I dug out our family Thanksgiving turkey recipe and thought I would share my tips for cooking a moist, delicious turkey. The secret? Start with a great bird, stuff it with my family’s special Italian stuffing recipe. and use my secret basting method for a delicious turkey.
Table of contents
- How to Cook a Turkey for Beginners
- Moist, Delicious Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe
- Choosing a Turkey: Which Kind of Turkey to Buy?
- How Big Should Your Thanksgiving Turkey Be?
- Turkey Stuffing: Our Family’s Special Recipes
- Defrosting a Turkey
- How to Keep a Turkey Moist During Roasting: Two Methods
- How Long Do You Cook a Turkey?
- Simple Steps to Cook a Turkey in a Conventional Oven
- More Turkey Recipes
How to Cook a Turkey for Beginners
Moist, Delicious Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe
Cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, turkey is EASY to cook. But wait – what about all the horror stories you hear about dried out, tough birds?
Dried out meat means that either the bird was cooked too long or at too high a temperature. Turkey should be cooked at 325 degrees F for just as long as needed. Stuffing it with a moist stuffing recipe, like our family’s Italian stuffing recipe, and using either of the two basting methods described below should give you a moist, juicy bird.
Choosing a Turkey: Which Kind of Turkey to Buy?
The secret to a great Thanksgiving turkey recipe starts with the bird itself. The National Turkey Federation(there is such an organization – honestly, it’s real) advises that there is no difference between a fresh or frozen bird. In my experience, frozen offers more choices in size and quality of bird than fresh.
Five Types of Frozen Turkeys
There are five types of frozen turkeys you’ll find in the average supermarket:
- Self-basting (also called basting): These are conventionally raised turkeys that are flash frozen to prevent ice crystals from forming in the meat. Self-basting turkeys are either brined or injected with a solution of edible fat (such as butter), seasonings and spices, water, broth and flavor enhancers. The fats, combined with the seasonings, melt during cooking and make a tender, moist turkey.
- Free range (free roaming): This term refers to how the turkeys are raised rather than to their meat. Free range turkeys access the outdoors during the lives; they often live in cages but are given time outside to roam around. If you are concerned about the kind treatment of animals, free range is for you.
- Kosher: Kosher turkeys are killed and treated according to Jewish dietary laws. They are salted inside and out after slaughter to remove all traces of blood. The birds are then washed so the salt is removed. Many people like kosher turkeys because their flavor is said to be better. I’ve found them to be flavorful and just as good as self-basting turkeys.
- Natural: Natural turkeys may be labeled as such if no artificial colors, flavors or enhancers are added.
- Organic: Organic turkeys must be raised outdoors, with access to sunlight. Their diet contains no chemicals or antibiotics. Their feed must also be raised organically.
Which do we have on our family table? We almost always purchase and cook a self-basting turkey. Several years ago, when my employer gave out free turkeys to employees for Thanksgiving, we received kosher turkeys. These were delicious as well.
How Big Should Your Thanksgiving Turkey Be?
A good rule of thumb is to assume you will need:
- Bird with bones (full turkey): 1 1/2 pounds per person
- Breast meat only: 8 – 12 ounces per person
We usually cook more than we need, but we love leftovers. A cooked turkey will remain fresh in the refrigerator for several days. If you don’t want to cook on Friday, make a slightly larger bird on Thanksgiving and enjoy the leftovers.
Turkey Stuffing: Our Family’s Special Recipes
My husband’s family has a recipe for Italian spinach stuffing that’s so delicious, we make extra just to eat as leftovers. Truly, this stuffing mix is enough for a meal! It’s filled with spicy sausage, plenty of cooked spinach, and bread crumbs. You can find the recipe for Italian spinach stuffing on our website.
Be sure to make the stuffing the night before you plan to roast the turkey. By using this technique, the stuffing will be ready when you are the next day.
Defrosting a Turkey
An average size turkey will take up to four days to properly defrost in the refrigerator. Write it on your calendar if you tend to forget these things – defrost turkey!
Take the turkey out of the freezer and place it on a plate or in a roasting pan. Then slide it into the refrigerator. You do not need to take the wrapper off, and in fact, keep the wrapper on while it is defrosting.
How to Keep a Turkey Moist During Roasting: Two Methods
There are as many basting methods as there are turkeys. My favorite two methods include water basting and butter basting.
Water basting uses plain water, poured over the turkey while it is cooking. That sounds crazy and chefs will scoff at the idea. But my husband’s family has been doing this for years and it comes out great!
We simply pour 1/2 cup of water over the turkey every half hour during cooking. We cut back towards the end. The excess water drips into the roasting pan, making it easier to clean.
The only drawback to the water basting method is that it washes the seasonings off. If using poultry seasoning, sage, or paprika, butter basting works better.
Butter Basting Method
Using butter to baste turkey is a very traditional method. Use the best quality butter you can find. Melt several tablespoons of butter in a pyrex cup in the microwave, being careful not to scorch it while melting. (Melt it for 15-30 seconds on high, watching it carefully. It if pops or bubbles take it out immediately.)
Dip a basting brush into the butter and coat the turkey with it. Sprinkle the seasonings on after to ensure they stick to the skin. Repeat every half hour or as needed during roasting to keep it moist.
How Long Do You Cook a Turkey?
Preheat the oven to 325 F. Roast the turkey 20 minutes per pound. An average 12 pound bird should take about 3 hours.
A great chart to help you determine cooking times may be found at All Recipes.
Simple Steps to Cook a Turkey in a Conventional Oven
Before cooking the turkey, remove the exterior wrapping. Reach into the interior cavity and remove the gizzard package. Many larger turkeys contain a package consisting of the neck, heart, liver, and kidneys. These can be used for gravy, cooked separately for the pets (heart, liver, and kidneys) or discarded.
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Roasting Pan with Rack: You will need a roasting pan and rack large enough to fit the turkey. A shallow roasting pan with a rack to keep the bird off of the metal base catches drips.
Meat Thermometer: A meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast ensures that the interior temperature of the meat is sufficiently cooked. Purchase a good meat thermometer well before Thanksgiving. Don’t wait until the last minute!
Baster: A basting brush or turkey bastoven timer, a microwave timer, or a special kitchen timer. Just be sure you can hear it wherever you are in the house, especially if you have guests – or you’re watching the football game and it’s loud!
Seasonings: We love poultry seasoning, a prepared spice mixture available at any grocery store or supermarket. My husband also likes to add a bit of paprika. Whether you go with the traditional sage or poultry seasoning or spice it up a bit, the choice is yours!
Preheat the Oven
Turn the oven to 325 and allow it to fully preheat.
Prepare the Turkey
Remove the defrosted turkey from the freezer. Rinse it in the sink under cool running water. Remove whatever is in the inner cavity – if there is a bag containing giblets (heart, liver, etc) or a neck, take it out before cooking. It’s gross, I know, but stick your hand inside the bird and feel around to make sure you get it all.
If you have pets, and you aren’t using the giblets for gravy, you can boil them to cook them, then slice them up finely for them. Open the giblet pouch and put the giblet pieces into a saucepan, ensuring they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat off and allow the giblets to sit in the hot water for 20 minutes. When completely cool, dice up the giblets for your pets. The water can also be used to moisten dog or cat food, if desired.
Turkey necks can be a choking hazard so I do not recommend feeding them to pets.
Place the Turkey on the Oven Rack
Make sure the breast faces up. How can you tell? (I had trouble with this for years). Embarassing to admit it, but I hold the bird upright as if it were…well, running on my counter. That helps me figure out which way the breast faces.
Insert the meat thermometer into the breast in the thickest part.
Cook the Turkey
Once the oven is preheated, baste and season the turkey according to the directions and method of choice, and cook according to directions.
Allow the bird to cool for 15 minutes before slicing. And enjoy. Congratulations, you have just make your first Thanksgiving turkey!