The big day is almost here. Heres what you need to know to get the turkey on the table.
HOW MUCH TURKEY?
Plan on buying 1 pound of bird for every guest, including children, to have enough for dinner and some leftovers.
THAWING THE BIRD
The easiest way is to thaw in the refrigerator (40 degrees or below). The USDA recommends allowing 24 hours of thaw time for every 4 to 5 pounds of bird: 4 to 12 pounds, 1 to 3 days; 12 to 16 pounds, 3 to 4 days; 16 to 20 pounds, 4 to 5 days; 20 to 24 pounds, 5 to 6 days.
Keep the turkey in its original wrapper and place it on a tray to catch drips. A properly thawed turkey will keep 1 to 2 days in the refrigerator before cooking.
If you are short on time, you can thaw a turkey in cold water, but this method still takes some time and more attention than the refrigerator method (not to mention taking up the kitchen sink for hours). Place the bird in its wrapper in a sink filled with cold tap water. Change water every half-hour to make sure it stays cold. Thaw times using this method are approximately 30 minutes per pound: 4 to 12 pounds, 2 to 6 hours; 12 to 16 pounds, 6 to 8 hours; 16 to 20 pounds, 8 to 10 hours; 20 to 24 pounds, 10 to 12 hours.
Never thaw a turkey at room temperature.
PREPPING THE BIRD
Once the turkey is thawed, unwrap it and remove the neck and giblets from inside, rinse it and pat it dry with paper towels. Save the neck and giblets for making broth for gravy.
At this point, you may want to consider one of two methods for producing a juicy bird: brining or salting (dry-brining).
Brining is essentially soaking the bird in a salt water solution. The turkey pulls in the liquid, which will help keep it moist while it cooks. Be forewarned: Brined turkeys can have a pinkish cast to the meat after roasting, even when cooked properly.
For a basic brine, How to Cook a Turkey (by the editors of Fine Cooking, Taunton, 2007) recommends: 2 quarts of cold water, 1 cup of kosher salt and 1/4 cup of sugar. Simmer over high heat until salt and sugar dissolve. Cool. Stir in another 2 quarts of water and chill in refrigerator. At this point, you can add herbs, spices or other flavor enhancers like maple syrup.
Soak the turkey in the brine in the refrigerator for 12 to 18 hours. Turkey roasting bags work well for this, and you may want to double-bag for security. Place turkey in the bags in a roasting pan in the refrigerator. When its time to cook, drain and discard the brine, rinse the turkey and dry with paper towels, and its ready for the oven.
To dry-brine or salt a turkey, simply salt the bird all over, inside and out, and let stand in the refrigerator overnight. Drain any liquid that has accumulated in the cavity and pat dry before roasting.
TO STUFF OR NOT TO STUFF
This is the cooks preference. A stuffed turkey will take longer to roast and it is crucial that the stuffing reach 165 degrees when tested on a cooking thermometer. Remember to stuff the cavity loosely.
GETTING IT IN THE OVEN
Your bird is stuffed and ready to go. If you havent brined or dry-brined, now is when you want to season. Give the bird a rubdown with softened butter, both under the skin and on top of it. Salt and pepper the bird and add any herbs or seasonings.
You can truss the bird, tying its legs together with butchers twine, tucking the wings under it, and running the twine along the back of the bird to roast it in a nice neat package. This step isnt necessary, but it does help to keep the turkey together, particularly if you want to carve it at the table. Untrussed birds cook just as well, and may cook faster.
Place the bird in a roasting pan (with rack or without) breast side up. Add a little water to the bottom of the pan. You can tent it with foil, which will help to keep in the heat and cook the bird more quickly. Remove the foil for browning later.
Set the oven to 325 degrees and in it goes.
Some cooks argue you should never open the oven door until the turkey is done. Others baste every hour. The choice is a personal one.
Mostly, for the next several hours, you will simply wait for the turkey to reach the proper level of doneness. For this you need a meat thermometer. Do not rely on the little plastic pop-up device that may come with the bird. In fact, it is perfectly acceptable to remove it and discard it before roasting.
The bird is safe when meat and stuffing both reach 165 degrees. The white meat will be more tender if the bird reaches 170 in the breast and 180 degrees deep in the thigh.
Here is the USDAs guide for approximate roasting times:
4 to 8 pounds (breast), 1 1/2 to 3 1/4 hours; 8 to 12 pounds, 2 3/4 to 3 hours; 12 to 14 pounds, 3 to 3 3/4 hours; 14 to 18 pounds, 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours; 18 to 20 pounds, 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours; 20 to 24 pounds, 4 1/2 to 5 hours
6 to 8 pounds (breast), 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours; 8 to 12 pounds, 3 to 3 1/2 hours; 12 to 14 pounds, 3 1/2 to 4 hours; 14 to 18 pounds, 4 to 4 1/4 hours; 18 to 20 pounds, 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours; 20 to 24 pounds, 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours
When the turkey is done, remove it from the oven and place it on the countertop, loosely covered with foil. Let it rest for about 20 minutes. Remove trussing and all stuffing from cavity before carving.