As a chef, I've learned a few tips and tricks for making a perfect Thanksgiving turkey.
Make sure you have ample time to defrost your turkey and limit yourself to basting every 30 minutes.
Despite what you see in the movies, carving a turkey at a Thanksgiving table just isn't realistic.
Whether it's brined, fried, basted, or roasted, turkey is a staple on any holiday table. The best way to make a turkey, however, is a never-ending debate.
There are some solid tips I've learned as a chef to improve any sort of holiday-turkey preparations and make this year's bird the best yet.
Consider the size of the bird
Despite the fact that many households prepare a turkey every year, it's easy to forget how much you'll need for a generous serving. Of course, you should also consider how many leftovers you want to enjoy without having so much turkey that it's wasted.
Plan for 1 pound of meat per person for a bone-in turkey. If you're going for just the breast portion or anything without bones, plan for ½ pound per person.
Decide on a cooking method
Any way to cook a turkey can be successful if you prepare your bird well enough. However, some methods work better for different kinds of birds.
Roasting at a lower temperature for longer will always result in a more tender turkey, especially if you spring for heritage birds, which typically have leaner, darker meat that retains moisture when cooked low and slow.
Experiment with cooking the light and dark meats separately for a faster cook. And don't forget Kosher turkeys already have some salt introduced to them in the butchering process, so be careful not to over-brine it, which can make it too salty.
Always plan ahead
The bigger the bird, the longer it takes to defrost, with the largest turkeys taking up to three or four days when frozen solid. Though you can expedite the defrosting period by rinsing the turkey with cold water, I think that's also pretty wasteful.
If you don't have room in the fridge to store and process your bird, grab a cooler and let the turkey defrost there. Be sure to brine or season your turkey at least a day ahead so all those delicious seasonings penetrate the meat.
Invest in a good thermometer
A good thermometer lets you easily monitor your bird from beginning to end.
I recommend using an updated digital model with a probe that's inserted into the turkey and a thermometer that stays outside the oven so you don't have to repeatedly open the appliance as the bird cooks.
Monitor the temperature of your turkey
Though salmonella should be a concern as you're preparing your turkey, according to the CDC, a turkey can be left out of the refrigerator for two hours or less without developing excess bacterial growth.
With this in mind, know you can take your turkey out of the fridge one hour before cooking to let it come to room temperature. This helps the bird cook more evenly, resulting in juicy meat and crispy skin.
Baste your bird minimally
When making a whole roast turkey, some basting is definitely a great choice. Just be aware that this process requires you to open your oven door and lose some of the heat from the oven each time you bathe the skin in pan juices.
Some judicious bastings will help keep the meat juicy but few too many will prevent the skin from crisping. Limit yourself to no more than one basting every 30 minutes for the best results.
Let the turkey rest
Plan to have your turkey done before the meal so that it (and you) can take a break.
Letting the turkey rest anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours will make a world of difference for the juices to redistribute and ensure that you have adequate time to carve and plate your turkey.
Carve and plate your turkey in sections
Though a deluge of movies show whole turkeys carved tableside, it rarely works out as well as it does on the big screen.
Once the turkey is cool enough to handle, break it down into sections by breasts, thighs, wings, and other parts. Pop them onto an oven-safe platter, cover the plate, and warm the turkey in the oven at a low temperature before serving.
To make things extra tasty, add some of those pan juices you used for basting.
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