Photo: Charles Masters

A few nerve-wracked missteps are all it takes to ruin a great bird.

Tim Cebula
September 15, 2017

Even though a turkey is pretty much just an enormous chicken, and chicken is something you probably cook 340 days a year, the big bird gets screwed up plenty at the holidays.

Maybe it’s because we cook it so rarely, or we are overcome by the sheer anxiety of feeding a crowd on a special occasion. Cooking Light's Senior Food Editor Tim Cebula takes us through the top 10 mistakes we usually make with turkey at Thanksgiving, along with simple tips to steer clear of each:

You Don’t Thaw the Turkey Soon Enough

Daniel Agee

A frozen bird takes about four days to thaw in the refrigerator (really the only truly safe way to defrost poultry this size). So plan ahead: Start thawing five days before Thanksgiving—it’ll keep just fine for an extra day and there’ll be no question that it’s thawed when it’s time to cook.

You Brine a Pre-Injected Turkey

Many mass-market frozen turkeys have been injected with a saline solution to keep them moist as they roast. If you soak this kind of turkey in your own wet-brine, or slather it with a dry brine, you’ll end up with extremely salty, possibly inedible turkey.

Look carefully at the ingredient label for phrases along the lines of “Contains an X% solution…” This means it’s been injected. If you’re brining yourself, it’s best to go for fresh, organic turkey options instead.

You Stuff the Bird

Photo: Charles Masters

This old-school approach probably won’t make a serious comeback until salmonella becomes extinct. But beyond food safety issues, this method necessarily makes for dry meat: To absolutely ensure that there aren’t any undercooked raw juices in the stuffing, you have to take the meat itself to shriveling temps. Stuffing is easier, tastier, and crustier when cooked separately in a casserole dish.

You Take the Temperature the Wrong Way

Photo: Brian Woodcock

There are lots of ways to go wrong with a kitchen thermometer, despite your best intentions. Some of us have ancient models that aren’t accurately calibrated anymore. To test yours, boil a cup of water and check for 212°. But if you put an accurate thermometer in the wrong part of the bird, you’ll get an inaccurate temperature. The probe should go into the thickest part of the breast and thigh, and not touch bone, which throws off the reading. Look for 160° in the breast and about 175° in the dark meat (some folks say 170° or even 165° for dark meat, but then the collagen hasn’t melted enough and the meat is kind of chewy and tough)—the temps will inch up around five degrees while the turkey rests. And the plastic pop-up thermometer that comes stuck in the breast? Throw that away before you even start roasting and you’re tempted to rely on it.

You Baste

Daniel Agee

It’s one of those silly things that persists in the public imagination as the way to cook, kind of like when you see people in movies (or even in real-life) pressing down on burger patties with a spatula as they grill. That’s wrong, and so is the basting, and both need to stop.

First, every time you open the oven, the temp drops (by as much as 50°). Your guests are hungry, this feast is already a huge ordeal, let’s not make it longer than we have to, right?

And when you slosh hot juices over the skin of the bird, you’re not going to flavor the meat, or brown the skin any better. You’re just ensuring soggy skin.

Hate to break it to you – turkey basters have multiple uses in the kitchen, but turkey basting shouldn’t be one of them.

The Turkey Is Almost Done, and the Skin Is Still Pale

Quick fix: Pull the bird from the oven, and crank the heat up to 450° or even 500° if it just has a couple of minutes before it’s done. Coat the skin with canola oil, then pop it back into the hotter oven until you get it to the color you want.

Or, alternatively...

The Skin Is Very Dark Brown and the Turkey Still Has a Long Way to Go

Cover the breast area with foil to serve as a shield, much like you would in pie-baking. If the tips of the wings or drumsticks are looking like they may scorch, wrap them in foil too.

You Overcook the Turkey

One of the easiest turkey mistakes to make is also one of the simplest to avoid. The aforementioned thermometer will help you avoid this nightmare every time. Especially if you get a remote probe thermometer, which places the probe in the bird while it cooks, with a separate digital readout unit outside the stove that beeps when the turkey hits the right temp. Foolproof.

You Don’t Rest the Turkey Before Carving

This is a common way to ruin nicely-cooked meat. Cut too early, the juices gush out onto the cutting board and leave the meat dry as a bone. Recipes will call for you to let it stand for 10-20 minutes before carving. Here’s the thing: That bird was in the oven a long time, absorbing plenty of heat. And it will take a very long time to cool off to anything resembling room temperature. You could let it rest 30 to 40 minutes and still be serving warm meat, but warm meat with all the juices inside.

You Carve to Find the White Meat Is Dry, and the Dark Meat Is Overcooked

  1. Refer to earlier notes on thermometers – they're very important.
  2. Cut the legs and thighs away from the turkey and keep them in the roasting pan; put the breast and wings on a cutting board.
  3. Slice the breast meat as you would to serve it, and place the slices in a casserole dish.
  4. Cover the white meat with homemade or commercial turkey stock or chicken stock, then cover the dish with foil.
  5. Once the dark meat is done, pull it from the oven and let it rest until you’re ready to carve.
  6. Meanwhile, turn the oven off, and place the covered dish of breast meat in the oven to stay warm until it’s time to serve.

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