It’s time to talk turkey: How to prepare and cook your Thanksgiving bird

Alexis Davies,

WASHINGTON – The holidays bring out two types of people: those who can cook and those who run from the kitchen, grabbing a delivery menu on their way out.

I grew up with a somewhat basic knowledge of how to cook, which later morphed into a routine skill, making dinner for my husband and kids. At that point, I thought I was a pro.

But celebrating the holidays without family nearby forced me to turn my culinary skills up a notch, in order to keep up with the memories of past holiday meals.

So I decided to grab the bull by the horns — or the turkey by the legs in my case. I crossed over into the realm of real “cook.”

I made up my mind that my first Thanksgiving meal was going to be epic. I prepared for the feast like a professional athlete prepares for games, only minus the exercise.

I read everything I could on turkey preparation. I scoured the Internet for the best way to cook a turkey, the best way to make mashed potatoes and gravy, and I studied the best pie crusts.

Then I created a game plan and went to work. Here are some tips and takeaways I’ve learned about the Thanksgiving turkey over the past few years.

Turkey time

The turkey is the most important part of Thanksgiving, so extra care and stress is required. If the turkey is overcooked, undercooked or not cooked at all, the meal is ruined. Equally important is knowing how much turkey to buy. Another surefire way to ruin your dinner is to not have enough of the main course.

The general rule of thumb is one pound per person. This gives you enough meat for the meal and enough for leftovers.

Whew, crisis averted! Now that you have enough turkey for your meal, how do you prepare it?

Thawing a turkey

Most purchase a frozen turkey from the grocery store. It’s usually a solid rock of turkey and ice — but don’t let that deter you from creating something amazing. If you are buying a frozen turkey, make sure you buy it enough time in advance of your dinner. The turkey can sometimes take up to a week to thaw, depending on the size of your bird.

There are several methods one can use to thaw a turkey. The most tried-and-true way is to put your frozen turkey in the refrigerator and let it thaw one day for every 4 pounds of turkey. When thawing the turkey, leave it in its original packaging and place it on a cookie sheet.

Other methods involve putting the turkey in a sink of cold water. This works, but the water has to stay a certain cold temperature the entire time, which means extra work for you on an already busy day.

Brining your turkey

Another thawing method is to brine the turkey. Brining is a method involving salt, sugar and other herbs, and soaking the turkey in a “bath” for anywhere from eight to 12 hours.

Brining keeps the turkey moist by infusing it with a salt and sugar concoction that makes for good flavoring on your bird, as well as tasty gravy. I’ve also read it prevents overcooking.

Brining is simple and the Internet is full of great brining recipes, so find one that sounds good to you. Once you find your recipe of choice and collect the needed ingredients, get set for delicious flavor.

Brining requires a clean cooler, water and ice. We usually employ the “thaw the turkey in the fridge for a few days” method first. Then, the night before turkey day, we open the bird and toss it in the brine solution in a cooler we designate “the turkey cooler,” which is washed really well before and after use to prevent germs.

We have found over the years that the turkey is usually still frozen inside even after being thawed in the fridge, so brining accomplishes two things: it thaws the bird and makes it taste really good.

The addition of some oil and salt and pepper slathered all over your turkey adds to the flavor and gives your turkey that golden shine when it’s roasting.

Roasting your turkey

For my first Thanksgiving meal, I decided to buy a roasting oven. I found it at a local store for $40, which was well worth the investment.

A roasting oven is basically an oven that sits on your counter and plugs into your wall. It takes a lot of the guess work out of cooking a turkey and frees up your oven for other use. I also recommend buying a meat thermometer. This helps you determine when the turkey is done, so you can avoid a dry, overcooked bird.

To get started roasting, place the turkey breast-side up in the roasting pan. The cooking time depends on the size of your bird and whether the bird is stuffed. This chart on is a great guide to keep handy when you’re cooking your turkey.

The best tip I can pass on is one the pros highly recommend. Check for doneness about one hour before your turkey is supposed to be done. This is where your meat thermometer comes in handy. Your turkey is done when your meat thermometer reads 180 degrees at the thigh, and about 170 degrees in the breast.

If your turkey is at this temperature, remove it from the oven and put it breast-side up onto a carving board or a platter. Cover it with a loose sheet of tin foil and let it rest for up to 20 minutes. This helps in keep the juice in, preserving the moistness of the meat.

While the turkey is “resting,” finish up any last minute meal preparations, including making the gravy.

Invite guests to come over about an hour to an hour and a half before the turkey is done. You and your guests can enjoy appetizers and then be ready for that perfectly cooked turkey right when it’s carved to perfection.

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Editor’s Note: Alexis Davies is a high-heel wearing mom-of-four who loves to run — not in heels, of course. When she’s not manning operations at WTOP, she is an aspiring chef and an outdoors and history enthusiast.

Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter.

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