A whole turkey is probably the biggest thing most of us will ever cook.
Here are answers to the questions that pop up every year when tackling that Thanksgiving feast:
Q: What size turkey should I buy?
A: Tally the number of guests and figure about 1 pound of turkey per person or 1 1 / 2 pounds if you want leftovers. A 15-pound turkey should be enough for 10 people. If your guests prefer more breast meat, buy a larger turkey. They generally have more breast meat.
Q: How do I thaw the turkey?
A: Allow at least 24 hours of thawing time for each 5 pounds of turkey.
Always thaw the bird in the refrigerator in its original wrapping, never at room temperature. Warm temperatures promote bacteria growth.
If you forget to take the turkey out of the freezer in time to thaw it in the refrigerator, here’s a safe cold-water thawing method.
Place the turkey in its unopened packaging in the sink and cover it completely with cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes. Rotate the bird occasionally and allow 30 minutes of thawing time per pound. A 10-pound turkey will take at least 5 hours to thaw using this method.
Q: What about a fresh turkey?
A: No thawing necessary, obviously. But the USDA says you must cook a fresh turkey within two days of purchase or freeze it.
Q: How do I prepare the turkey for roasting?
A: Take the turkey out of the refrigerator and remove the wrapping. Remove the neck and giblets from inside the bird. Thoroughly rinse the turkey, inside and out, with cold water. Pat dry with paper towels.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Lift the wing tips up and over the back and tuck under the bird. Or tie them to the body with kitchen string.
Place the turkey, breast side up, on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. The rack should be at least a half-inch from the bottom of the pan. The pan needs to be shallow for heat to circulate properly around the turkey.
Season the turkey cavity with salt and pepper. Tie the legs together with kitchen string. Brush the turkey with vegetable oil or rub with unsalted butter. Season the exterior of the turkey with salt and pepper.
Q: When should I stuff the bird?
A: If you’re going to stuff the turkey, now’s the time. Always stuff just before popping the bird in the oven, never before.
Also, mix the stuffing ingredients together just before you’re ready to stuff the turkey. Loosely spoon the stuffing into the cavity, allowing about 3 / 4 cup per pound. Don’t overdo it. A 10-pound turkey should hold about 7 cups of stuffing.
Q: Should I roast the bird covered or uncovered?
A: The Butterball folks recommend cooking the turkey uncovered in a roasting pan.
Two-thirds of the way through cooking, Butterball says foil can be placed over the breast area to prevent it from drying out.
If you put foil on the breast, remove it about 30-45 minutes before the turkey is done to allow the breast to brown.
Q: Should I baste and when?
A: Start basting with a bulb baster after the turkey has been in the oven about an hour by drawing up the pan juices. If you wrapped the breast in foil, you’ll need to lift the foil to baste. Baste quickly because each time you open the oven door, heat escapes and can affect the cooking time. Add a cup or two of turkey stock or chicken broth to the roasting pan to supplement the pan juices for basting.
Q: How will I know when the turkey is done?
A: Roasting times vary with the size of the turkey, whether it is stuffed and the oven temperature. This is where using oven-safe meat thermometers or instant-read thermometers come in handy.
The turkey is done when the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.
If you don’t have a thermometer, check the turkey at the estimated time by piercing it in several places with a fork. The turkey is done when the juices run clear. Let it rest at least 20 minutes before carving for easier slicing.
Tips for side dishes
While there are no set rules as to how many to have, one or two is fine to go along with the mashed potatoes and stuffing. Here are a few side dish tips:
▪ Peel potatoes in the morning or several hours in advance for mashed potatoes. Put them in a bowl of cold water and refrigerate.
▪ Clean and prep vegetables to be used in casseroles or on their own the day before. Chop, slice or dice them and store in plastic sealable bags in the refrigerator. You can, if needed, blanch (slightly precook) the day before. Be sure they are good and dry before storing them.
▪ Think about things you don’t eat often and try something new. It can be as simple as freshening up glazed carrots with fresh herbs such as thyme or rosemary. Or perk up those potatoes by adding mashed rutabaga or parsnips for a different flavor.
▪ Make stuffing in advance by sautéing onions and celery and any meats the night before. Cool and store them in plastic bags. Then, on Thursday morning, reheat the vegetables to make the stuffing.
▪ Some casserole-type dishes such as potato gratins can be assembled the day before baking. Plan on adding an extra 10 to 15 minutes baking time for the chilled dishes.
▪ Running out of oven space? Don’t forget about the outdoor grill. It’s like having an extra oven. Keep it on low (200 degrees) to keep things warm. Cover whatever you are keeping warm so it doesn’t dry out.
Tips for making pie dough
▪ Have all the ingredients well-chilled, including the flour. Cut the butter and shortening in pieces and stick them in the freezer to chill them.
▪ If using a food processor, place plastic wrap over the work bowl. This way the flour won’t fly all over.
▪ Add only enough liquid so the dough comes together.
▪ Shape the dough into a disk — not a ball — wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate it.
▪ Roll out the dough between pieces of plastic wrap or wax paper to make transferring to the pie pan simple.
▪ To prevent soggy-bottom crusts, brush with beaten egg white before adding the filling and bake the pie in the lower third of the oven.
Here are a few sources for holiday cooking help:
▪ The U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry Hotline is staffed year-round 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Eastern weekdays. 888-674-6854. It will be open from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Eastern on Thanksgiving. Virtual help is available at www.fsis.USDA.gov.
▪ National Turkey Federation: www.eatturkey.com.
▪ Reynolds Turkey Tips helpline: www.reynoldskitchens.com.
▪ Fleischmann’s Yeast: www.breadworld.com.