Preparing that Thanksgiving turkey can be intimidating. But don’t fret! Here’s a short primer on exactly what to do between buying and roasting, with tips from a hotshot chef.
Sweet-and-Spicy Roast Turkey
Credit: Greg Dupree; Styling: Ginny Branch

So you’ve stood in the meat department with your phone in hand, calculating how much exactly Uncle Jimmy is going to put away in turkey poundage this year and how long in advance of T-Day you need to start defrosting, and it’s time to get cracking on preparing your bird for its ideal mate—your oven.

Sarah Steffan, executive chef of The Dogwood at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, grew up on a farm with a dad and brothers who hunted wild turkey regularly, and she took that meaty experience on the road, doing stints in Relais & Chateaux kitchens and snapping up a degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. These days, Steffan cooks plenty of turkeys and chickens at her job, and she shared how she gets her bird from the fridge to the roasting tray—exactly.

Plan On 3-6 Days Prep for Frozen Birds

First things first: Don’t buy a frozen bird the day before Thanksgiving, or even two days before! You can buy fresh or frozen, but you will need one full day to defrost per four-pounds of bird. The Butterball site specifies that you’ll need five full days to defrost a 20-lb bird. That’s a lot of advance time, especially if you want to brine it overnight. Know that you can quickly defrost a turkey using cold water, but you have to change out the water frequently. This is a very hands-on process, and the results tend to not be as tasty because you’re waterlogging your bird. Do not leave Mr. Turkey at room temperature to defrost from being frozen; it’s not safe, and you can get sick.

To Brine or Not to Brine?

Dry brines, wet brines, and the like abound on the internet, and Steffan likes to brine her birds overnight before roasting them. “A good rule of thumb is two parts salt, one part sugar,” she says, such as “two cups salt, one cup sugar, and one gallon of water” (for a chicken; expand that ratio for a larger bird). Plunk the bird in a cooler in the fridge covered with the brine. “You can leave the sugar out, or you can do honey,” she says. “We brine our chickens in… salt water and local honey. It’s so delicious.”

Don’t Put an Ice-Cold Turkey in the Oven

The USDA is fussier than chefs tend to be about this, what with the poultry “danger zone,” but Steffan says you want your turkey at room temperature “at least an hour or two” before cooking it. “You want it to sort of temper gradually; it’ll help not shock the meat as much,” which she says could toughen the meat. Note: If you live in a hot climate, you won’t want it at room temperature for very long.

Get Cooking!

It’s time to select your family’s go-to turkey recipe—and yes, we have ideas—and get cooking. Steffan and her mother like to dry their bird and stuff sage, rosemary, or lemon thyme under its skin, which looks “really beautiful,” she says. They’ll stuff it and cooks it on a rack with some chicken stock just coming up to the bottom of the bird, along with onions, carrots, and herbs. By covering the bird and cooks it through at 300 degrees, they’ll keep the whole thing moist. Finally, they’ll take the cover off and cranks the heat to 400 for crisp skin. (Pro tip: The mama-daughter duo will occasionally use a broiler to get a glossy, crisp skin.)

If everything goes off the rails, don’t sweat it. It happens to the best of us, and there’s always pizza.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.