against it. While cooking bread stuffing inside the bird adds extra flavor to the stuffing – and saves space in a crowded oven – it also increases the cooking time and can even be a health hazard if the stuffing does not reach a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees. If you’ve always done it this way and like it, don’t be dissuaded – just be sure that the stuffing gets thoroughly cooked.

Basting

Many old-school roasting recipes call for extensive basting. The turkey may be basted with pan drippings, butter, oil, or a combination of these things. Basting can give the skin a shiny glaze and add flavor. However, this comes at the expense of opening the oven door repeatedly. This lets out steam, which partially counteracts one of the reasons for basting – keeping the breast meat moist. It also lets heat escape, requiring a longer roasting time, and as moisture is applied to the skin, it can prevent the skin from reaching a desirable level of crispness.

Unless your basting liquid adds a flavor you particularly enjoy, you can skip this step. Leave the oven door shut, and preserve the steam and heat in the oven. Sometimes simpler is better.

Draping or tenting

Some recipes call for draping the turkey in a butter- or oil-soaked tea towel, which is removed near the end of roasting. Other recipes call for an aluminum foil “tent” to be placed over the breast meat near the end of roasting. In both cases, the intent is to preserve moisture in the breast meat. (In the case of the towel, some flavor is also added.) As with basting, though, opening the oven counteracts the effects of tenting or draping. In both cases, the skin is likely to be less crisp than if you just roast the bird undisturbed.

Water pan

As the turkey roasts, liquid from the pan creates steam in the oven, grill or smoker. The more steam present, the less moisture the bird loses to evaporation. You can ensure that the level of humidity in your oven is at a favorable level by adding a water pan to your oven. Any oven-safe dish can be filled finger-deep with water and placed anywhere in the oven.

If you roast your bird with a water pan, don’t repeatedly open the oven door during roasting. Set a timer for the appropriate amount of time, and you won’t have to worry about the white meat being too dry. In addition, the level of humidity will not prevent the skin from crisping properly. This simple solution solves most problems turkey cooks worry about.

Brining

Brining, or soaking, before cooking is quite popular these days, especially for grilled or smoked turkey. Turkey can be brined in a solution of salt and liquid, usually about 1 cup of coarsely ground salt per gallon of liquid. The liquid can be water, broth, cider, beer or almost any flavored liquid. Some brine recipes contain a lot of ingredients, but keep in mind that a simple water and salt solution will do everything you need the brine to do. Brining does not make the meat overly salty, but allows moisture and flavors to penetrate the meat.

Injecting

Turkey fryer kits often include large, food-grade syringes that allow you to inject the meat with broths, brines or spice solutions. If this sounds like a good idea to you, give it a try.

Roasting upright

You may have heard of grilling beer-can chicken – this is the same exact idea, only with turkey. If you are roasting a turkey in the 9- to 13-pound range, you can roast, grill or smoke the bird upright by setting it on an empty – or even partially filled – aluminum or tin can.

Cooking the bird upright has a couple of great benefits. First, the skin is crisped all around the bird. (If you roast a turkey lying on its back, the back skin will be soggy unless it’s elevated in the roasting pan.) Second, the breast meat is farther away from the heat, so you don’t have to worry about the white meat overcooking before the dark meat is done.


Chris Colby is an avid gardener who lives in Bastrop, Texas, with his wife and their cats. His academic background is in biology – a Ph.D. from Boston University – but his main interest is in brewing beer.