Turkey Roasting & Carving 101

From purchasing the right pan through to carving a roast turkey, you'll find great information and tips here.


Selecting a Roasting Pan

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You may not use a roasting pan every day, but it's a valuable piece of kitchen equipment to have on hand for your holiday turkey. The proper pan ensures that your turkey cooks up moist and golden brown.

When buying a roasting pan, look for:

  • Shallow depth
  • Heavy weight
  • Good heat-conducting qualities
  • A rack or trivet to hold the bird out of the drippings and to allow the heat to reach the underside of the bird
  • The right fit:

The pan should just hold the turkey with no part of the bird extending beyond the pan or the meat juices will drip into the oven. On the other hand, if the pan is too large for the turkey, the juices in the pan will burn.

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  • Handles -- especially helpful when pulling the hot pan from the oven

If you aren't looking to invest in a roasting pan, you can use your broiler pan. Place a wire rack in the bottom of the broiler pan to keep the turkey out of the drippings.

Lightweight, disposable aluminum roasting pans should not be used for cooking turkey; those pans are simply not heavy enough to support the weight of the bird. It could spill or break, causing serious burns, when you try to remove it from the oven.

Roasting the Turkey

  • Place oven rack in lowest position; preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  • Place the turkey, breast side up, on a rack in a shallow roasting pan.
  • To enhance browning, brush with cooking oil.
  • Insert a meat thermometer into the center of an inside thigh muscle so the bulb doesn't touch bone.

A meat thermometer can be checked for accuracy by submerging at least 2 inches of the 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.

Instant-read thermometers, also known as rapid-response thermometers, measure a wide range of temperatures, typically from 0 to 220 degrees F. These thermometers are not designed to stay in food during cooking. Instant-read thermometers can also be checked for accuracy with the boiling water test.

  • Cover the turkey loosely with foil, leaving space between the bird and the foil.
  • Press the foil over the drumsticks and neck.
  • Roast in a 325-degree oven using the timings below as a guide.
  • When bird has been in the oven for two-thirds of the time listed on page 3, cut skin or string between drumsticks.
  • Remove foil the last 30 to 45 minutes.

When the Turkey Is Done

  • When it's done, the thigh meat should be 180 degrees F. and the stuffing should be at least 165 degrees F.
  • Check with a meat thermometer.

If using an instant-read thermometer: Pull the food out of the oven, then insert the thermometer into the thickest portion of the food, not touching bone or the pan. The temperature should register in about 15 seconds.

  • The temperature of the meat will rise about 5 degrees F. after the bird comes out of the oven.
  • The drumsticks should move very easily in their sockets and their thickest parts should feel soft when pressed.
  • The juices from the thigh should run clear when pierced deeply with a long-tined fork.
  • Remove from the oven and cover loosely with foil.
  • Let stand 20 minutes to facilitate carving.
  • Release legs from leg clamp, if present. To avoid burns or splatters, do not remove clamp until bird has cooled slightly.
  • Remove stuffing before carving.

Timing Guidelines for Stuffed Whole Turkeys*

  • For 8- to 12-pound turkey, roast in 325-degree oven for 3 to 3 3/4 hours.
  • For 12- to 14-pound turkey, roast in 325-degree oven for 3 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours.
  • For 14- to 18-pound turkey, roast in 325-degree oven for 4 to 5 hours.
  • For 18- to 20-pound turkey, roast in 325-degree oven for 4 1/2 to 5 1/4 hours.
  • For 20- to 24-pound turkey, roast in 325-degree oven for 4 3/4 to 5 3/4 hours.

*Note: For unstuffed turkeys of the same weight, reduce the total cooking time by 15 to 45 minutes.

If the turkey breast is cooking faster than the thighs and is beginning to overbrown, cover the breast of the turkey lightly with aluminum foil and continue roasting.

There's more than one way to slice a bird. One way is referred to as the kitchen way. The other is more the "carving at the table" dining room show. See which one fits your style.

Both Methods

Before Carving

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  • After the turkey is removed from the oven, let it stand for 15 to 20 minutes before carving.
  • This allows the flesh firm up so it's easier to slice and the slices stay together better.
  • Cover the bird with foil to keep it warm.
  • Use a sharp carving knife or an electric knife for slicing.
  • Place bird on a carving board.
  • Remove the stuffing.

Slice Off the Leg and Thigh

  • Grasp the tip of one drumstick with your fingers and pull the leg away from the body. Cut through the skin and meat between the drumstick-thigh piece and body as shown. This exposes the joint where the thighbone and backbone connect. With the tip of a knife, disjoint the thighbone from the backbone by cutting through the joint. Repeat on other side.

Separate the Thigh and Drumstick

  • Cut through the joint where the leg and thigh bones meet. Repeat on the other piece.

Cut the Drumstick into Slices

  • Hold the drumstick vertically by the tip with the large end down. Slice meat parallel to the bone and under some tendons, turning the leg to get even slices.

Slice the Thigh Meat

  • Cut slices parallel to the thigh bone. Repeat with the remaining drumstick and thigh.

Kitchen Style

This way differs from the table carving style only when it gets to how the breast is cut.

  • Kitchen style slices the breast off the bone whole, as you would for chicken.
  • The breast is then cut into slices by cutting across the grain the width of the breast.

Pluses

The slices fit onto crowded plates more easily.

Since the meat is cut against the grain, the pieces tend to hold together better.

Theoretically, this results in more moist and tender meat.

For the easiest, most visual explanation, see this video

Dining Room Style

This way differs from the kitchen carving style only when it gets to how the breast is cut.

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  • To carve the breast meat, make a deep horizontal cut into the breast above each wing. This cut will be the end point of the breast meat slices.
  • Remove the wings by cutting through the joint where the wing bone and backbone meet.
  • To continue carving the breast meat, beginning at the outer edge of one side of the breast, cut slices from the top of the breast down to the horizontal cut as shown. Make the slices thin and even. Final smaller slices can follow the curve of the breastbone. Repeat on the other side of the breast.

Pluses

  • This method fits the classic concept of carving the roast bird at the dining room table.
  • This method requires less room to carve since the breast is left on the bone.

Can I stuff the turkey the night before I roast 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.

What is the best way to check for doneness?

Temperature should be your guide to doneness. To assure that the turkey and stuffing have reached a safe temperature, always use a thermometer when you roast turkey. Because there is no visual test for stuffing doneness, the USDA recommends that you not stuff a turkey if you don't have a thermometer.

I have lots of turkey and stuffing left over. What should 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. Stuffing must be heated to at least 160 degrees F.

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.

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.

I've heard that roasting turkey in a paper grocery bag is really easy and delicious. Is it safe to roast 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.

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