Cooking a turkey sounds easy enough. But once you get down to it, it becomes crystal clear how large the margin for error really is. There's the stress of thawing the bird on time — or more specifically, the horror of discovering that the turkey is still frozen when it's time to fire up the oven. There's walking the fine line between under-cooking and over-cooking, and the age old question: to stuff or not to stuff? Not to mention you have a whole other spread of sides and desserts to wrangle while you worry about getting the turkey carved and served on time.
To save you from dinnertime disaster this Thanksgiving, we sat down with Carol Miller, who has been calming turkey day meltdowns as a Butterball Turkey Talk Line expert for 36 years and counting. She shares the answers to the most common questions she hears from home cooks around the country, plus mistakes to avoid so you can prevent the same mishaps from occurring in your own kitchen.
How big of a turkey do I need to feed my crowd?
“When we talk to people they tell us they want a generous serving, which makes sense; you don’t want to skimp," says Miller. "Most people are thumbs up on leftovers. So it boils down to about a pound and a half per person." If you have a lot of children at your gathering, you can cut that down to a pound a person, she adds.
How early do I need to thaw my turkey?
“The easiest way to thaw [a turkey] is in the refrigerator on a pan, breast side up. But it does take days. It takes one day for every four pounds of turkey. So if you bought a 20-pound turkey, that’s five days. So you might also have to do some cold water thawing, which is basically just putting it in a bath of cold water breast side down, and changing the water every 30 minutes or so. That’s more labor intensive, but it’s important to get it thawed out.”
Help! My turkey is still frozen. What do I do?
If it's too late for cold water thawing, “you can put it into the oven frozen, but dinner may be two hours late," says Miller. "I tell people to have backwards Thanksgiving. Start with the pumpkin pie, then do the sides and the salads. If you have a 12 p.m. meal, and people are still around at 5, have turkey sandwiches. You have to laugh about it. And you’ve got a story for decades.”
Should I brine or pre-salt the turkey?
"If you want to you can, but you don’t have to," says Miller. "Most turkeys are already brined. Butterball turkeys have a solution in them that really helps to keep them moist and juicy and tender. If you’re going to brine it, we do suggest that you cut down on the salt.”
What is the most common mistake people make when cooking a turkey?
Cooking the turkey too long and cooking it by color, says Miller. “[People] cook it on the outside grill where it's dark on the outside, but not done on the inside. Or it could’ve been cooked in a covered roaster, which is steamed and they don’t brown. So they take the lid off and it's not brown and they put the lid back on and keep cooking," she says. "You really need to cook by temperature [with a] meat thermometer. If you don’t have one, go out and buy one, borrow one, ask a guest to bring one. That’s what will make the most moist and juicy turkey: making it safe, but not going overboard and cooking it too long" She also encourages people to test the turkey early. "You’ll have an approximate cooking time, but there are so many variables. Test about a half an hour early, you can always continue cooking, you cannot un-cook,” she says. If you do cook it too long, you run the risk of a dry turkey. Miller’s solution? Lots of gravy. “Plus, leftovers a little dry, chunked up in your soup, you won’t notice it.”
Stuffing: In or out of the turkey?
It’s tradition for some families to stuff the turkey, which is fine, as long as you follow the safety rules, says Miller. "You don’t want to put the stuffing in the night before, you want to put it in right before you put it into the oven. And you need to not take the turkey out of the oven until it hits 165 degrees in the center of that stuffing. The larger the turkey, the longer you have to keep it in the oven until you get that stuffing done, which is the last thing that heats up. So sometimes you’re compromising the breast of the turkey before you get the stuffing done." Based on testing done in the Butterball test kitchen, Miller says that with a 20-pound turkey it is doable to get the stuffing cooked to a safe temperature in a reasonable amount of time, but a 30-pound turkey was not.
Can I cook turkey in my Instant Pot or Air fryer?
Both appliances were evaluated in the test kitchen. "The Instant Pot is a pressure cooker, and its not the best for turkey; its going to be white and mushy," says Miller. "The air fryer was really good. There is a limitation to size, we tried to do a 6-8 pound turkey and the top did get a little too dry. But the boneless [breasts] are perfect: 350 degrees, 14-16 minutes per pound, it's brown and yummy. So if you don’t have enough oven space, or you have a lot of people, a turkey breast would be perfect [in the air fryer]."
What’s the easiest way to cook a turkey?
Miller recommends the Butterball method, which is a roasted turkey. First things first: thaw your turkey and gather your equipment the night before: a pan, rack, oil and a meat thermometer. Don't have a rack for your pan? "Carrots are good or you can pull out two feet of tinfoil and scrunch it up like a snake and coil it around," says Miller. "Then it just goes in a 325 degree oven, breast side up, brush the oil on. About 2/3 of the cooking time through, put a computer paper sized sheet of aluminum foil over the breast to slow down that [cooking time] to get the sides and the stuffing up to temperature. And that’s about all you need to do.”
Food safety tips to remember
It's important to remind yourself about proper food safety practices — especially since Thanksgiving day can be a hectic one in the kitchen. Miller shares with us her best practices to keep in mind:
Thawing: “You do not thaw at room temperature. You do not thaw in a sauna or dishwasher. You’ve got to keep it cold while you’re thawing it. Remember that because you don’t want it spoiled or to increase any bacteria."
Raw juice: "When you’re [done] preparing the turkey, putting it in a pan, and you get it into the oven, [wipe] your hands and any surface that the turkey was in contact with with hot soapy water, or use a spray with a little bleach in it. Use paper towels to wipe it up and then they can go right in the garbage.”
Temperature: “The thermometer is where people go wrong sometimes, too. They do sometimes under-cook and that’s not good.” Remember to make sure the meat reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
Leaving food on the table. “When the meal is over, the turkey and gravy gets left on the table, everyone is having a good time. [Follow] the 2-hour rule, then get everything back into the fridge. A good thing to do is get all the containers ready the day before; carve off the big pieces, you want it to chill down as quickly as possible, so lay it out on a tray and then when it’s cool get it packaged up."
Leftovers: “What you cannot use in about three days goes in the freezer, and it can stay there for a month or two."
More Thanksgiving tips and recipes
- First course: Roasted butternut squash soup or green salad with butternut squash, pear and goat cheese
- Side dish ideas: Roasted butternut squash with sage and roasted Brussels sprouts
- Martha Stewart says this is the easiest way to host Thanksgiving dinner
- A Thanksgiving salad so good your family will ask for seconds
- Set the table early, and other pro tips for Thanksgiving hosts