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How to Cook Your Best Thanksgiving Turkey

The first official Thanksgiving dinner was served during the Lincoln administration, in the middle of the Civil War. In an effort to bind the country together over the plight of the original settlers of the now United States, Lincoln declared the third Thursday of November the official celebration to give thanks.

History has provided us with a few memories of this holiday, including the now annual pardoning of the turkey which started during the Bush administration and the mad rush to go Christmas shopping affectionately known as Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

My memories of Thanksgiving begin with my mother’s family and friends of the family gathered around a large table. I would nibble on the turkey and take huge helpings of rice and meat dressing my mom’s friend brought. Chocolate pie rounded out my incredibly balanced meal, before my sister and I headed to the kitchen to bone the turkey. We became experts at reducing the carcass to just bone. Every morsel of meat made it to a storage container from which we feasted for another day or so.

For a few of those years my cousin and his parents came to visit. We would spend a week visiting, playing, having fun and irritating each other. Christopher would race after my sister and kiss her on the cheek – because she was just that CUTE. We would spend hours talking and sharing stories. Some of our deepest secrets and most precious dreams were exposed in those visits.

And, at the center of it was the turkey.

Some years it was moist and delicious and others, more dry than anyone cared to admit to. My mom was an excellent cook and talented hostess. No matter what you thought of the food on the table, there was always a lot of fun, jokes, stories and camaraderie to be found around that table.

We made memories. And we ate turkey.


Most of us ate the turkey. To this day I haven’t acquired a taste for the bird.  I like chicken. I like cold, sliced turkey. I’m not a fan of the big bird in the center of the table.

Hence, I’ve developed a great love for the side dishes and the appetizers.

Over the years I’ve taken on the role of chief cook and bottle washer, turkey baster and hostess. And, because this bird is NOT my all time favorite meal, I’ve spent a bit of time researching and testing (with my sister of course!) the best recipe I can find to make it moist, delicious and a totally delectable part of the meal.

Here’s what I’ve found.

  1. Fresh is best. For those who have taste buds honed to perfection, you’ll taste the difference between a bird which has been frozen and thawed and one which is fresh from the farm. Granted, I can taste the different flavors and appreciate a moist turkey, but I can’t tell the difference between a fresh and frozen bird.
  1. Thaw it right.  One year my then-mother-in-law left the turkey out in a pan all night to thaw. By morning I could smell the spoiled meat throughout the kitchen. Just because the turkey is huge and frozen solid doesn’t mean it will keep outside of the refrigerator for hours on end. Although the center is solid, the meat on the outside thaws and will rapidly spoil.

Thawing the bird in the fridge is the best way, least work intensive and takes the most time. Put in a pan, in the wrapper, breast side up in the fridge allowing 1 day for every four pounds of meat.  If you didn’t remember to take it out in time, you can cover it in cold water, breast side down and without the wrapper. Change the water every 30 minutes to keep the meat from spoiling and keep the water cool. Allow 30 minutes for every pound of turkey.

  1. Add a brine. Brining the turkey means soaking it in salt and water with additional flavorings, such as dried thyme, oregano or sage. If you aren’t marinating a breast (see #4 below) you might want to brine the whole turkey. The meat will absorb the salt and water, tenderizing the meat. You’ll end up with moist and flavorful meat.
  1. Marinating a turkey breast. If you and your children are going to enjoy a boneless breast of turkey and not the whole bird, you might want to use a marinade to help tenderize the meat and infuse more flavor. There are a few rules to marinating meat:
  • If you use a recipe that requires you preheat the marinade, be sure it’s completely cooled before you add it to the turkey.
  • Keep the meat in the fridge while you’re marinating it.
  • The longer you marinate the meat, the more flavor it will have. Minimum time is 2 hours and up to 8 hours. If you marinate any longer than 8 hours it can cause the fibers of the meat to break down and you’ll be left with mush instead of a tender bird.
  • Don’t cook the marinade with the meat and throw out any that has touched the raw turkey.
  1. What about the stuffing? What would Thanksgiving be without the stuffing next to the turkey? If you want it inside the bird or on the side, it changes how you prepare and cook the turkey. However, word of warning, when the bird cooks the heat drives the liquid into the center of the bird. When there’s stuffing in the turkey, that’s what will be moist and the meat will likely dry out. AND, stuffing the bird will also increase the risk of food poisoning.
  • Inside the turkey all the ingredients MUST BE PRECOOKED. If not, you may likely experience bacterial growth and food poisoning. Stuff the turkey just before you put it in the oven and not the night before. Bacteria will grow overnight in the stuffing and the internal temperature may not be high enough to kill it. If you are stuffing a whole turkey, return the legs and wings to the original tucked position for more even cooking and the stuffing must reach 165 degrees for the turkey to be fully cooked.
  • Be sure when you’re deboning the turkey at the end of the meal that you remove the stuffing and store it separately from the turkey.
  • Don’t cook a stuffed turkey on an outdoor grill or deep fry it. These methods won’t raise the temperature high enough and the turkey will be done before the stuffing is.
  1. If you’re cooking for a big crowd, then two small turkeys will cook more quickly, more evenly and will be more tender than trying to manage one large bird. Another option is to spatchcock the bird and watch it cook very fast. You can see an example of that at Bon Apetit
  1. Butter and spice, and everything nice! Just before you’re ready to pop the turkey in the oven add pats of butter under the skin. The butter will baste the turkey as it cooks and add flavor. Add sprigs of rosemary, thyme, oregano or any other of your favorite fresh herbs to add even more flavor.
  1. Wrap it. You might cover the whole bird with aluminum foil, use a cooking bag or ‘tent it’ with foil. Whichever method you use don’t open the oven to check on it! Opening the door periodically will make the temperature in the oven fluctuate and actually increase the potential the bird will dry out.
  1. Start HOT. Another trick to a moist bird is to start the oven out at 450 to 500 for the first 30 minutes and then reduce it to 375.
  1. Start the turkey out breast side down on a v-shaped rack. This allows the turkey to baste itself. Flip it one hour into the cooking process. The marks from the rack will disappear as the turkey cooks. This is much easier when you’re cooking a smaller turkey.
  1. The turkey must be cooked to temperature and not to time. Although the packaging will help you estimate the amount of time the turkey is in the oven, per pound, you are aiming for an internal temperature in the thickest part of the thigh and breast that hits 170 degrees. Don’t let the thermometer hit the bone.
  1. Don’t over-cook the turkey! One sure way of ending up with dry meat is to cook it longer than it needs to be.
  1. Let it rest. You might think it sounds odd, but at this point the meat needs to set or rest for at least 20 minutes before you slice into it. Slicing it too soon will allow all the flavorful juices to run out. And, while that might LOOK appealing, the meat won’t be nearly as moist. However, once the temperature of the turkey goes below 140 degrees, bacterial growth begins. The rule of thumb is that the turkey goes into the refrigerator within two hours after removing it from the oven.
  1. Finish with gravy.  While it’s resting, make good use of the juices at the bottom of the pan. Drain the juices into a sauce pan, strain out any herbs or vegetables, add some white wine and cornstarch to thicken it. It’s amazing gravy!


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