Holiday Cooking Questions and Answers

The Better Homes and Gardens Test Kitchen experts serve up answers to your toughest holiday cooking questions.

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It's easy math to select the right size turkey for your table.

What size bird should I buy?

It depends on how many people you will be serving, and how big 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 easiest and safest way to thaw a turkey is to place the wrapped bird on a tray in the refrigerator. Plan about 24 hours for each 5 pounds of the bird's weight. Remember not to count the day you will be roasting it. Turkey should never be thawed at room temperature.

I need my turkey today, and it's not completely thawed. What can I do?

Place the plastic wrapped turkey, breast side down, in a sink of cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes.

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.

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Tenting yields a golden-brown 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 doesn't feel that basting today's turkeys is necessary. 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 when my turkey is really done? Can I trust the pop-up timer?

Temperature should be your guide to doneness. You can use the pop-up timer as an aid, but to assure that the turkey 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.

Insert the thermometer in the turkey's thigh to get an accurate reading.

How can I be sure my thermometer is accurate?

Submerge 2 inches of the thermometer stem in boiling water. It should read 212 degrees F. If the thermometer registers above or below 212 degrees F, 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 of the turkey. 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.

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 sanitary.

Can I roast a turkey overnight in an oven set at a low temperature?

No. Roasting a turkey at a temperature below 325 degrees 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 degrees F. kills the bacteria yet produces meat that is moist and tender.

What's the best way to bring a turkey to a potluck?

The best way is to 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 degree F oven about 30 to 45 minutes or until well-heated through.

I have lots of turkey and stuffing leftover. What do I do with it?

Before carving your turkey, be sure to remove all stuffing. The leftover stuffing can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. After dinner remove all meat from the carcass (this should be done within 2 hours of the turkey's removal from 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 degrees 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. Click on link below to see the recipe.

Turkey Frame Soup

Toss in the odds and ends of fresh vegetables that you didn't use for your holiday dinner.

Turkey Frame Soup
  • 1 meaty turkey frame
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 large onion, quartered
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic salt
  • Chopped cooked turkey, optional
  • 1 16-ounce can tomatoes, cut up
  • 1 Tbsp. instant chicken bouillon granules
  • 1-1/2 tsp. dried oregano, basil, marjoram, or thyme, crushed
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper
  • 3 cups (any combination) sliced celery, carrots, parsnips, or mushrooms; chopped onion or rutabagas; or broccoli or cauliflower flowerets
  • 1-1/2 cups medium noodles

Break turkey frame or cut in half with kitchen shears. Place in a large Dutch oven or kettle. Add water, onion, and garlic salt. Bring to boiling; reduce heat.Cover and simmer for 1-1/2 hours.

Remove turkey frame. When cool enough to handle, cut meat off bones; coarsely chop. If desired, add more cooked turkey meat (enough to equal about 2 cups total). Set meat aside. Discard bones.

Strain broth through a sieve lined with 2 layers of 100 percent cotton cheesecloth; discard solids. Return broth to Dutch oven. Stir in undrained tomatoes, bouillon granules, herb, and pepper. Stir in vegetables. Return to boiling; reduce heat. Cover; simmer for 15 minutes.

Stir in noodles. Cover and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes more or until noodles are done and vegetables are crisp-tender. Stir in cooked turkey; heat through. Serve immediately. Makes 6 main-dish servings.

Make-Ahead Tip: For individual servings, prepare soup and freeze in 1-1/2-cup freezer containers, leaving a half-inch headspace. Seal, label, and freeze up to 1 month. To serve, transfer 1 portion of frozen mixture to a small saucepan. Cover and cook over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes or until heated through, stirring occasionally.

Be sure your stuffing is safe as well as delicious.

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 degrees F. and the stuffing in the body cavity of the bird should reach 165 degrees 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 degree 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 from your Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook or prepare a packaged corn muffin or 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.

Corn Bread

Decide how much sugar to use according to how sweet you like your corn bread.

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup cooking oil or shortening, melted

1. Grease the bottom and 1/2 inch up the sides of a 9x9x2-inch baking pan; set aside.

2. In a medium mixing bowl stir together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Make a well in the center of the dry mixture; set aside.

3. In another bowl combine the eggs, milk, and cooking oil or melted shortening. Add egg mixture all at once to dry mixture. Stir just until moistened.

4. Spoon batter into the prepared pan. Bake in a 425 degree F oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. Makes 8 or 9 servings.

Make-Ahead Tip: Wrap in heavy foil and freeze for up to 1 month.

My stuffing recipe calls for poultry seasoning and I'm out; what can I use?

Use 3/4 teaspoon dried sage, crushed, and 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed, or dried marjoram, crushed, for each teaspoon of poultry seasoning used in the recipe.

My pie recipe calls for pumpkin pie spice and I don't have any. What do I do?

You can make your own pumpkin pie spice by combining 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon allspice, 1/4 teaspoon ground mace, and 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves. Substitute this for 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice.

Can I make my own apple pie spice?

For each 1 teaspoon apple pie spice, substitute 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice, and a dash ground ginger. See also "Ingredient Substitutions."

My pumpkin pie recipe calls for evaporated milk and I don't have any.

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 degree F oven for 1 to 1-1/2 hours or untill 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 untill 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.

Are there other places to find information on turkey roasting and other holiday food preparations?

You can call any of the following hot lines during the holiday months:

Meat and Poultry Hot Line: 800/535-4555 (or in Washington D.C. call 202/720-3333)

Butterball Turkey-Talk Line: 800/323-4848 (800/833-3848 for individuals with hearing or speech impairments)

Reynolds Turkey Tips Line: 800/745-4000.

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