Please visit the new home of Majikthise at

« Luis Vuitton, PRADA=Union Busting | Main | Mark Begich defeats Ted Stevens »

November 18, 2008

Tips for cooking turkey

Ezra's talking turkey on his new food blog, The Internet Food Association.

I gather from Facebook and listerv chatter that many of my peers are going to be cooking their first turkeys this Thanksgiving. Here's what I've learned so far.

1. Always brine your turkey.  Let it defrost in the refrigerator for a couple days first, though. Don't try to brine a Butterball turkey.

2. Avoid salmonella. Keep the bird cold at all times and take care to clean up any splashed or spilled brine.

3. The fancy food magazines never warn you about this, but the first law of Thanksgiving is that refrigerator space will be at a premium. You don't want a turkey in a vat of saltwater monopolizing that real estate.

The best brining receptacle is  a large beer cooler topped off with ice. Close the lid and put it in the garage or another cool place. Replace the ice periodically if it seems to be melting.

4. Optional: After brining, pat the bird dry with paper towels and let sit in your fridge on a wire wrack, loosely draped with plastic wrap for several hours. The air-drying ensures crisp skin.

5. Don't rely on a recipe to tell you how long to cook your turkey. Every bird and every oven will be different. Older cookbooks systematically over-estimate the amount of time it takes to cook a turkey. Agribusiness has literally remodeled turkeys over the years. 

Buy a Polder probe thermometer.

Insert the probe into the thickest part of the thigh, roast to 165 degrees. Don't let the probe touch the bone because bone conducts heat, which will throw off your reading.

You can set the thermometer to beep when the turkey's done.  (It shouldn't take all day.)

6. What I'm about to say sounds heretical, but stay with me: Don't  cook the stuffing inside the turkey. Instead, fill the body cavity with a quartered raw onion, an quartered cored apple, half a lemon, and fresh herbs.

Cook the stuffing in a separate casserole dish. This is partly a safety issue and partly an aesthetic consideration. Since the stuffing contains raw turkey juice, it must be cooked as thoroughly as the bird itself. But by the time your stuffing is hot enough not to poison elderly and immunosuppressed guests, your breast meat will be desiccated.

7. You may be wondering: How will the stuffing taste like turkey if I don't bake it inside the bird?

Use turkey stock as the liquid in your stuffing. When you buy your turkey, buy several pounds of detached turkey parts and make a brown stock with them. Don't salt the stock. You can complete this step in well in advance and freeze the stock until you're ready to use it.

Cook your stuffing in a chafing dish and baste regularly with turkey stock and, if desired, drippings from the bird itself as it cooks.

If you bake your Thanksgiving stuffing separately, you will have a clean carcass for making the turkey stock for Christmas dinner.

8. Having plenty of good, concentrated turkey stock on hand dramatically reduces  stress when it comes time to make gravy. Remember, gravy is just thickened brown stock. There's no law that says that all the pan juices have to come from the same bird.

A lot of the best turkey recipes call for high heat, and sometimes the pan drippings will burn. Don't worry about it.

If you have stock, swirl some of it to lightly deglaze the roasting pan, to give the gravy more color. But don't feel obliged to scrape down the real char.

Even if the pan drippings don't burn, you don't always get enough to make gravy for a crowd. Good turkey stock will stretch the drippings.

9. If you're using drippings from a brined turkey, always taste the gravy before you add more salt.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Tips for cooking turkey:


i am an absolute fiend for proper brining. however, i've found that the best receptacle for this is one of the large cold beverage containers. they have that very handy spigot down at the bottom.

i always make a sharpie scribble to make sure that this is only used for brinings.

Given that you don't have a garage, where do you store the turkey?

I know people who prefer a Cubist holiday, and others who like to throw a Dinner Party. Being more of a traditionalist myself, I'll probably go this year with the usual still life.

I have a small apartment. The genius of the beer cooler is that it's insulated, so you can stash it anywhere. If I were brining a big bird at home I'd probably put it on the landing.

But I usually cook my turkeys at other people's houses, and they tend to have garages, carports, or decks.

Excellent recommendations.

This year I'm doing the 1950's Dr. Pepper ham again, repleat with the pineapples and maraschino cherries. Bone in - my girlfriend likes to make home made split pea soup the day after Thanksgiving, using the the bone and the leftover ham. And boy is it good.

I'll probably either do the brussel sprouts too.

I can't tell you how happy I am with your "don't stuff" command. I've always found stuffing kind of a ridiculous thing to do. Plus, unless you're very, very careful, it can sour inside the cavity and spoil the whole thing.

I was raised in Ohio by a Southern woman. I therefore never had "stuffing." I had "dressing, which Mom formed into patties and baked as a side dish. And which she frequently ate cold for breakfast the morning after.

Definitely cook the stuffing outside the turkey. You can put a little of the outside stuffing into the cavity of the bird when you make the presentation...and take the picture...but stuffing should be cooked outside the bird.

President Bartlett was skeptical about staff advice to not cook the turkey with the stuffing inside, but by the end of the show he was converted. (I think the episode was called "Shibboleth.")

The Hubby & I will be at my folks' and we'll be doing the lions' share of the cooking, as is customary.

We've had a request this year for cornbread stuffing, which I've never done. Anybody got a good recipe, or links thereto?

From the Butterball hotline....DO NOT BRINE frozen ready to cook birds that have a 7% solution already...that is the salt water infusion you would normally get while brining...if you brine it, you end up with VERY salty turkey!

Trader Joes cornbread stuffing mix...easy to make and really tasty!

Thanks for the tips, all! I am cooking my first Thanksgiving for my family and I really appreciate the advice.

Trader Joes cornbread stuffing mix...easy to make and really tasty!

I believe you, madmatt...but for me to even suggest stuffing from a mix would mean instant divorce. And we're not even married.

And thanks for the tip about pre-salted turkey! We're big on brining, but we don't know what kind of turkey my Mom will be buying. You may have just saved our hides!

I wonder, who or what is it that agnostics, atheists and fundamentalist materialists THANK on Thanksgiving, exactly? The original intention for the holiday was for thanks to God, I believe.
Perhaps thanks should go to the hapless turkey whose life is sacrificed "so that others may live", making Thanksgiving into a kind of Turkey-Easter!
But I'll thank the Big Turkey in the Sky that I'm a vegetarian Taoist!

I'm a vegetarian, so this is more out of intellectual curiosity: how do you deal with the cooking rate differential between the breast and thighs? I've always heard that the breast needs to be iced in order to keep it from becoming completely dry by the time the thigh meat is done.

Your vegetarianness, The answer is Foil.

Foil tent on low heat keeps the breast moist while you slow cook the turkey til it's 165 inside, followed by 25-30 minutes no foil higher heat for that crispy, snackable skin everyone fights over.

Excellent post. I've been doing the turkey for many years now, and I wouldn't disagree with a word of it.

Being a good Southern boy, I don't think I've ever eaten a turkey that had stuffing baked inside it. We do cornbread dressing instead. The trick to that is to make your cornbread a few days in advance, crumble it up on a sheet pan, and let it dry out as much as possible.

I don't care what you do, don't use the maroon gelatinous nightmare that they try to pass off as canned cranberry sauce. Actual cranberry sauce couldn't be easier to make and tastes so much better that you'll swear off the can forever.

As usual, I learned something. I just jumped in with thanksgiving one year because ... well, my mom was on a physical hiatus. Don't ever do that because it becomes permanent if you're even moderately successful. Touch and go. I always say it's the easiest meal but I've had many things go wrong. My mehtod is uusally to have piles of different things so if one thing is bad no one will go hungry.
I'm going to try it this way ... the idea of all that extra stock is mouth-watering for the gravy addict in all of us.
It's almost the only time I eat gravy.
I'm way over my head with all you real chefs.
Happy Thanksgiving and many blessings and hope and cheer and love and peace to each of you.

amen to that, jtrain. it's addictive to make things naturally. And when that stuff plops out of the can it used to spark my imagination. (LOL

Were doing our first Turkey this thanks giving but struggling for storage space, we haven't got the biggest fridge and don't have a garage, any tips?

we haven't got the biggest fridge and don't have a garage, any tips?

Coolers with ice. Clean out the refrigerator beforehand (if you're like me you probably have a half dozen bottles of salad dressing, capers, mustards, olives, and pickles from years gone by still chilling in fridge. Invest in some stackable plastic storage containers (and it's much easier to fit in square ones than round).

And generally, to reinforce Lindsey's tips, I'm pretty sure that Alton Brown's Thanksgiving episode is still on YouTube. Take 20 minutes and watch it and scribble down notes.

The other method

The method outlined here (which is perfectly valid, no denigration intended, I just think that people should understand the systematic factor behind the shift to the new theory presented here) arose from the common problem cooks experience when they try to roast any fowl using a flawed, but well-publicized, version of the traditional method -- that the breast is way past done by the time the inner thigh is done. This can be a problem with roast chicken as well, but it tends to be even worse with a big fowl like a turkey.

The reason this happens when people try to apply the old method today is that, compared to the old days when this method worked, we do two things our forebears didn't. We don't let the fowl get down to room temperature, evenly and everywhere, and we use an end temperature, 165deg (I've even seen 170deg touted), that is unnecessarily high.

The preferred method for dealing with the temperature equilibration problem is to get a fresh (as in, never frozen) turkey. It shouldn't be colder than about 37deg, so should equilibrate evenly to room temperature if left out (unwrapped, but covered if you want) for 3-4 hours. A frozen fowl, especially a big one like a turkey, especially if the giblets and neck are stored in the cavity, on the other hand, is probably still below freezing deep down even after sitting in its wrapping in the refrigerator for a few days. It needs to be left out overnight (6-8 hours), after the cavity contents have been removed. This is way longer than people today are comfortable with. It may actually smell a little game the next morning. But that's where that expression originated. We used to let game birds cure a few days, at a cool room temperature, but well above 37deg, between killing and roasting them.

But that game smell is bacteria, right? And bacteria are bad, right? Well, some are, some aren't. The good ones crowd out the pathogens if we let them grow, as in yogurt, cheese, wine, beer, etc.

I have no idea where the magic number of 165deg for how hot your turkey is supposed to get to before it's done, came from. I suspect that someone found at the lab bench that you had to get to 165deg to kill the pathogens. But heat-killing of bacteria is well-known to depend on the time of exposure to the heat, as well as the peak heat of exposure. I suspect that the folks who did this research (probably in the 50s, a wave of "scientific" reforms swept home economy about that time) used unrealistically short exposure times, which would result in needing a higher peak temperature. The old method generally calls for either a low oven throughout, or start high to brown the skin for the first hour, then go low for the remaining 2-3+ hours, which, if you've equilibrated the bird to an even starting room temperature, is plenty of time to kill all the pathogens everywhere in the bird at well below 165deg. I judge doneness by how flexible the hip joint is, and by an incision in the inner thigh to look for juices no redder than the lightest rose, as well as by thermometer, and done is 140-145deg.

Other ways to insure eveness of cooking:
1)no stuffing in the cavity, or, cavity gets stuffing at room temperature or somewhat warmer
4)turning frequently (smaller fowl only, too unwieldy to use with turkeys)

Brining lets you preserve some tenderness to an overcooked breast. But it not only washes some flavor down the drain, it makes a pan dripping based gravy impossible (or drecky and salty) -- and it is not necessary unless you are determined to overcook the breast. Don't overcook the breast. It's simpler, and perfectly safe. I've gone with 145deg for 30 years, my grandmother for decades before that, and before that, centuries of cooks who didn't have thermometers judged doneness as I do, by hip flexibility and the color of juices, and we didn't and don't cause food poisoning thereby.

As someone who learned to cook from his southern mother and grandmother, I am more in line with Glen on most of these issues.

I would not brine the bird. Get a fresh (not frozen) turkey, rub salt and pepper on it, and let it sit for about 90 minutes (longer if it is a large bird).

I cook mine at about 325, covered with a foil tent, for about 15 minutes per pound, then I remove the foil and roast until done at a higher temperature (350-375, or whatever temp the other stuff you are baking needs). Feel comes into play here, as I will adjust the temperature to get a crispy skin without overcooking. Like Glen, I prefer to feel doneness. A meat thermometer is good for confirming instinct--though I've always been sceptical that thigh temperature says anything useful about the rest of the bird.

Throughout roasting, I baste with some sort of cooking oil. I usually start with a neutral oil (canola) and finish with pan juices once there is enough, because it does not mask the turkey flavor. Alternately, bacon fat, butter, or olive oil make very nice variations and add flavor to the gravy. Baste often with a brush, especially the wings and drumsticks--avoid letting the skin dry--until the last few minutes when crispness becomes the goal.

We never stuffed the bird. My grandmother made "dressing" in an old stand roaster. Her technique: make cornbread according to your favorite recipe--the one on the corn meal box will probably work well. Do NOT add sugar--you are not making corn cake. In a blender or food processor chop up celery, onion, and turkey or chicken stock and spices to taste until it is well blended but not liquified. I use about 3 celery stalks and one large onion with about a cup of stock for each large pan of cornbread, but you can adjust to taste. Mash the cornbread with the blended mixture until well combined, adding more turkey stock if necessary--it should be fairly moist. When the turkey is done, sprinkle some of the drippings onto the top of the dressing casserole, and bake this while the turkey rests on a fairly high heat. I usually make rolls at the same time--this temperature seems too work well, and the evaporating water from the dressing seems to make the rolls happy. The dressing can stay in the oven for a while, but cover with foil if you leave it in for more than about half an hour. You can also add oysters or coarsely chopped onion or celery before baking if you are into that sort of thing. The dressing should be brown and dry on the top but somewhat moist (like thick mashed potatoes) on the inside, and very flavorful.

Finally, I get my gravy stock from boiling the giblets and neck. Brown some flour just a bit, and mix in some of the turkey drippings until you have a paste. Add giblet stock until you have the consistency you like. This won't lump up if you use a low temperature when adding the stock and use a whisk to mix.

BTW--turkey also works very well in a wood smoker.

Did someone say gravy? Oooooh. Let's talk gravy!

Bobb999 - we always give thanks to the meteor that re-arranged things so that we are eating the dinosaur instead of the other way around.

The comments to this entry are closed.