How to Cook a Turkey for the Holidays

Tips on how to cook a turkey for the holidaysIn America, the majority of turkey consumed in a year occurs during the winter holiday season. On a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas, it is important to cook the turkey right the first time; otherwise, you might not get another chance until next year. Once you have finished selecting the perfect turkey, it is time to get cooking.

Different Methods for Cooking a Turkey

When looking at the different ways to cook a turkey, the choices seem limitless. Basically, any cooking method you can think of can be used to cook a turkey. Here are some of the more popular methods for cooking a holiday turkey:

  • Frying. There are special deep fryers specifically made for turkey, but extreme caution must be exercised. It seems that every year there are news reports of someone burning down the house while trying to deep fry a turkey. But when done right, a deep-fried turkey is crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.
  • Grilling. Some argue that everything tastes better on the grill, and turkey is no exception. If done right, the bird will come out tender and juicy, and any drippings can be collected and used to make nice, smoky gravy. The cooking time may vary depending on which type of fuel (charcoal, gas, wood) is used. This grilled turkey recipe will make Thanksgiving a hit at your house.
  • Microwaving. If the microwave is big enough, or the turkey is small enough, there are recipes out there to microwave a turkey. The big benefit here is reduced cooking time, but be sure to use a glass roasting pan; the microwave will not like those flimsy foil roasting pans.
  • Pressure Cooker. Decreased cooking time is a benefit of pressure cooked turkey, too. Also, the increased pressure will better help the seasonings infuse the meat. Cooking times will vary depending on the altitude.
  • Smoking. Smoking a turkey is the slowest method of cooking, but well worth effort. The result of a smoked bird is fall-off-the-bone meat that is tender and juicy. Also, the type of wood used will infuse the bird with unique flavors. Hickory is the most popular wood for smoking.
  • Roasting. Roasting a turkey is the most popular and traditional method for cooking during Thanksgiving. The bird is seasoned, placed in a roasting pan and put in the oven until done. Basting may be necessary to keep the bird from drying out.
  • Turkey-in-a-bag. This is the easiest method for cooking a turkey. The bird and seasonings are placed in an oven-safe plastic bag and roasted until done. The bag seals in all of the juices, so basting is not needed. A turkey-in-a-bag recipe is perfect for those of us who want to throw the bird in the oven and forget about it until dinner time.

Cooking Tips

Regardless of the turkey-cooking method, there are still a few practices that need to be followed across the board in order to get the most out of your turkey dinner.

  • Remove the giblets. Whether butchering your own turkey or buying one from the grocery store, it is important to remove the giblets or entrails. For the butchers, this is common practice as they remove all of the internal organs. For those who buy turkey from the store, near the neck there is a plastic bag that contains the heart, neck and liver and needs to be removed before the bird is cooked.
  • Position the meat thermometer correctly. The meat thermometer should be placed in the fleshiest part of the breast. Make sure the thermometer is not touching bone. If it is touching bone, you will get a false reading. Once the temperature reaches 165 °F, the turkey is done. However, some recipes recommend the bird be left in until it reaches 185 °F.
  • Let the turkey rest for 10-20 minutes before carving. If the bird is sliced immediately after it is removed from the heat, it will dry out. Letting it sit for a while will allow the juices to absorb back into the meat, assuring optimal juiciness.
  • Check the stuffing with a thermometer. When making the stuffing inside the turkey, it is important to check the stuffing with a thermometer for doneness. The stuffing needs to reach a minimum of 165 °F, whether cooked inside the bird or in a separate pan.

Cooking Times for Roast Turkey

There are a lot of variables that affect how long it takes a turkey to cook. Some of those variables include the cooking method, the size of the bird and whether it is stuffed or unstuffed. The only real determiner as to whether or not the turkey is done is the meat thermometer. When the internal temperature reaches 165 °F, the turkey is fully cooked. Here are some basic cooking times for roast turkey:

Turkey WeightStuffedUnstuffed
8 to 12 Pounds3 to 3 1/2 Hours2 3/4 to 3 Hours
12 to 14 Pounds3 1/2 to 4 Hours3 to 3/4 Hours
14 to 16 Pounds4 to 4 1/4 Hours3 3/4 to 4 1/4 Hours
18 to 20 Pounds4 1/4 to 4 3/4 Hours4 1/4 to 4 1/2 Hours
20 to 24 Pounds4 3/4 to 5 1/4 Hours4 1/2 to 5 Hours
*Cooking times are based off of an oven set to 325 °F.

Handling Leftovers

No matter how well the meal is portioned and planned, there will be leftovers. It is almost a requirement of Thanksgiving or even a Christmas dinner; everybody pigs out, but somehow, there is food left over. Those leftovers can be donated to a homeless shelter, given away to guests, or placed in the refrigerator or freezer to be used for meals later on. Whatever is done with the leftovers, be sure to exercise safe-handling practices in order to prevent bacterial contamination.

photo credit: cisc1970 via photopin cc


About Author

Rachael Niswander

Rachael is a writer in Denver, Colorado with an affinity for food and all things food-related. When she isn't writing or doing other foodie things, Rachael enjoys reading, hooping, tattoos, dancing, learning about herbs and natural living, and spending time with friends, her husband Michael and their two cats, Tip Toes and Pippin.

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