#ThanksgivingPrep Guide Part 2: Turkey 101

Saturday, November 17, 2018

We're officially in Thanksgiving mode now!  In my last post, I gave you some ways to prepare for the holiday rush. If you're ahead of the game and ready for the craziness of next week, congrats! If you're reading this and realizing you have a week to get it together, don't worry just yet. You've got some decisions to make, and soon, but you're still in good shape if you approach it with a level head. You can start by downloading my digital cookbook, which has enough recipes to plan an entire menu from one source: The Kitchenista's 2016 Holiday Recipe Collection. As Ina would say, how easy is that?!

Love it or hate it, turkey's the main event on most menus. If you're responsible for cooking it this year, it's worth preparing accordingly or face the jokes at the table on Thursday. Your call. Luckily, I've got you covered on all things turkey, right here in this post.

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What kind of turkey should I buy?

Hopefully you've already placed any special orders with your butcher if your preference is cooking wild or heritage birds. If not, your decision will be based on what's available at your local grocery store, and that's perfectly fine. You may see organic or all-natural options, at a slightly higher price per pound. You may see fresh turkeys (not previously frozen), also for slightly higher price. I often do pay up for those options, because I've noticed a difference in the quality and taste of the meat, but I've also just worked with what I have and when the seasoning's on point nobody will care.

Here's the two things to look out for this week, that are more important than anything else:

  • Frozen turkeys take 24 hours to thaw in the fridge for every 5 pounds of turkey. So don't buy a frozen turkey after this weekend. Just don't. You're setting yourself up for failure because there are so few ways to (safely) thaw it quickly, and still have time to brine it before cooking. 
  • Turkey that has already been seasoned or injected with a saline solution should not be brined at home. Read labels. This is a huge flag if you planned to brine the turkey with your own seasoning blends. You'll effectively be doubling the amount of salt, ending up with something that's likely inedible. You can however, still season it with additional spices, just leave out the salt. 

What size turkey do I need?

  • You'll want 1 pound of turkey per person, for average adult appetites. (If you buy a very small turkey, less than 15 pounds, you can increase this estimate by 1/4 lb to account for the higher bone to meat ratio.)
  • To have ample leftovers, plan on about 1 1/2 pounds of turkey per person, up to 2 lbs
  • I recommend cooking two smaller turkeys instead of cooking a gigantic turkey that will be more cumbersome to cook.

I'll never understand why folks who barely feel comfortable cooking chickens during the rest of the year gravitate towards the most gigantic turkey possible on Thanksgiving. In my experience, going with a bigger turkey to feed more people is not always the smart move. It will take longer to cook and be more difficult to maneuver using standard cookware and oven space. You're even more likely to end up overcooking parts of it waiting for the center to heat to a safe temperature. Two smaller birds can yield the same amount of meat, are easier to cook evenly, and will fit in standard roasting pans or cooked on heavy duty sheet pans. So think about whether you really need  that monstrous 22 pound turkey. Often the more reasonable thing to do is cook two 12-pound turkeys instead.

Once a turkey's backbone is removed in the spatchcocking process, it will lay flat. But it takes up more room to do so. As you can see here, this 13 lb bird almost didn't make it onto an 18 x 13 heavy duty baking sheet. It will shrink slightly during the cooking process, but you don't want to have so much overhang that it's dripping grease all over your oven.

This is especially true if you plan to spatchcock (butterfly) a turkey by removing the backbone, as it will take up more space once opened up like a book. I've found that a 18" x 13" heavy duty sheet pan (baker's half sheet) will accommodate up to a 12 pound turkey, spatchcocked (sometimes a little bigger, but not much.) Any larger than that and you'll have to deal with legs hanging off the sides of the pan. If you need more meat, you can easily fit two spatchcocked turkeys in the oven, on separate racks arranged near the the center of the oven. Just rotate the pans halfway through cooking time.

How do I safely prep a raw turkey?

First, put the dishwashing soap away. The turkey does not need to be washed, as doing so can unnecessarily spread bacteria all around your kitchen. And considering recent salmonella warnings, this is something to take seriously. Heat is the only way to be certain that bacteria is killed, which happens when turkey is cooked to proper internal temperatures (165°F.) It's safest to prep the turkey inside the roasting pan, sheet pan or container that you plan to cook (or brine) it in. Pat the turkey down with paper towels, and move right on to trimming and/or seasoning. The idea is to minimize risk, so the less handling of raw meat, the better. It's a big reason I switched to dry brining.

Let's face it, turkeys are still pretty messy once you remove them from the packaging. If it's necessary to drain off excess liquids, or if you've wet brined a turkey and need to dispose of the brine, do that as carefully as possible and disinfect your sink and all counter areas nearby thoroughly afterwards. Make sure the sink and counter is completely cleared of dishes and anything else that could be splashed prior to handling raw meat.

If you're spatchcocking or doing other kinds of butchering or trimming and find it easier to work with the turkey on a cutting board, use one that you reserve for handling raw meat. It should be large enough to hold the meat you're working with, and non-porous. (Again, my preference is simply to handle the turkey on the roasting pan as that's already large enough to hold it, and will catch any messes.) Wash and disinfect cutting boards after using, or better yet run them through the sanitizing function of your dishwasher.

Parts that are trimmed or removed from the cavity (backbone, neck, gizzards, tail, etc.) can be carefully transferred to freezer safe bags for storage, if you will not be using them immediately for stock or gravy.

For more food safety recommendations, please visit Foodsafety.gov!

Raw turkeys can be safely prepped on the same pan you will use to cook.

What's the best technique to cook a turkey?

The best way to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving is the method you're most comfortable taking. I've been spatchcocking, dry brining and roasting turkeys for the last several years, and haven't gone back to traditional methods unless I'm writing a recipe for work. If you've been cooking turkeys all your life a particular way and feel that it works for you, there's no reason why you have to try anything new on the big day. (I don't personally have any desire to learn how to deep fry a turkey myself, though I've enjoyed it when other people do!) But if there's something lacking with your results, maybe there's room to consider ways to incorporate all or part of a new method. There's many different paths to achieve perfectly seasoned meat, cooked to a proper temperature, with crispy skin. What matters is that you pay attention to things like internal temperature, use enough salt, give the bird time to absorb the salt, cook with an appropriate fat (one with a high smoke point), and make the flavors your own. Whether you decide to roast, grill, fry or braise the turkey for the big day, choose a recipe and method that speaks to your cooking style and comfort levels in the kitchen.

Use a probe thermometer to track the turkey's internal temperature changes without having to constantly open the oven door, allowing precious heat to escape.

Recipes to consider:

  • Duck Fat Roasted Turkey. Featured in my holiday recipe collection, the turkey is spatchcocked, dry brined with poultry seasoning, and rubbed down with a citrus & herb compound butter plus duck fat. It's little bit of advanced prep work, but the cooking process is fairly quick as it roasts at a high temp. The turkey can be prepped and cooked on a heavy duty sheet pan fitted with a metal rack. Don't skimp on the homemade gravy using its drippings. This is the turkey that will change your mind about turkey. Recommended for turkeys up to 12 pounds, so plan on two birds if feeding a large crowd.

  • Smoked Turkey. This recipe is also in my holiday recipe collection. One of the best ways to free up oven space is to cook your turkey outdoors. It's also a good compromise if you want to spatchcock a larger bird, as you'll have more room to spread it out on the grill than on a pan in the oven. You won't be able to save drippings easily, so be sure to take the time to make stock for gravy in advance. I'd suggest adding some smoked turkey wings or necks (store bought) to reinforce those flavors! 

  • Cajun Butter Turkey: A new recipe this year, available on my Instagram feed in partnership with Giant Food. For the simplest roast turkey that still delivers on flavor, work with a bold spice blend, Kosher salt, and clarified butter. The recipe includes instructions for preparing the clarified butter yourself, but you may also be able to find "ghee" at your grocery store, which can be used instead. Salting the bird the day before is still the key to the meat being seasoned all the way through, so be sure to plan at least for an overnight dry brine. As it cooks, rely on a probe thermometer to be sure you're hitting safe temperatures without overcooking the meat. This recipe was written for whole turkeys, so if you want to cook a larger bird you'll be all set. If you want to spatchcock a smaller bird, adapt this recipe using the technique presented in my holiday ebook. 

Alternatives to cooking a whole turkey:

  • Smothered Turkey Wings: You'll find this recipe right here on my blog! I think this is a smart option for dark meat lovers, because it also makes its own gravy. This is also a good addition to consider if you need extra meat for your crowd, but feel a second whole turkey would go to waste.
Roasting all turkey thighs is one way to achieve traditional Thanksgiving flavors if you don't care for white meat.

  • Roast separate turkey parts on a sheet pan:  Perhaps you want a mix of dark and white meat but in different proportions than what's naturally attached to whole bird. Maybe you just want to serve thighs, or all breast meat. Maybe you need to feed extra people at the last minute and already bought your turkey. Or, and no shame here, the thought of having to carve a whole cooked turkey freaks you out. Separate parts is an awesome solution, and super easy. You'll still want to dry brine a day ahead if possible (though you can get away with a few hours if you pat the skin dry really well.)  For recipes, adapt the Duck Fat Roasted Turkey recipe from my holiday collection, or the Cajun Butter Turkey, above. Use duck fat or clarified butter for crispy skin, but the cooking process is almost identical. A roasting pan or heavy duty sheet pan will work best, and you can still include diced veggies at the bottom to enhance your drippings. Just allow an inch or two between parts to give everything room to brown and crisp on all sides. Make sure you check the temperature of all parts using an instant read meat thermometer, and pull the breasts out early when they hit the 155°F - 160°F range, letting dark meat continue cooking to at least 170°F. Temperatures will rise another 5° or so while resting the meat.

  • Pulled turkey. If you're taking a totally different route for Thanksgiving (or a fun Friendsgiving meal), braised turkey thighs make a great filling for things like tacos, enchiladas and sandwiches. Get the recipe for Chile and Beer Braised Turkey here on the blog.

Help! How do I fix my turkey disaster?

It happens to the best of us. Sometimes things don't go exactly as planned. Here's how to salvage some common turkey cooking issues:
  • The breasts are cooked all the way through, but the thighs need much more time to hit 170°F. If you don't want overcooked white meat, you've gotta get the breast away from the heat source. Remove the turkey from the oven and use a chef's knife to carefully carve away the legs and thighs, leaving the breast intact. Set the cooked turkey breast on a clean cutting board or plate to rest, and return the dark meat to the oven. (If you've spatchcocked the turkey, this is even easier to do. Use poultry shears or a chef's knife to cut between the thigh and breast on each side, detaching the breast and wings from the legs.)
  • You started carving the turkey and realized parts of it are undercooked. Continue carving the turkey into sections to separate the breasts, wings, thighs and legs. Return the parts to the oven and finish cooking until your instant read thermometer registers them all at proper temps; you can pull out any parts that cook faster. Treat your cutting board as if it was contaminated; be sure to wash it thoroughly before returning the cooked turkey parts back to finish carving.
  • My thermometer reads that the turkey is cooked through, but it's still pink inside or red near the bones. Don't panic. Sometimes, turkey really is just that color, especially parts of the dark meat. It can also happen as a result of overcooking, or because the turkey was smoked. The color of the meat or juices are not reliable indicators that poultry is cooked, so use your thermometer to know for sure.
  • The breasts or wings are browning faster than the rest of the turkey. Tent the breasts loosely with aluminum foil as the turkey continues cooking. Wings and/or wingtips can also be draped or wrapped with foil to prevent burning. You may also want to lower the oven temperature slightly.

How to serve your Thanksgiving turkey like a Kitchenista:

  • First, you'll need to carve the turkey. There's a very straightforward video demonstration from Chowhound on carving a whole bird that I like. And just in case you're not tired of me singing the praises of spatchcocked turkeys, I'd like to point out that they're way easier to carve. Watch and see, courtesy of Serious Eats.
  • Arrange white meat and dark meat in separate piles on a large serving platter or board. It doesn't need to be fancy; a large rimmed wooden cutting board will do! I usually place the wings and smaller drumsticks on the board, in case anybody wants to grab those.
  • Garnish the platter, if you'd like. (Or don't!) This is the only time I'll tell you that curly parsley comes in handy. If you want to get fancy for larger platters, you can use sprigs of fresh herbs, kale, citrus, small bunches of grapes, cranberries, or whatever feels appropriate to you. Google images or Pinterest are great ways to search for inspiration.
  • Fill up a gravy boat to serve gravy alongside the meat, and/or pass it at the table. I also like to ladle a little bit of gravy over the sliced meat on the platter. 
  • Don't forget serving utensils, such as a meat serving fork.

What to do with leftover turkey:

First, back to my safety reminders. Keep cooked foods out of the danger zone, which is between 40°F - 140°F, when bacteria grows most rapidly. After cooked food has been left out for 2 hours, it's not safe to eat again. This means you need to get the turkey and all other hot leftovers packed up and refrigerated (or frozen) as soon as folks are done eating. Refrigerated leftover turkey is safe to eat for 3 to 4 days, tops. So please freeze what you won't use quickly, on Thanksgiving day - not after it's been sitting in the fridge all week.

Here's some recipes from my blog to utilize leftover turkey:
  • Freeze the carcass, bones, uneaten drumsticks and wings for future homemade stock or bone broths.
  • Turkey soup! I'm partial to switching up the flavor profile after the holidays, like this Curry Turkey Soup. 
  • Turkey Gumbo is another great option for the weekend after Thanksgiving. 
  • Pot pies, especially if you also have homemade pie crust on your hands. My recipe for Smoked Turkey Pot Pies can be adapted for any ingredients you might have on hand.
  • Sandwiches are a given. Besides the obligatory Thanksgiving leftover sandwich, try swapping turkey in your favorite chicken salad recipe for a fun change of pace.

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