The 15 Most Common Mistakes People Make Cooking a Turkey
Make this year's bird your best yet.
Despite arguably being one of the most popular items on the Thanksgiving table, turkey has still managed to become the most stressful—and even feared—dish you’ll prepare over the entire holiday season. After all, the turkey is a big, sensitive bird prone to either undercooking or overcooking, resulting in something either downright dangerous or completely dried out and inedible. And whether you’re preparing your first ever turkey dinner, or have been battling the bird for years with little success, keeping mind of these common mistakes will help you have your most successful Thanksgiving ever, leaving your guests asking for seconds and thirds of the dinner’s main event.
Not Thawing the Turkey Long Enough
It’s a tale as old as time: The day before Thankgiving you look up when you should start defrosting your frozen bird, only to realize you should have started days ago. For the best result, a turkey should be thawed slowly in the refrigerator, and given the size of the animal this process will likely take days. As a rule, about 4 pounds of turkey thaws each day in the refrigerator, so depending on the weight of your bird you can determine approximately how long you’ll need to let it defrost before getting to work cooking your turkey.
Not Bringing Your Bird to Room Temperature
Even after a long, patient thawing process, you still need to do a little more temperature adjustment before cooking your turkey. Turkeys that have been brought to room temperature before cooking ultimately result in a moister and more evenly cooked final product, as the temperature of the oven is then a less drastic shift from the cold of the refrigerator. An hour spent on the countertop before heading into the oven should do the trick.
Accidentally Over-Brining Your Turkey
While many recipes call for your bird to be brined—aka soaked in a solution of salt and spices—many of the most popular mass produced turkeys, like frozen Butterball birds, have already been pre-treated with a solution of salt and spices in order to stretch out the shelf life. Therefore, excessively brining this bird will result in an overly salty end product. Make sure to check the label of your turkey to check for any pre-added sodium before beginning your brining process.
Not Drying Your Turkey Thoroughly
By completely drying your turkey—patting the bird down thoroughly using paper towels—before cooking it, you’ll be able to achieve a crispier skin on the outside. However, many people neglect to dry the inside cavity of the turkey as well. As a rule, having a carefully dried turkey inside and out will result in more evenly cooked, flavorful meat in the long run.
Cooking Your Stuffing Inside the Turkey
While Thanksgiving traditionalists might insist on this old-fashioned way of preparing the classic side dish, this method of cooking is bad for both stuffing and bird. In order to cook the stuffing through fully, guaranteeing that any of the bacteria from the raw turkey has been eliminated, you’ll have to cook the bird longer, resulting in dry, overcooked meat. On the other hand, if you don’t cook it long enough you’ll risk exposing your guests to a possible foodborne illness via the soggy stuffing. Opt for a separately cooked side dish instead, like this Classic Herb Stuffing.
Turning the Oven Up Too High
Though you might think the key to getting a crispy, golden skin on your turkey is to place it into a ripping hot oven at the start, this will ultimately result in undercooked meat and overcooked skin. Instead, let the turkey cook at a slower pace at a less aggressive temperature—we’d recommend between 350 and 400 degrees—which will lead to an evenly cooked bird with golden skin.
Not Using a Roasting Rack
Plopping your bird right into a roasting pan will result in uneven cooking, as the area that comes in contact with the base of the pan will end up dry, or even burnt. The way to go is to utilize a roasting rack—like this simple one for under $19, or this pan that comes pre-fitted with a rack—which will ensure the entirety of your bird is edible. If it’s the day of and you find yourself rackless, don’t fret—layer the bottom of the pan with full carrots, celery sticks, or sliced onions to rest below the turkey and keep it from coming into contact with the bottom of the pan.
Putting the Bird in Too Early
While it might seem like you need to put the bird in the oven at the crack of dawn to get it ready for an early afternoon feast, jumping the gun on your turkey’s oven time can result in a bird that has to sit around way too long before it’s finally time to eat. At 350 degrees, your turkey will take 13 minutes per pound to cook, so do the math on how long your bird really needs in the oven, adding a little extra time for resting and carving.
Bothering with Basting
While basting—pouring the juices at the bottom of the turkey pan back over the top of the meat—will result in a more colorful skin, it doesn’t actually help make your bird any juicier. In fact, excessive basting could be a detriment to the overall success of your bird, as opening the oven door frequently to baste will let the heat out and deter the cooking process as a whole.
Not Using a Meat Thermometer
While many turkeys come with a small, red pop-up “thermometer” that claims to let you know exactly when your bird’s breast meat is cooked through, these can be faulty, and pop up after your meat has been overcooked. Instead, use a real meat thermometer—like this one—to monitor the internal temperature precisely, so you know exactly when to take your bird out of the oven. Once the thermometer hits 165 degrees, your bird is safe to consume and ready to come out.
Putting Your Thermometer in the Wrong Spot
Now that you’ve got your hands on a real thermometer, you need to figure out exactly where to put it. The proper place to measure a turkey’s temperature is in the thickest part of the thigh, right in the crease where it meets the breast. For a turkey 18 pounds or less, check the temperature at 2.5 hours and every 15 minutes after that; for a turkey above 18 pounds, begin checking at 3 hours.
Not Letting Your Turkey Rest Properly
While it’s tempting to start digging into your warm, glistening bird 5 minutes after it’s out of the oven, for the best, most flavorful turkey you want to allow the cooked bird to rest for at least 15 minutes. This resting time will allow the juices inside the turkey to soak into the meat, rather than drip out the second you cut it, resulting in a moister main dish. In order to keep the bird warm, tent it in foil until the time comes to carve.
Not Following a Carving Guide
While you might think you can eyeball your turkey carving, you’ll likely end up butchering your lovingly cooked bird after all the hard work that went into preparing it. Check out this guide to carving your turkey properly before the big day comes, so that you’re well versed in the art of slicing up a bird.
Carving Up the Whole Turkey
Chances are, unless you have a massive Thanksgiving crew, there’s going to be a good amount of leftover turkey to play around with post-holiday. Rather than slicing the entirely of your turkey on Thanksgiving, only slice a portion of the bird, cutting off more as you need it. By keeping the leftover turkey intact, the next-day meat will be less dried out and more flavorful. After all, we’d argue leftovers are the best part of Thanksgiving, so you want your meat to be in top form.
Tossing Your Bones and Pan Drippings
Rather than discarding your bones and drippings, give them delicious new life in another recipe. The pan drippings, which are packed with concentrated turkey flavor, can be used to make gravy. Meanwhile, the bones and other discarded turkey parts can be used to make an excellent stock for future soup making endeavors.
Now that you know what mistakes to avoid while prepping this year’s bird, check out some of our favorite roast turkey recipes to set you on the right path towards Thanksgiving glory.