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Before I became an adult, Thanksgiving was a relaxing time filled with dysfunctional family, football, and vats of mashed potatoes and gravy.
And then I became an adult and naively volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner……
And that’s when my feelings about Thanksgiving turned from this:
Perhaps one of the most daunting tasks of hosting a Thanksgiving gathering is cooking the turkey. There’s a lot that rides on that one dish, it’s pretty much the make or break of the whole day. So no pressure!
Are you one of the poor souls that is hosting Thanksgiving this year? In the hopes of easing a little bit of the stress that I’m sure you are feeling, here is my in-depth look at how to cook a turkey! While I am no culinary expert, I have cooked a couple of turkey’s in my day, and have learned a fairly no-fuss way of getting that bird to the table WITHOUT losing your will to live. 😉
Step #1: Picking a Turkey
Which brand should I buy?
I am usually the first person to go for the “off brand” of something in order to save a few bucks, but in the case of picking a turkey, I do think that Butterball turkey is the way to go. It is the fool proof way of achieving a tender, juicy turkey with lots of flavor. There’s lots of reasons to “splurge” and go for the Butterball, but don’t take my word for it: click HERE to see what Butterball themselves say about their products.
Sidenote: Around Thanksgiving, if you shop around, you can usually find great deals on turkey (typically in the 99 cents to $1.29 per pound range where I live in Wisconsin). Whether or not I am hosting Thanksgiving, I will usually buy a turkey when they are on sale, toss it in my freezer, and cook it sometime after the holidays to make things like soup, shredded turkey sandwiches etc.
Fresh or Frozen?
Some might argue that a fresh turkey is superior to a frozen one, but if your bird is properly cooked, nobody will no the difference, so just pick what works for you. Frozen turkeys can be kept frozen for up to 12 months, which is nice if you want to buy your turkey around Thanksgiving when it is on sale, and keep it frozen until until you want to cook later (like I just mentioned).
How Much Turkey do I need?
The general rule of thumb for deciding how much turkey you will need is 1 pound per person. However, if you are hoping to have leftovers, or know you have big eaters to feed, you may want to opt for 1.5 pounds per person. As an example, assuming you go with 1.5 pounds per person, and are feeding 12 people, you would want a turkey that is at least 18 pounds (12 people x 1.5 lbs per person = 18 lb turkey) Honestly, I usually buy the biggest turkey I can find (again, because I am typically buying it on sale), knowing that I want to have plenty of leftovers.
Step #2: Prepping the Turkey
Do I need to let it thaw?
If you are starting from a frozen turkey, you will want to plan ahead a little bit and give your turkey time to thaw. As an estimate, you will want to allow 1 day in the fridge for every 5 pounds of turkey. So, for the 18 pound turkey I mentioned above, you would want to thaw for 3-4 days in the fridge. It is not a bad idea to give yourself 1 extra day, just to be safe. You will want to set the turkey (in it’s original, store packaging), into a pan or rimmed baking sheet to catch any liquid that might leak out during thawing.
Let’s say it’s the day before Thanksgiving and you forgot to take your turkey out of the freezer. Or perhaps (in a completely hypothetical situation of course), you’re at the grocery store on Thanksgiving Eve, scrambling to buy all the ingredients you need for hosting Thanksgiving dinner. Green beans, check; potatoes, check; Stove Top, check; crescent rolls, check….boxed wine, check 😊….And then it hits you….F my life, I should have bought the turkey like a week ago, it’s going to be frozen solid! (Really, this has never happened to me….but I might be lying) No worries, I’ve got you covered:
Here’s the Hot Mess Mom’s SUPER SPEEDY method for thawing a turkey:
This method will work if you are about full day out from when you need to serve your turkey, as it takes about 30 minutes for each pound of turkey (18 pound turkey = 9 hours of thaw time).
First, disinfect your sink. Put the frozen turkey (in its original wrapper) in the sink and fill with cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes to make sure the water stays cold- you don’t want bacteria growing on your turkey. I don’t know about you, but 12 guests contracting food poisoning on my watch doesn’t sound like a good time to me.
If you find yourself on the evening of Thanksgiving Eve with a frozen solid turkey, as in the situation above, you will have to be willing to wake up every half hour to change out the water, in order to have it thawed by morning. At this point I’m sure you’ll be wishing you hadn’t forgotten the dang turkey, but the show must go on! Unless you’d rather serve chicken nuggets instead, sacrifices must be made. 😉
If push comes to shove, and you are not willing to stay up all night babysitting your turkey, click HERE for information about cooking a frozen turkey.
I have to put my hand up where?
This next step is typically not anyone’s favorite part, but put on your big girl pants, roll up your sleeves, and suppress your gag reflex, because it has to be done!
First, remove the thawed turkey from its packaging. Then, reach in and remove the neck (the long, skinny thing found in the large cavity of the bird) and then the bag of giblets (you may have to check both the large cavity and smaller neck cavity). I have to admit, I am not entirely sure what “giblets” are, and I think I prefer to keep it that way. You can discard these or save them for making gravy if you prefer. I opt for discarding them. My recipe for store bought gravy doesn’t call for them anyway. 😉
Do I need to rinse the turkey?
There is some contradictory advice out there about whether you are supposed to wash/rinse a turkey before you cook it, but according to my research, the USDA does not actually recommend washing a whole turkey before you cook it, as you are more likely to spread germs around your kitchen and in your sink if you do so.
Score!! Because have you ever tried washing a raw turkey? It’s like bathing a really heavy newborn slathered in vegetable oil. Slippery, that’s all I’m saying.
Instead, all you need to do is pat it off with some paper towels and prepare it for the oven.
To stuff or not to stuff?
Contrary to what its name might suggest, stuffing your stuffing inside of the turkey during the cooking process is not actually recommended. There are a few reasons for this:
- Oftentimes the turkey is overcooked by the time your stuffing reaches a food-safe temperature.
- Stuffing often ends up being soggy when it’s cooked inside the turkey.
- You almost always need more stuffing than is able to fit inside of the turkey.
Cooking stuffing inside the turkey doesn’t actually add much flavor to the turkey anyways.
Instead of cooking the stuffing inside the turkey, try out this recipe for a Super Simple Slow-Cooker Stuffing. There’s also no shame in using Stove Top. (Just sayin’).
If you insist on being fancy and stuffing your turkey with something, consider stuffing it with onion, carrots, celery, apple, lemon and/or herbs instead. You won’t actually eat these, but they will add some good flavor to your turkey.
How should I season the turkey?
Now you can begin the seasoning of your turkey. If I’m being honest, oftentimes, I don’t even really bother seasoning my turkey at all (maybe just a little bit of salt and pepper). Especially if I am cooking the turkey for the sole purpose of using it for other recipes. But, if you are hosting Thanksgiving and want to make sure your turkey is extra tasty, you can start by holding the turkey by the back legs, and seasoning the entire cavity with salt and pepper, then season the outside with salt and pepper as well.
If you really want to kick it up a notch, I recommend using this rub. You rub it all over the outside of the turkey, with a little bit of olive oil (or butter if you prefer). Not only does it make your turkey taste great, it makes it look really pretty. Your guests will totally think you know what you’re doing.
If you want to go REALLY crazy, and add more juiciness to the bird, you can even put a few tablespoons of the herb rub mixed with butter underneath the skin of the turkey. However, I’m too lazy for that. Plus, it requires you to pull back the skin from the turkey and stuff the butter underneath the surface of the skin. A little too Silence of the Lambs for me, but you do you.
Not to mention, as I am about to explain, I like to cook my turkey in an oven bag, which keeps my turkey nice and moist anyways. No need for the extra butter.
Place the turkey in an Oven Bag
I think the biggest secret weapon to cooking a super juicy turkey is cooking it in an oven bag. (This kind my favorite.) The beauty of using an oven bag is that it is really hard to dry it out by overcooking (still possible…so don’t take this as a challenge!).
When placing your turkey into the oven bag, you first need to sprinkle the bottom of the bag with flour. Then, place the turkey inside the bag, and into a roasting pan (a roasting pan like this works perfectly). Seal the bag with the included nylon tie and poke (6) ½ inch slits in the top of the bag to allow steam to escape as the turkey cooks. This is an important step, as a turkey explosion inside your oven is not what we’re going for here.
Then, tuck the corners of the bag in the pan to make sure it doesn’t touch the oven’s heating elements while cooking.
Step # 3: Cooking the Turkey
At what temperature should I cook my turkey?
Low and slow is the name of the game when it comes to cooking a turkey. Somewhere between 325-350 degrees Fahrenheit is the magic number that you will want to set your oven at. Also, in order to make room for your giant a$ turkey, you will want to place your oven rack in its lowest position.
How long should I cook it?
This seems to be what everybody wants to know when it comes to cooking a turkey, and the answer is, it depends on the size of the turkey, as well as your oven.
All ovens are not created equal This is why it is important to use a meat thermometer to be the final judge of whether the bird is done cooking (I love using this one specifically for poultry). Turkey needs to be cooked to between 160-165 degrees Fahrenheit in the thickest part of the bird.
Here are the guidelines from the National Turkey Federation (yes, there indeed is such a thing) about the proper meat thermometer placement and internal temperature. I do not recommend relying on the little plastic “pop up thingy” that comes with most turkeys. I’d rather not have the fate of my guests getting food poisoning or not hinged a disposable plastic gadget that comes “standard” with a dead bird.
Here is a general guideline of how long your turkey will take to cook:
8 -12 lbs
2 ¾ – 3 hours
3 – 3 ½ hours
3 – 3 ¾ hours
3 ½ – 4 hours
3 ¾ – 4 ¼ hours
4 – 4 ¼ hours
4 ¼ – 4 ½ hours
4 ¼ – 4 ¾ hours
4 ½ – 5 hours
4 ¾ – 5 ¼ hours
Keep in mind that the turkey will also need to rest once it is out of the oven for 20-30 minutes before serving. And that just figures, everyone gets to “rest” but you. Even the fricken turkey gets to rest, while you have to continue slaving away to get the meal on the table. (Sorry, I might be projecting a little bit there…..). “Resting” the turkey is actually an important step, as it allows the juices to evenly distribute throughout the turkey before it is sliced.
And that’s it! Pour yourself a glass of wine, because you just cooked yourself a damn turkey!