All About Turkey

With a few basic guidelines, you can choose from several methods for a tender, juicy bird that will highlight your holiday meal.
Timothy Q. Cebula
Gear Up

A fundamental piece of turkey-roasting equipment―sometimes overlooked, often with disastrous results―is a high-quality, thick-construction roasting pan with solid handles. Some models may cost $150 or more, but you can find a suitable roasting pan for about $40. (Measure the pan before purchasing to be sure it fits comfortably in your oven.)

Lesser vessels, particularly disposable aluminum pans, can't compare, Rodgers says. "A lot of people don't set themselves up properly with a roasting pan and end up with turkey on the floor," because disposable roasting pans aren't sturdy enough to support a heavy bird, he says.

Rodgers prefers roasting pans with nonstick surfaces, which he feels are superior for making gravy. Some might argue that nonstick surfaces don't properly develop browned bits while cooking on the stove top, but Rodgers counters that when the dark-colored nonstick surface is surrounded by heat in the oven, it helps the roasting juices caramelize, leading to richer gravy. The roasting pan should also be equipped with a sturdy wire rack, which allows hot air to circulate beneath the bird and keeps it from sitting in its drippings.

A good meat thermometer is another essential tool. Rodgers suggests using a digital probe thermometer with a readout that stands outside the oven, so you don't have to open the oven door to check the temperature (each time you open the oven door, the temperature drops 25° to 50°). Rodgers cautions against relying on pop-up thermometers that come with turkeys, as basting juices can glue these gadgets shut. Use them as a backup only, he says.

Rodgers recommends using a bulb baster to moisten the turkey skin as it roasts. Because we call for discarding the skin before serving, basting merely serves to enhance the appearance of the turkey if you bring it to the table. While basting will help brown the skin, the liquid will not penetrate the skin into the meat.

Also important: an oven thermometer. "Oven temperature can fluctuate enormously," Rodgers says, noting that although your oven dial is set at 325°, for instance, the actual temperature may be significantly higher or lower because oven settings become uncalibrated over time. With an oven thermometer, you achieve the desired oven temperature accurately and with confidence by adjusting the setting accordingly.

Store and Handle Correctly

Buy a fresh turkey no more than two days before cooking. If you choose a frozen bird, allow 24 hours defrosting time for every five pounds. Defrost the turkey in the refrigerator, never at room temperature, which would allow harmful bacteria to grow. Be certain that the turkey has thawed completely before roasting, or the meat will cook unevenly. Whether fresh or frozen, keep the turkey in a shallow pan in the refrigerator to catch any drips.

The United States Department of Agriculture no longer calls for rinsing whole turkeys before roasting. Rinsing turkey in a sink can be an unwieldy process and is likely to splash water and spread bacteria. Rodgers notes that rinsing merely refreshes the bird; only cooking to a proper temperature can kill harmful bacteria.

To guard against cross contamination, wash knives or cutting boards that have come in contact with raw turkey before using them again. Similarly, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw turkey so you don't potentially spread bacteria to other food.