If you are afraid of cooking a turkey, you’ve come to the right place. I describe everything you need to know to cook the perfect turkey.
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. We all get to pause and give thanks and I get to cook a turkey! Cooking a turkey is one of my favorite meals of all because the outcome is so dramatic and the preparation and cooking is so easy!
After cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving and or Christmas for the last – gasp – 30 years, I would say that I qualify as a turkey expert. So, I was shocked when my best friend, Denise, confessed to me today that she had never cooked a turkey! We have been friends for 33 years. I shouted in disbelief, “You’ve never cooked a turkey!” She told me that the act of cooking a turkey was too intimidating for her – she was afraid.
Now, my friend Denise exudes confidence and blazed a trail in media sales a decade before I did. So, I began to think if Denise was afraid of cooking a turkey, others had to be afraid also.
Don’t fear! Cooking a turkey represents one of the greatest (and easiest) joys of cooking! There is always a fear factor in doing anything new. Here’s a quick step-by-step process to cooking a turkey. This has been fool-proof for me. Even if you have cooked turkeys before, I’ve included some many forgotten details which are worth noting.
As far as purchasing goes, you need to pick out the size of the bird depending on how many people you plan on feeding, if you want left-overs for sandwiches and if people like white meat or dark meat. I always cook a 20-22 pound bird because everyone in my family likes white meat and turkey sandwiches for the weekend.
Other items you will need are: A roasting pan (I use a disposable aluminum one from the store), stuffing mix – amounts appropriate to the size of the bird, butter, an onion, a bay leaf, corn starch, brown gravy package mix, a pot for gravy, a turkey baster.
A bird this size takes 5-7 hours to cook. You will also need at least thirty minutes for the turkey to cool. So work backwards in your meal planning.
Pre-heat your oven to 325 degrees. If you have two racks in your oven, you’ll want to take out the upper rack.
A fresh turkey is best, but I have purchased a frozen turkey before. If frozen, you need to let it thaw in the refrigerator. It should say on the packaging how long that takes. Make sure you purchase it in advance to allow for that. If it’s still a little frozen the day of, I run it under cold water.
Unwrapping the turkey is the most difficult part of the process! You’ll have to cut through the plastic and/or netting. Make sure you do this in the sink, that way you don’t get the turkey juices on your counter and all over the place. It will be messy. You also have to wipe down everything and wash your hands after handling, because raw turkey can leave nasty bacteria around.
If you don’t have strong muscles, this is when you wished you would have started a weight lifting program. Turkeys are heavy. Don’t lift from your back, use your legs. Tell your husband, son, significant other, fit daughter that you need their strong muscles for a minute while batting your eyes and have them lift the turkey into the sink.
Okay, now you’ll have a wrestling match with this metal piece that holds the legs together. You need to pinch the metal from the inside part to kind of pop it out. Honest, this is the hardest part! Still having trouble with this? Here are the instructions to get the metal piece out of the turkey.
Next, you need to look for the inside cavity where there will be a bag or a neck bone. Also, under the rear end is a bag full of the giblets. If you loved biology you will enjoy looking at the liver, heart, etc. If this grosses you out (I don’t particularly like this part), I usually take all of these parts, neck bone included, and throw them into a good size pot. To the pot I add water to cover the contents significantly and add a bay leaf. This will be the base for soup which will make wonderful gravy. Bring this to a boil then turn to low, simmer, for the entire time you are cooking the turkey.
Okay, so the turkey is out of the bag and cleared out. I usually rinse it off in the sink inside and out. I do happen to work out, so this is not physically hard, but it’s a little tricky. Pat it dry, then you are able to move onto the stuffing. At this point, put the turkey into a foil or large baking pan. I usually just buy a big foil pan that is large enough to support the turkey. I have a small kitchen and I don’t like to do more dishes than I have to. (Don’t forget to scrub down the areas the turkey came in contact with using soap and water.)
You can use any stuffing recipe you want. I use Stove Top. Instead of just adding melted butter, I add the butter to a skillet and sauté an onion with it. Prepare it according to the directions. If you’re watching cholesterol, you can substitute a low fat spreadable margarine that you like to use.
When the stuffing is done, you stuff the bird lightly. Don’t pack the stuffing in. You want to stuff the inside cavity and the back side. (When I’m stuffing my turkey, I always think it’s funny that I’m stuffing the turkey, but the turkey will stuff me later.)
Take additional butter or spread and just rub it all over the turkey like it’s getting a spa treatment.
Now you’re ready to put the turkey in the oven. Ask your strong helper again, and make sure if you pick up the turkey that you are supporting the weight enough underneath, using your legs, and place the turkey on the lowest rack in the oven.
Take two pieces of aluminum foil or one big piece of foil and make a tent to place loosely over the turkey. You want to make sure that it’s covered so that it doesn’t turn too brown, over cook and dry out.
You did it! At this point you get to fuhget-about-it for a while. Don’t be tempted to open the door to check on it like a kid on a road trip, is it turkey yet? You’ll know it’s starting to cook when your house starts to smell amazing.
After a few hours there will be juices forming at the bottom of the pan. When the drippings are significant enough, put your oven mitts on and pull the lower rack out a little (this is tricky because the turkey is heavy). Take your turkey baster and begin to baste the turkey. You do this by gently squeezing the bulb which makes the drippings go up into the tube. This is kind of tricky too. There’s a fine balance between keeping the juices in the tube and making sure you spray it on the turkey and not all over yourself or the rest of the oven. This is actually a fun process, once you get the hang of it, because the turkey begins to glow. Slide it back in and put the foil tent back on. Don’t baste again for at least thirty minutes or an hour.
So, you’re getting close to the estimated time to be done, but perhaps the turkey isn’t brown enough. No problem. When you are thirty minutes to an hour of the estimated cooking time, take off the foil. The turkey will then turn a lovely, Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post Cover brown. If it gets too brown prior to it being done, just put the foil back on.
The beauty of turkeys is that they almost always come with a pop up timer. So, when the turkey is done, the little red pop up timer pops up. What’s more simple then that? If you have a meat thermometer, the inside temperature is supposed to be 185 degrees. The pop up timer has always worked for me. One other trick if you don’t have a pop up timer or you get the one in ten million that malfunctions, shake the legs and if they are loose and almost come apart, the bird is done.
So – your turkey is done. Remove it from the oven. It will need to cool at least thirty minutes before carving. BIG NOTE: Remove the stuffing from the turkey at this time or it will continue cooking. The turkey needs to cool in order to be cut. You don’t want your masterpiece shredding or drying out, so take out the stuffing.
Now for awesome gravy. Take out all of the big pieces of giblets, etc. from the pot that has been simmering all day until all you have left is the liquid. Add the juices from the turkey pan. Before you do that, make sure the pot is big enough for it all.
This is where the brown gravy mix can come in. I like using this in addition to cornstarch because it gives the gravy a browner color. Add about half a cup of cold water and stir in one or two packages of brown gravy mix until it’s all mixed up and stir into the gravy. If it’s too thin then in the same cup mix a couple of tablespoons of cornstarch with a half a cup of cold water. Form a thick liquid that still pours. If it’s thin add more cornstarch, if it’s too thick, add more water. It should be the consistency of Pepto Bismol (which might be what you need later). Just make sure it’s smooth. Stir this into the soup and dripping mixture and keep stirring so that you don’t get any lumps. Bring the gravy to a boil. If the gravy is too thin, you’ll just need to repeat this process until it’s the thickness you desire.
That’s it! Congratulations for overcoming your fear! Your guests will marvel at the site of your golden creation. And you will be asking yourself, ‘What was I afraid of?’