Thanksgiving Cooking Questions and Answers
Thanksgiving prep made easy! The Better Homes and Gardens Test Kitchen experts serve up answers to your toughest holiday cooking questions. From how long to cook a turkey to how to make pumpkin puree, consider all of your holiday questions answered.
What size bird should I buy?
It depends on how many people you will be serving, plus how big of a bird your oven can hold. A larger turkey is more efficient at producing meat. For instance, turkeys weighing less than 12 pounds will serve 1 person for each pound of weight. A 10-pound bird will serve 10 people. But a turkey weighing more than 12 pounds will feed 1 guest for each 3/4 pound of turkey weight. So, if you're having 20 guests, you'll only need a 15-pound bird.
What's the best way to thaw a turkey?
The most important factor to keep in mind when thawing a turkey is food safety. To avoid bacteria growth, never thaw a turkey at room temperature. Instead, place the wrapped bird on a tray in the refrigerator. Plan on about 24 hours per 5 pounds of the bird's weight. (Remember not to count the day you will be roasting it.)
Thanksgiving emergency! I need my turkey today, and it's not completely thawed. What can I do?
To speed up thawing a turkey, place the plastic-wrapped turkey, breast side down, in a sink of cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes. Aim to change the water once for every pound of your turkey (translation: 30 minutes soaking time per pound) to allow for enough defrosting time.
Once my turkey is completely thawed, how long can I keep it in the refrigerator?
A thawed whole turkey will keep in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days before cooking.
What's the best way to bring a turkey to a potluck?
Roast the bird unstuffed; carve the meat off the carcass, cover, and chill thoroughly. To reheat at the potluck, place sliced turkey in an oven-safe baking dish, add about 1/2 cup water, cover with foil, and heat in a 350°F oven about 30 to 45 minutes or until well-heated through.
Cooking the Bird
How can I get a beautiful golden-brown turkey without drying out the breast meat?
Tent the turkey loosely with foil to delay browning of the breast. The foil should be removed during the last 30 to 45 minutes to allow the turkey to brown. Tenting for the entire roasting time can actually slow cooking.
Do I need to baste a turkey while it's cooking?
Our Test Kitchen experts feel that basting turkey is unnecessary. More importantly, basting tools, such as brushes and bulb basters, could actually be sources of bacteria contamination if dipped into uncooked or undercooked poultry juices then allowed to sit at room temperature and used later for basting.
How do I know the correct turkey cooking time? Can I trust the pop-up timer?
Turkey cooking times vary, so temperature should be your guide to doneness. You can use the pop-up timer to guesstimate how long to cook a turkey, but to assure that the meat reaches a safe temperature, always use a thermometer. The thermometer should be inserted into the thickest portion but be sure it does not touch bone or the pan. Use either a meat thermometer, which can be inserted at the beginning of the cooking time, or an instant-read thermometer. Instant-read thermometers are not designed to stay in food during cooking. Pull the food out of the oven, then insert thermometer into the thickest portion of the inner thigh muscle. Wait about 15 seconds before reading.
How can I be sure my thermometer is accurate?
Submerge 2 inches of the thermometer stem in boiling water. It should read 212°F. If the thermometer registers above or below that reading, add or subtract the same number of degrees from the temperature specified in the recipe and cook to that temperature.
Why do recipes say to let a roasted turkey stand 15 to 20 minutes before carving?
Standing time allows the natural juices to redistribute throughout the meat. This helps to produce an evenly moist turkey that is easier to carve. Keep the turkey warm during the standing time by covering it with foil—or foil and a kitchen towel or two to insulate even more.
How do I skim fat from pan drippings?
Place the drippings in a measuring cup or similar container. Tip the container and use a metal spoon to remove the oily liquid (fat) that rises to the top.
I've heard that roasting turkey in a paper grocery bag is really easy. Is it safe to roast a turkey this way?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, the glue and ink on brown bags are not intended for use as cooking materials and may give off harmful fumes. In addition, brown bags are usually made from recycled materials and are not completely sanitary.
Can I roast a turkey overnight in an oven set at a low temperature?
No. Roasting a turkey at a temperature below 325°F allows harmful bacteria to multiply. These are the bacteria that can cause food poisoning and may be present on the raw turkey. Fortunately, they are easily destroyed with proper cooking techniques. Roasting the turkey at 325°F kills the bacteria yet produces meat that is moist and tender.
Did Someone Say Stuffing?
Can I stuff the turkey the night before I roast it? Can I just make the stuffing and chill it?
It is unsafe to stuff the turkey ahead of time. The chilled stuffing in the turkey will not reach a safe temperature before the turkey is done. To be safe, the turkey should reach a temperature of 180°F and the stuffing in the body cavity of the bird should reach 165°F. It's fine to make the crumbs or bread cubes ahead, but the stuffing should not be completely prepared ahead if it will be used to stuff a turkey. If the stuffing is to be baked in a casserole, it can be prepared in advance and chilled. The baking time will need to be increased by about 15 to 20 minutes.
How much stuffing do I need to fill the turkey?
Allow about 3/4 cup stuffing for each pound of ready-to-cook turkey. For example, a 12-pound bird will hold about 9 cups stuffing. If your family loves stuffing, you may want to make extra stuffing to bake in a casserole beside the turkey.
My stuffing recipe calls for dry bread cubes; how do I make them?
Cut bread into 1/2-inch pieces. Spread in a single layer in a shallow roasting pan. Bake in a 300°F oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until dry, stirring twice. Cool. (Or, let cubes stand, loosely covered, at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.)
If I need 8 cups of dry bread cubes, how much bread should I use?
You'll need 12 to 14 slices of bread for 8 cups of dry cubes.
Why do recipes say to spoon the stuffing into turkey loosely?
Stuffing will expand as it roasts. If stuffing is too tightly packed, it will not reach a safe temperature by the time the turkey is done.
How do I get crumbled corn bread?
Prepare a basic corn bread recipe or a boxed corn bread mix according to package directions. Cool and crumble. You should be able to get about 5 cups from a 10-ounce prepared mix.
Call in the Substitutes
My pie recipe calls for pumpkin pie spice and I don't have any. Help!
You can make your own pumpkin pie spice with this DIY recipe that stands in for 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice:
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon allspice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground mace
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
Can I make my own apple pie spice, too?
You bet! For each 1 teaspoon apple pie spice, substitute:
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
- A dash of ground ginger
My pumpkin pie recipe calls for evaporated milk and I don't have any. Can I use anything else instead?
You can substitute regular milk in the recipe, but the pie will not be quite as rich.
My recipe calls for a 16-ounce can of pumpkin. I can only find a 15-ounce. Can I use it?
Yes, the 15-ounce can of pumpkin will work fine in recipes calling for a 16-ounce can.
I'd like to try to make my own pumpkin puree from a fresh pumpkin instead of using canned. What do I do?
If you'd like to make your own pumpkin puree, here's how to do it:
Cut a medium pumpkin (about 6 pounds) into 5-inch-square pieces. Remove the seeds and fibrous strings. Arrange the pieces in a single layer, skin side up, in a large, shallow baking pan. Cover with foil. Bake in a 375°F oven for 60 to 90 minutes or until tender. Scoop the pulp from the rind. Working with part of the pulp at a time, place pulp in a blender container or food processor bowl. Cover and blend or process until smooth. Place the pumpkin in a cheesecloth-lined strainer, and press out any liquid. Makes about 2 cups.
My recipe for sugared cranberries calls for raw egg whites. Is this safe?
No. Raw or slightly cooked egg whites (or yolks) may harbor harmful bacteria. In place of raw egg whites, substitute pasteurized dried egg whites. They can be found in the baking section of many grocery stores or in specialty food stores. To get beautiful, evenly coated cranberries, place each berry on a toothpick, brush with rehydrated dried egg white, and sprinkle with sugar. Let dry on a cooling rack.
Lots of Leftovers
I have lots of leftover turkey. What can I do with it?
After dinner, carve all meat off the carcass (this should be done within 2 hours of the turkey's removal from the oven). Leftover turkey can be refrigerated and used within 2 days or frozen in small portions. Be sure to label and date the wrapped packages and use within 6 months. Leftover turkey can be used in any recipe calling for cooked chicken or turkey. Stuffing must be heated to at least 165°F.
How long can I keep leftover gravy?
Leftover gravy should be kept no longer than 2 days. Always bring leftover gravy to a full boil before serving.
Is there anything I can do with the turkey carcass?
Yes, you can make Turkey Frame Soup.
Are there other places to find information on turkey roasting and other cooking for the holidays preparations?
You can call any of the following hotlines during the holiday months:
USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline: 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854)
Butterball Turkey-Talk Line: 1-800-BUTTERBALL (1-800-288-8372)
Reynolds Turkey Tips Line: 1-800-745-4000