Everything You Need to Know About Cooking a Turkey

From brining to cook times, basting and internal temperatures, these tips are everything you need for a perfect holiday bird.

by

Thanksgiving is approaching, which means in the near future, your brain will be occupied by all things turkey.  With the help of Google and the Butterball Talk-Line (1-800-BUTTERBALL), we’ve compiled the most common turkey cooking questions that are asked, and answered them to get you confident and ready to tackle your Thanksgiving meal.

What is the perfect amount of turkey to buy?

Andrea Balitewicz, a Talk-Line consultant, recommends buying 680 g (1.5 lb) per person for generous servings and leftovers. So if you’re serving 8 people, about 5.5 kg (12 lb). For smaller portions, 454 g (1 lb) per person should be sufficient (3.6 kg / 8 lb). If roasting for a very large gathering, consider roasting two smaller turkeys rather than one large one, as larger turkeys tend to dry out during the longer roasting time.

How do I thaw my turkey?

This question is so common that Butterball Canada has declared October 7 National Thaw Day—the day to start thawing a 5.5 kg (12 lb) or larger frozen turkey. Thaw Day can be flexible–it’s generally one week before your Monday holiday meal, but if you plan on having your meal prior to Thanksgiving Day, work backwards from there.

Refrigerator Thawing: The easiest way to thaw turkey is in the refrigerator on the bottom shelf. Place it, breast-side up, on a tray with sides (to collect any raw juices). It takes about 24 hours to thaw every 1.8 kg (4 lb) of turkey. Once thawed, the turkey can be refrigerated for an additional 4 days before roasting.

Quick Thawing: Carol Miller, a 36-year Talk-Line veteran, suggests if you’re short on time, thawing the turkey covered with cold tap water will complete the job in hours, not days. Place the turkey breast side-up, and still wrapped in packaging, in a large basin such as your kitchen sink or a picnic cooler. Cover the turkey completely with cold tap water. You must change the cold water every 30 minutes. At first, the turkey acts like a giant ice cube and makes the water too cold for thawing to happen. As thawing begins, the water needs to be changed to keep it cold and the turkey food safe. For every 454 g (1 lb) of turkey, it will take about 30 min in this cold-water bath. The turkey should always stay cold to remain food safe!

Should I wash my turkey before cooking it?

Health Canada doesn’t recommend rinsing poultry before cooking because any bacteria present can spread wherever water splashes and multiply very quickly. In addition, always wash your hands with soap and water before and after handling raw poultry, use a separate cutting board to prep it, and always wipe down kitchen surfaces after working with raw poultry.

Do I need to brine my turkey?

In the Chatelaine test kitchen, we generally purchase fresh unseasoned turkey since we’re usually testing our recipes in the turkey off-season. Brining is a technique used to infuse flavour into the turkey using either a salt-water solution, or rubbed with a salt mixture.

Turkey that you purchase at your grocery store can come pre-infused with salt and herbs (such as Butterball’s Naturally Inspired). We don’t recommend brining a pre-infused turkey as it may lead to a very salty and over-seasoned turkey.

Do I need to use a roasting rack?

Placing your turkey on a rack (inside your pan) allows air to circulate around the bird, and prevents it from sitting in a pool of juice as it roasts. If you don’t have a rack, you can use vegetables such as whole carrots and celery. In a pinch, you can also scrunch two long pieces of foil into long snakes, then coil it into a ring.

Does stuffing a turkey dry it out?

Stuffing a turkey for roasting will increase the roasting time (as both the stuffing and the turkey have to reach a minimum temperature of 170F). The extra time needed for the internal stuffing to reach a safe temperature may overcook and dry out the turkey meat.

Should I baste my turkey?

Some recipes call for basting a turkey while it cooks; this technique of pouring drippings over the turkey keeps the meat juicy. Even if your recipe doesn’t call for basting, you can do so every 30 min during roasting. Frequently opening the oven door may bring down the heat, so tack on a few extra minutes of roasting if your turkey isn’t at 170F after the recommended cooking time.

Should turkey be covered when it’s cooking?

There are many different ways to roast a turkey, and here are two ways which require covering at different points of the roasting process.

The first way is to cover the turkey and pan tightly with foil during the first half of the roasting process. This will create a “steaming” environment and keep the meat juicy during cooking. Removing the foil during the second half of the roasting process will allow the skin to turn golden brown. Your recipe may also require you to turn down the temperature when the turkey is uncovered.

The second way, which Butterball has coined their “Open Pan” method, is to roast the turkey in an open roasting pan until the skin is golden brown. After 2/3 of the cooking time, fold a letter-sized piece of foil in half and place it over the breast like a little tent. The foil will reflect some the oven heat and slow down the cooking in the white meat area. This helps the meat stay moist and juicy.

How do I know when the turkey is fully cooked?

Always use a meat thermometer to determine when the turkey is fully cooked. Make sure that the probe of the thermometer is long enough to reach deep into the turkey. The turkey should reach 170F in the breast and stuffing (if using) and 180F in the thigh. Bill Nolan, a long-time chef and supervisor at the Talk-Line, recommends using a digital thermometer with wifi connectivity, such as Meather, so you can monitor your turkey from the distance.

How do I keep a turkey moist after cooking?

It’s important to not overcook the turkey. Roast it to the recommended 170F, then remove it from the oven and allow it to rest for at least 20 min. Its internal temperature will continue to rise to around 180F, and the meat will reabsorb its juice.

How do you keep the skin crisp?

A turkey’s skin can only get crisp in a dry heat environment (such as uncovered roasting in the oven.) However, even the crispiest of turkey skins will soften the longer your cooked bird rests on the counter. Either remove the skin as soon as the turkey comes out of the oven, or roast the skin again separately: Remove skin from turkey and trim off any excess fat. Arrange flat on a baking sheet. Bake in bottom third of oven at 450F until crisp, 4 to 6 min. Set aside to cool, then break into smaller pieces.