Here is what you need to know to get your Thanksgiving dinner on the table.
BUYING THE TURKEY
The first question to ask is: How much turkey do I need?
Plan on 1 pound of bird for every guest, including children, to have enough for dinner and some leftovers. If you want a lot of leftovers, figure 1 1/2 pounds per person.
If you are cooking for a large crowd, consider two smaller birds rather than one giant turkey, which may not fit in your oven. Adding a turkey breast is another way to get more meat for a crowd, particularly if your group likes white meat.
The second question is: Fresh or frozen?
Either is fine and both have their advantages.
Frozen turkeys are flash-frozen shortly after being harvested, and will keep in the freezer indefinitely (although they taste best if cooked within one year). You can buy a frozen turkey well in advance. They also are typically the best buy, as grocery stores will offer big sales on frozen birds in the weeks leading up to the holiday. This year, some are being advertised for as little as 60 cents per pound. They do, however, require serious thaw time.
Fresh turkeys cost more per pound. But because you pick them up a day or two before the holiday, they don't take up freezer space and they require no thawing. If you want a fresh turkey, whether from a farm, poultry market or grocery store, keep in mind they typically require an advance order of one week or more.
HOW TO THAW
Now that you have that 20-pound boulder in your freezer, thawing it in time for Thanksgiving takes some calculating.
The easiest way is to thaw in the refrigerator (40 degrees or below). The USDA recommends allowing 24 hours of thaw time for every 4 to 5 pounds of bird:
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.
Keep the turkey in its original wrapper and place it on a tray to catch drips. A properly thawed turkey will keep 1 to 2 days in the refrigerator before cooking.
If you are short on time, you can thaw a turkey in cold water, but this method still takes some time and more attention than the refrigerator method (not to mention taking up the kitchen sink for more than eight hours). Place the bird in its wrapper in a sink filled with cold tap water. Change water every half-hour to make sure it stays cold.
Thaw times using this method are approximately 30 minutes per pound:
4 to 12 pounds, 2 to 6 hours.
12 to 16 pounds, 6 to 8 hours.
16 to 20 pounds, 8 to 10 hours.
20 to 24 pounds, 10 to 12 hours.
We can't stress this enough: Never thaw a turkey at room temperature.
Ideally, the bird should be fully thawed the day before you plan to roast it.
GETTING IT READY
Once the turkey is thawed, unwrap it and remove the neck and giblets from inside, rinse it and pat it dry with paper towels. Also remove any plastic or metal clamps inside holding the turkey together. Save the neck and giblets for making broth for gravy.
At this point, you may want to consider one of two methods for producing a juicy bird, brining or salting (dry-brining).
Brining is essentially soaking the bird in a salt water solution. The turkey pulls in the liquid, which will help keep it moist while it cooks. Be forewarned: Brined turkeys can have a pinkish cast to the meat after roasting, even when cooked properly.
For a basic brine, How to Cook a Turkey (by the editors of Fine Cooking, Taunton, 2007) recommends this method: 2 quarts of cold water, 1 cup of kosher salt and 1/4 cup of sugar. Simmer over high heat until salt and sugar dissolve. Cool. Stir in another 2 quarts of water and chill in refrigerator. At this point, you can add herbs, spices or other flavor enhancers like maple syrup. Soak the turkey in the brine in the refrigerator for 12 to 18 hours. Turkey roasting bags work well for this, and you may want to double-bag for security. Place turkey in the bags in a roasting pan in the refrigerator. When it's time to cook, drain and discard the brine, rinse the turkey and dry with paper towels, and it's ready for the oven.
To dry-brine, simply salt the bird all over, inside and out, and let stand in the refrigerator overnight. Drain any liquid that has accumulated in the cavity and pat dry before roasting.
STUFFING THE TURKEY
This question is entirely the cook's preference. Some argue that unstuffed turkeys cook more evenly. Others believe the stuffing tastes better when cooked inside the bird. A stuffed turkey will take longer to roast than an unstuffed one, and it is crucial that the stuffing reach 165 degrees when tested on a cooking thermometer. Stuffing can be cooked in a casserole or foil pouches outside of the bird. If making enough for a crowd, it's likely you will have enough to stuff the turkey and fill a casserole.
Remember to stuff the cavity loosely; you don't want to pack in as much as you can.
If you don't stuff, you can fill the cavity with chunks of celery, carrot, onion and herbs or even citrus fruits to add flavor.
GETTING IT IN THE OVEN
Your bird is stuffed and ready to go. If you haven't brined or dry-brined, now is when you want to season. Give the bird a rubdown with softened butter, both under the skin and on top of it. Salt and pepper the bird and add any herbs or seasonings.
You can truss the bird, tying its legs together with butcher's twine, tucking the wings under it, and running the twine along the back of the bird to roast it in a nice neat package. This step isn't necessary, but it does help to keep the turkey together, particularly if you want to carve it at the table. Untrussed birds cook just as well, and may even cook more quickly.
Place the bird in a roasting pan (with rack or without) breast side up. Add a little water to bottom of the pan. You can tent it with foil, which will help to keep in the heat and cook the bird more quickly. Remove the foil for browning later.
Another option is a roasting bag. Purists will argue that a bird in a bag isn't roasting as much as steaming. The bag does keep the heat in and turkeys roasted in bags will cook faster than those in an open roaster, so they are a good option if time is an issue. Bags also collect a great amount of juices, which means more gravy, but you won't get the caramelized pan scrapings prized for adding rich flavor to gravy.
Set the oven to 325 degrees and in it goes.
Some cooks argue you should never open the oven door until the turkey is done. Others baste every hour. The choice is a personal one, and success can be found with both methods.
Mostly, for the next several hours, you will simply wait for the turkey to reach the proper level of doneness. For this you need a meat thermometer.
Do not rely on the little plastic pop-up device that may come with the bird. In fact, it is perfectly acceptable to remove it and discard it before roasting.
A thermometer keeps you from eating a potentially harmful undercooked turkey, or an overcooked, dried-out bird.
The bird is safe when meat and stuffing both reach 165 degrees. The white meat will be more tender if the bird reaches 170 in the breast and 180 degrees deep in the thigh.
Here is the USDA's guide for approximate roasting times:
4 to 8 pounds (breast), 1 1/2 to 3 1/4 hours.
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.
6 to 8 pounds (breast), 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours.
8 to 12 pounds, 3 to 3 1/2 hours.
12 to 14 pounds, 3 1/2 to 4 hours.
14 to 18 pounds, 4 to 4 1/4 hours.
18 to 20 pounds, 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours.
20 to 24 pounds, 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours.
When the turkey is done, remove it from the oven and place it on the countertop, loosely covered with foil. Let it rest for about 20 minutes. Remove trussing and all stuffing from cavity before carving.
CARVING THE TURKEY
The dream is a perfectly browned turkey heading to the table on a platter, and being perfectly carved on site. The reality is, you may find your bird has lost a wing or two on its way from roasting pan to carving board. No worries. It is perfectly fine, and in fact easier, to present a platter of carved turkey on the table and leave the carcass in the kitchen.
Whether you carve tableside for all to see or in the confines of your kitchen, the method is essentially the same.
Begin at the thigh and slice down to separate the leg. Make a horizontal cut above the wing along the bottom of the breast. This will allow the breast slices to easily separate once cut. Begin slicing the breast meat vertically. Finally, remove the wing. Repeat on other side of bird.
You can present the legs and thighs whole on the platter with the breast meat, or remove their bones to divide up the dark meat.
At Thanksgiving, more than any other holiday, help is just a click or phone call away. Here are hotlines and websites to help get your bird on the table:
www.butterball.com or 800-BUTTERBALL (800-288-8372).
www.honeysucklewhite.com or 800-810-6325 for pre-recorded info; at 800-532-5756 to speak with a consumer specialist. Live help is not available on Thanksgiving Day.
Let's Talk Turkey fact sheet: http://1.usa.gov/1bsp474.
USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 1-888-MPHotline (888-674-6854).
Crisco Pie Hotline 1-877-FOR-PIE-TIPS (877-367-7438). Live help 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 18 to 27; 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Dec. 16 to 23. Recorded tips 24 hours a day. All other times, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday; www.crisco.com.