Thanksgiving day is full of fall kids activities, gathering with loved ones and eating good food. If it’s your first time making Thanksgiving turkey, don’t sweat it. All the questions you might have for how to prep a turkey will be answered below!
The centerpiece of the meal. The big bird. Don’t panic. Making a delicious star of the feast doesn’t have to be back-breaking work. Here’s a step by step guide to roasting your very first Thanksgiving turkey without a hitch, and making sure your bird is delicious without making yourself go mad.
How to prep a turkey in 6 steps:
1. Gather what you’ll need
- A turkey. Naturally. (More on how to choose a turkey below.)
- A roasting pan. This can be a deep metal roasting pan, or one of those aluminum one-time-use-only deals you see in the supermarket. But you need to have a deep, wide roasting pan—don’t try doing this in a baking dish, a casserole dish, a skillet or (heaven forbid) a baking sheet. And if you have a roasting pan rack for the turkey to sit on in the pan, that’s definitely a plus.
- A good sharp knife. Carving a big slippery hot turkey is much easier with the proper instrument. Trust me. Bonus points if you have a carving fork too.
- A baster. Even if you only use this once a year and the rest of the time it takes up space in your kitchen drawer, it’s worth it for this purpose.
- Aluminium foil.
- Butter, salt, olive oil, pepper, flour, a couple onions and whatever herbs you like. Rosemary and thyme are nice. Fresh is best but dried is good too.
- A meat thermometer. A lot of supermarket turkeys are sold with a built-in thermometer—that red plastic button that supposedly pops up out of the turkey breast when it’s “done.” Pay no attention to that red pop-up button. It’s a notorious little liar. Get a meat thermometer if you don’t have one. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just buy one of those basic meat thermometers in the kitchen tools aisle with a pokey bit and a readout dial.
- Kitchen twine. For tying up the legs. If your turkey comes with a plastic trussing piece (most birds at the supermarket do—feel the package around the base of the bird beneath the drumsticks, and if you feel something rigid, that’s it), you can skip this.
- A box of broth. This is optional, but handy for basting and for gravy-making. It can be turkey broth (if you can find it) or chicken broth.
Here’s what you don’t need—at least, not your first time wrasslin’ the yardbird: Don’t buy a gravy separator. Don’t buy a ton of extra stuffing to put inside the turkey itself (more on this below, too.) Don’t buy cheesecloth. Don’t buy those little paper chef-hat-looking things for the ends of your turkey legs. Keep it simple.
2. Choosing the right turkey
Do not buy the biggest Scrooge-impressing-the-Cratchits turkey you can find at the store. Here’s the good news about an intimate Thanksgiving: You can buy a smaller Thanksgiving turkey to feed your crew and still have leftovers for sandwiches. Look for a turkey in the 8 to 10 pound range. (Or if your family is small, consider just buying a breast only and pan-roasting that with some olive oil and seasoning.)
Is your turkey organic? Is it gourmet? Is it from the farmer’s market? If so, that’s great. If not, that’s also great. You have other things to worry about this year. Stay frosty.
3. How to thaw a turkey
To be honest, this is probably the most important part of making Thanksgiving turkey. If you don’t thaw it completely, it won’t cook evenly, plus not all of the meat will cook to a safe temperature to eat. And if you don’t thaw it at all, you’re ordering Thai food. So if you pay attention to nothing else on this page, please do note this:
If you buy a frozen turkey, or if you freeze your turkey after bringing it home from the store, you need to thaw it in the fridge for one full, 24-hour day per 5 pounds of bird.
That means if you have a 10 pound frozen turkey, that sucker’s sitting next to your milk in the fridge for two full days, or 48 hours. Plan accordingly.
Also, speaking from tragic experience, while the turkey is thawing in the fridge you might consider putting some post-it messages on it for the benefit of any other well-meaning but turkey-illiterate members of your household: Do not move me! Do not put me on the counter! Do not put me in the freezer! I like it just where I am—hogging up all the room and making it impossible to put back the orange juice! Leave me be until Thanksgiving morning!
4. How to prep a turkey for roasting
A few things need to happen before you put the bird in the oven: You have to pull out the neck and gizzards (sorry), you have to season the bird and you have to truss up the legs so they don’t flop to the sides and cook slower than the breast.
Here’s how to prep your turkey for the oven, step by step.
1. Let the turkey sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Unwrap and pat dry with paper towels.
2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
3. Remove the neck and gizzards. Here comes the gross part. Be strong: We’re almost to the end of the year, you can get through this.
Most supermarket turkeys have the neck and gizzards tucked inside the bird. To remove them, you need to reach inside the cavity, up toward the neck, and pull them out.
If your turkey’s legs are bound with a plastic truss, you’ll first need to slip one of the drumstick ends out of its noose. This may be slippery and difficult (like giving a newborn a bath) but if you’re a parent you’ve done harder things (like giving a newborn a bath). Once one of the legs is pulled to the side, you can reach inside the bird and feel around for anything that feels, well, not like a bird’s rib cage: that’s probably either the neck or the little pouch filled with gizzards. Get them both. Use a flashlight if you have to.
Some people will tell you to save the neck for making turkey gravy. I am not that person. You can make delicious gravy from drippings without holding on to some gross old turkey neck. Again, keep it simple. Let’s not go crazy here.
Once you’ve got the innards out, put the turkey into the roasting pan and move on to the next steps.
4. Season the turkey. I like to make a mixture of salt, pepper, fresh chopped herbs, and room temperature butter and just slather the bird all over with it, both under the skin and on top. I use about a stick of softened butter, a teaspoon each of pepper and coarse kosher salt, and a couple tablespoons of chopped thyme, rosemary, parsley…use whatever herbs you like. I also like to put a peeled and quartered onion inside the cavity of the bird, along with a bay leaf or two. Once that’s all done, sprinkle the skin with salt and pepper.
After the bird is about halfway done and there’s a layer of sizzling drippings in the pan, I usually quarter another onion and put another bay leaf right into the pan alongside the bird, to flavor the drippings for gravy. This is not required. You do you.
A word of caution: Please do not stuff your turkey. Certainly not the first time you make one, and maybe not ever. Many many food experts, all wiser minds than my own, have weighed in on why stuffing a turkey is a.) gross (who wants to eat slimy stuffing?) b.) unsafe (stuffing the cavity makes the bird take longer to cook, plus you have to make sure the stuffing reaches a safe temperature) and c.) responsible for a lot of people thinking turkey is hard to roast, because cooking the stuffing to a safe temperature means keeping the bird in the oven until the breast meat is totally dried out. The solution: Make the stuffing on the side and drizzle some gravy or broth over it.
5. Truss the turkey legs. If your turkey came with a plastic truss, your job here is simple: Fit the bony tip of the drumstick back through the noose, which will pull the legs back in toward the breast. If you don’t have a plastic truss, or you threw it away without realizing it was important, or you cut through it in a panic to get the gizzards out, you can still tie the legs together with kitchen twine, making a figure-eight around the drumstick ends to pull them tightly together, then tying in a simple knot and trimming the ends of the twine. Tuck the wing tips under the body as well, to keep them from browning too early.
Now your turkey is ready for the oven.
5. How to roast a turkey
1. Cover the turkey with a loose tent of aluminum foil.
2. Place your oven rack in the lower part of the oven, with extra room between the lower rack and middle rack.
3. Put the turkey in its roasting pan in the oven on the lowest rack. If you’re using one of the floppy, thin foil roasting pans from the supermarket, you may want to put a thin cookie sheet underneath the roasting pan to make it easier to move in and out of the oven.
4. Roast the turkey at 375 degrees for about 2 ½ to 3 hours (10-12 minutes per pound), until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165 degrees F.
While the turkey is roasting:
- Baste the turkey breast about once every 30 minutes. Try to baste quickly so that the oven doesn’t lose heat—about 5 squirts per basting should do it.
- If the pan juices run dry, add a half cup of broth and a few tablespoons of butter to the pan for basting.
- Remove the foil and rotate the pan halfway through, or after the turkey has been in the oven 1 1/2 hours.
- Check the turkey’s temperature after it’s been in the oven for 2 hours, then check about every 20 minutes thereafter, until the temperature at the thickest part of the thigh reads 165.
- Do not trust the little red button.
6. How to carve a turkey
Let the turkey rest under foil for 20 minutes.
Move the turkey to a carving board or serving platter to carve. Or, you can carve it right in the pan and arrange the pieces on a serving platter, which saves you the hot, slippery, nail-biting gamble of moving a heavy, roasted bird.
I like to start with cutting the leg and thigh, because the dark meat is moister and denser than the light meat of the breast and can stand a few more minutes on the serving platter without drying out. For the same reason I also like to carve just one side at a time and leave the rest on the bone until everybody’s ready for seconds, or until you’re ready to start packing up leftovers.
1. Remove the leg. First, cut whatever you used to truss the legs. Then use your fingers to pull the drumstick slightly away from the body, which should loosen the skin and thigh joint. Insert the tip of your knife into the thigh joint (start at the top of the crease between the leg and the body and angle the knife in) and cut through the ligaments to separate the joint. Move the leg to a cutting board and separate the drumstick from the thigh by inserting the tip of your knife into the joint and cutting through again.
2. Carve the drumstick. It’s hard to get neat slices of meat off a drumstick, so don’t sweat the aesthetics and consider this your warmup round. Hold the drumstick upright by the bone end, so that the meaty part is on the cutting board, and slice downward at a slight angle to the bone. Turn and repeat. Use your fingers to pick off any extra bits. Go ahead. It’s family. They’ll never know.
3. Carve the thigh. Lay the thigh flat on a cutting board. Figure out where the bone is by finding the joints on both ends; the bone runs straight through. Then cut through the meat parallel to the bone at a downward angle.
4. Carve the breast. There are two ways to do this: The on-the-bird way and the off-the-bird way. I happen to prefer the off-the-bird method because it makes thicker, neater slices to serve, but the on-the-bird method is the one most people are familiar with.
For either method, your first step is this: Nestle your knife edge into the crevice between the wing and the body, with the flat edge of the knife facing up, and make a long, deep cut straight in, toward the breastbone.
Next, to carve on the bird, start at the breastbone and carve thin slices down toward the thigh. Imagine the rib cage and angle your knife parallel to that. (That first cut you made across the breast will make the slices come off easier—see?)
To carve the off-the-bird way, make a perpendicular cut along the breastbone from the top all the way down to the bottom. You can then remove the turkey breast entirely with a carving fork, put it on a cutting board, and cut it into slices.
Repeat on the other side. And remember, it’s okay to use your fingers if you need to.
How to make pan gravy (extra credit)
You could decide to serve pre-made gravy or gravy from broth. But if you want to make really tasty pan gravy from scratch, you have the key ingredient sitting right in your roasting pan: drippings!
First, pour the drippings into a measuring cup or bowl, let it settle for a minute, and use your baster to skim off as much fat from the surface of the liquid as you can, reserving that fat in another bowl or measuring cup.
Position your roasting pan over two burners and turn them both on medium-low (if you used a thin, aluminum, one-time-use roasting pan, you’ll need to use a heavy-bottomed saucepan over one burner for this part.)
Pour about two tablespoons of reserved fat into the pan (or butter, if you weren’t able to skim much fat off the top), and then add two tablespoons of flour. Cook the flour in the fat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the liquid starts to thicken and the flour starts to smell toasty and look golden brown.
Add the drippings back into the pan, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom with a wooden spoon, and cook while stirring until the mixture is smooth, about a minute.
Gradually whisk in two cups of broth (either turkey or chicken broth), bring to a boil, and simmer for 3 minutes until thickened, whisking and whisking until it’s all smooth and flavorful and delicious.
If you don’t like lumpy gravy you can pour it through a strainer before serving. Now go eat.
A version of this post was published November 10, 2020. It has been updated.