T-Minus 1: Ten Things You Always Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask About Cooking a Turkey

To stuff or not to stuff? Turkey cavities are never big enough to hold all of your stuffing, plus it's not safe to pack it in tightly. So why not heat up separately and not be bothered with the potential food safety risks? I disagree that stuffing in the bird tastes better.

Do I have to put the bird in the oven at the crack of dawn?
No, you don't. It's an old wive's tale.
Estimate 10-15 minutes per pound, depending on your oven. A 12-pounder will take between two and 2.5 hours.

How do I know it's done?

The most accurate way to tell if it's done is not with the pop-up timer, but with an instant-read thermometer. If you don't own one, spend the 10 bucks and do yourself a favor. Take its temperature: the deep, underbelly part of the thigh (where it meets the drumstick) should read at least 165-170 degrees. The turkey continues to cook when it's resting, by the way. Juices should be running clear in the leg as well as the breast. Don't trust the pop-up timer.

My neighbor recommends cooking the turkey upside down. What's the deal?

The simpler the technique, the better, in my book. That means, particularly for the first-time turkey roaster, no upside down roasting or turkey cartwheel tricks, no trussing, no foil tents and a fairly steady temperature of 375 degrees. One trick I learned many years ago from Ris Lacoste, chef at 1789 Restaurant, is to put turkey in, with legs towards the back of the oven so they can catch up with the rest of the bird that takes less time to cook.

What's the simplest way to season a turkey, with ingredients I may already have in the house?

Salt, pepper and butter -- inside and out -- after you have patted the turkey dry. A little fresh rosemary, thyme or sage from a neighbor's garden would be nice in the cavity, too.

Do I have to baste? What if I don't own a baster or a brush?

Basting is optional. In fact, too much basting means too much time with the oven door open, which means the turkey takes longer to cook. I prefer a baste during the last 10 minutes of cooking, for a shiny skin. If you don't own a baster or brush, don't worry. A sprig of rosemary, dipped in the drippings, will work nicely and give off an additional dimension of aromatherapy.

Are there any must-dos that will minimize a safety and/or culinary disaster?

Rinse the turkey thoroughly under cold running water, inside and out. Remove the bag of giblets before cooking. Salt the bird really well inside and out -- unless you're brining. Thoroughly wash knives, tools and work surfaces that come in contact with raw turkey as soon as possible. Wash under hot water, with lots of soap and if you can stand it, a bit of bleach solution.

What are the giblets, anyway?

The heart, the liver, the gizzards (part of the stomach) and often the neck. Some folks like to use these parts for gravy, although the liver tends to be strong in flavor.

What happens when the turkey is done? Can we eat right away?

You need at least 30 minutes for the bird to chill out. Then you can carve, which can take at least 15 minutes. That hour can be used for last-minute heating, making gravy, mashing potatoes, warming rolls, sipping wine. I'll check the blog on Thanksgiving, when I don't have my head in the oven, for any in-kitchen troubleshooting. I'll also post on Friday for a leftovers tippy-poo.

One last thing: Have fun! Here's to a safe, delicious Thanksgiving.

By kimodo |  November 23, 2005; 7:39 AM ET  | Category:  Thanksgiving
Previous: T-Minus 2: Doing Up the Bird, Where's That Thigh, Anyway? | Next: The Morning After


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How long can you freeze an unwrapped, never used turkey and still have it be (1) safe to eat and (2) not taste like cardboard? I've had a butterball in the freezer for a year (yes, a year!) that I'd like to use. Am I horrible for thinking such a thing?!

Posted by: kristi22 | November 23, 2005 12:49 PM

Thanks to you I'm totally ready this year.


Posted by: naples | November 23, 2005 12:50 PM

Well, according to the USDA food safety folks, it's safe to eat, but tasty? Could be another scenario. Turkey may have developed freezer burn, so check for that, as well discoloration. After thawing, give it a good whiff. If it smells off, like rancid, chuck it into the bin. My question: how large is your freezer that you can keep a turkey in there for a year? Be good.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | November 23, 2005 01:00 PM

My favorite way to season a bird is with a dry rub of salt, sugar, pepper, and MSG.

Posted by: Fred | November 23, 2005 03:45 PM

Something new this year :

In a large baking dish, lay a grocery store paper bag. Insert a turkey holding rack inside the paper bag. Stuff and season your turkey well. Place your turkey in the paper bag, unto the rack, but breasts down, on the rack : this will force the juices into the breasts as the turkey cooks. seal your grocery bag closed with metal paper clips: this will form a moisture tent around the turkey. Bake at 350 F, 20 minutes per pound. Take out turkey from oven 15 to 30 minutes before serving .

Posted by: Marc | November 23, 2005 03:52 PM

For those of us who are going to stubbornly (foolishly?) go ahead and stuff the turkey anyway, how much longer does it take to cook when it's stuffed? I have a 12.7-pounder that I'll be cooking using your brined roast turkey from a couple of years back.

Posted by: Michelle | November 23, 2005 05:38 PM

In response to Michelle, if I remember correctly from one of Kim's chats, you should not stuff a brined turkey because the results will be much too salty. I may be wrong, but you might want to prepare a pan to cook outside of the turkey in case I'm right.

Posted by: Samantha | November 23, 2005 08:46 PM

I didn't read my recipe for pecan - pumpkin pie well enough- the nut topping is only supposed to go on at the end but I already put it on the pie, which I've just put in the oven. Can the pie be saved? Maybe reduce the temp and cover the pie for awhile?

Posted by: Oops | November 24, 2005 09:08 AM

Blah... Samantha's right. (Thank you, Samantha!) Google came up with Kim's Thanksgiving chat from 2002, at http://discuss.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/zforum/02/r_food_cooking111902.htm :

Baltimore, Md.: Is is OK to stuff a brined turkey?

Kim O'Donnel: Not really. Your sausage will be VERY salty.

(I think she meant stuffing, maybe she had cornbread & sausage stuffing on the brain? Or maybe that's just me, as that's what I am making this year.)

Now I have to figure out how I'm going to cook a turkey, and a baked mac and cheese, and brown and serve rolls, and a pan of stuffing in one little bitty oven. Yikes...

Posted by: Michelle | November 24, 2005 10:25 AM

Michelle, thanks for offering these last-minute thoughts. If it makes you feel any better, I'm completely behind the eight ball and have asked for a 30-minute reprieve for a dessert I'm taking to a friend's house today! I've got a 10-pound turkey in brine myself, which I'll roast Fri or Sat., and I'll make stock tomorrow. All I really want right about now is a grilled cheese and a glass of wine....

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | November 24, 2005 12:43 PM

Just a big thanks to Kim for the great advice and having this blog. Very helpful!
It was a great Thanksgiving... and hope that you had the same.

Posted by: Rich | November 24, 2005 11:49 PM

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