Turkey 101

First time cooking a bird? Tired of failed recipes that result in "turkey jerky"? Use these foolproof tips to make sure your guests are truly thankful to be sitting around your table this holiday season.

Poultry Safety First

A spoiled or undercooked turkey can lead to a memorable holiday for all the wrong reasons. Take care to follow all safe handling guidelines for your bird. Once a turkey is thawed, it should be cooked within two days. It takes 24 hours per four-five pounds of turkey to thaw, so plan ahead. Use the USDA's guidelines for refrigerator thawing times:

  • 4 to 12 pounds -- 1 to 3 days
  • 12 to 16 pounds -- 3 to 4 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds -- 4 to 5 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds -- 5 to 6 days

While many people buy frozen turkeys, one of the secrets to a moist, juicy bird is to buy it fresh. The turkey's muscle cells can suffer damage from the freezing process. Ice crystals form, and as the bird thaws and cooks, fluid leaks out of the cells, leading to dry meat.

Once the bird is in the oven, remember that no matter what it looks like on the outside, the bird is not safe until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Place thermometers in the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing and the thighs to ensure a consistent temperature.

Think Small

The larger the turkey, the less even the roasting process. Small birds cook faster and more evenly, so consider using two small turkeys rather than one large one if you're feeding a large group.

Use a Brine

Brining in a sea-salt solution allows the turkey to absorb both salt and water, making it moist and seasoned on the inside. Brine can also be flavored with herbs and spices for a little "something extra." Make sure to use a balanced brine with the right portion of salt to ensure it does its job.

Don't Baste

If you use a brining solution, there is no need to baste the turkey, as the action really only coats the outside of the bird and does little to promote moisture inside. Ditching the baster gives you more freedom to move away from the oven and socialize with your guests.

Don't Stuff

Once you place stuffing inside the bird, it becomes subject to the 165-degree threshold, as the juice (and potentially harmful agents) from the turkey soaks into the stuffing. Getting the stuffing to that key marker almost always means drying out the rest of the turkey. Make the stuffing separately.

Use a Butter Rub

For a rich, buttery flavor, rub soft butter under the turkey's skin before roasting. As the butter melts, it naturally bastes the turkey while flavoring.

Ditch the Truss

Trussing a turkey is a tradition for many cooks, but tying the legs up adds to the cooking time and subjects the breast meat to drying out. If you must truss, do it lightly, but leaving the legs free is the best way to promote even cooking.

Leave It Alone

The best thing a cook can do to promote a moist, flavorful turkey is to just leave it alone. Brine it ahead of time, spice it, rub it, do what you will to the outside, then leave it alone as best you can. Constantly opening the oven door interferes with even cooking.

Flip the Bird

When the turkey first goes in the oven, put the breast side down, allowing the turkey to baste itself. After one hour, flip it right side up to finish roasting.

Invest in a Good Thermometer

Taking the turkey out of the oven at just the right moment is critical for a juicy bird. That means hitting the 165-degree mark and then pulling it out which is no easy task. A standard meat thermometer can be counterproductive, as the cook constantly has to open the oven to take a reading, which interferes with even cooking and increases the odds of waiting too long and drying out the bird. Invest in a thermometer that will alert you as soon as the turkey is done.

Let It Rest

Roasting forces the juices of the turkey to the center. Once you take it out of the oven, let it rest for about 20 minutes to give the juices time to spread back out.

Carve Like a Pro

All of your hard work can go right out the window if the carver doesn't know what he or she is doing and lets the juices leak out. After the bird has rested sufficiently, start with the legs, then move to the wings, and then the breast. When carving breast meat, cut against the grain.

Use these tips to cook a moist and juicy turkey that your family will rave about this year, and for years to come.