Several factors contribute to a perfect Thanksgiving, but the holiday hinges on one question in particular: How long will it take to cook that turkey? Notoriously prone to overcooking, turkey meat has been ridiculed for its perceived dryness time and again. On top of the meat’s naturally lean characteristics, these very large birds have sections that vary widely in shape, thickness, and density. These factors can make it tough (pun intended) to achieve a juicy interior and crispy, golden-brown skin. Sadly, not even the richest turkey gravy can save a bird that isn’t cooked properly.
But making a beautiful, delicious turkey is far from impossible. Armed with this step-by-step guide, you’ll have ample time to focus on arguably everyone’s favorite part of the Thanksgiving dinner spread (the side dishes) without stressing too much about the main event.
Before you preheat the oven…
Whether you opt to roast your bird whole, spatchcocked, or cut into parts, there are a few preliminary steps you should always take. Though not directly tied to the turkey cooking time, these steps will help lead to a succulent-on-the-inside, crackly-on-the-outside result.
Buy the right size bird.
Unless you want to be eating leftover turkey for days, shop for a turkey that’s just big enough to feed your Thanksgiving crew. Opting for a smaller bird will reduce the turkey’s roasting time, leaving the oven free for sides and pies. (Read more: How Much Turkey Do You Need Per Person?)
Don’t forget to defrost.
Always ensure a frozen turkey is fully thawed (in the refrigerator, please; about 24 hours per every 5 pounds) before attempting to cook it. A partially thawed turkey can seriously throw off roasting times—and without thawing, you won’t be able to remove the giblets. (Read more:via Epicurious.)
Brine your bird.
Dry brining is key to moist, succulent meat. Whether you choose a simple brine of plain kosher salt, a blend of kosher salt and black pepper, or a custom spice mix, the salt in the mixture will draw water out of the turkey. The salty juices will then be absorbed into the meat, carrying all that flavor with it. This step maximizes moisture content and ensures well-seasoned turkey. A dry brine also tenderizes the meat, prevents a stringy texture, and encourages skin-browning—all hallmarks of a properly cooked turkey.
What about a wet brine, you ask? Dry brines are quicker, easier, and more effective than their liquid counterparts. Not to mention, wet brines can cause a major mess if the liquid spills out—and, frankly, they take up way too much fridge space (at a premium in the lead-up to Thanksgiving).
It’s essential to allow your dry-brined turkey time in the refrigerator (at least 12 hours and up to 3 days), uncovered, before roasting it. That might sound lengthy, but the brine needs time to work its way through the turkey’s big muscles. If you’re short on time, you can dry brine the turkey before it’s fully thawed. Give it at least 24 hours for the exterior to become pliable, then season away and return the bird to the fridge.
Use your oven wisely.
Invest in an oven thermometer before the big day arrives to ensure your oven is calibrated. Then, while the bird is cooking, open the oven door only when necessary—minimize peeking, or you’ll bring down the temperature and lengthen the amount of time the turkey needs in the oven. These tips are important any time you use your oven, but especially when roasting a whole bird.