Whether you’re an old hat at hosting Thanksgiving (consider me impressed) or are about to host your first-ever Friendsgiving (here are some tips, and godspeed) I think we can all agree that there’s always room for improvement, especially when it comes to cooking turkey, which is a long, involved, daunting task—and has the potential to ruin your holiday, if not done right. While I, personally, have never been 100 percent responsible for turkey success, I’ve watched many a family member and friend agonize over basting, timing, stuffing, and more.
Instead of leaving Thanksgiving’s main event to chance, I decided to get turkey-cooking tips from chef, restaurateur, and meat expert Eric LeVine, partner at Paragon Tap & Table and Morris Tap & Grill, and Taylor Erkkinen, chef and founder of gourmet cooking store The Brooklyn Kitchen. Since preparation could be the only way to avoid a cooking catastrophe, I plan to take their advice if and when I do take charge of the turkey roasting.
Stuffing? Check. Cranberry sauce? Definitely. Mashed potatoes? You can at least peel ’em and prep ’em. “Many Thanksgiving recipes will stay fresh for two to three days without affecting the quality,” says Le Vine. So do yourself a favor and get sides, stuffing, and dressings out of the way so that you can focus on the bird on the big day.
Separate Turkey and Stuffing.
Some people put the stuffing into the turkey and cook it altogether, but this isn’t the best—or safest—idea, says Le Vine. “Cook the stuffing separately from the turkey to avoid any food safety issues,” he says. (In other words, e. coli or salmonella that could be transferred to the stuffing from the raw meat if it doesn’t cook properly on the inside) “Insert the stuffing, or serve it on the side, after the turkey is done roasting on its own.” Easy enough.
Cook it Carefully.
If there’s one thing people are famous for stressing out about when it comes to roasting a turkey, it’s how long to keep it in for and when to know if it’s done. Here’s a handy chart that Erkkinen uses.
USDA Roasting Timetable for Fresh or Thawed Turkey at 325°F
These times are approximate and should always be used in conjunction with a properly placed thermometer.
8 to 12 pounds 2 3/4 to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3 3/4 hours
14 to 18 pounds 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
20 to 24 pounds 4 1/2 to 5 hours
Bring on the Brine.
Brining is the best way to make sure the turkey comes out tender and not dry, according to Le Vine. “Many think brining is complicated, and it’s not. To brine means to pre-salt a protein before cooking to lock in flavor throughout the entire meat and not just the surface. Brining allows the turkey to absorb more flavor during the cooking process. It keeps the turkey tender and juicy, since it’s lean, low-fat meat, and makes for juicier leftovers.” Necessary! See below for Le Vine’s foolproof, easy brine recipe and instructions.
Don’t Stress Out.
Even though throwing a Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving can seem like a big undertaking, remember that it’s about quality time and memory-making with friends and family. (Cheesy but true.) “Don’t sweat it!” says Erkkinen. “Turkey is but one component of the meal, and will be complemented by, or slathered with, tons of delicious gravy. The real point of Thanksgiving is to enjoy time spent with family and friends and wine and gravy. And after that there’s pie.”
Turkey Brine Recipe
3 quarts water
1 cup pure maple syrup
½ cup packed light brown sugar
¾ cup kosher salt
2 Turkish bay leaves
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 18-20 lb. whole turkey
Bring all the ingredients, except the turkey, to a boil in a pot on the stove until sugar is dissolved. Let cool completely, then refrigerate until cold. Pour brine into a pot or gallon bag and add turkey breast. Let brine in the refrigerator 4 to 6 hours, and no more than 8! Remove turkey breast from brine and rinse well under cold, running water. Pat completely dry.