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50 Dos and Don’ts of How to Cook a Turkey

Learn how to cook a turkey like a total Thanksgiving pro.
50 Dos and Don’ts of How to Cook a Turkey
50 Dos and Don’ts of How to Cook a Turkey
Learn how to cook a turkey like a total Thanksgiving pro.

Thanksgiving turkey can be one of the most intimidating dishes to tackle for a newbie chef (or anyone, for that matter). From the thawing, to the seasoning, brining, and stuffing—things can get overwhelming, fast. Thankfully, according to the pros, there are simple things you can do to perfect your turkey, whether it’s your first or 15th time.

Turkey-newbies, have no fear. Below are 50 dos and don’ts for how to cook a turkey from pro chef Daniel Angerer, of New York City’s Hu Kitchen, and Jasmine Shea, nutrition consultant for Bubs Naturals and founder of Your Dinner Is Planned. They’ve got the tips for making a turkey you (and your guests) won’t forget.

Do: Buy Enough Turkey for Your Guests

Turkey Shutterstock

Thanksgiving is arguably the most food-focused holiday of the year, so don’t forget that guests will gobble up the turkey faster than you think! Don’t risk the chance of sending them home hungry or disappointed they didn’t get to feast on the star of the Thanksgiving show: the turkey. “For every four guests, you’ll want approximately six pounds of turkey. This means if you have 12 guests, you’ll want to prepare an 18-20 pound turkey,” says Shea.

Do: Buy Organic, Free-Range Turkey (If You Can)

Organic turkey Shutterstock

The quality and sourcing of your bird is important for one that is optimally tasty (and free from less-than-healthy additives). While you may be tempted to grab the first turkey at the grocery store that meets your weight requirements, see if you can find one that is organic and free-range. If the turkey is organic and free-range, it means that it was able to roam freely on the pasture and eat its natural diet (one that is free from pesticides and chemicals).

Don’t: Buy a Fresh Turkey (Unless You Can Cook It Right Away)

Fresh turkey Shutterstock

If you do decide to purchase a fresh turkey from your local butcher, meat supplier, or grocer, be sure that you time the purchase date to fit with your Thanksgiving dinner plans. You’ll want to immediately cook the turkey if it’s purchased fresh. The longest you should let a fresh turkey chill in the fridge is 1-2 days before it’s cooked, according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Do: Purchase Your Frozen Turkey Well in Advance

Butterball turkey Shutterstock

Grocery stores can resemble The Hunger Games in the days before Thanksgiving. Don’t risk the chance of fighting someone over the last turkey because you waited until the last minute. If you know you’ll be busy the week of Thanksgiving, go ahead and buy your frozen turkey as soon as they’re available at the stores (usually starting in early October).

Don’t: Buy a Pre-Injected or Pre-Basted Turkey

premade turkey Shutterstock

While a pre-basted turkey may seem tempting, don’t waste your time and money on a pre-basted turkey. It takes the seasoning and flavor part out of your control, which you never want. According to Southern Living, the ingredients used in this process can make the turkey taste too salty, or the texture can be spongy. Not exactly what your guests expect when they take the first bite, right?

Don’t: Buy Fresh, Pre-Stuffed Turkeys

Pre stuffed turkey Shutterstock

Again, just because the turkey is pre-stuffed doesn’t mean that it’s the best choice. According to Southern Living, pre-stuffed turkeys can actually present a food-safety risk because there’s a chance the turkey wasn’t handled properly when stuffed, leading to possible bacteria in the turkey or stuffing.

Do: Safely Handle Uncooked Turkey

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Because you want to avoid spreading any kind of bacteria that can come from handling raw poultry, be sure to take care when handling your raw turkey. According to the CDC, harmful bacteria can grown on anything poultry touches, so be sure to wash everything that you use when prepping the turkey.

Don’t: Wash or Rinse Your Turkey Before Cooking

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A common misconception is that rinsing the raw turkey will remove the harmful bacteria that can cause food poisoning, but the opposite is actually true. Rinsing the turkey puts you more at risk for contamination, because washing it can cause the bacteria to spread all over your kitchen. The USDA  encourages everyone to wash their hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds before and after handling a turkey. Plus, the only real way to kill bacteria is to cook to the proper internal temperature.

Do: Check That It’s Completely Thawed Before Cooking

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In a hurry to cook the turkey? Don’t rush it and put a still icy bird in the oven. Be sure to check that it’s completely thawed before roasting.

Do: Cook Turkey Right Away Once Thawed

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If you buy a fresh turkey, you know it has to be cooked right away, and the same goes for a frozen turkey that has been thawed. Be ready to cook the turkey right when it is completely thawed, because you don’t want it sitting around just waiting for bacteria to grow. According to Foodsafety.gov, you can expect to thaw a turkey for 24 hours per 4-5lbs in the refrigerator.

Don’t: Thaw the Turkey Out on the Counter

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One of the top mistakes you could make to compromise the safety of your turkey is to let it thaw on the counter. A room-temp environment is an ideal breeding ground for nasty bacteria that can make you (and all of your guests) really sick.

Do: Thaw It in the Fridge or in a Bowl with Cool Water

Thawing turkey in fridge Shuttertock

Be sure to thaw your turkey in the fridge or in a bowl with cool water (although, you can’t just leave it sitting in the water).

Don’t: Let the Turkey Thaw in the Same Water

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If you decide to thaw out the turkey in a bowl of water instead of in the fridge, be sure to change the water out every 30 minutes. The CDC says this is necessary to keep the turkey at a safe temperature and to avoid dangerous bacteria from developing.

Don’t: Keep the Turkey Out for More Than 2 Hours

Raw turkey Shutterstock

The 2 hour mark is when the CDC says you’ve crossed the line of safety. It’s best to err on the side of caution and go ahead and buy a new turkey if you left it out on the counter (or even worse–in the car) for 2 hours or more.

Do: Keep Turkey Wrapped in Plastic When Thawing

Plastic wrap Shutterstock

Even though you may think taking off the plastic packaging on the turkey will make it thaw faster, you may want to think twice. Leaving your turkey to thaw sans wrapper means that the turkey can contaminate anything it’s near (and you definitely don’t want that around other food or in the fridge). There’s a reason this advice made it on our top five list of tips for thawing out a turkey.

Do: Steam the Turkey First for Extra Moist Meat

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If you have a bit of extra time on your hands and want to ensure a super-moist turkey, Chef Angerer recommends steaming the turkey before you roast it for a turkey that is moist. “Steam it to an internal temperature of 130 F and then transfer the turkey to a 375 F hot oven to an internal temperature of 160 F. This way the turkey will stay moist and won’t burn on the skin side,” says Angerer.

Do: Stuff the Turkey With Fresh Herbs

Chicken with herbs Charles Koh/Unsplash

For an even more flavorful turkey, stuff it with fresh herbs like fresh sage, rosemary, and garlic cloves like Hangerer recommends. He also adds an apple with the herbs to take the flavor to the next level.

Do: Brine the Turkey for At Least 12 Hours

Brined turkey Shutterstock

Brining the turkey will ensure a juicer, more well-seasoned bird. Hangerer reccommends brining a 12-pound turkey for 12-14 hours in a solution of 1 gallon of water and ½ cup of sea salt. “It’s salt-seasoned from the inside out this way,” says Hangerer.

Don’t: Oversalt the Turkey

Salt spilling from salt shaker Shutterstock

On the flipside, you can have too much of a good thing: salt, that is. According to Shea, your store-bought turkey may come pre-salted, so go easy with the salt shaker before you roast it. “Keep in mind that many store-bought turkeys have been pre-brined. This means they have soaked in a salt bath and may need less salt than you think, so don’t add too much at once” says Shea.

Don’t Overlook the Turkey Skin

Overcooked turkey skin Shutterstock

According to Shea, the turkey skin is one of the best places to lock flavor into the turkey. “The skin of the turkey is a great place to trap flavors. When preparing your turkey, lift the skin up and put slices of butter against the meat. The butter will soak into the turkey meat, leaving the bird extra flavorful,” says Shea.

Do: Remove the Giblet Pack Before You Cook the Turkey

Raw turkey Shutterstock

One easy way to ruin your turkey’s taste is by forgetting to remove the package of turkey parts that’s usually placed inside the turkey. These parts are ideal for using to make homemade turkey gravy.

Do: Reserve the Giblets for Gravy

Turkey giblets Shutterstock

Once you remove the giblet pack, unwrap the parts and use it to make a stock. Once your turkey is cooked, you can use the pan drippings along with the stock to make a tasty gravy, like this one from Williams Sonoma.

Do: Inject With Seasoning

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Chef Angerer reccomends injecting the turkey with apple cider spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, honey, and apple cider. “This adds more moisture and flavor to the meat,” says Angerer.

Do: Safely Stuff Your Turkey

Stuffing Shutterstock

The CDC says that the stuffing inside the turkey can become a breeding ground for bacteria if not properly handled. You’ll want to add the stuffing right before you cook it, and be sure to check the temperature of the stuffing, too (165 degrees in the center of the stuffing is done).

Do: Try Stuffing It With Veggies

Boiled and sauteed vegetables Shutterstock

If you want to accommodate gluten-free eaters, or maybe you just don’t prefer stuffing, you can opt to stuff the turkey with fresh veggies.

Don’t: Overstuff the Turkey

Stuffed turkey Shutterstock

Stuffing the turkey with traditional stuffing can be a great option, but don’t add too much. You may end up drying out the turkey because the bread in the stuffing can dry out the meat.

Do: Baste the Turkey Often

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Ideally, you need to baste the turkey every half hour, according to Angerer.

Don’t: Make the Stuffing Too Early

Slow cooker stuffing Shutterstock

For food safety purposes, it’s not a great idea to make stuffing ahead of time. According to the CDC, it’s best to mix up your stuffing right before you loosely stuff it in your turkey.

Do: Allow Extra Cooking Time If You Stuff With Things Other Than Veggies

If you stuff the turkey with regular stuffing (and not just veggies), you’ll want to allow a bit of extra cooking time. Make sure you do check the internal temp of the stuffing and ensure it’s at least 165 degrees F.

Do Add Roast Veggies in the Last 45 Minutes for Extra Tasty Sides

Roasted veggies Shutterstock

“In the last 45 minutes of the cooking time, add 1/2-inch-size cubed carrots, celery, and sweet potatoes. The turkey roasting juices will make the vegetables super tasty” says Angerer.

Do: Try Slow Cooking Your Turkey

Slow cooker Shutterstock

If you’re a turkey newbie (or don’t consider yourself a whiz in the kitchen), consider making a slow cooker turkey this year. Slow cooking a turkey is a great option if you know you’ll realistically be way too busy to go through the traditional roasting process.

Don’t: Forget to Check the Internal Temp With a Meat Thermometer

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This is arguably the most important thing you can do to check that your turkey is done and safe for you and your guests to eat. The internal temp you’re looking for is 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Do: Add Wine to Your Turkey

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Who says you have to save the wine for drinking? Wine can really help boost the flavors in your turkey. A dry white wine is your best bet, especially if you’re using butter to baste it.

Do: Create a Pecan Crust

Pecans Shutterstock

We think that making a pecan crust (yes, for the turkey!) is another way to add some tasty crunch and give your guests something they won’t expect (but will love).

Do: Use Oranges to Season

Sliced orange Shutterstock

Oranges will give your turkey an amazing sweet and bright flavor. Just add some sliced oranges under your turkey skin a few hours into the roasting process and your turkey will be infused with extra flavor and juiciness.

Do: Add Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar Shutterstock

Is there anything apple cider vinegar can’t make better? Angerer adds it to his seasoning that he injects his turkey with, and you can also add it to the turkey brine for some slightly tangy flavor.

Don’t: Be Afraid to Grill Your Turkey

Grilled chicken Shutterstock

If you’re lucky enough to have some good weather (and a grill) on Thanksgiving, why not grill the bird? And this guide tells you how to grill your turkey using beer (and a beer can as a handy prop).

Do: Add a Maple Syrup Glaze

Maple syrup Shutterstock

What says fall more than maple syrup? “Brush the turkey with maple syrup 10 minutes before it is taken out of the oven. This will add a great maple note and beautiful golden crust with a crispy texture,” says Angerer.

Do: Baste With Butter

Butter knife spread

Do we need another reason to love butter? Butter is your best friend when it comes to basting your turkey for ultimate flavor and juicy meat.

Don’t: Be Afraid to Change Things Up This Year

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If you’re a fan of spicy chilis, try adding them to your turkey for an unexpected spicy kick.

Do: Try a Turducken

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The turducken is famous for a reason: The combo of turkey, chicken, and duck is seriously delicious. If you’re feeling ambitious this year, check out this recipe from Paula Deen for the step-by-step guide to making your own turducken.

Don’t: Carve the Turkey as Soon As It Comes Out of the Oven

Cut up turkey Shutterstock

As excited as you’ll be to taste the turkey after the roasting smells have filled your house, don’t cut into it right away. According to Angerer, letting the turkey rest for at least 15 minutes will give the juices a chance to distribute throughout the meat.

Do: Fry the Turkey if You’re in a Hurry

Frying turkey Shutterstock

Frying your turkey (while not the healthiest option) is definitely one of the quickest ways to cook your turkey in a pinch. For an extra-indulgent turkey this year, try this recipe from Alton Brown.

Don’t: Skip the Gravy

Turkey gravy Shutterstock

You may see gravy as an afterthought after making the turkey, but don’t underestimate its importance. You’re going to cover the meat in it, so it’s a good idea to take it as seriously as the bird itself.

Do: Reserve Pan Drippings for Gravy

Gravy base Shutterstock

Whatever you do, don’t throw out the drippings in the pan when your turkey is done. “The drippings from your turkey are the primary ingredient needed to make a delicious gravy. A combination of turkey drippings, water, and flour will be the perfect compliment to your turkey dinner (and your mashed potatoes, of course),” says Shea.

Don’t: Use a Gravy Mix

Brown gravy Shutterstock

You’ve already gone through the trouble of preparing, roasting, and, let’s face it, babying your turkey. Don’t ruin it with a less-than-stellar gravy mix from the package. Besides, roasting the turkey gives you some perfect made-from-scratch gravy ingredients already, so you can make an easy homemade gravy.

Do: Add Broth, Gravy, or Both If the Turkey Comes Out Dry

Turkey broth Shutterstock

It happens to the best of us. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, the turkey came out dry. Good thing a dry turkey can be saved with the addition of broth, gravy, or both.

Do: Use a Sharp Carving Knife

Sharp knife Shutterstock

Carving the turkey is the last step before enjoying it, so you want to get it right. “There are indeed efficient ways to carve a turkey, and it starts with having a sharp knife. Once you’re equipped with a sharp knife, be sure you learn the best way to carve a turkey so you can get the most flavorful pieces with minimal waste,” says Shea.

Do: Reserve the Turkey Carcass to Make Bone Broth

Turkey carcass Shutterstock

It’s no secret that bone broth is seriously popular this days, but should you be drinking it? It has a ton of health benefits, so why not save the turkey carcass post-Thanksgiving dinner for a delicious bone broth you can sip on in cooler temps. Check out this recipe from Kettle and Fire for all the details on how to make your own turkey bone broth.

Don’t: Forget to Save Leftover Turkey

Leftover turkey Shutterstock

If you’re lucky enough to have some leftover turkey (or maybe you have more than you know what to do with) know there are options outside the turkey sandwich. Here are 30 ideas for what you can make with the leftovers.

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