Turkey is typically the star of the Thanksgiving Day table, but the idea of cooking a giant bird can be daunting. Cooking a turkey is surprisingly easy, but you’ll need to take precautions to make sure the bird is properly handled and cooked to a safe temperature.
To ensure a holiday meal that everyone will enjoy, following this guide to how to cook a turkey.
How to store a turkey before it’s cooked
If you’ll be cooking your turkey within one to two days after you buy it, you can store it in the fridge in its original packaging. But if you won’t be serving it for a few days or more, it should be frozen, keeping it in its original wrapping.
How to thaw a turkey
A frozen turkey will need to be thawed before it’s cooked, but it needs to be kept at a safe temperature while it’s thawing. Don’t leave it out to thaw on the counter, because if it’s left out for more than two hours, bacteria in it can grow rapidly.
You can thaw your bird using any of the following methods:
Microwave: This method is ideal for small turkeys. Unwrap your turkey and check your microwave’s owner manual for defrosting times and the power you should use.
Refrigerator: Check out Betty Crocker’s thawing chart to see how much time you’ll need. Even small whole turkeys (three to four pounds) take about a day, so plan far ahead of time, because big birds take days to thaw.
Cold water: Put the turkey in a plastic bag and submerge it in cold water. You’ll need to keep the water cold by changing it every 30 minutes. This method takes about 30 minutes of defrosting per pound of turkey.
How to cook a turkey
Butterball recommends the following steps:
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Drain the turkey’s juices, and pat it dry with paper towels.
Put the turkey, breast side up, in a shallow roasting pan.
Tuck the wings back to help stabilize the turkey, and spray or brush its skin lightly with vegetable or cooking oil to help it get that nicely brown appearance.
Insert an oven-safe meat thermometer deep in the lower part of the thigh. When the temperature on your thermometer reaches 180 degrees, your turkey will be done.
Put the turkey in the oven, and when it’s about two-thirds done, cover the breast loosely with a piece of aluminum foil to help prevent overcooking.
When its thigh thermometer reads 180 degrees, remove your turkey from the oven and let it stand on a platter for 15 minutes before carving.
For approximate cooking times, check out Butterball’s chart, which lists times for stuffed and unstuffed turkeys by their weight.
To stuff or not to stuff
It’s safer to cook stuffing in a casserole dish since it’s easier to make sure it’s thoroughly cooked and doesn’t cause food poisoning.
If you decide to stuff the turkey, do so right before you cook it, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises. The stuffing should reach a temperature of 165 degrees when it’s in the bird. Leave it in the turkey for about 20 minutes after you take it out of the oven.
How to carve a turkey
This task becomes easier if you let your turkey stand for about 20 minutes before carving. This will also give you a juicier end product, since the standing time lets the juices reabsorb into the meat.
Put your turkey on a cutting board, and use a meat fork (a large fork with two tines) and a sharp carving knife to do the job. Place the turkey breast-side up, and pull the leg away from the body until the thigh bone pops out. Then cut through the joint.
Slice along the breast bone to remove the breast meat, and then cut off the wings. Separate the thigh from the drumstick and slice pieces from the bone.
How to store turkey leftovers
As tempting as it can be to leave the turkey and fixings out all afternoon so everyone can continue to nibble on it, it should be refrigerated as soon as possible. Otherwise, bacteria can grow, which can cause food poisoning. The temperature inside the refrigerator should be at 40 degrees or colder to safely store leftovers.