Turkey Tips: Thanksgiving and Other Holiday Tips

This time of year everyone has their “special” way that they like to make their turkey. If you are doing this for the first time it can be intimidating. While I prefer the sous vide method of making turkey, sometimes I am at a friend’s house and ask to take over the cooking chore for the turkey (happens a lot when I’m invited out).

These are tips gleaned from more than a few years of making traditional turkeys, as well as from two of my favorite cooks. My mom, who is probably the best home cook I know, and Robert Irvine – a friend who has a show called Restaurant Impossible.

How Large a Turkey:
How much turkey? Some recommend a pound per person. That is great, but there is a limit to turkeys and how you want to handle them. If you are going to have more 20 guests, get two 10 lb turkeys. Much easier to handle.

Frozen or Fresh
This depends on your source, and how much you trust them. I like fresh turkeys, but we have a great butcher and trusted source for the turkeys. If you don’t, then a frozen turkey is the way to go. It is safe, and the only issue you are going to have is thawing the turkey out. This means, think about getting the turkey well ahead of time.

If you buy the turkey the day before you plan on serving it, that limits how you will cook it, as well as how you will thaw it.

Best way to thaw a turkey – place it in the refrigerator 2-3 days before roasting it, and make certain the refrigerator is less than 40 degrees F (that keeps the bacteria frozen and not multiplying). Some prefer using an ice chest to thaw the turkey- and that avoids a messy refrigerator. If you do, the same rule applies: keep it below 40 degrees. Here is how long to thaw it.

8 to 12 pounds (3 to 5 kilograms): 1 to 2 days
12 to 16 pounds (5 to 7 kilograms): 2 to 3 days
16 to 20 pounds (7 to 9 kilograms): 3 to 4 days
20 to 24 pounds (9 to 10 kilograms): 4 to 5 days

If you have less time, then you need to put the turkey under running water, breast side down. Leave the wrapping on the turkey. The turkey will thaw out in about 30 minutes per pound.

You could  fill an ice chest with water, leaving the turkey in the wrapper – breast side down – and leave it in the cooler for 30 minutes per pound. Here is the fast thaw method.

8 to 12 pounds (3 to 5 kilograms): 4 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds (5 to 7 kilograms): 6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 pounds (7 to 9 kilograms): 8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 pounds (9 to 10 kilograms): 10 to 12 hours

DO NOT THAW the bird at room temperature. That is a sure fire way to get sick.

Thanksgiving Day and a Frozen Turkey
Yea, this isn’t a fun day. Happens to lots of new cooks. They are making all these side dishes then the day comes and the turkey is sitting frozen. But guess what, you can cook it frozen. In fact, it might even be safer to cook the turkey frozen – the bacteria don’t have time to grow, they go from the freezer to the oven!

What you want is a turkey whose temperature ends up at 145 degrees F at the end of it.

You need:

Turkey Roaster (you can get a disposable one from any grocery store)

A meat thermometer. I like the fancy kind that you insert and are alerted when the temperature reaches a specific level.

Turkey baster

1/4 cup of olive oil

Pre-heat the oven to 325 degrees F, AFTER adjusting the shelving in the oven so that the turkey can sit in the middle of the oven.

Use a turkey roaster with a rack.

On a clean surface, remove the wrapping. Don’t worry about the giblets in the center of the turkey – you will get them out later. Put the turkey on the rack and place in the oven.

HINT: Typically it will take about 30 minutes longer to cook a frozen turkey than a turkey that is thawed, but to be precise always use a meat thermometer -this is just an estimate (see chart below.). You will place this thermometer at the three hour mark


This device is inserted into the deep part of the turkey. It has a two hundred foot range and alerts you when you get to the temperature you want

In three hours you can use a pair of tongs and remove the giblets, or leave them. I say take them out and replace them with lemons cut in half and some sage.  Place the meat thermometer at this point. This is a hot bird, at this point, so be careful. At this point, using a turkey baster – bast the turkey once with olive oil. This is the only basting that you do.

You want the internal temperature of the turkey to be 145 degrees when you remove it from the oven. But before that, at 140 degrees you want to have the turkey uncovered to crisp the skin.

When the internal temperature in the deepest point of the breast is 145 degrees remove the turkey from the oven.

Leave the turkey on the counter (cover with foil, and watch the dogs) for at least 20 minutes.

I like to have the turkey ready for my prep 2 days before the holiday event. Because I will salt the turkey and leave it in the refrigerator for a couple of days. This means getting a frozen turkey 5 days before Thanksgiving.

Salt or Brine
The first choice you have to make is whether you want to brine or salt your turkey. We discussed the merits of this in a previous post and you can read about chicken – which is just another bit of poultry here.  Essentially, salting a turkey is easier, safer, provides better flavor, and is a lot less messy.

 Standard Thawed Turkey Directions:
You will need:

An oven arranged so the turkey will be able to sit in the middle of it. Do this before you pre-heat the oven (sounds obvious, but even smart people miss this one).

A meat thermometer

A turkey rack and roasting pan

1 turkey (or two, if you need more than an 18 pound turkey)

1 cup of butter – you want it soft

2 lemons – washed with the skin on, then cut into quarters

2 oranges – washed with the skin on, then cut into quarters

2 carrots – washed, then cut into 1 inch pieces

1 bunch of sage leaves

1/2 cup marscarpone

1 1/2 teaspoons of parsley

1 1/2 teaspoons of thyme

1 1/2 teaspoons of tarragon

1 clove minced garlic

Take 1/2 of the lemon above and using a cheese scraper take off the peel to the point of the white stuff (we call this zest)

Roasting the Turkey
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Place the marscarpone, parsley, thyme, tarragon, garlic, and lemon zest into bowl and mix.

You have previously dissected the skin away from the turkey as described in the salt or brine section. Put the marscarpone mix into that area.

In the cavity of the turkey place the sage, lemons, oranges and carrots

Using the butter, spread it over the entire turkey skin. Season with salt and a bit of pepper.

Place the turkey on the rack – this keeps the bottom of the turkey from sitting in juices.

Put the turkey in the oven and cover it with foil. After 25 minutes turn the oven down to 325 degrees F. About an hour from when the turkey is finished (see chart below) remove the foil from the bird so the skin can get brown and golden and crisp.

Check the temperature of the turkey until the internal temperature of the turkey is 145 degrees. Then remove it from the oven . Let sit out for at least 20 minutes before serving.

Approximate cooking times:
this is so you can plan your day. Use a thermometer, I like the type you can remotely check.

8 to 10 pounds (3 to 5 kilograms):
3 hours to 3 hours, 30 minutes, stuffed.

12 to 14 pounds (5 to 6 kilograms):
3 hours, 30 minutes to 4 hours, stuffed.

14 to 18 pounds (6 to 8 kilograms):
4 hours to 4 hours 15 minutes, stuffed.

I don’t baste a turkey – except if it is frozen – and that is a one time baste.

Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit www.terrysimpson.com.

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  1. Jean | DelightfulRepast.com says:

    Funny thing about turkey. There are several ways to do it “right.” I have about three different methods I alternate between, and they all get good results. Newbies should definitely pick a way, such as yours, follow it to the letter; if they like the results, they should do it that way several times before they start getting restless and branching out. I love your emphasis on food safety here. I have seen some pretty careless turkey handling, and I just won’t eat it! 😀

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