Thanksgiving Dinner Part III: The Turkey

by Elizabeth Skipper | November 20th, 2013 | Ask the Chef

turkeyOK, in the last two weeks we’ve covered planning and the side dishes. This third part of answering the question about hosting Thanksgiving for the first time single-handed will cover the focus of the meal, the turkey itself.

If you’ve bought a frozen turkey, exercise care thawing it. Otherwise, bacterial growth can be a problem. Again, you need to think ahead. (Are you tired of hearing me say that yet?) Because it takes about 24 hours for each five pounds of frozen turkey to thaw in the refrigerator, check your bird’s weight. If it’s a 15-pound bird, you’ll need to begin thawing it three days ahead. So take it out of the freezer no later than the Monday before Thanksgiving.

To avoid contaminating anything else in the fridge, place the turkey in a container to contain any dripping juices as it thaws. Try to make room for it on the bottom fridge shelf, if possible, for the same reason. To thaw it more quickly, submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water, either in the sink or in a large bucket. Change the water every 30 minutes until it’s thawed, allowing about 30 minutes per pound. At that rate, a 15-pound bird will take about eight hours to thaw. Cook it without delay if it hasn’t been refrigerated. Thawing a turkey in the microwave is not recommended; its bulk and uneven contours mean it will not thaw evenly.

To estimate the total cooking time, multiply the weight of the bird by 13 minutes per pound. Larger birds require less time per pound than smaller ones do. A 15-pound turkey will take a little under 3 ½ hours.

About an hour before it needs to go into the oven, remove the turkey from the refrigerator. Take out the neck and the giblets (check both the body & the neck cavities), and set aside. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels, set it breast-side up on the roasting rack, rub the skin generously with butter or oil, and season with salt. Tuck the wing tips under the body of the bird.

Preheat the oven to 325°F, and position an oven rack in the bottom third of the oven. Put the turkey in the oven and begin timing. Every 30 minutes, baste the turkey with the pan juices. Take it out of the oven and close the oven door while you do this so the oven temperature isn’t lowered more than necessary. Use a bulb baster or spoon to scoop up the pan juices, tilting the roasting pan if necessary.

While the turkey and everything else is cooking, simmer the neck and all the giblets except the liver with an onion, and water to cover, in a medium saucepan. This will go into the gravy to bolster the turkey flavor. Keep an eye on it so the liquid doesn’t evaporate – add hot water as needed – but you want it to be somewhat concentrated when it’s done. If the liquid is just covering the solids, that sounds about right.

When the timer tells you the turkey is done, check its temperature in the breast and the outer and inner thigh. The thermometer should register at least 165°F in all areas. No thermometer? Prick the outer thigh deeply with a skewer to see if the juices run clear, and see if the leg wiggles loosely at the joint. If you suspect the turkey isn’t completely done, put it back in the oven for another 20 minutes. Shield the breast with foil if you’re concerned it will over-cook (the breast cooks faster than the rest of the bird.) By the way, if your bird has one of those pop-up indicators, I’d remove it. In my experience, they indicate the bird is ready when it’s over-cooked.

When the turkey is done, remove it from the oven, tent loosely with foil, and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes before carving. The larger the roast, the longer the time required for the juices to redistribute themselves internally. You don’t want to lose them to the carving board and dry out the bird.

If you choose to stuff the turkey, prepare the mixture as directed, and stuff the turkey just before putting it in the oven. Never do this ahead! Again, this is to minimize bacterial growth inside the bird. Don’t pack the stuffing in; it will expand when it cooks. Any extra can be baked in a buttered casserole dish. When the turkey is done, be sure the stuffing registers 165ºF as well. Note that if you’re cooking a stuffed turkey, it will take longer than an unstuffed bird.

To make the gravy, add 1 cup of the turkey broth you made with the neck and giblets to the pan drippings. Deglaze the roasting pan over a large burner on medium-low heat, scraping up the flavorful browned particles. Strain everything into a large measuring cup, and add any remaining turkey broth. The fat will rise to the top.

For each cup of pan juices, measure out two tablespoons of fat and two tablespoons of flour. If you don’t have enough fat, add butter to make up the difference. In a large saucepan, heat the fat over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, continuing to whisk, until bubbly. Cook about three minutes. Raise the heat and begin whisking in the deglazed pan drippings. Continue cooking, whisking continuously, until the gravy thickens. Season to taste with salt & pepper. If too thick, thin it with a little chicken stock.

Last, but important, is carving the bird. I’ll do my best to describe this process, though it’s difficult without photos. Begin by cutting down between the thigh and the body. Push the leg away from the body of the bird with a carving fork, and cut the leg from the body at the joint. This is best done with the tip of the carving knife.

Divide the leg into the thigh and drumstick. Some people like to serve these whole, but if you want to maximize the amount of meat available and give everyone a taste of both white and dark meat, continue with cutting up the leg. Place the drumstick joint side down on the cutting board and cut down the drumstick for individual slices. Slice the thigh section, too.

Now remove the wing by pulling it away from the bird with the fork, and cutting through the joint where it joins the body. The will make it easier to carve the breast. Make a cut along the base of the breast horizontally. Carve down the breast, working at an angle, to create thin slices. The meat will fall away from the bird as your knife meets the lower cut.

Once you get to the wide part of the breast, still working at an angle, carve alternately from the front and back of the breast so that the slices don’t get too large. Now remove the stuffing from the bird, using a long-handled spoon, and mix it with any dressing you cooked separately. Carve the second side of the bird in the same fashion. Lay the wings and all the sliced meat attractively on a warmed serving platter and cover with foil until everything else is ready to serve. Keep warm in a low oven if necessary.

Let everyone serve themselves, and be seated. Take a deep breath and the time to enjoy seeing your guests get ready to tuck in. Say grace if you’re so inspired, or at least acknowledge your blessings. It’s Thanksgiving, after all. Enjoy!

  1. Roger says:

    This article helped me to make a perfect Thanksgiving turkey to the delight and amazement of my wife. It turned out perfectly, and I even made gravy for the first time ever! The scene at our table was worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting! I owe it all to this highly instructive article, which I will keep on hand for next year’s holiday. Kudos to Elizabeth for providing just the detail that I needed.

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