How to Cook the Best Thanksgiving Turkey, According to Professional Chefs

The pros share their best advice for roasting turkey at Thanksgiving. Consider this the final word on the bird.

<p>Greg Dupree</p>

Greg Dupree

It's no wonder that roasting a big, unwieldy turkey on Thanksgiving can feel intimidating. Most of us tackle the task just once a year for family and friends, who bring their own expectations to the table (love you and your high standards, Aunt Sally!). And the decisions! Fresh or frozen? Wet or dry brine? Spatchcock or nah? Gah!

We gathered expert tips to help you make the best bird possible and, most importantly, to relieve some of that pressure. Because, say it with us: Unless the turkey catches fire or is still frozen when you carve it, you have succeeded. (And even if those things happen, it’ll make for a good story. But they won’t, because you’ll have read this article!) And you can spend more energy cooking up all those delicious Thanksgiving side dishes.

Determine Your Bird's Weight Class

Erika Nakamura, cofounder of the beloved Dobbs Ferry, New York–based meat and fish delivery service Butcher Girls, aims for one pound of turkey per person. That’s the total weight, including the carcass. “No one really eats more than half a pound of meat, so even with the shrinkage that occurs during cooking, you won’t run out,” she says. And you’ll still have plenty of leftovers. Promise.

Choose Fresh or Frozen

While a fresh turkey might retain more of its flavor than one that’s been frozen and thawed, don’t stress if you can’t get your paws on one, says J. Kenji López- Alt, author of the cookbooks The Food Lab and The Wok. “If you’re not doing a side-by-side taste test, you probably won’t notice much difference,” he says. Go for frozen if that’s more convenient. Just defrost it correctly, as in...

Defrost Way in Advance

Clear a space in your fridge and slide the frozen turkey in there, still in its packaging, a few days ahead of time, says Nicole Johnson, director of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line. “For every four pounds of turkey, allow at least one day of thawing in the refrigerator,” she says. López-Alt recommends starting even earlier—up to a week ahead—to leave time for brining and letting the bird air-dry in the fridge (stay tuned for more on that).

If you’re reading this the day before Thanksgiving, it’s OK! You can hustle things along with the cold-water bath method: “Leave the turkey in the wrapper, place it in a tub or sink full of cold water, and allow 30 minutes of thaw time for every pound of turkey, ideally flipping the turkey and changing the water every 30 minutes,” Johnson says. Instead of three days, a 12-pound turkey will take about six hours to thaw.

To Brine or Not to Brine

To brine! The process adds extra flavor and moisture, which, let’s face it, turkey needs. Wet brining calls for submerging the bird in a solution of salty water, often with herbs, spices, or other seasonings, for days before roast-ing. It requires a lot of space (you’re soaking an entire turkey!), and many cooks knock it for the soggy texture it can create. That’s why Russ Parsons, a food columnist for The Irish Times and a longtime Los Angeles Times food editor, helped popularize the alternative, dry-brining method.

“Traditional wet brining keeps the bird moist, but it gets so moist it’s spongy,” he says. “With dry brining, the texture is more meaty. Even better, it’s incredibly easy.” Just rub the turkey with lots of kosher salt. Parsons uses one tablespoon for every five pounds of turkey, sprinkling it inside and all over the outside of the bird. Leave the turkey uncovered on a rack in the fridge for at least 12 hours, two days max, and the skin will dry out, resulting in chef’s-kiss-level crispiness. (You can dry-brine three days before the holiday, but in that case Parsons recommends storing the salted turkey in a 2 1/2-gallon sealable plastic bag, often sold as brining bags.)

Leave the Spatchcocking to the Pros

Butterflying and flattening your turkey, known as spatchcocking, has some serious upsides. “A 12-pound turkey will cook in about 90 minutes,”López-Alt says, as opposed to two-plus hours. How? The dark meat finishes faster than usual because it’s no longer tucked under the breast meat. And, phew, the white meat, which cooks faster to begin with, is at less risk of drying out.

Though you can tackle the job of cutting out the backbone and flattening the bird yourself with some sturdy, spring-loaded poultry shears and brute strength, it’s a task better left to the pros, Nakamura says. Ask your butcher to butterfly the bird through the back (versus the breast), and to give you the backbone so you can get a head start on stock for gravy and dressing. If you don’t have a butcher, skip this! Spatchcocking is nice, but not necessary.

Don't Worry About Trussing

Nakamura and her wife and business partner, Jocelyn Guest, used to follow different schools of thought on trussing (i.e., wrapping kitchen twine around the legs and sometimes wings of a bird to tuck them closer to the breast). Nakamura always trussed, appreciating the uniform, easy-to-handle shape. Guest preferred leaving the legs untied to allow for better airflow, resulting in faster cooking and crispier skin. While neither method is necessarily better, their family now skips the trussing, and we give you full permission to do so as well.

Be a Proactive Roaster

“For the surest result, insert a good instant-read thermometer deep in the thigh. When it reaches 165°F, the turkey is done,” Parsons says. Some cooks prefer to let the temperature come up to 170°F for a slightly more well-done, but still juicy, bird. You do you!

Note: Even with diligent temperature-taking, turkeys may cook unevenly. Luckily, there are fixes. “Making sure you’re a relatively active participant in the roasting process will help you get better results,” López-Alt says. If the skin is nicely browned but the internal temperature is way behind, lower your oven temp so you don’t burn the outside waiting for the meat to cook through. Or if the turkey is nearly done but still looking pale, bump up the oven heat and consider turning on the convection setting, if you have one. “If the legs are underdone when you’re carving—the trouble spot will be at the hip joint—return them to the roasting pan and put them in the oven while you carve the breast,” Parsons says. Err on the side of slightly overcooking, and be grateful you brined, because even an overcooked bird will stay juicy if it’s been salted.

Wait to Dig In

Even if everyone is clamoring for the main event, resist the temptation to carve the bird as soon as it comes out of the oven. “Resting allows the juices to redistribute throughout the turkey, so every single bite is juicy,” Nakamura says. Ideally give it 30 minutes to an hour, but don’t bother setting a timer, López-Alt says. “Pull it out of the oven, do what you need to do to finish the rest of the meal, and then carve it when you’re ready.” Wondering about tenting the turkey with foil to hold on to some of the heat? López-Alt has found that it leads to soggy skin.“If you’re beating yourself up about serving warm turkey instead of piping-hot turkey, I think you’re being too hard on yourself.” You and the turkey are going to be great!

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