Make Julia Child Proud - How to Cook the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

Updated: November 23, 2011

Jason Jacobs

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This is a guest post by Jason Jacobs of Finding My Fitness.

The turkey: the keystone of all traditional American Thanksgivings, so much so that they even make them out of soy (what don’t they make out of soy these days?).

A lot of people are afraid of messing up the turkey. You don't have to be an expert chef to be an expert turkey handler. In this post, I'll cover the preparation, presentation and provide some tips along the way.

Choosing Your Turkey

If you go turkey shopping, you’ll quickly see that there are many sizes to choose from. How do you know which size to get?

A good rule of thumb is to figure about a pound of turkey per person coming. Some will eat more, some will eat less. Remember, though, that it’s not like people will eat one pound of meat (some will!). You’re counting for the bones and such as well.

So if you’ve got 12 people coming, you’ll want at least a 12 pound bird. That will get you enough meat for dinner, and you’ll probably want leftovers. For 12 people, I’d get at least an 18 pound turkey to keep everyone fed and also have some leftovers.

Clothing Your Turkey

What you want to do is essentially make a dry rub. I like to make large batches to use on several fowl meals, so get a good-sized Tupperware out and just toss in any collection of these ingredients:
  • garlic salt
  • onion powder
  • cumin
  • chili powder (not spicy, unless you’re into that)
  • paprika
  • salt
  • pepper
  • rubbed sage
  • ground thyme
  • dried oregano
  • dried parsley
Use equal parts of everything.

Once you get your dry rub together, you, well, rub it in. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Lift up skin where you can and jam it in there. Be liberal with the rub; you’ll know if you’re using too much.

The minimalist's poultry rub

Some folks these days read blogs like Zen Habits and ManVsDebt and really get into minimalism. I am definitely heading that way in my life, and sometimes even with my food.

To keep it zen-like, try just using salt and pepper. Very simple, very tasty. When I do it this way, I like to use my salt and pepper mills to season it.

Doing a brine

Another way to prepare the turkey for some extra flavor is to let it soak in a saltwater brine overnight. Doing this make sure the meat is nice and moist and adds some flavor, but it’s only as useful as your pot is big.

To make a brine, use about a cup of salt for every gallon of water. Some folks add a can of beer or some whiskey for extra flavor.

Cooking The Turkey

Everyone gets nightmares of over- or under-cooking the turkey for the big day, especially if you’re new at it. There are even hot-lines you can call on Thanksgiving to get some last-minute tips on roasting the bird.

There are a few techniques you can use that really make it foolproof. Don’t let the fear own you!

1. Make sure you thaw your bird fully!

Nothing will get you down the wrong road quicker than a frozen turkey. These things are huge, and if it’s not fully thawed, there’s a good chance it won’t cook all the way through. We do not want this.

To properly thaw, your turkey will probably need to be in the fridge at least two days. Do not thaw your turkey at room temperature! You don’t want any diseases.

2. Remove the crap before you prep

This one might get you if you haven’t done a turkey before. Most turkeys will come stuffed with their innards put in packets. Make sure you pull that out before you prep the bird and cook it. Melted plastic never helps a turkey taste good.

3. Be careful not to overcook the breast

The white meat of the breast cooks quicker than the dark meat, so it can be tricky to get both cooked well enough without under or overcooking the other.

One trick is to tent the breast with aluminum foil while the turkey cooks (especially if you don’t have a lid that will cover your roasting pan). Another method is to start cooking with the breast side down for the first hour-and-a-half or so and then flipping it over.

4. Cook your turkey completely, but don’t overcook it

The last thing you need is a half done turkey. The second to last thing you need is an overdone one.

Most turkeys will come with a white button that pops up when it’s done cooking. These are handy, but you might not always have one. In that case, you will absolutely need a $2 meat thermometer. Since I started using one when cooking chicken, it’s always come out perfectly.

Your oven should be around 325°F to 350°F to cook. The turkey is done when the depths of the meat are at 165°F.

I found this chart on Whole Foods’ website for cook times:

  • 8-12 pounds - 2 to 3.5 hours
  • 12-16 pounds - 3 to 4 hours
  • 16-20 pounds - 4 to 5 hours
  • 20-25 pounds - 5 to 6 hours
  • 25-30 pounds - 6+ hours

5. Let it rest before carving

Finally, just before you cut, let it sit. This will help settle the juices and make it easier to carve.

Carving Your Turkey

I’ve seen people butcher the heck out of their turkey or chicken. I have too. The good news is it’s not as difficult as it seems; you just need to know where to cut.

You’ll need a cutting board, a sharp knife, and a fork. Don’t try to carve the turkey on the platter (I know it looks nice on TV, but come on - it’s TV). It’ll be much easier and cleaner to do it on a cutting board. Then you can save the lovely presentation for the platter!

1. Remove the legs and wings

Cut the skin and the meat that’s holding the leg onto the torso. As you slice, let the leg and thigh fall away from you or gently open it from the breast. Get all the meaty parts cut away and then work on the bone. You may be able to knock the leg out of socket, but if you have a really sharp knife, you might be able to fairly effortlessly cut the joint apart. Opening the joint makes it easy.

Once you have the leg off, separate the drumstick from the thigh in the same way, being careful not to hack up all the meat.

2. Slice the breast

Position the turkey with it’s former legs facing away from you. Locate the breastbone, which runs down the middle of the turkey. Cut along it on one side from the top (near the legs) towards you in a straight line. I usually use the bones as a guide for depth.

When you get to the neck area, where the wishbone is, angle the knife and cut down. This is the hard part, but again feel for the bones and use them as a guide. Then you can cut away the breast meat by cutting the bottom of the breast, once again starting from the legs and coming towards you.

Rinse and repeat for the other side.

To actually slice the breast meat, lay it on the board skin-side-up. Slice across the grain, and you should get some really nice pieces of turkey breast that way.

3. Scrounge up the scraps

You’ll have a lot of breast meat on the bone still, which can easily be removed with your fingers. A lot of it will come off in pretty good chunks, so don’t be afraid to get rough! Don’t mutilate it, but be sure to get as much as possible.

4. Save the good stuff

Don’t throw away the bones! Use them to make a delicious turkey soup!

Have a great Thanksgiving!

Really enjoy this holiday season with your friends and family! If you already have your time-tested turkey techniques down pat, we'd love to hear your advice in the comments!

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