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How to Cook a Turkey – Preparation and Cooking Times

I will admit it. I love turkey. It is one of my favorite entrees. There is nothing like the sweet, moist caress of a well-prepared bird on your taste buds. It amazes me how many creative ways some people come up with to totally ruin this magnificent avian. They just do not know how to cook a turkey (or usually, anything else)

It’s not really that complicated. Most of the techniques and rules for chicken apply equally to turkey (and most other gallinaceous fowl). They are just bigger. Let us start with basics:

To cook a turkey, the first thing you need is…a turkey. You can either shoot one, or buy one. Most people will buy one (wild turkeys are the most difficult animal to hunt in North America. They can see the darkness, hear the silence, and all of them have ESP).

When you get to the store, you have three choices. Only two of them are viable. You can get a fresh turkey (unfrozen), a frozen turkey, or pre-stuffed (fresh or frozen). Ignore the pre-stuffed ones. They are garbage. If you are not going to prepare the turkey immediately, get a frozen one. Only buy reputable brand name turkeys, and avoid the ones that have things pre-injected into them. Make sure that the cooler is at least 40 degrees or colder for fresh turkeys, or if frozen, at 0 degrees. If not, go somewhere else to find a turkey. A frozen turkey should be rock hard, and able to break a bowling ball. Buy your turkey at the end of your shopping trip, so that it spends the least amount of time away from the cold.

Go straight home with your turkey and put it in your freezer, or on a tray in the fridge to thaw out. Then, you can go to the library, or wherever else you wanted to go.

You can thaw a turkey out in 3 ways. Only 2 are real options. You can thaw it out in the fridge, using the method I mentioned above, which may take a day or two, or you can thaw it out in the sink. To thaw it in the sink, fill it with cold water, leaving enough space for the turkey and not overflow, wrap the turkey tightly, right over the original wrapping, so that there are no leaks, and submerge the turkey in the water. Change the water every 30 minutes. Allow 30 minutes per pound thawing time.

The third option is to thaw it in the microwave. Only do this if you really want to ruin your bird and make it unfit even for a stray dog to eat. Your bird will be tough, and tasteless. There is a fourth option. It perfectly alright to cook a frozen turkey. Just increase the cooking time by 50%, and do not forget to remove the neck, liver, and gizzards from the body cavity as soon as you can. The drawback to this method is that you cannot brine the bird, or truss it.

After your turkey is thawed, examine it closely. If there are any gray areas, sliminess, or a sour, or extra-strong ‘birdy’ smell, return it to where you bought it immediately. If it has one of those little Jack-In-The-Box buttons that pop out when the turkey supposed to be done, remove and discard it. They lie.

No matter which cooking method you plan to use, I highly recommend brining your turkey before cooking it. Brining imparts wonderful nuances to the meat, and makes it super-tender and moist. I do not cook any birds without brining them first.

To brine your turkey, use any one of thousands of brine recipes to make your brine.

Turkey Brine Recipe

1-gallon water (2 gallons if it is a big turkey 20+ pounds)
3 cups apple juice or cider (double if it is a large bird)
2-1/2 cups coarse, or kosher salt, or 2 cups table salt.
6 Bay Leaves

Mix all the ingredients together.

Place the turkey in a large bowl with a lid, or bucket big enough to submerge the turkey in. Unwrap the turkey, and remove the neck, liver and gizzards from the body cavity. Rinse the turkey well, inside and out, in the sink. Place it in the bowl/bucket. Cover completely with the brine and cover with a lid, or cling-wrap. Place in the refrigerator. Allow 15 minutes per pound brining time. A 20-pound turkey is ready in 4 hours. At the halfway point, turn the turkey over once. This allows even brining. Discard the brine immediately after removing the turkey. Do not re-use it.

Now you can decide how to cook your turkey. You can either roast it, in a roasting pan, or directly on the rack, or smoke it, which is the most delectable way to fix it. Some go out and purchase the new-fangled and widely popular Turkey Fryers and deep fry the turkey. Do yourself a favor, and don’t. Fried turkey is dry and tasteless. Many a good gobbler has been ruined with these things. If you have one, they make fantastic deep fryers for fish and chicken. Use them for that.

How ever you decide to cook it, always truss a turkey. It keeps stuffing and herbs in, and keeps the breast from drying out. Some people just place the leg ends under the skin fold and the wing tips in the other fold in a technique known as “akimbo”, but It has never worked for me because the turkey is going to change size as it cooks, and the appendages always come loose during cooking. They also do not hold the legs and wings in tight enough.

Smoking a turkey is easy, and you don’t even have to have a special smoker. You can do it on a normal outdoor grill. Just build a fire under one side of the grill, and put the turkeys on the other. The absolute best smoke wood for turkey is Mesquite, but Hickory works well, if that’s all you can get. Keep the temperature close to 235 degrees. Make sure you place the turkeys in the smoker breast side-down to start. You will turn them over halfway through the smoking process.

Notice, I said TURKEYS. I never smoke one turkey. People always ask me why I smoke two turkeys at a time. It is because my smoker is not big enough to hold three or four. Once you taste fresh smoked turkey, you will understand.

Allow 30 minutes per pound cooking time for one turkey. Add 20 minutes for each additional bird. The turkey is done when the internal temperature is 165 degrees, no matter how long it has been cooking. Don’t go by time. Go by temperature. Allow the turkeys to rest for 20 minutes before allowing everyone to attack them. If you’ve ever seen piranhas attacking something, then you know what is about to happen. Get out of the way quickly, or you could be injured in the rush. Nothing on the planet tastes better than smoked turkey.

Cooking Time for a Turkey

If you plan to roast the turkey, just place it in a roasting pan, or right on the rack, breast-side down. I always brush the skin with olive oil to give the skin nice sheen, and a little extra ‘crunch’. If you’ve brined the turkey, no further seasoning, or basting is necessary. Cook the bird at 325 degrees. If you are worried about dryness, place a pan of water in the bottom of the oven. Alternatively, you can cover the breast with a piece of foil for the first half of cooking. Normally, this is not necessary, but high altitudes and very dry climates can do some weird things to food while it is cooking. Allow 15 to 20 minutes per pound cooking time and flip the bird over halfway through cooking. When the internal temperature is 165 degrees, it is done. Go by temperature, not time. Allow the bird to rest for 20 minutes before serving, to let the juices settle down.

If you have a rotisserie big enough for the turkey, you can cook the turkey the exact same way. After trussing, place the turkey on the spit. The same cooking times apply. You just don’t have to flip the bird. Rotisserie turkey is second only to smoked turkey as the most delicious thing there is.

If you have a large slow cooker, or roaster, you can cook the turkey in that as well, but it will not have the same skin texture, nor will it brown in these. I wouldn’t recommend them. And stay away from the microwave. It will kill your turkey! Microwaves are where food goes to die. They are great for re-heating, but not cooking.

Do not forget to observe all the safety rules as for chicken. Avoid cross-contamination of all tools, pans, the counter, and your hands. A kitchen cannot be too clean, nor can your hands.

I hope this takes some of the mystery out of how to cook a turkey. As with most things, practice makes perfect. The more you cook, the better you will get.

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