UPDATE: Please check out our Definitive Guide to Thanksgiving Turkey for the most up-to-date information!
Remember that old anti-drug ad from the 80's? The one where the bully calls little Joey a chicken, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles chime in, then Joey responds, "I'm not a chicken, you're a turkey!" and walks away proud?
I never quite got that ad because, well, why is it worse to be a turkey than a chicken? I mean, I get it. Turkeys get a bad reputation, and understandably so. They're not an easy bird to cook well, and the turkey industry, with their ever-more-spherical breeds, makes it harder and harder each year. But if you've ever had a truly magnificent turkey, a turkey that literally* bursts with juiciness, a turkey that oozes flavor strong enough to create a new army of mutant amphibians, a turkey with skin that's Crispin' like Glover,** well then, you'd know that that is one of the finest compliments a kid could ever pay to a bully.***
**I'm not quite sure what that means, but work with me here.
***Don't do drugs.
What's that? You've never experienced that? Well then. Here are the tips, techniques, and recipes you need to get you and your loved ones**** there.
****and tolerated ones
Should I buy natural, kosher or enhanced? And what about heritage breed birds?
Most folks at home have two factors to balance in their cooking equation: amount of effort and end results. For some, they're willing to put in a ton of work to get marginally better results at the end. For others, they'd rather take the easiest route and settle for just-good-enough. Where you lie on this spectrum should help you decide whether you want to select a natural, kosher, or self-basting turkey.
Here's the quick and dirty guide to making your selection.
- Natural birds contain no additives and are minimally processed. They require careful attention and a good thermometer if you want to ensure juiciness, but in general, they have a stronger, more "turkey-ish" flavor, as they are not diluted with any extra liquid. For extra juiciness, a brining or salting step should be included in your preparations. If you value deep flavor and are willing to put in a bit of extra care to get there, choose a natural bird.
- Kosher birds have been pre-salted and as such, are deeply seasoned and good at retaining moisture. They can be cooked directly as-is and will dry out less than a natural bird if overcooked. The downside is that you can't control your own level of seasoning. Kosher birds are a good compromise between natural and self-basting birds.
- Self-basting birds have been injected with a salt and flavor solution to help keep them moist while cooking. They come out incredibly moist, almost wet, and can be cooked directly from the package with minimal pre-roast work required. They also tend to be dull and diluted in flavor. If you value ease of preparation and juiciness over all, this is your bird.
Check out our full guide to Natural, Kosher, and Injected birds for more details!
Heritage breed birds are birds that come from specific breeds of turkeys that have been kept relatively genetically pure through the generations. They can vary in size, shape, and flavor, but they generally have more strongly flavored meat and smaller breasts than modern turkeys, which have been bred to have as much breast meat as possible. They tend to be much pricier than other options, but also tend to be better raised, so from both a humanity and flavor standpoint, they're an attractive option. I generally look for a heritage breed bird from a small farm for my own Thanksgiving table.
Heritage breed birds are pretty much exclusively sold in their natural state, with neither koshering nor enhancing treatments.
And what about "organic" or "free-range"?
Unfortunately, these terms don't mean quite as much as many consumers are led to believe. Organic turkeys cannot be fed antibiotics, which generally means that they are cared for a little better while they're alive (after all, you can't treat them if they get sick), and must live purely on organic feed. Free range birds do not have these requirements.
Both organic and free-range birds technically must have access to outdoor space, but the standards for how this is defined are extremely liberal. A small door to a concrete lot at one end of a large open barn is sufficient to garner the label, which means that many free-range and organic turkeys make it to market without ever having seen the actual light of day.
Long story short: buy organic if antibiotics and organic feed are important to you. If you would like to know that your turkey grew up in pasture and not in an enclosed, tightly packed barn, then seek out producers selling pastured turkeys or small family farms. You'll generally pay a premium, but for many people the price is worth it.
What Size Turkey Do I Need?
Plan on about one pound of turkey per person, which translates to around half a pound of edible meat. That said, if you're feeding a big crowd and have the space, it's wiser to use two smaller birds than one large bird. Over 15 pounds or so, turkeys become more difficult to cook, take much longer, and are more prone to drying out.
I find the best birds are around 10 to 12 pounds.
How long in advance should I buy my bird?
Wrapped fresh, turkeys will last for several weeks after their packing date, so make sure to check the label when you purchase it. I try and get my bird at least a week or two in advance just so that I can avoid the stress of knowing if it will arrive in time or worse, having to scour the city for a last minute turkey only to discover that the only ones available are frozen solid.
Speaking of frozen turkeys, they can be a good option, particularly if cost savings are on your agenda, but bear in mind that they take a long time to defrost. A 12 to 15 pound bird will take three to four days in the refrigerator to fully defrost. Defrosting in a large cooler or bathtub by changing out the water every few hours can speed that time up to overnight, but it'll be a long night of babysitting that bird.
Things not to do on Thanksgiving: Try and roast a frozen bird.
Other things not to do: forget to take out the giblet packet from under its neck.
Should I brine or salt my bird?
If you choose to start with a natural turkey that hasn't been treated through injection or salting, then you'll most likely want to either brine it or salt it. But which method is preferable?
First, a bit of background on both.
How Brining Works
The basic process involves soaking meat (usually lean meats like turkey, chicken, or pork chops) in a tubful of heavily salted water overnight (most brines are in the 5 to 8% salt range by weight water). Over the course of the night, the meat absorbs some of that water. More importantly, that water stays put even after the meat is cooked. By brining meat, you can decrease the amount of total moisture loss by 30 to 40%.
How does this work?
To understand what's happening, you have to look at the structure of turkey muscles. Muscles are made up of long, bundled fibers, each one housed in a tough protein sheath. As the turkey heats, the proteins that make up this sheath will contract. Just like a squeezing a tube of toothpaste, this causes juices to be forced out of the bird. Heat them to much above 150°F or so, and you end up with dry, stringy meat.
Salt helps mitigate this shrinkage by dissolving some of the muscle proteins (mainly myosin). The muscle fibers loosen up, allowing them to absorb more moisture, and more importantly, they don't contract as much when they cook, making sure that more of that moisture stays in-place as the turkey cooks.
But it's a tradeoff. Brining will add liquid to your turkey, but it will also dilute its flavor. A brined bird will taste blander than an un-brined or dry-brined bird. Using a flavored liquid like cider or broth doesn't really help either—because of an effect called "salting out," salt will selectively move into the bird, while larger flavorful molecules will be excluded.
Check out this article for more on the basics of brining.
How Salting Works
Salting is the method I use. When you salt a turkey (or chicken) breast, meat juices are initially drawn out through the process of osmosis. As the salt dissolves in these juices, it forms what amounts to a very concentrated brine, which then allows it to break down muscle proteins. The loosened muscle fibers allow the juices to get reabsorbed, this time taking the salt along for the ride.
Through this process—osmosing, dissolving, re-absorbing—the salt will slowly work its way into the meat, offering the same sort of moisture protection that brining does, all while seasoning your bird more deeply.
Neither brining nor salting is 100% necessary if you use a thermometer and make sure you don't overcook your turkey, but they're good safeguards just in case.
Check out this article for an in-depth look at salting poultry.
How should I treat my turkey skin?
When treating the skin of your turkey, there are a few options:
Going naked is the easiest, and will give you the crispest skin, particularly if you let the turkey air-dry overnight in the fridge. The problem is that occasionally, the skin will dry out too much, ending up more leathery than crisp.
Dry rubs can add flavor to skin. For best results, apply them the day before and let the turkey air-dry in the fridge over night.
Oil rubbed onto the skin will get you a more even golden-brown color, as it helps distribute heat from air in the oven more evenly. It'll also prevent skin from drying out and turning leathery, though it'll slightly decrease crispness.
Butter or herb-butter will add lots of flavor to your skin (don't expect it to soak into the meat much, even if you spread it underneath the skin), but it'll also greatly reduce its crispness. Butter is about 18% water. It cools down the skin as it evaporates off. Milk proteins present in butter also brown on their own, so turkey skin rubbed with butter will have a spottier appearance than one rubbed in oil. Some people prefer this appearance (as I do, on occasion).
How can I cook my turkey evenly?
We all know the problem with turkeys: the leg meat needs to be cooked to around 165°F to be palatable, while breast meat dries out when it gets much above 145 to 150°F.*
*The USDA recommends cooking turkey breast to 165°F, which is a guarantee you'll have dry, tough meat. So long as you use a thermometer and hold the turkey at 145 to 150°F for at least 15 minutes or so, the results are perfectly safe to consume.
There are a two easy ways to solve this problem.
Method 1: Spatchcock it
Cutting out a turkey's backbone and laying it flat on a rimmed baking sheet completely solves this uneven cooking problem by exposing the leg meat as it cooks. In a ripping hot oven, the legs will end up at 165°F or above just as the breasts hit the 145 to 150°F sweet spot. Not only that, but it produces by far the crispest skin of any method, takes about half the time, and gives you a great turkey backbone to make stock with. It's my method of choice. You can get the full details here.
The only downside is that you can't present a whole bird at the table. If you absolutely need that at your Thanksgiving spread, try this method:
Method 2: Use a baking stone
Preheat a heavy roasting pan set on top of a baking stone or baking steel right on the floor of a 500°F oven for about 30 minutes. Have your turkey ready-to-cook on a V-rack and slide it directly into the roasting pan. Immediately turn the oven down to around 300° or so. The retained heat in the roasting pan and stone will give the leg meat closer to it a head-start, and you'll find that your turkey will all come to the right temperatures at pretty much the same time. It's not quite as foolproof as spatchcocking and the skin doesn't get quite as crisp, but it's the best technique I know for roasting a whole, intact bird.
Should I stuff my bird?
Food guru Alton Brown has gone on record saying that you can't make a good roast turkey with stuffing inside. The difficulty is that once you stuff the bird, that stuffing also needs to come up to a safe final temperature, since it's been absorbing turkey juices the whole time. By the time the stuffing comes up to safe temperature, the breast meat will be hopelessly overcooked.
So what's the solution?
It's actually quite simple, and even Alton himself has gone back and recommended a similar method since his earlier disdain for stuffing: Just heat the stuffing before you put it in the turkey.
By preheating the stuffing, you give it a jumpstart on the cooking process. That way, as long as it never cools down to a dangerous temperature range during the cooking process, you're completely in the clear.
I heat up my stuffing in a cheesecloth pouch inside the microwave before placing it inside the bird. This makes it far easier to get into the bird before roasting, as well as making it easier to retrieve when the bird is cooked.
Since the stuffing cools down a bit during cooking (the cold turkey chills it), you need to start it at around 160°F in order to ensure that it comes back up to a safe temperature by the time the turkey is done roasting.
Check out this post for more details on how to cook a stuffed bird.
When should I cook my bird?
Remember: cooked turkeys need to rest after they've come out of the oven. This allows for internal juices to thicken slightly and for muscle fibers to relax, which means that juices will stay inside the bird when you slice it rather than running all over the plate. Make sure you allow for at least half an hour and up to an hour after your turkey is done roasting before serving.
An added bonus: you've now got an extra half hour to do things like deglaze your pan drippings, heat up your casseroles, have a cocktail, and make whipped cream to cover up the fingerprints you've been leaving on the pumpkin pie.
I don't have a huge family. Is there any hope for my Thanksgiving?
Of course! Even a small family is worth celebrating, and you don't need to settle for too many leftovers or a sub-par turkey. Check out our recipe for Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast and Stuffing that is perfect for a smaller gathering.
How do I carve a turkey?
Glad you asked, and even gladder that I spent the time to put together this handy illustrated slideshow to walk you through the process step-by-step!
What about leftovers?
For many folks, the day after Thanksgiving is better than the event itself. You can count me among that group. We'll be coming up with more fresh leftovers ideas this year (well, as fresh as leftovers can be), but for now, take a look at these 16 great Thanksgiving leftovers recipes for everything from soup to pies to quesadillas!
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.