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Test Kitchen tips for cooking a whole turkey

Updated: 
November 7, 2017 - 12:05am

A whole turkey is probably the biggest thing most of us will ever cook.

Here are answers to the questions that pop up every year when tackling that Thanksgiving feast:

Q: What size turkey should I buy?

A: Tally the number of guests and figure about 1 pound of turkey per person or 11/2 pounds if you want leftovers. A 15-pound turkey should be enough for 10 people. If your guests prefer more breast meat, buy a larger turkey. They generally have more breast meat.

Q: How do I thaw the turkey?

A: Allow at least 24 hours of thawing time for each 5 pounds of turkey.

Always thaw the bird in the refrigerator in its original wrapping, never at room temperature. Warm temperatures promote bacteria growth.

If you forget to take the turkey out of the freezer in time to thaw it in the refrigerator, here’s a safe cold-water thawing method.

Place the turkey in its unopened packaging in the sink and cover it completely with cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes. Rotate the bird occasionally and allow 30 minutes of thawing time per pound. A 10-pound turkey will take at least 5 hours to thaw using this method.

Q: What about a fresh turkey?

A: No thawing necessary, obviously. But the USDA says you must cook a fresh turkey within two days of purchase or freeze it.

Q: How do I prepare the turkey for roasting?

A: Take the turkey out of the refrigerator and remove the wrapping. Remove the neck and giblets from inside the bird. Thoroughly rinse the turkey, inside and out, with cold water. Pat dry with paper towels.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Lift the wing tips up and over the back and tuck under the bird. Or tie them to the body with kitchen string.

Place the turkey, breast side up, on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. The rack should be a least a half-inch from the bottom of the pan. The pan needs to be shallow for heat to circulate properly around the turkey.

Season the turkey cavity with salt and pepper. Tie the legs together with kitchen string. Brush the turkey with vegetable oil or rub with unsalted butter. Season the exterior of the turkey with salt and pepper.

Q: When should I stuff the bird?

A: If you’re going to stuff the turkey, now’s the time. Always stuff just before popping the bird in the oven, never before.

Also, mix the stuffing ingredients together just before you’re ready to stuff the turkey. Loosely spoon the stuffing into the cavity, allowing about ¾ cup per pound. Don’t overdo it. A 10-pound turkey should hold about 7 cups of stuffing.

Q: Should I roast the bird covered or uncovered?

A: The Butterball folks recommend cooking the turkey uncovered in a roasting pan.

Two-thirds of the way through cooking, Butterball says foil can be placed over the breast area to prevent it from drying out.

If you put foil on the breast, remove it about 30-45 minutes before the turkey is done to allow the breast to brown.

Q: Should I baste and when?

A: Start basting with a bulb baster after the turkey has been in the oven about an hour by drawing up the pan juices. If you wrapped the breast in foil, you’ll need to lift the foil to baste. Baste quickly because each time you open the oven door, heat escapes and can affect the cooking time. Add a cup or two of turkey stock or chicken broth to the roasting pan to supplement the pan juices for basting.

Q: How will I know when the turkey is done?

A: Roasting times vary with the size of the turkey, whether it is stuffed and the oven temperature. This is where using oven-safe meat thermometers or instant-read thermometers comes in handy.

The turkey is done when the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.

If you don’t have a thermometer, check the turkey at the estimated time by piercing it in several places with a fork. The turkey is done when the juices run clear. Let it rest at least 20 minutes before carving for easier slicing.

Call of go online for help

Here are a few sources for holiday cooking help:

• The U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry Hotline is staffed year-round 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Eastern weekdays. 888-674-6854. It will be open from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Eastern on Thanksgiving. Virtual help is available at www.fsis.USDA.gov

• Butterball Turkey Talk Line: 800-288-8372 or www.butterball.com

• National Turkey Federation: www.eatturkey.com

• HoneySuckle White Turkey Line: 800-810-6325 or www.honeysucklewhite.com

• Reynolds Turkey Tips helpline: www.reynoldskitchens.com

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