How To Cook The Perfect Turkey Dinner
Holidays can be stressful. You’ve decorated your house, guests are arriving, you feel you need to be the ever accommodating host, serving drinks, giving tours of your newly developed basement, all the while preparing a gourmet meal for 12 people.
It’s at that point, where a bit of knowledge and preparation will save your sanity. I’ve compiled everything you’ll need to know about how to choose, prepare and cook the perfect turkey, all in one place.
Tools You’ll Need
- The best pan to roast a turkey in is stainless steel roaster, with sides at least 3 inches high. A lid isn’t necessary, but it can be helpful. Stainless distributes heat more evenly, and will allow the bird to brown better (in comparison to aluminum and non stick).
- If you pan does not come with a rack, you will need to buy one. A V-shaped rack allows the heat to circulate more efficient, resulting in quicker cooking time and better overall browning. It also acts as a tray so you can easily remove the bird when it’s done. Another alternative is to create a rack using celery and carrots. Choose long carrots and alternate with the celery stalks to completely fit the pan, then place the turkey over the bed of veggies. This will also add a ton of flavor to the gravy at the end (discard veggies before making the gravy with the pan juices).
- If you don’t have a lid for your roaster, and you find that the breast is browning too fast (since breast meat will cook faster than dark meat), use a bit of tinfoil to cover it.
- A baster to keep the skin moistened, but more on that later.
- The only way to be sure that the turkey is cooked is to use an instant read thermometer.
- Invest in a good quality carving set with a long thin sharp blade (a serrated blade will tear the meat), or an electric knife. After you’ve taken the time to roast the perfect turkey, you don’t want to hack it up with a dull knife.
Choosing Your Turkey
The first choice you need to make is if you want a fresh bird or a frozen one. As with most things, fresh tastes better, however the price can be more than double. Although if you take the time to brine the turkey the night before, you will get a moist tender turkey at half the price, that tastes equally delicious as a fresh turkey.
For dinner parties of 10 of more, estimate about 1 ½ lbs per person. Since smaller birds (12lbs or less) have a smaller meat to bone ration, you’ll need to estimate about 2 lbs per person.
Preparing the Turkey
When defrosting a frozen turkey, it’s best to thaw it in the refrigerator. This prevents harmful bacteria from growing. For every 4 lbs of turkey, allow 24 hours of thawing in the fridge (see chart below).
Keep the turkey in its original wrapper as it thaws, and use a large roasting pan to hold the turkey to catch any drips.
Once thawed, remove the giblets from the inner cavity and cut off the fatty tail (save for gravy or discard). Rinse the entire bird under cold water, then use paper towels to completely dry it inside and out.
A fresh turkey, or one that has been thawed, will keep for 2 days in the fridge prior to cooking. It is at this point where you can brine the turkey if you like.
Soaking the turkey overnight in a salted herb and spiced solution adds moisture and wonderful flavor to the meat.
You’ll need a 5-gallon container (tub, stockpot, bucket) to hold the turkey and liquid in. If your container will not fit in the fridge, use a cooler and place the turkey inside a bringing bag with the liquid. Pack around it with ice and replace as necessary to keep the temperature below 40°F.
Here are a few different recipes you can try:
Wine & Herb Brine (for an 18 to 20lb turkey)
7 quarts (28 cups) water, divided
1 1/2 cups coarse salt
6 bay leaves
2 Tbsp whole coriander seeds
2 Tbsp whole black peppercorns
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 bottle dry white wine, optional
2 onions, thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch fresh thyme
1 bunch sage
2 sprigs rosemary
In a large stockpot, bring 1 quart of water, salt and spices to a simmer. Stir until salt is dissolved, remove from heat and cool for 5 minutes. Pour into container you are going to brine the turkey in, then add the remaining 6 quarts of cold water, and remaining ingredients. Add some ice if needed to cool the brine further.
Gently place the thawed, cleaned and dried bird into mixture, submerging fully. Use a plate to weight turkey down if it isn’t submerged – if your pot is just a bit too small (like in picture), tightly wrap with saran wrap. Keep in the fridge for up to 24 hours, or in a cold place (I put the pot in a cooler and kept it outside on our deck all night, which was below freezing temperatures).
Remove turkey from brine one hour before you’re ready to roast it. Pat it dry with paper towels, inside and out, set it on the counter and allow it to come to room temperature.
2 gallons cold water
2 cups bourbon
2 cups salt
1 cup sugar
Heat 4 cups of the water in a small pot, and heat until salt and sugar are dissolved. Pour into brining container, then add remaining water and bourbon. Place in turkey then refrigerate for 18 to 36 hours.
Remove from brine and dry with paper towels (don’t need to rinse). Let turkey (covered) at room temperature for 1 hours prior to roasting.
For a simpler brine, try this Herb & Lemon Turkey Brine recipe. Or if you don’t have the space to brine a turkey, you can prepare a dry brine:
Dry Brine (for a 12-16 lb turkey)
3 Tbsp kosher salt
3 Tbsp mixed herbs (sage, rosemary, thyme), chopped (or 2 Tbsp dry)
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
Mix together salt, herbs and pepper in a small dish. Rub/sprinkle over entire turkey (that has been rinsed and dried), inside the cavity as well. Cover the entire turkey with plastic wrap, fitting snugly, then place inside a roaster with a rack. Cover with lid and refrigerate for 24 hours (don’t rinse herbs off prior to cooking).
Although the terms stuffing and dressing are used interchangeably, they do have different meanings – dressing is cooked on its own, while stuffing is cooked inside a bird.
There are two schools of thought on stuffing:
- That being cooked inside the turkey creates a moist and more flavorful stuffing.
- By the time the stuffing reaches a safe temperature (165°F), the meat will by dry and overcooked. Also, some are worried about bacterial contamination.
If you are concerned with stuffing inside the turkey, instead place it inside a covered buttered casserole dish and bake it at 350°F for about 1 hour (drizzle over some melted butter or pan drippings half way through if you wish to ensure it doesn’t dry out).
For those who can’t image stuffing cooked any other way than inside the bird, here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Prior to stuffing, allow turkey to sit at room temperature for 2 hours. This shortens cooking time, and allows even cooking and browning.
- Don’t over-stuff the turkey cavity. Since the stuffing will expand as it bakes, pack it loosely.
- You will need about 10 cups of stuffing for a 15lb bird.
- To confirm the stuffing has reached a high enough temperature to ensure any harmful bacterial have been destroyed, use an instant read thermometer in the center of the stuffing to check for doneness (165°F).
Basic Stuffing Recipe
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 onions, finely diced
4 celery stalks, finely diced
1 tsp dried sage
1 tsp poultry seasoning
3-4 cups gluten-free chicken broth
1 loaf gluten-free bread, stale/dried, cut into 1-inch cubes (approx. 6 cups or 450gr.)
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1 cup canned mushrooms, drained
¾ cups pecans, toasted and chopped
2 cups dried cranberries
In a large skillet, melt butter. Sauté onions and celery until onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl, and add remaining ingredients, except stock. Mix well then add just enough stock until mixture will hold together when squeezed with your hand. Stuff turkey cavity loosely with stuffing, or place into a buttered casserole dish.
For those who do not want to use stuffing inside the turkey, try adding a few ingredients which will all a wonderful flavor to the turkey while it cooks: rub half a lemon into the cavity, sprinkle with salt and pepper, add some celery tops, and 2 onion quarters.
This is another optional step. You can secure the legs together with butchers twine, as well as around the turkey body, to keep the wings close to the body. Some turkeys come with a plastic or metal clip that secures the legs together, so you don’t have to truss it. These are called “hock-locks”, and are either plastic or metal. Both are oven-safe (FDA approved), and are very convenient to use. Or you can leave the turkey un-trussed. This method allows more heat to move around the bird, which can cook it more evenly, as well as shortening the cooking time.
For me, this step makes all the difference! Brush the entire skin with melted butter, or for even more flavor, prepare a herb butter that you rub over and under the skin. This makes the turkey taste fantastic, and creates the best tasting gravy.
Herb Butter Spread
½ cup butter or margarine, softened
¼ cup olive oil
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp onion or shallot, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
¼ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 Tbsp fresh chives, finely chopped
1 tsp dried sage
½ tsp dried tarragon
Mix all ingredients into a food processor or in a bowl by hand, until smooth. Gently use an inverted spoon and/or your fingers to separate the skin from the meat – creating a pocket. Spread half the mixture under the skin, and the other half on the outside of the skin.
Placement In Roaster
Once your turkey is all greased up, place in your roasting pan (with rack) with the breast side up…or down. Again there are two thoughts on which way produces the best results. Cooking breast side down allows the juices to drip down and be absorbed into the breast meat, making it more tender and juicy. Although you won’t get the crispy browned skin, that cooking breast side up produces. Both methods end up with great tasting meat, so I will leave this choice up to you!
Pour 2 cups of water or turkey stock in the bottom of the pan (at least 1 inch of liquid). This will provide moisture to the turkey while cooking, as well as start a base for the gravy. If the liquid evaporates throughout the cooking time, add a cup more at a time.
Preheat oven to 500°F, place turkey (uncovered) in the center rack of your oven for 30 minutes, then turn heat down to 325°F for the remainder of the cooking time (see chart for weights/time). Starting with a hot oven is similar to searing. It crisps up the skin quickly, locking the moisture inside the meat, which will make a more tender turkey.
Once you reduce the oven temperature (add more water to pan if necessary), cover the turkey with the lid slightly askew for the first 1 ½ -2 hours , then remove to allow for browning (alternatively you can loosely tent the turkey with aluminum foil).
To baste or not to baste, that is the question. There are two schools of thought on basting; that it creates a brown skin and adds moisture to the meat, and the other is that it has minimal effect on the end result and actually takes longer to cook the bird due to the frequent open and closing of the oven. If you choose to baste, start after the first hour of cooking, and remove the pan from the oven while you are basting. That will minimize the time the oven needs to adjust its temperature. Baste every hour until cooked.
Near the end of your cooking time, starting checking the turkey’s temperature with an instant read thermometer. Insert it into the meatiest part of the inner thigh, without touching the bone. Once it reaches 175°F, its done. For white meat, its fully cooked when its temperature reaches 165°F. Don’t forget to check the stuffing temperature – insert the thermometer into the turkey cavity, it should be at least 165°F.
Once turkey is fully cooked, remove from oven and let sit at room temperature for 30-45 minutes. This allows the juices to be reabsorbed back into the meat – after all that work of brining and searing, you don’t want to lose all that moisture you worked so hard to get into the bird.
If you stuffed the turkey, remove the stuffing, and place in a covered casserole dish in the oven to keep warm. Then use some tinfoil to loosely tent over the turkey while it rests.
After 20-40 minutes, remove any butchers twine you used.
Remove the drumsticks first, then the thighs.
For the breast meat, remove each breast from either side of the breastbone. Slice down vertically into the breasts, creating medallions. Try to preserve some of the skin on each of the slices. Cutting the breast meat in this way, cuts ‘across the grain’ creating tender slices.
Remove the wings.
Scrape all the drippings and bits and pieces off of the bottom of the roasting pan, and pour into a large skillet (or into a gravy separator if you would like to remove the solids and excess fat). If you are making mashed potatoes, try and remember to save about 5 cups of the water to use in your gravy. The starch from the potatoes will help to thicken the gravy.
Balsamic & Herb Gravy
Roasted turkey drippings
4 cups water or gluten free chicken broth (or potato water)
¼ cup butter or margarine
¼ cup brown rice flour
2 tsp gluten-free balsamic vinegar
2 tsp dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
Strain pan juices and solids into measuring cup (skim of as much fat as you like). Add enough broth to make up to 5 cups.
In a large saucepan (or use your roaster if its safe to use on the stove), melt butter, then add flour and cook for 5 minutes over low heat, whisking often (this is called a ‘roux’).
Whisk in stock a little at a time, then add in balsamic vinegar, and thyme. Continue simmering until gravy is thickened (if needed, add in a mixture of 2 Tbsp cornstarch + 2 Tbsp cold water). Adjust to taste with salt and pepper.
Save The Bones
Whether you throw the whole carcass in the freezer and deal with it later, or put in right into a stockpot filled with water, don’t miss out on tasty homemade Turkey Soup.
Turkey Broth (or Turkey Soup)
2 bay leaves
Remove any large pieces of skin, then place the entire turkey carcass – bones and all, into a large stock pot. Add enough water to cover completely, and add bay leaves. Cover and allow to simmer on low for 3 hours. Remove from heat, and cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Skim off any (yellow) fat that has risen to the surface .
Try this savory recipe for Homemade Turkey Noodle Soup
Simmering the bones, meat, and skin breaks down the collagen, releasing it into the liquid. This turns into gelatin, and is completely natural (it’s not fat!). The more you reduce the liquid by simmering the turkey carcass, the thicker the stock will become. Think of it as concentrated bouillon, but without all the salt and preservatives. Some chefs actually reduce an entire pot down to a few thick tablespoons, this is called glace de viande.
At cold or low temperatures it becomes very thick, and has a jelly-like consistency. At higher temperatures it ‘melts’ to become a rich flavor-packed liquid again. If you are making soup, feel free to add more water to thin it out if you prefer, but taste as you go, so you don’t lose too much of the flavor.
If you don’t want to make soup, another great option is to freeze the broth into ice cube trays (small plastic bags or containers). Then you can pop a few into whatever dish you need to enhance with a rich meaty flavor.
Reference: Thawing & Cooking Times
Based on oven temperature at 325°F
Based on oven temperature at 325°F
I don’t cook and really have no interest in cooking however I enjoy reading your articles.
You must spent a lot of time writing and showing pictures how to do your recipes.
Just thought you might like to know you have a larger readership than just cooks.
Thanks for your hard work well done
Thank you so much for the feedback, it means a lot. We try to offer a little something for everyone, so I’m glad to hear we have attracted non-cooking readers! If anything, print off our recipes and have someone else make them for you-the best part is eating them anyway 🙂
June December 8, 2016
Thank You for all the information, pics. are a great addition.
You have been an amazing asset to my struggle on staying gluten free.
Keep up the goodwork