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Thanksgiving Turkey Cooking Tips

Published November 05, 2010        by Sarah

Image by tuchodi on Creative CommonsUh oh. You’re entrusted with cooking the Thanksgiving bird this year and have no idea where to start. We’ve all been there at one time or another. Here are some tried and true tips that will take the anxiety out of preparing a delicious roast turkey:

  • Plan on having 1-1/2 to 2 pounds of turkey for each person at your table. If you want leftovers for turkey sandwiches the next day, buy a slightly larger bird.
  • Plan for thawing time if you buy a frozen turkey. You can’t cook a frozen turkey and get good results.
  • Thaw the bird in the refrigerator for best results. Place the frozen turkey in its wrapping on a large plate to catch any juices. You need one day for every four to five pounds of meat.
  • A defrosted turkey can only stay two to four days in the refrigerator before you need to cook it.
  • A fresh turkey will have a USE BY date imprinted on the packaging. If you purchase a fresh one, make sure you cook it by the stamped date.
  • A turkey purchased frozen and never thawed can stay for up to a year in the freezer.
  • The USDA does not recommend buying a pre-stuffed turkey. If you want to cook your stuffing inside your turkey, stuff it right before you put the turkey in the oven.
  • Wash your turkey by removing the wrapper. Take out the package inside the bird’s cavity that includes the innards (i.e., gizzards, neck, liver, etc.). Many first-time turkey cooks have been surprised by what’s in there. Most of the giblet packs are plastic, so be sure to get it out before you put the turkey in the oven. Then run the turkey under cold water, pat it dry, and then sprinkle it with salt and pepper.
  • Treat a raw turkey as you would any poultry. Wash your hands with soap and water to avoid spreading bacteria, and be sure to wash any surfaces and utensils the raw turkey touched.
  • Place the turkey in a large roasting pan big enough to catch the cooking juices. Add a cup of water to the pan to eliminate burning. Tuck the wings under so they don’t burn, or tip them with tin foil.
  • The oven should be set to 325 degrees. Cooking times are tricky, so you should read the instructions on the turkey’s wrapper. You can also go by this guideline: for a 10 to 18 pound turkey, you will need 3 to 3-1/2 hours of cooking time if it is unstuffed. Figure 3-3/4 to 4-1/2 hours if it’s stuffed. Start checking on the turkey around 3 hours and judge from there.
  • It’s best to use a pop up timer that comes with the turkey to judge doneness. But if your turkey didn’t come with one, you can insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh. A turkey needs to reach 165 degrees to be safely cooked.
  • The less you open the oven door, the crispier the turkey will be. Every time you peek, you let out precious heat that your oven has to work to regain.
  • When the turkey is done, take it out of the oven and let it rest for 20-30 minutes. This is the time to use the hot oven to your advantage and pop all the side dishes in to heat. It also gives you some extra time to prepare the Thanksgiving treats for after dinner.
  • Remove the stuffing from the bird and serve it in a bowl. Do not leave it in the turkey as bacteria could accumulate.
  • Refrigerate any leftovers immediately. Do not leave cooked turkey out on the counter for more than two hours, even if you plan on snacking on it again soon. Better to be safe and heat it up again for your second round.
  • Refrigerated leftovers should be eaten within three to four days. If you freeze your leftovers, use them within two to six months.

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