Turkey 101

Last Year’s Herb Roasted Turkey

My apologies for the photography – I think I took this picture with my phone. This is a picture of last year’s turkey which was 22 lbs. and fed the two of us nicely. (I love turkey leftovers, and my daughter says that Thanksgiving is pretty useless other than the awesome leftover sandwiches). For those of you who may be intimidated by the task of cooking a turkey, I promise you, it is one of the easiest things to cook. Here are a couple of tips and some observations that newbies might appreciate:

Q: What size turkey should I buy?
A: Typically 1 lb. per person is the guideline. This allows everyone to have their fair share at dinner and allows for some leftovers. Notice the operative word some? I love leftovers, so I always figure at least 1.5 lbs. per person.

Q: Is there a big difference between a “fresh” turkey and a frozen turkey? A: I will have to say that, in the past, we always special ordered a “fresh” Amish turkey from our specialty grocery store, but every year there was evidence that the turkey had been frozen (and was sometimes still partially frozen). So, if that’s the case, why not save some money and buy a frozen turkey? One reason is the amount of time required to thaw a turkey.

Q: How long does it take to thaw a turkey?
A: There are two ways to safely thaw a turkey; one way is in the refrigerator, and the other is the cold water method. NEVER thaw a turkey at room temperature. To thaw a turkey in the refrigerator, you need to allow 24 hours for every 5 lbs. of turkey. This means it can take up to 5 days to thaw a large bird. Remember, that’s valuable refrigerator space with a holiday approaching. To thaw a turkey in cold water, allow 30 minutes per lb. of turkey. Simply place the bird (in it’s original sealed package)in a bath of cold water (you can fill your sink or buy a rubbermaid container or use a large stock pot). Change the water every 30 minutes.

Q: What’s the difference between “all natural,” “free range,” “Kosher,”
“Heritage Breed,” or “injected?”                                                               A:Well, that’s a complicated question, and one that has already been addressed on another blog which I follow : serious eats. Bryan and I did purchase two (no that’s not a typo – we are roasting one turkey and smoking the other) Heritage Breed turkeys this year from our favorite pork farmers (no, pork is not a typo – they partnered with a turkey farmer this year) at Melo Farms. The heritage breeds have become quite popular (they just sound sophisticated), but our reasoning is that we know the turkeys were raised in a humane way because that’s what Melo Farms is committed to. I will have to let you know how they turn out.

Q: What is the best way to cook a turkey?                                                        A: I have to admit that I only have experience roasting a turkey in the oven. The reason is that I just love roasted turkey so much that I haven’t wanted to give it up and possibly risk being dissatisfied. What that’s old expression…”if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”? I have, however heard wonderful things about deep fried turkeys, but that whole deep frying thing intimidates and scares me a little. This year we invested in a smoker and bought a rotisserie attachment for the grill, so we are going to try that. We practiced on a whole chicken the other night and the results were outstanding.

Q: Should I brine my turkey?                                                                              A: I am a big fan of brining. My mother never brined, nor did my Great Aunts who often hosted us for Thanksgiving, and their turkeys were always pretty good. However, I tried brining a couple of years ago after I saw a brining mix at my local specialty grocery store. I will have to say – I will never go back to unbrined. It’s tempting this year because I am convinced that our free range, humanely raised turkey is going to be superior, but I don’t want to risk it. I read a very interesting blog article (same blog as above) that suggested brining was futile, but I wasn’t convinced. However, if you want to make a more informed choice check this out: The Truth about Brining . Unfortunately, I don’t have a good brining recipe because I just buy the mix.

Q: How long does a turkey need to cook?                                                        A: The general rule is 18-20 minutes per pound for a stuffed bird (reduce by 1-2 minutes per pound if the turkey is over 15 pounds), or 15-18 minutes per pound for an unstuffed bird (reduce by 1-2 minutes per pound if the turkey is over 15 pounds). I never trusted those little pop-up plastic things, so I always check the temperature with a reliable meat thermometer. The stuffing must be at least 165 degrees, the breast should be 170 degrees, and the thigh meat should be 180 degrees. Some will argue that the turkey will continue to cook while it rests (which is true, and you should always let the turkey rest for at least 20 minutes – just enough time to make the gravy), so you can go a little lower on the internal temperatures. My response to that is that this is poultry – I don’t mess around with poultry, especially when I’m feeding it to the people I love the most in this world, my family.

Q: At what temperature should I cook my turkey?                                        A: I preheat my oven to 425 degrees and turn it down to 350 degrees when the turkey goes in. As you can see from the photo, this will result in a nicely browned turkey (I like it that way – good crispy skin). Sometimes I will just lay a piece of aluminum foil loosely over the top of the bird if it’s getting too brown.

Q: Is it better to stuff the bird or cook the stuffing separately?
A: I say do both. I don’t worry about bacteria in the stuffing because I check the temperature of the stuffing. I’m not the biggest stuffing fan, but everyone else in my family is, so I make a ton of stuffing. Everyone always wants the stuffing out of the bird because it is extra moist. However, you can only fit so much stuffing into those cavities, so I stuff the bird and cook the extra on the side (add extra liquid to the stuffing that goes in the oven). An important note: remove the stuffing from the bird before storing the leftover bird in the refrigerator – stuffing left in the bird is a recipe for salmonella.

Q: How often should I baste the turkey?                                                          A: In an ideal world, one in which you had nothing else going on, you would baste every 15-20 minutes to ensure a juicy bird. However, most turkeys won’t even start to give off juices until nearly an hour of cooking. I always keep an inch of chicken stock (or turkey stock if you have it) in the bottom of my roasting pan (I have a wire rack in the roaster that keeps the turkey elevated, so it’s not sitting in broth). Some people say this results in a “steamed” turkey, but just look at the picture above and you can see that there’s nothing “steamed” about that bird. I check the liquid level about every hour (adding more if necessary) and will baste when I do that. When it gets down to the last two hours, I stop adding broth and let what’s in the pan reduce. This method results in a very moist turkey, and it allows me to cook the giblets and the neck bone alongside the turkey, which makes for great gravy.

Q: Some people suggest rinsing or cleaning the bird before cooking, what does that mean?                                                                                                     A: Because I used to raise my own turkeys and they were slaughtered on my farm, I am very familiar with the processing of a turkey. Not every butchering operation has the same standards of quality control that I have. I always check my turkey over for any leftover pin feathers (small little feathers that get overlooked). If you find any, use a pair of clean tweezers to pull them out. Also, I check the cavity of the bird. For most grocery store turkeys, this is where the giblets and neck will be placed. They are typically in a paper-type bag (probably a result of so many people forgetting to remove them from the cavity), and you’ll want to remove those. I usually inspect the organs and decide if I want to use them – they add great flavor to gravy – and I always cook the neck alongside my turkey. After removing the bag of goodies and the neck, I just run my hand on the inside of the cavity and make sure there’s not extra loose “stuff.” If there is, I pull that off and discard it.

Here’s my basic herb roasted  turkey recipe:

Herb Roasted Turkey


  • 3 TBS Fresh Rosemary (or 1 1/2 TBS. dried)- chopped
  • 3 TBS Fresh Thyme (or 1 1/2 TBS. dried) – chopped
  • 3 TBS Fresh Tarragon (or 1 1/2 TBS. dried) – chopped
  • 1 TBS. ground pepper
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1  15- to 21-pound turkey, neck and giblets reserved
  • Fresh herb sprigs
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter, melted
  • 4 cups canned low-salt chicken broth


Calculate total roasting time based on the following: 18-20 minutes per pound for a stuffed bird (reduce by 1-2 minutes per pound if the turkey is over 15 pounds), or 15-18 minutes per pound for an unstuffed bird (reduce by 1-2 minutes per pound if the turkey is over 15 pounds).

Mix first 5 ingredients in small bowl. Pat turkey dry with paper towels and place on rack set in large roasting pan. If not stuffing turkey, place herb sprigs in main cavity. If stuffing turkey, spoon stuffing into main cavity. Tie legs together loosely to hold shape of turkey. Brush turkey with oil. Rub herb mix all over turkey. Place turkey neck and giblets in roasting pan. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead if turkey is not stuffed. Cover and refrigerate. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before roasting.)

Position rack in lower part of oven and preheat to 425 degrees. Drizzle melted butter all over turkey. Pour 2 cups broth into pan. Put turkey in the oven and immediately turn the heat down to 350 degrees. Roast turkey 45 minutes. Remove turkey from oven and lightly cover breast and legs with foil. Baste turkey every 30-45 minutes and add more broth if level goes below 1 inch. Remove foil from turkey for the last 1 hour of roasting; add more broth to the pan if necessary. Continue roasting turkey until meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 180 degrees – breast should register at 170 degrees. If turkey is stuffed, stuffing should register at 165 degrees. Transfer turkey to platter; tent with foil. Let stand 30 minutes. Reserve liquid in pan for gravy.


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