Cooking The Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

cooked turkey

So you’re cooking the Thanksgiving turkey this year — congratulations! You have just volunteered for the one assignment that can make or break the holiday meal. After all, the turkey is the star of the table, and no matter what else you put out, it’s the one thing everybody always remembers.

If the pressure is starting to build as we get closer to T-Day, walk it off, and then come back and take some sage advice from the lady whom Bobby Flay of the Food Network called “Queen of All Things Thanksgiving”, and the author of Talk Turkey to Me (Wishbone Press and Promotions, Inc.; 2nd edition, 2006) — Renee Ferguson.

In a recent interview, Renee agreed to a no-holds-barred session, discussing everything from selection to stuffing to roasting, and everything in between:

What do I look for when I am selecting a turkey?
“One of the most important things to consider when selecting a turkey is how much to buy — yes, size really does matter! If you want to have leftovers, you need to plan on one and one-half pounds of turkey per person. You’re not buying lunch meat here! You have to take into account the weight of the bones, drip weight, giblets, and packaging — they all enter into the calculation; that’s why you need so much. If you don’t want leftovers, plan on just one pound per person.”

Is fresh really better than frozen? Can I get a good frozen turkey?
“That’s truly a matter of preference. Fresh is just that — fresh — and is 100 percent natural. It may not be quite as moist as a frozen turkey, as all frozen turkeys have a basting material that is injected deep into the breast meat to add additional moisture to the meat. It’s good to try them both at some point just to know which flavor you like best. The advantage of fresh is there’s no thawing! The advantage of frozen is that there is basting in the breast that adds moisture. It does require thawing time.”

To stuff, or not to stuff — is it safe? Can dressing cooked outside the turkey be moist and flavorful?
“I love to stuff a turkey! But stuffing has to be handled properly. That means, don’t put in any uncooked meats and don’t make the stuffing the night before. And don’t stuff the turkey the night before. You can sauté the veggies and meat the day before, but combine everything (veggies, meat, bread, and broth) just before stuffing.”

How do I properly truss a turkey? Do I need to truss if there is no stuffing?
“Trussing is unnecessary either way.”

I brined a turkey, but it still came out dry. Why?
“Most likely it was overcooked. You need to reach a temperature of 170 in the breast/180 in the thigh/160 in the stuffing.”

Are dry rubs a good idea? If so, what is a good spice combination for a dry rub?
“Seasoning like rubs is a matter of preference. Whatever you put on the outside of the bird will not penetrate the skin but will only end up in your drippings/gravy.”

At what temperature do I cook a turkey, and for how long?
”Time charts are given in my cookbook and they vary from method to method and by weight. But if you are cooking in an open, uncovered pan, set your oven at 325 degrees F:
10 – 18 pounds (unstuffed) 3 – 3 ½ hours, or (stuffed) 3 ¾  – 4 ½ hours
18 – 22 pounds (unstuffed) 3 ½  – 4 hours, or (stuffed) 4 ½  – 5 hours”

Do I need to baste, how often?
“No need to baste; it doesn’t impact the taste, and it’s really only therapy for the cook! Just an initial basting with oil (vegetable or olive oil is great) and then put it in the oven. Keep the door closed 2/3 of cook time, then take a peek — the turkey will be a nice golden brown. Put a tent of aluminum foil on the breast and continue cooking until done. Use a meat thermometer to determine when turkey is done — no guessing!”

What does letting a cooked turkey rest mean? Is it necessary?
“The turkey must rest to let the juices set. If you don’t let it rest you will not be able to nicely slice the turkey because it will shred. This is the time for some of the juices to be reabsorbed into the meat and set up.”

Armed with all that great advice, preparing the turkey should be a snap. And if, in spite of everything, it does’t come out right, here’s a tip professional chefs use — tell them, “It’s supposed to taste that way!”

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