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21 Turkey Tips Every Cook Needs to Know

Our editors' top tips on how to prep, brine, stuff, and roast the turkey so it cooks evenly and comes out moist and flavorful for Thanksgiving dinner.

Scott Phillips, except where noted
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The centerpiece of any Thanksgiving dinner is of course the turkey. Whether you’re about to host your first Thanksgiving dinner or you’re an old pro, you’re apt to pick up a new trick or two from this collection of the best turkey tips from the pages of Fine Cooking: everything from choosing the best bird to unorthodox cooking methods. Want more? Visit the Thanksgiving Guide for hundreds of recipes for moist turkey, hearty sides, and perfect pies, and subscribe to Fine Cooking magazine to get recipes and menu ideas all year long.

Choosing a Turkey

1. Size matters: How big a turkey? For birds under 16 pounds, figure at least 1 pound of turkey per person. For larger birds 16 pounds and heavier, figure a bit less since there’s more meat in proportion to bone. If you want substantial seconds and leftovers, allow another 1/2 pound per person.

 Turkey Weight (in pounds)  Average Servings  Ample Servings with Leftovers
 12  12  8
 14  14  9
 16  16  10
 18  20  12
 20  22  14


2. Got a big crowd? Roast two smaller turkeys (12 pounds or less) instead of one large one. Smaller turkeys fit better in the fridge and roasting pan, plus they cook more quickly and evenly. Plus, it lets you experiment with two different types of preparations.

3. Choose the right turkey With so many turkeys on the market, trying to choose your holiday bird can be mind-boggling: free-range? organic? natural? We recommend choosing a fresh turkey without any added ingredients, and organic, kosher, heritage or premium-brand turkeys are all great options. But what do all those terms mean? See below.

Turkey Terms: What do all the labels mean?

Many turkeys carry labels like “all-natural,” “free-range,” and “organic.” Still other specialty turkeys don’t fall into neat categories but are distinguished by brand. Here’s your decoder ring for what all those terms mean.

Fresh: A turkey may be labeled “fresh” only if it has never been chilled below 26°F. (Turkey meat, according to the National Turkey Federation, doesn’t freeze at 32°F, but at a temperature closer to 26°F.)

Frozen: Turkeys chilled below 0°F must be labeled “frozen.” Or, if they’re sold already defrosted, you may see “previously frozen” on the label. Most turkey producers agree that freezing adversely affects the texture and taste of the meat.

Hard-chilled or not previously frozen: Turkeys that have been chilled below 26°F, but not below 0°F can’t be labeled fresh, but they don’t have to be labeled frozen either. If a turkey isn’t labeled as either fresh or frozen, it’s most likely in this category. This type of bird may also be identified as “hard-chilled” or “not previously frozen.”

Organic: The USDA’s National Organic Program requires that turkeys labeled as “organic” be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agency. A certified organic turkey will have been raised on 100% organic feed, given access to the outdoors, and will never have received antibiotics. The use of hormones in the raising of all poultry is prohibited, certified organic or not.

Kosher: A kosher label may only be used on poultry that has been processed under rabbinical supervision. The turkeys are grain-fed with no antibiotics and are allowed to roam freely. In addition to being individually processed and inspected, kosher turkeys are soaked in a salt brine, which gives them their distinctive savory character (so don’t choose a kosher turkey if you’re planning to brine it yourself).

Self-basting: A self-basting turkey has been injected with or marinated in a solution of fat and broth or water, plus spices, flavor enhancers, and other “approved substances.”

Free-range: By USDA definition, “free-range” simply means that the birds have access to the outdoors. But what really affects the quality of the meat is how crowded the birds are, not whether they can go outdoors. Some of the best turkeys are therefore not technically free-range, simply because the uncaged birds don’t roam outdoors.

Premium brands: Premium-brand turkeys are an increasingly important market for holiday birds. Companies like Murray’s, Bell & Evans, Jaindl, Maple Lawn Farms, Koch’s, Willie Bird, Eberly’s, Empire Kosher, Diestel, and others sell turkeys based on their reputation. Most of these producers claim that the difference between their turkeys and others lies in the quality of the feed their birds get. Most often, there are no animal byproducts in the feed and usually no antibiotics. Most of these birds are raised without being caged. The lack of animal fat in their diet and the fact that the birds can move around freely mean that the turkeys grow more slowly than factory-raised birds, so the meat has a chance to develop a richer flavor and denser texture.

Natural: The term “natural” simply means “no artificial ingredient or color added, and minimally processed.” The term makes no reference to the way the turkey was raised.

Heritage breed: Over 99% of the turkeys sold in supermarkets are a single breed: the Broad-Breasted White. But some small farmers focus on raising other breeds that have otherwise been edged out of the market. Some of the more common heritage breeds include the Narragansett, the Bourbon Red, and the Jersey Buff. Heritage breed turkeys tend to have darker, more flavorful meat and less breast meat than supermarket turkeys, and are generally available directly from the farmer or through other local sources. For more information, see the Heritage Turkey Foundation.

Brining Tips

4. How to Make Brine If you’re not using a kosher turkey, brining it is a great option for extra-flavorful, moist meat. In a large pot, combine 5-1/2 oz. kosher salt (1 cup Diamond Crystal or 1/2 cup Morton’s), 1/4 cup sugar, and 2 quarts cool water. Put the pot over high heat and stir occasionally until the salt and sugar dissolve. Remove from the heat and let cool. Stir in another 2 quarts water and chill in the refrigerator.

Remove the neck, giblets, and tail (if present) from the turkey; reserve them for making turkey broth (watch the video for a step-by-step demonstration of how to make the broth). Rinse the turkey well. Double up two turkey-size oven bags and then roll down the edges of the bags a bit to help them stay open. Put the bags in a heavy-duty roasting pan and put the turkey, breast side down, in the inner bag. Pour the brine over the turkey (have someone hold the bags open for you, if possible). Gather the inner bag tightly around the turkey so the brine is forced to cover most of the turkey and secure the bag with a twist tie. Secure the outer bag with a twist tie. Refrigerate the turkey (in the roasting pan, to catch any leaks) for 12 to 18 hours (brining time may vary by recipe; more concentrated brines require less time).

5. Customize your brine If you like, you can add herbs and spices, a little of a flavorful sweetener (like honey or maple syrup), or replace some of the water with another liquid like apple cider or coffee. Just remember that when you add sugar, foods tend to brown faster.

6. Short on fridge space? You can actually brine your turkey in a cooler with ice. Use the same brine formula in tip #4, but increase the salt by 1/2 cup (to offset the ice diluting the brine). Put your turkey in a clean and sanitized cooler that’s just big enough to hold it snugly. Add the refrigerator-cold brine and enough ice to submerge the turkey in brine—you’ll need 5 to 10 pounds, depending on the cooler. Store the cooler in the coldest location you can think of. If that happens to be outdoors, put it in a place where animals can’t get to it, like a screened porch or your car.

7. Let it dry: No matter where you brine your turkey, never pull it out of the brine and throw it straight into the oven. Wet brining leaves extra moisture on the turkey, which prevents the skin from getting hot enough to get brown and crisp. To remedy the problem, drain the cavity thoroughly and pat the turkey dry all over with paper towels before it goes into the oven. Better yet, remove the turkey from the brine Wednesday night and let it sit on its roasting rack (over a rimmed sheet pan to catch the drips) overnight before roasting. You’ll be rewarded with juicy meat AND crisp skin.

8. Or try dry brining: Instead of immersing the turkey in a salt-water solution, you simply rub kosher salt and seasonings all over the bird and in the cavity. The salt draws out the turkey juices, which are then reabsorbed into the meat along with the flavorings, making it succulent and tender. Again, brining time will vary by recipe, but in every case, you want to leave the turkey uncovered overnight before roasting, which allows skin to become browned and crisp. Watch our video for more on dry-brining a turkey.

Dry-Brined Turkey Recipes

Dry-Brined Roasted Turkey with Cognac Cream Gravy

Fresh Herb and Salt-Rubbed Roasted Turkey  

Dry-Rubbed Roast Turkey with Pan Gravy  

Turkey Prep Tips

9. To stuff or not to stuff.The debate has fierce partisans on both sides. Far be it from us to mess with family tradition, but stuffing the turkey means it takes longer to roast, and there’s a greater risk of it cooking unevenly. We prefer to bake stuffing separately in a baking dish, which also gives your stuffing that nice crispy top. However, if you stuff the bird, do it loosely, to give the stuffing room to expand. Watch our video to learn how to stuff a turkey properly.

10. Truss loosely, or not at all. Legs tied up tightly against the sides of the turkey take longer to roast, putting the breast meat in jeopardy of overcooking while the legs take their time. Before setting the bird in the pan, fold the wings back to secure the neck flap (use a skewer or a toothpick if the flap isn’t long enough). Then use kitchen string to loosely tie the drumsticks. Tying them too tightly can prevent the thighs from cooking evenly. Watch our video to see how.

11. Invest in a good pan.The best pan for cooking a turkey is a heavy-duty roasting pan with about 2-inch sides. High sides prevent the lower part of the bird from browning and can make basting difficult. Heavy-gauge metal helps keep the drippings from burning. Look for a stainless-steel finish on the pan’s interior: nonstick makes for easy cleanup, but the dark color does make drippings more prone to burn. See our top roasting pan picks for 2011.

12. Oven temperature: While some cooks like to blast the turkey with high heat (425°F) for 30 minutes and then reduce the temperature, a low, steady temperature of  325°F from start to finish is more carefree. The high-heat method may shave 30 to 90 minutes off the cooking time, but it’s one more thing to remember on a very busy day.

13. Rub the turkey all over with olive oil or melted clarified butter; this helps the turkey brown evenly. (You can also use melted whole butter, but the milk solids might make the turkey a little spotted.) Sprinkle the turkey with kosher salt (unless you’ve already brined it) to help crisp the skin.

Turkey Roasting Tips

14. If your roasting pan will fit in your oven the long way, put the turkey in the oven with its legs pointing towards the back of the oven, since it’s usually the hottest spot and the legs tend to cook slower than the breast. If the roasting pan will only fit in horizontally, be sure to rotate it halfway through cooking so both sides of the turkey cook evenly.

15. Start off your turkey upside-down in a roasting rack; it will help the turkey’s natural juices collect in the breast, which tends to dry out otherwise. After roasting for 1 hour, flip the turkey breast-side up to finish roasting, using wads of paper towels to protect your hands. The marks on the breast from the rack will disappear as it continues to cook. Need to see this in action: Watch the There’s a Better Way video demonstrating how to flip your turkey.

16. Avoid scorching.If the bird is browning quickly but not near its target doneness temperature of 170°F, tent it loosely with foil and continue roasting. If the drippings seem to be getting too dark, add a couple tablespoons of water to keep them from burning.

Turkey Cooking Times – Unstuffed (Add 20 to 40 minutes for a stuffed bird)

 Pounds  Hours
 8 to 12  2-1/2 to 3-1/2
 12 to 16  3-1/2 to 4
 16 to 20  4 to 4-1/2
 20 to 26  4-1/2 to 5-1/2

17. Check for doneness To make sure your turkey is fully cooked but not overcooked, forget about that red pop-up timer embedded in many turkeys; it’s far from accurate. Instead, use an instant-read probe thermometer, either digital or analog. Insert the probe in the thickest part of the thigh (watch our video to see exactly how) and give it a few seconds to settle on a temperature. You’re looking for a reading of 170°F. Because some ovens can have hot spots, be sure to check both thighs to make sure one side isn’t undercooked.

18. That goes double for stuffing If you’ve stuffed the turkey, you’ll also need to check the stuffing for doneness. Insert the thermometer into the center of the stuffing: it should read 165°F. If the turkey’s done but the stuffing isn’t, scoop the stuffing out of the turkey cavity and into a greased baking dish; return it to the oven to bake while you make the gravy.

19. Let it rest. The intense heat of the oven forces the juices into the center of the bird, so after roasting, let the turkey rest for roughly 20 minutes (enough time to make the gravy). The juices will redistribute, and you’ll get moister slices.

Special Methods for Cooking the Turkey

20. Deconstruct the turkey. The simple unavoidable fact of turkey roasting is that the breast meat tends to overcook and dry out before the thighs are fully done. (That’s why we jump through so many hoops like brining and flipping the turkey). If you’re willing to sacrifice the centerpiece-perfect whole bird, there’s a surefire way to make sure white and dark meat are both cooked perfectly: Cook the parts separately.

Roasted Turkey Breast, Porchetta Style  

Turkey Thighs Stuffed with Porcini, Sausage, and Artichoke Hearts  

Turkey Breast Roulade with Apple-Cider Gravy  Christopher Hirsheimer

21. Got a grill? You can save coveted oven space by roasting your turkey on the grill. But keep the weather in mind: cold, windy conditions will lower the temperature inside your grill, and it may take longer to roast the turkey than the recipe indicates. Use the times as a guideline, but rely on internal temperature. Also, before you start, make sure the grill lid closes snugly over the turkey in its roasting rack. If you’re grilling with charcoal, you’ll need to replenish the coals several times, so put a chimney starter on a foil-covered baking sheet and start each batch of coals burning about 30 minutes before you’ll need them.

Bacon-Wrapped Smoked Turkey

Grill-Roasted Turkey  

Maple-Brined, Wood-Smoked Grilled Turkey  Karl Petzke


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