That’s me, age four, stuffing a Thanksgiving turkey. I’ve been doing this holiday dinner thing a long time. So much information exists on the humble turkey, a curiously popular bird. Here are simple answers to common questions from reliable sources. Please note this page includes affiliate links. Have a question? Let me know. – Updated November 2018
Q. Why do we eat turkey on holidays, anyway?
A. Great question. As this terrific column in Slate explains, back in the day when people grew their own meats, large poultry presented the most expendable option to feed a crowd.
Q. What kind of turkey should I buy?
A. Buy fresh, if possible. Fine Cooking explains the variations on supermarket options, while Epicurious offers their findings on a taste test of common brands of Thanksgiving turkey. Want local? See EatWild.com’s guide to locally grown turkeys in the U.S. and Canada. Despite all the talk of heritage turkeys, they account for less than 1 percent of the turkey market, as noted in this illustrated account from Bountiful Cupboard.
I’ve cooked all the options, and I’ve found a thoughtfully grown free range turkey does taste better than the standard supermarket varieties. (We usually get a 16 lb. to 20 lb. turkey and it’s about $20 more.) I prefer fresh over frozen as I think the texture of the meat is better after cooking. I’ve splurged on local heritage turkeys, and my family thought they tasted too gamey. I’ve bought kosher birds, but they’re hit and miss. So if you can, buy a free range, organically fed turkey if your budget can afford it.
Q. How big a turkey do I need?
A. It depends on whether you’ve got big eaters and/or big leftover lovers. Aim for roughly 1 pound per person for a reasonable amount of leftovers, and 1.5 pounds per person if you want heaps of extra meat.
Q. I have heard I shouldn’t stuff the cavity. Why is that?
A. The Centers for Disease Control advise against this because the uneven cooking this employs can make people sick. Plus, it will take the turkey longer to cook. Just cook it in a separate casserole pan; you can never make enough in the cavity of the turkey for the whole crowd, anyway.
Q. How do I safely thaw a frozen turkey?
A. Here’s a thorough guide form the USDA on the matter. Bottom line: either thaw a frozen turkey in your fridge, in a cold water bath or – very carefully – in a microwave. Just don’t set it on your counter and let it get to room temperature or you’ll greatly increase your odds of sickening your holiday dinner guests.
Q. Can I cook a completely frozen turkey?
A. Yes. Simply plan for the roasting time to take about 50% longer than a thawed one. Put it into a 325F/162C oven for two hours. Remove from the oven and extract the giblets. Season as desired and continue to roast. Here’s how much time you’ll need to budget for, based on the USDA’s guidelines:
- 8-12 lbs turkey: 4-4 1/2 hours
- 12-14 lbs turkey: 4 1/2-5 3/4 hours
- 14-18 lbs turkey: 6-6 3/4 hours
- 18-20 lbs turkey: 6 3/4-7 1/2 hours
- 20-24 lbs turkey: 7 1/2- 7 3/4 hours
Q. Turkey, again? Really? Any alternatives?
A. Personally, I’m a fan of duck or lobsters as a Thanksgiving turkey alternative. The editors of Food & Wine came up with a solid list of alternatives, including a stuffed flat-iron steak.
Q. Help! I have vegetarian or vegan guests coming. Can I serve them Tofurky?
A. The Washington Post did a taste test on alternative faux meats for vegans, so check out those results if that’s your strategy. But I’m going to be honest and say the point of Thanksgiving isn’t about serving non meat eaters a highly processed bit of fake meat. I usually serve turkey and a vegetarian main. My go-to is this vegetarian pot pie recipe from Kim O’Donnell. If you’ve got more than one or two vegetarians at the table, consider making (or buying) a vegetarian gravy, such as this red wine mushroom version from Whole Foods Market.
Q. Do I need to brine the turkey, or can I skip it?
A. You don’t have to wet brine. Indeed, Kim Severson of The New York Times wrote a bombshell story that essentially called it a fad that’s over. A wet brine involves putting the turkey into a solution laced with salt, herbs and usually some acid, such as cider or citrus. Alice Currah at Savory Sweet Life has a great example of how to wet brine a turkey.
Maybe it’s me, but I got to a point where I felt a wet brine made turkey meat soggy. So I’m partial to using a “dry” brine, which involved slathering the bird with a salt-based rub. The clearest and best example we can find of this is Russ Parsons version on Food52.
Q. Do I need special equipment?
A. You need a pan with at least one-inch sides large enough to hold your Thanksgiving turkey comfortably without too much crowding. Handles are helpful, as is a rack. You can claim one for as little as $20 online. Avoid disposable, inexpensive aluminum roasting pans. No really. Don’t use them. They aren’t heavy enough to hold the weight of a turkey.
Let me paint you a scene: a cook pulls a golden turkey from the oven, and then the cheap pan crumbles, drenching her in boiling hot liquid as she tries to decide whether to catch the hot carcass as it tumbles to the floor. This happened to someone I know. Don’t let it happen to you.
In a pinch, you can use the bottom of a broiler pan. No rack? No problem. Line the bottom of your roasting pan with carrots, celery, onion or potatoes to keep it from sticking. It will also make your gravy tastes great, too.
Q. What about basting?
A. The jury’s out on whether basting moistens the meat, but it certainly doesn’t hurt anything and will add a lovely sheen to the final result. The easiest way to do it is with a bulb-style baster, but you can also use a silicon pastry brush, a small (new!) paintbrush or even a ladle.
Q. What’s the best way to roast a turkey in the oven?
A. My friend Chef John at Foodwishes.com gives exactly the same instruction I would give you on cooking a turkey in his two-part video lesson. While I normally advise turning chickens over while roasting, most turkeys are too large to do this so skip that step during the holidays. For herb butter, go here.
Q. We want to deep-fry a turkey.
A. Deep-frying a turkey is a popular and highly hazardous undertaking. Search “fried turkey disaster” and you’ll find hundreds of YouTube videos. A solid source for information comes from the blog Brian’s Belly.
Q. Can you grill a turkey?
A. Grilling a turkey has overcome deep-frying as the fad du jour for the holiday bird. It does have two advantages. One, it frees up your oven for all the side dishes. Second, if you’ve got a grill master in the family, you can assign him or her the bird. Whoever takes on this task must absolutely first read Turkey Grilling Horror Stories. My favorite guide to barbecuing a turkey is from Sunset magazine, which featured a cartoon version of meat master Bruce Aidells in a simple how-to.
Q. What the heck is a turducken?
An unholy concoction of a turkey stuffed with a whole duck and a chicken. Here’s where you can get one. The New York Times offers tips on how to cook it.
Q. How do I carve a turkey?
A. I know the Norman Rockwell image involves bringing a whole turkey to the table. But this leads to performance anxiety. Solution? Call people to the table, bring the whole roasted turkey in for “viewing,” and then whisk it back to the kitchen and carve it while everyone gets seated.
Q. What is “spatchcocking?”
A. An old English term for cutting out the backbone, also known as butterfly in North America it. This doubles the cooking area of the turkey so it can roast in two hours or so, depending on size. This isn’t difficult but it does require a sharp knife or poultry shears and some confidence. This is how I cook my turkeys. I butterfly it a couple nights before, pat it with a dry brine and leave it uncovered in the fridge. I then roast the back bones and use them for stock to make gravy. Alton Brown shows how it’s done.