Thanksgiving Turkey Tips

There it sits…a rock hard, buck nekkid frozen featherless fowl, just daring you to create something delicious, something memorable, a meal that won’t drive your dinner guests to come up with such acolades as “my, that was different“. The Thanksgiving Day turkey.

Fear not…with a few simple guide lines, even the most culinarily challenged can pull this off.

A tip of the hat to Alton Brown for this approach to roasting a turkey. I got it from him and have had great success with it since. It’s easy and pretty much foolproof.

Place your oven rack in a low-medium position and preheat it to 500F. Yes, 500F.

If you’re using a frozen turkey, get it several days in advance and leave it in your refrigerator to thaw completely. Do not…repeat, do not thaw your bird on the kitchen counter as this increases the likelyhood of food poisoning. Next, take out all the innards and discard them unless you’re planning on making gravy, etc. Wash the bird inside and out in cool water; pat dry.

Season the inside of the bird with salt and pepper.  Now is the time to add your aromatics…a big sprig of rosemary, one of fresh thyme. Some like onions and apples, I’m a big fan of fresh oranges – two smallish ones, cut in half and stuffed inside rind and all.  If the legs are already tied in some fashion, either with metal or ovengrade plastic, good. If not, use some kitchen twine to tie them together.

Note here on stuffing: make yours in a separate dish, not inside the bird. A stuffed bird will take longer to cook, and the stuffing will usually be soggier than if done separately. It’s also safer from food-borne bacteria cooked outside the bird.

Next, fold the wings under themselves…no more tying needed here. Put your bird on a flat rack in your sheet pan–a pan with low sides but large enough to hold the bird. This gives you better browning than the V-shape rack in a roasting pan.

Next, what Alton calls the “turkey triangle”. This high-heat method of roasting will give you a beautifully browned breast during the first 1/2 hour off cooking. A double thickness of heavy tin foil in the shape of a large triangle about as wide as your turkey. After the first half-hour, you’ll use the triangle to protect the breast.  Put a thin coat of canola oil on the surface of the triangle then place over the bird itself, using your hands to shape it to the bird. Then carefully pull off the now-perfectly-shaped triangle and set it aside. By doing it this way, when the time comes, you’ll be able to position the triangle on the bird without burning your hands. Clever, huh?

Give the turkey a thin coating of canola oil all over the skin, then into the oven. Set your timer for 30 minutes and do not open the door. Seriously…do not open the door.

In fact, forget about basting completely. Basting not only does nothing to enhance flavor or moisture, but the constant opening and closely of the oven door will lengthen your cooking time. At the 30 minute mark, place the turkey triangle on the turkey breast and lower the oven temperature to 350.

Now, no matter what size bird you have, you want to roast it to an internal temperature of 161F.  A probe-

type thermometer works best for this and you can get one at just about any good gourmet shop.

To properly take the an internal temp reading, you want to insert your thermometer into the deepest part of the breast meat, making certain you’re not hitting bone as this will throw off the reading. For a 14 pound bird this will take about 90 more minutes for a total time of 2 hours. At that temperature, take the turkey out of the oven. Cover it will a large sheet of tin foil and let it rest for at least 20 minutes.

I know…I can hear the cries about “cold turkey…eewwwww” from here. Fact is, the internal temperature will continue to climb about 5-8 degrees and the tin foil cover will keep it at temp.  Roasting drives the juices of the meat into the center of the bird. Allowing it to sit before slicing lets those juices return to the outer most part of the turkey. Remember all that Sahara-dry turkey you’ve eaten over the years?  Is that the Thanksgiving tradition you want to continue?  Didn’t think so.

So now your bird is ready, the oven is hot and all set for those last minute dishes that need attention and you’re good to go. At this point, I usually give the assembled masses a 15-minute warning. Take off your apron, pour yourself a glass of wine and turn the rest of the last minute chores over to others. Success is at hand.

One last thing: about that pop-up timer. Ignore it. Leave it where it is but ignore it. Pop-up timers are set to pop up at 180F. At that point the dark meat will be very well roasted, but the white meat will be…well, dead. Leaving it in the bird until you’re ready to slice keeps all the juices inside the turkey where they belong.

—Kent McDonald is a personal chef who owns KentCooks, in Phoenix, AZ (c) 2008. All rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “Thanksgiving Turkey Tips

  1. I’ve always had success doing almost what you have been doing, except that at the point where you put the foil on, I flip my turkey over so that it’s back is facing up. The top is browned but now all the juice drips down into the breast. Never had a dead white turkey and one year, in Japan, a level 5 earthquake flipped my turkey for me and saved a step! LOL
    Glad to see your blog–your lovely wife has shared some of your recipes with me (love the eggs in sliced ham cups).
    I’d love to see more recipes for those of us who eat dinner alone (but have a spouse to share meals with at other times). Cooking elaborately for one isn’t bad; it’s finding food that won’t go bad before it gets eaten!

    —Whoa. I mean, chefs are always looking for labor saving devices and cheap help, but a level 5 earthquake is pushin’ it!

  2. Kent – I have always read/heard to take the bird’s temp in the thickest part of the thigh… which never was descriptive enough for me to know where the probe was to go. I like your technique & will definitely use this for the next turkey!

    Keep on bloggin’, Kent – this is a terrific thing you’re doing here!


  3. –While I never really put all that much faith in the whole pop-up button approach, I assumed it would be located in the right place. I inserted my probe in just about the same place on the opposite breast…bingo!

  4. –My experience has been the same too Dara…I’m a big dark meat fan, so if I’m sitting at the Thanksgiving table with a big smile on my face, I’m usually surrounded by a flock of white meat fan who are decidedly less pleased. This year, everyone was smiling. (Ok, having the dinner out in the sunny backyard next to the pool didn’t hurt either!).


  5. Living in Europe, we have become less motivated about making a turkey for Thanksgiving over the years. However, this year I found a small turkey, not frozen, just perfect for 2 and with the potential for several days of leftovers. I wish I had had your suggestions before roasting, though. The white meat was dry indeed. I also tried placing a meat thermometer into the breast but the bird was so small that the thermometer hit a bone instantly (I drew the meter back a little). After half an hour, the meter announced that the 8-lb turkey was done. The cook book suggested 3 hr, but after 2 hr, the bird was more than ready. I did stuff the turkey as I like the higher-moisture dressing (after 2 hours, I should think all bacteria would be fried). We were pleased with the dressing, at least.
    I am saving your turkey tips and thank you so much for the suggestions!
    Your blog is awesome!

  6. –Finding just the right spot for that thermometer can be tricky, especially with smaller bird – nearly impossible when you’re working with a game hen. Still, master that skill and you’ll banish dry meat forever.

  7. Pingback: Thanksgiving: Celebrate (By) Yourself | QuinnCreative

  8. Pingback: Thanksgiving for One | QuinnCreative

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