FAQ: Ask Serious Eats

We answer all your Thanksgiving questions.

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Turkey

  • When should I buy my turkey?
    Wrapped when fresh, a turkey will last for several weeks after its packing date, so make sure to check the label when you purchase it. We try to get our bird at least a week or two in advance, just so we can avoid the stress over whether 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.
  • Which is better: frozen or fresh?
    Freezing meat creates ice crystals that damage cell structure. Frozen meat of any kind is more prone to moisture loss than fresh meat—according to our tests, frozen meat can lose up to 12% more moisture than fresh when it's cooked. We prefer to buy fresh turkeys.
  • What's the best way to thaw turkey?
    If you do end up with a frozen turkey, make sure to give yourself plenty of time to defrost it. The best way is to defrost it in the bottom of the refrigerator with the turkey set on a large platter or tray. A 12- to 15-pound turkey will take three to four days to fully defrost. If you need to defrost your bird in a hurry, place it in a large cooler or tub full of cold water, changing out the water every hour or so. This should get a full-sized bird fully thawed within 12 hours. Once you've completely thawed your frozen turkey, or removed your fresh turkey from its packaging, you should cook it within three days.
  • Can I cook a frozen bird?
    No! Try it and you'll end up with a bird that's overcooked on the exterior and still completely frozen in the middle, even after hours in a hot oven. If your bird is still frozen on Thanksgiving morning, your best bet is to make sure those side dishes are really darned good.
  • What size turkey should I buy?
    Plan on about one pound of turkey per person, which translates to around half a pound of edible meat. Turkeys of more than 15 pounds or so are more difficult to cook, take much longer, and are more prone to drying out. We find that the best birds are around 10 to 12 pounds. If you're cooking for a large group, we'd strongly recommend that you consider cooking two smaller birds instead of one large one. Smaller birds come out more evenly cooked and moist. If this is not an option, then you'll need to adjust your oven temperature. For birds between 15 and 20 pounds, reduce the oven temperatures suggested in our roast turkey recipes by 50°F and increase cooking times by up to 40%. (Make sure to use a thermometer to tell when the turkey is done.) You may find that the skin will not crisp as much on a larger bird. To get crisper skin, return the bird to a 500°F oven for 10 to 15 minutes after resting, then carve and serve immediately.
  • I'm cooking a heritage-breed turkey this year. Should I do anything different?
    Just be more careful about the final cooking temperature. It's very easy to overcook pasture-raised birds that don't have the "enhancing" solutions injected into many commercial birds. Cook the breast meat to 145 to 150°F or so, and you should be fine. And remember, kids: ALWAYS USE A THERMOMETER!
  • What do natural, kosher, organic, and heritage really mean, and which should I buy?
    Most folks at home have three factors to balance in their turkey equation: the flavor of the bird, how difficult it is to prepare, and the ethical and environmental standards by which it was raised. We typically choose a natural turkey, preferably heritage-breed or organic, though all types of birds can be prepared with good results. Check out our full guide to natural, kosher, and injected birds for more details!
  • Do I need one of those expensive roasting pans and racks to cook my turkey?
    No way! Sure, they make moving it in and out of the oven easier, but they're actually worse for cooking a turkey. Not only do they shield the underside of the bird, preventing it from browning and crisping, but they also shield the legs—the very part you want to cook fastest. A much better tool for roasting a turkey is a plain old aluminum half sheet pan, with either a wire rack or a V-rack set in it. The best part? A half sheet pan runs about $15, compared to the $150 you'd spend on a quality roasting pan.
  • Do you recommend brining turkey?
    The basic process involves soaking meat (usually lean meats, like turkey, chicken, or pork chops) in a tub of heavily salted water overnight. (Most brines are in the range of 5 to 8% salt by weight.) 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 reduce the total moisture loss by 30 to 40%. Sounds like brining's a good idea, right? Not so fast. Brining will add liquid to your turkey, but it will also dilute the bird's flavor. 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. Prolonged salting, also known as dry-brining, is the method we 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. The turkey ends up as juicy as a traditionally brined bird, but with none of the flavor dilution.
  • How do I dry-brine my bird?
    Easy. For a 10- to 15-pound bird, combine two tablespoons of kosher salt with one tablespoon of baking powder (for extra-crisp skin) and one teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper in a small bowl. Use the mixture to season your bird evenly across all of its surfaces, making sure to get it into the nooks and crannies under the wings and around the legs. Place the bird on a plate in the fridge overnight, loosely covered with plastic or cheesecloth.
  • What's the best way to roast my turkey?
    For our money, spatchcocking a turkey is by far the fastest, easiest, and best way to roast it. By removing its backbone and flattening it out, not only do you get more even cooking, you also get juicier meat and crisper skin, faster cooking (about a 50% time savings over a regular roast), with a nice backbone you can use to make tasty gravy to boot. It simply can't be beat!
  • Okay, I get it. Spatchcocking is awesome. But I want a traditional-looking bird, so how do I get there?
    If you have your heart set on a traditional-looking whole or stuffed bird, you need to solve the problem of unevenly cooked meat another way. The easiest method we know of is to harness the heat retention capabilities of a baking stone or Baking Steel. Preheat your stone or steel at the bottom of the oven. Have your turkey ready to cook on a V-rack set in a baking sheet, and slide it directly onto the steel. Immediately turn the oven down to around 300°F or so. The retained heat in the baking sheet and stone will give the leg meat that's closer to it a head start, and you'll find that all your turkey parts will 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 we know for roasting a whole, intact bird. You can find the full instructions here.
  • How do I carve my turkey?
    Glad you asked, and even gladder that we have this handy illustrated slideshow to walk you through the process step by step!
  • Does basting help make a turkey more moist?
    No. Regardless of what some old books may tell you, basting juices will not penetrate the meat, any more than water poured over an inflated balloon will turn it into a water balloon. What they will do is affect the way the surface cooks. If your pan drippings are largely water-based, then spooning them back over the roast will inhibit browning. It'll also deposit various flavorful dissolved solids back onto the surface of the meat, which can make for a tastier end product. If, on the other hand, they're largely fat-based, basting with them will enhance browning by giving the hot air in the oven a medium through which to transfer its energy to the turkey's skin. Whether to baste or not is a judgment call. If the turkey looks like it needs better browning, and there's fat down there, baste away (or just brush on some oil). Most of the time, you don't need to worry about it.
  • Any other tips for getting extra-crisp skin?
    Yes! Combine your salt rub with a little baking powder before rubbing it into the turkey and letting it rest overnight. That's right, baking powder. It's a trick you can also find in our recipe for Really Good Oven-Fried Buffalo Wings. Baking powder mixes with the juices on the surface of the turkey skin and reacts, forming microscopic bubbles. These bubbles then crisp up, adding extra surface area and crunch to your turkey as it bakes. Baking powder's slightly alkaline pH also promotes better browning and more efficient breakdown of proteins in the turkey skin.
  • How do I know when my turkey is done?
    Forget about timing charts, checking for juices, or poking your meat with your finger. The only 100% reliable way to tell when your turkey is cooked is to use a thermometer, like the instant-read splash-proof Thermapen. For turkey that's moist and juicy, aim for breasts that register 150°F at their deepest point and legs that register at least 165°F.
  • How do I properly take my turkey's temperature?
    First, politely ask it to turn around and bend over. Then....Just kidding. We're talking the temperature of your cooked turkey, right? You should always measure the temperature in the breast—that's the part of the bird that's really most sensitive to cooking. Even if your legs overcook, they won't be bad, but under- or overcooked breast meat is terrible. Roast your bird until the breast registers 145 to 160°F (depending on how well done you like it), then just double-check the legs to make sure they've come up to at least 165°F or so. If they need a bit more cooking, remove them and leave them in the oven for longer while the breasts rest.
  • What's the best way to 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 reaches a safe temperature, the breast meat will be hopelessly overcooked. To solve this dilemma, we par-cook our stuffing to 160°F in the microwave, stuffing it into the turkey while it's still hot. So long as you immediately transfer the turkey to the oven to start roasting, the stuffing will never drop below a safe temperature range. You can get more details on the process here.
  • I love a stuffed turkey, but I've heard it's not safe to cook that way. Is there any way to safely cook a bird with stuffing inside it?
    The problem with stuffed turkey is that the stuffing needs to reach 150 to 165°F to be safe to consume, which means that the meat ends up overcooking. To avoid that, we par-cook the stuffing to a safe temperature before putting it inside the bird. Read up!
  • Does eating turkey really make you tired?
    The active ingredient at play here is tryptophan, a soporific. But turkey doesn't actually contain any more tryptophan than many other foods. Here are the amounts in some common foods, per 100 grams:
    • Bacalao (dried cod): 0.70
    • Pumpkin seeds: 0.57
    • Parmesan: 0.56
    • Sesame seeds: 0.37
    • Pork: 0.25
    • Turkey: 0.24
    • Chicken: 0.24
    • Beef: 0.23
    • Salmon: 0.22
    • Eggs: 0.17
    The real culprit behind the post-Thanksgiving-meal sleepies? Overeating.
  • Can I refreeze my thawed turkey?
    From a quality standpoint, we wouldn't recommend it—every time you freeze and defrost meat, you damage its structure more and more. From a safety standpoint, thawed meat should only be refrozen once. After that, you run a more serious risk that bacterial contamination is building up to unsafe levels.

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Sides

  • What's the secret to the crispest roast potatoes?
    First parboil them in water, then toss them with oil while roughing up the edges. This gives them extra surface area, which subsequently makes them extra crisp as you roast them in the oven. Check out our recipe here!
  • I've always liked my mashed potatoes fluffy, but my mother-in-law likes them creamy. How do I get both of those results?
    The main difference lies in the way in which the potatoes are cooked and in how the dairy elements are incorporated. Check out our guide to creamy or fluffy mashed potatoes for all the details.
  • Can I make my mashed potatoes ahead of time?
    You sure can. We use a bit of sour cream to ensure that our potatoes stay creamy and light—not heavy and gluey—even when stored overnight. Find the full recipe here.
  • What's a good recipe using sweet potatoes or yams? I have yet to find one that stands above the rest.
    Might we humbly suggest this one? The method here is simple: Sweet potatoes contain enzymes that break down their starches and complex carbs into simple sugar, enhancing their sweetness. By heating them gently in water before roasting them, you can give this effect a jump-start, resulting in the sweetest sweet potatoes you ever did meet.
  • What's the difference between a sweet potato and a yam?
    True yams are pretty much never seen in a typical Western supermarket, though you may find them hanging out underneath the produce display if you shop in an area with a large South African or West Indian population. What we sometimes refer to as "yams" are technically all sweet potatoes, not yams. That said, this whole debate is like the one about barbecue, or whether a tomato is a fruit or vegetable. Words have fluid definitions that can vary based on the context in which you use them. If you want to call your garnet sweet potatoes "yams" because that's what your Southern mother-in-law knows them as, then by all means, keep calling' em yams, and feel free to yell down your pedantic relatives.

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Vegetarian

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Gravy And Cranberry Sauce

  • What's the best kind of cranberry sauce?
    There's no real answer to this question, since it largely comes down to personal taste. If you're after a basic version, then this is a fantastic (and easy) recipe. Want some wackier variations? We've got quite a few of those, too.
  • Can I make my gravy ahead of time?
    Yes, you can! Use our gravy recipe, then store it in a sealed container in the fridge for up to three days. Then reheat it on the day of, whisking in any extra defatted turkey drippings from the roast.
  • What's the best way to make gravy?
    If you've gone the spatchcocked turkey route, then you'll have a backbone to work with. Start by chopping it up and browning it in oil, then add some aromatics, like chopped onion, carrot, celery, bay leaves, parsley, and black peppercorns. Add enough homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock to cover and let it simmer for at least an hour. Strain out and discard the solids. You've now got yourself a pretty solid turkey stock to work with. Once that's done, it's simply a matter of following one of our gravy recipes for a flavor-packed sauce to cover your turkey and mashed potatoes. For extra flavor, try spiking your gravy with a splash of soy sauce and fish sauce!
  • How do you skim the fat off of pan drippings for making gravy?
    Very carefully. Okay, there's a little more to it than that. The easiest way is to use a fat separator, a nifty little measuring cup that pours out from the bottom, which lets you pour off your clear stock and keep the fat trapped in the cup. But if you don't want to clutter your kitchen with a tool you'll pull out once a year, a small ladle or a big spoon will work. The trick is to transfer the drippings to a tall, narrow container and let them sit for five minutes. The fat should form a layer on top; skim it off with the ladle and discard.

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Desserts

  • I love pie, but making the crust intimidates me! Is there a recipe that's as foolproof as buying a pre-made crust from the shop?
    We've baked hundreds and hundreds of pies and tested out every possible variable to come up with our recipe for foolproof pie crust. The trick is a unique way of incorporating the flour and butter, which guarantees a tender, flaky crust that rolls out like a dream. Or, if you want a more classic, hands-on approach that doesn’t require a food processor, this classic pie crust is simple, reliable, and easy to work with.
  • What kind of pies require blind-baking?
    As a very general rule, double-crusted or latticed pies are not blind-baked, as they require you to fold the top and bottom crusts together to form a seal. Typically, they're also baked for longer, to allow both crusts to set and crisp. Single-crust pies are usually blind-baked, the reason being that with completely exposed fillings, it's difficult to bake them long enough to set the bottom crust without negatively impacting the texture and appearance of the filling. But honestly, the best advice we can give here is to follow the recipes! They should always specify if the crust is to be blind-baked or not. And don't forget to check out our essential tips for blind-baking before you get started.
  • Any suggestions for Thanksgiving desserts that can be made way ahead of time (2+ days)?
    Pretty much any pie can be made ahead! We like the classic apple and an extra-smooth pumpkin, but really, any pie on this page will do you just fine. Store it in the fridge, then serve at room temperature—or, if you like, crisp it up in a warm oven for half an hour before serving.

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Leftovers

  • Any tips for leftovers?
    We've got TONS of Thanksgiving leftovers ideas around these parts! One favorite way to do it is to chop up all the side dishes, shred the leftover turkey, and make a leftovers hash. We always have a ton of Brussels sprouts and potatoes, and both of those are perfect ingredients for hash because they taste so delicious when browned nearly to the point of burning in a cast iron skillet. Top it off with a couple of eggs and a lot of gravy, and it's almost better than the actual meal the night before.

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Drinks

  • What's a good Thanksgiving mocktail? I'm pregnant, and my in-laws don't drink.
    Why, we're glad you asked that question! It just so happens that we've devoted considerable time and effort to a whole slew of mocktail recipes, many of them seasonally appropriate. This Pomegranate Americano should hit the spot if you like things strong and bitter, but if not, there should be plenty of others more to your liking. And if you're the studious type, you can read up here on the science of what makes a good mocktail.

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