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Answers to Your Burning Turkey Questions

We're answering your questions about timing your turkey and how to cook the dark and light meat evenly.

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Turkey Timing

Q. How long should I brine my turkey? Can I brine it ahead and just refrigerate it until I am ready to cook it? What happens if it’s in the brine too long?

A. Brining your turkey for 18-24 hours is ideal. Any longer, and you risk the meat tasting a bit too salty when it’s cooked. So that means making your brine and plunking your turkey in it the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

Could you brine the turkey on Monday, take it out on Tuesday, and then keep it wrapped in the fridge? We’ve never tested it in the Fine Cooking test kitchen, but theoretically it should be okay, though you might get a little liquid seeping out. But, as with any brining, you should dry your turkey thoroughly with paper towels before cooking.

Q. What’s the longest a turkey can rest without being a food-safety risk?

A. Ideally, your turkey should rest 30 to 40 minutes to let the juices redistribute. (This gives you enough time to make gravy, too.) We usually recommend that the turkey get back into the refrigerator within 2 hours, so by the time you carve and serve, that timeframe works pretty well.

The thing is, bacteria really like the temperature zone between 40 and 140°F. So once your turkey cools down to 140° (which may not take very long, depending on your kitchen temperature, if you’ve cooked it to 165°F), you’re starting to encourage stuff. You’re pretty safe in that two-hour zone, but I wouldn’t push it any longer. So if you’re planning for a long rest, just be sure to refrigerate any leftovers soon after carving.

Q. How long should I allow for my frozen turkey to thaw in the fridge?

A. It can take quite a while for a large turkey to thaw in the refrigerator: figure on at least 5 hours per pound, so a 12- to 14-lb. bird can take two-and-a-half to three full days to thaw.

Do NOT try to speed up the thawing process by leaving the turkey at room temperature overnight (or even for a few hours). You can safely speed it up, though, by putting the turkey (still in its wrapper) in your kitchen sink and covering it with cold tap water. Every half hour, drain the water and refill the sink. Using this method, the turkey will thaw at a rate of about 30 minutes per pound.

Turkey’s Dark Side

Q. I can’t seem to cook a turkey evenly. One year the breasts will be perfect, but when I carve the bird, the thigh meat is shocking pink; the next year, the thighs are perfect but the breast meat is overcooked and dry. What am I doing wrong?

A. Unfortunately, it’s hard to avoid one or the other of these scenarios, because turkey breasts cook faster than the legs and thighs. (For food-safety reasons, it’s important to cook the bird until the breast registers 160° to 165°F and the thighs register 170° to 175°F on an instant-read thermometer.)

You can slow down the rate at which the breasts cook by putting ice packs on the breasts while you defrost the bird so that the breasts are cooler than the rest of the bird when it goes into the oven. Or, you can try our favorite trick for keeping the meat moist: start the turkey off in the oven breast side down with the legs pointing toward the back of the oven, where it’s hotter. About halfway into the total cooking time, turn the bird breast side up so that the skin can brown and crisp.

One other option is to cook the turkey until the breast meat is done, then simply carve off the legs and thighs, put them in a pan, and return them to the oven to continue roasting until they reach 170°F.

Visit our Guide to Thanksgiving Dinner for recipes, videos, and an app that’ll pull your menu together in minutes.


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  • drinzy | 11/25/2009

    How long do I cook my 18 pound turkey?

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