Turkey Basics

Because many of us save turkey and all the trimmings for a once- or twice-a-year feast, even experienced cooks can use a refresher course on buying, thawing, and cooking the traditional bird.
Garnish your turkey with vegetables for an award-winning presentation.
  • When buying a turkey, allow 1 pound per adult serving if the bird weighs 12 pounds or less. For larger turkeys, count on 3/4 pound for each serving. If you want leftovers, buy a bird that's 2 to 4 pounds larger than the size you'll need for serving.
  • Although not all turkeys are labeled indicating whether the bird is a hen or tom, select a hen turkey if you want more white meat and a tom if you want more dark meat. Also check for the "sell by" date on the label of a fresh turkey. This date is the last day the turkey should be sold by the retailer. The unopened turkey should maintain its quality and be safe to use for one or two days after the "sell by" date.
  • If you buy a frozen turkey, look for packaging that is clean, undamaged, and frost-free. Allow plenty of time to thaw a frozen turkey. For a whole frozen turkey, leave the bird in its wrapping and place it on a tray in the refrigerator. Plan on at least 24 hours for every 5 pounds and don't count the day you'll roast the bird. (Once thawed, turkeys will keep one or two days in the refrigerator.)
  • If you run short of time and the turkey isn't completely thawed the day you plan to roast it, place the bird in a clean sink full of COLD water and change the water every 30 minutes. Do NOT thaw turkey at room temperature or in warm water -- these methods will allow harmful bacteria to grow quickly to dangerous levels. You'll know the bird is ready for roasting if the giblets can be removed easily and there are no ice crystals in the interior cavity. If the turkey is still frozen in the center, the bird will cook unevenly.
  • Once the turkey has thawed, release the legs from the leg clamp or the band of skin crossing the tail. Also remove the giblets and neck from cavities. Rinse the turkey inside and out, let it drain, and pat dry with paper towels.
  • If you don't have an accurate meat thermometer, cook the stuffing separately because there is no visual test for stuffing doneness. Mix the stuffing just before you stuff and roast the bird. Allow 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound of bird. Spoon some stuffing loosely into the neck cavity. Pull the neck skin over the stuffing and fasten to the back with a short skewer.
  • Loosely spoon stuffing into the body cavity rather than packing it. Otherwise, it won't get hot enough by the time the turkey is cooked. Spoon any remaining stuffing into a casserole; cover and chill until ready to bake. Tuck the legs under the band of skin that crosses the tail or reset the legs into the leg clamp. Or, tie the legs with kitchen string to the tail. Twist the wing tips under the back.
  • Place the turkey, breast side up, on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Insert a meat thermometer into the center of an inside thigh muscle so the bulb doesn't touch bone. 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 F oven using the timings below as a guide.

Download our free roasting guide. (Downloading requires Adobe Acrobat software.)

Turkey Roasting Guide

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  • Use a thermometer to ensure that the turkey and the stuffing have reached a safe temperature for consumption.
  • A meat thermometer is used for larger cuts of poultry (and meat). Insert the thermometer into the turkey at the beginning of the cooking time, making sure it doesn't touch bone or the pan.
  • An instant-read thermometer, also called a rapid-response thermometer, measures a wide range of temperatures. These thermometers are not designed to stay in food during cooking. Remove the food from the oven, then insert the thermometer into the thickest portion of the food, not touching bone or pan.
  • Check a thermometer for accuracy by submerging at least 2 inches of the stem of the thermometer in boiling water. It should read 212 degrees F.


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