If you follow this blog at all, you know that I LOVE to cook!! I enjoy experimenting, am fairly confident in the kitchen, and find joy in feeding others – the more, the better. But, with that said – I freely confess that I have struggled mightily with the Thanksgiving turkey!! A few years ago, my dad cut into the turkey that I had meticulously followed directions in preparing, only to find that (despite what my cheap cooking thermometer indicated), it was undercooked…. borderline raw. As 25 people chatted hungrily in the next room, juices seeped out of the turkey, all over the counter in my tiny kitchen, dripped onto the floor, and my heart sank. No matter what, those juices weren’t going back into the turkey, so it was certain to be dry once it was cooked. Everyone was hungry and now I had to ask them to wait longer. And, to top it off, there was just a gross, greasy, wet mess everywhere. Yuck. Fortunately, everyone was gracious, the turkey pieces were cooked in another 20 minutes, gravy covered it up, plenty of delicious sides and mouth-watering desserts were available (let’s face it: the turkey really isn’t anyone’s favorite part of Thanksgiving anyhow!), and because our families are warm and wonderful, the evening was a pleasure for all.
But I decided that very evening that never again would I spend Thanksgiving day checking on the turkey, worrying about the temperature readings, counting down the minutes it needed to rest, making a mess all over my counters, and struggling to add drippings to gravy in those final few moments before everything goes on the table. I wanted Thanksgiving afternoon to be about welcoming and relaxing with family and friends!! I decided to read everything I could to determine if it would be possible to make a turkey early. And YES, I found out – it is!! It is totally possible, and because there’s no pressure or countdown the day BEFORE Thanksgiving, it’s actually more likely to be moist and flavorful!
At this point, I’ve read a lot about thanksgiving turkeys and here is a summary of the best tips and recipes that I’ve found.
Start early. Like, today:
Thawing takes way, way longer than I expected when I first began roasting turkeys. If your refrigerator is properly cooled, it will take days, depending on the size of your turkey. Because a thawed turkey is perfectly safe in the refrigerator for 2 days, but it’s unsafe to leave a turkey on the counter to defrost, it’s much better to start early than late.
Plan ahead for the dirty work:
Turkeys for a crowd are big. And you’ll need something bigger than the turkey itself to brine it in (see below). If you don’t have a big pot, or if your fridge doesn’t have room for a big pot, use a cooler. I used a huge cooler this week to defrost and brine three turkeys. If it’s warm where you live, or if it’s so cold that you’ll have to bring the cooler inside, have some ice to have on hand in case the cooler gets too warm. Below 40 degrees is safe. I actually like to do all the gross work of removing the neck and innards with the turkey still in the cooler outside too. It does tend to be a bit of a wrestling match, and I’d rather just keep those germs in the cooler that I’m going to have to disinfect anways, than in my sink or on my counter. I dump the brining solution in the grass and use a hose and a bleach/water combo to clean the cooler once I’m done.
A turkey is naturally dry!
Alton Brown explains this in great detail, and you should follow the link below to read more. But, in short: If you’ve struggled with a turkey before, it’s for good reason – a turkey is a naturally dry protein, so it’s very easy to overcook. In addition, the white meat and dark meat cook at different rates, so it requires a little bit of a magic trick to get the both done properly.
The magic is in the brining:
Again, I refer you to Alton Brown. While I’m not 100% convinced about the 5o0/350 method he recommends (apparently, neither is he anymore), I am absolutely 100% convinced that BRINING is MAGICAL. Here’s the thing: I DO overcook my turkeys, actually. Faced with the dilemma above, I let that breast get good and done because I think that pink, runny, rare leg meat is… disgusting. And, because as much as I don’t want to serve guests dry meat, I’m far more fearful of making them sick!!!! But, as Alton Brown says, you are actually making the turkey into a moister, juicier protein when you brine. Now, it can handle a little bit of overcooking.
FULLY resting the turkey before slicing is also magical:
This is another reason that I make the turkey a day ahead of time. I let that bird rest and rest and rest some more – at least an hour. Not only does every cook in the world say that you need to do this, anecdotally, I’ve seen and tasted the evidence myself. This is another reason to cook a day ahead of time; there’s just no pressure to cut into that turkey and let those glorious, flavorful juices run everywhere.
While stuffing a turkey isn’t really safe (again, I refer you to the Alton Brown article below), it’s a great idea to place some aromatics (i.e. apple, cinnamon, onions, carrots, herbs) loosely into the cavity before roasting.
Add moisture before reheating the turkey:
The simplest thing is just to slice the turkey, lay it in a pan, and then sprinkle (pour?) some chicken broth overtop before reheating. I prefer Ina Garten’s idea of laying the turkey slices over a layer of gravy. See the link below.
Recipes that I like:
The one note I will share about AB’s method is that I find his temperatures to be too low. I have all the respect in the world for him, so I am SURE that the error is on my end, but have not had good results on my attempts. Again, with a good brining and a very long rest, I find that going a little higher in the temps is the side that I prefer to err on.