(WGHP) — Love it or hate it, turkey is going to be the focal point of many folks’ diets for the next few days. Knowing how to properly cook your holiday bird can make or break your holiday experience. No one wants to serve the turkey that their family is talking about for years for all the wrong reasons.
If you bought a frozen turkey, hopefully it’s already in your refrigerator thawing out. If it’s not, go and grab that right now! I’ll wait! Please don’t leave it sitting out on the counter to thaw out, though.
Thawing should only be done in the refrigerator, or under a steady stream of cold water if you’re pressed for time. Sitting out at room temperature or being thawed with warm water is inviting bacteria to the party, and the only unwelcome guests you want at your party are your in-laws!
All that out of the way, here are some tips and tricks that could help take your turkey from bland to glam.
Invest in a thermometer
Relying on the pop-out indicator that came with your turkey is a surefire way to get a dry bird. A kitchen thermometer is essential to proper poultry production. You want to cook turkey to an internal temperature of 165 Fahrenheit. The pop-out thermometer included in turkeys is not as accurate as a properly calibrated proper kitchen thermometer.
A probe thermometer that can be left in the turkey for the entire cook is an easy, no-hassle way to keep an eye on the temperature without having to open the oven over and over again. Place the probe in the thickest part of the breast of the bird and go about your day until the thermometer beeps.
If you have a regular thermometer, just check your bird starting within the last half-an-hour of your recommended cooking time (for example, if you have a 14-pound bird, the recommended cooking time would be roughly 2.5-3 hours, so start checking the temperature in the breast and stuffing at around the 2-hour mark.)
The turkey will be done when the thickest part of the breast reaches an internal temperature of 165. If your turkey is stuffed, you need to use the thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing has also gotten to 165. If the stuffing is not also 165 degrees in the center, continue cooking the turkey until it is. It should cook at the same pace as the breast, but you don’t want a perfectly cooked turkey with salmonella riddled stuffing, so always double-check it.
Dunk that bird
If you haven’t already brined your turkey, finish reading this section and go assemble your brine. 24 hours is the right window for a good brine to impart flavor and moisture.
Brine is traditionally a saltwater solution used to flavor something.
Brines are quick and easy: mix together about a gallon of water (you can also use vegetable stock in your brine if you’re feeling fancy,) about 1 cup of salt, 1/2 cup of sugar, a large handful of whole peppercorns and other whole spices of your choosing, and a few cloves of garlic. If that doesn’t seem like enough for the size of your turkey, add more water and other ingredients proportionately. Boil all of this together for about five minutes. Add a few sprigs of a hardy herb like thyme or rosemary near the end of the boiling, right before you take it off the heat.
Once it’s no longer boiling, fill a large metal bowl with ice. Dump the hot brine into the bowl of ice.
Allow the brine to cool fully before pouring it over your turkey in a large container. If it doesn’t cover enough of your turkey, you can make another batch of brine. It doesn’t need to be swimming it in, just mostly covered.
A brine will open up the protein structures of the turkey, allowing for more internal moisture retention, as well as imparting flavor deeper into the meat.
For the crispiest skin…
Despite the fact that I just told you to submerge your bird in a saltwater bath, you’re going to have to dry this turkey out a little if crispy skin is on the menu.
Take your turkey out of the oven with a few hours to spare before you actually start cooking. If you have a metal cooling rack that fits into a sheet pan, set your bird on that and let it drip dry in the fridge. Keep it on the bottom shelf with nothing around it to avoid cross-contamination. Pat it dry with paper towels before you season it.
Airflow is a big thing for crispier skin, too. Pulling the skin away from the meat of the bird gently without tearing it or removing it (with a gloved hand or a flexible rubber spatula) creates a gap that encourages airflow. You can also stuff herbs between the skin and the bird for an even more flavorful turkey. Sage, thyme or rosemary work great for this.
Rubbing oil across the outside of the skin will help with skin crispiness as well. I recommend a high smoke point oil like avocado oil or sunflower oil. Don’t use too much, because it will get greasy, but brush it lightly across the skin.
An easy way to get crisp skin is to crank your oven all the way up to its highest setting (for a conventional oven that’ll typically be in the 400-500 degree range) and cook the turkey on high for the first 20-30 minutes of cook time. Then lower the oven to 350 and continue cooking as normal.
If you do nothing else, please put salt and pepper on your turkey.
If you’re coating the skin with a thin layer of oil, sprinkling on your choice of seasonings after that will provide greater adhesion and more flavor. Salt and pepper are classic and necessary, but consider adding a bit of fennel to the party. Smoked paprika, ground sage and red pepper flakes are also always welcome.
Seasonings go beyond just the actual seasonings to the whole flavor profile of the bird, too. Your stuffing can be jazzed up with whole garlic cloves or slices of apple stuffed inside the bird as well.
The most tender, crispy-skin having turkey on the planet will mean nothing if it’s bland. Reach for the salt. Dietary restrictions notwithstanding, the average person always underestimates the amount of salt needed to make something taste good, so be generous!
Let it rest
Resting meat is the bane of every hungry kid on Thanksgiving’s existence. We all know it. But it isn’t a myth. Take that turkey out of the oven (once the stuffing and breast has reached 165 degrees internally) and leave it alone. Don’t even take the thermometer out, if it’s still in the meat. Let that bird sit while you get other dishes in order. At least 15 minutes, no one touches the turkey.
Once you’ve moved the turkey away from the roasting pan, then you can use all the drippings and leftovers for an out-of-this-world gravy, too.
A bonus tip: if you are frying your turkey, you have to make sure that the bird is fully thawed and completely dry. A lot of fryer incidents at home are caused by cold water being introduced to hot oil.
So go forth and enjoy your festivities!