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My Ultimate Turkey Guide is here to help you cook your best Thanksgiving menu (or Sunday dinner) ever. Brush up on how to buy, thaw, brine, and cook a turkey, plus learn how easy it is to make turkey broth from bones and turkey gravy from pan drippings.
Once you discover how easy it is to choose your top Thanksgiving turkey and prep it for flavor success, you’ll want to roast or smoke one every weekend. For Thanksgiving dinner or any time of year, my complete turkey guide will come in handy to coach you through every step of the way, from buying to brining to remixing the leftovers.
Table of Contents
How to Buy a Turkey
From heirloom to organic to brined, choosing your turkey can feel like a daunting task. And how many pounds turkey per person is enough, considering the fact that we always want leftovers?
Your best bet is to speak with your butcher or a local farmer to ask what they’d recommend. If either of those isn’t available, swing by a retailer like Whole Foods; they should have plenty of suitable options. These days, you can even order a frozen whole turkey online from a brand you trust, if you like.
Steer clear of any poultry that’s pre-brined or injected, as these will often cost more (the extra liquid bulks up the weight) and don’t allow you to customize your flavors.
Shoot for about 2 pounds per person to account for the bones and to allow for leftovers. Hosting a small crowd? A turkey breast is likely your best bet.
How to Thaw a Turkey
An ice-cold turkey will derail all of your best-laid holiday dinner or Sunday dinner plans. It can take up to 6 days (yes, really!) to thaw a large turkey, so be sure to plan ahead if you’re starting with frozen. I’ll walk you through the best and safest way to thaw a frozen turkey (think fridge, not room temperature!) so you’re all set to season and cook your bird.
How to Thaw a Turkey
How to Prepare a Turkey for Cooking
Brining a turkey is totally optional. It adds juiciness and flavor, but it’s certainly not required. If you’d like to brine, I recommend opting for a dry brine using kosher salt over a wet brine because it’s less space-intensive and more effective at amplifying the flavor and pulling the moisture out from the meat. You need no special equipment, magical ability, or giant bucket to brine your turkey!
How to Brine a Turkey
While brining is optional, I consider trussing a must. Don’t be turned off by the name; this just means tying the legs in closer to the body to help the turkey roast more evenly. I promise that trussing a turkey is actually super simple, and is one of the most important things you can do to get a juicy, well-cooked bird. (P.S. I also suggest that you truss your chicken and cornish hens too.
How to Truss a Turkey
How to Cook a Turkey
Roasting is a classic. It’s also my preferred and the most common way to cook turkey. Smoked turkey earns my silver medal since it’s safe and a simple way to infuse it with lovely flavor from the wood chips.
Some cooks swear by fried turkey, however, I find that to be a risky task since there’s a risk that hot oil can overflow. If you’d like, you can find recipes for how to slow-cook turkey and how to grill turkey (they’ll likely ask you to spatchcock, or butterfly, the bird).
Most experts estimate about 13 minutes of cooking time per pound, using 350 degrees as your benchmark. Adjust up or down accordingly based on your oven or smoker temperature. The best way to tell if a turkey is cooked through is with a meat thermometer; watch for the temperature to reach 165 degrees F internal temperature at the thickest part of the breast.
Perfect Roast Turkey
How to Carve a Turkey
After you smoke or roast turkey, allow the bird to rest, tented with aluminum foil, for 30 minutes before carving. Resting lets the juices reabsorb into the meat itself rather than dripping out onto the cutting board. This is a great time to make the gravy! (More on this shortly.)
Once you’ve reached the 30-minute mark, you’re all set to slice the turkey, breast-side up.
How to Carve a Turkey
How to Use Turkey Drippings and Bones
If you don’t have pan drippings from a freshly roasted bird, substitute 6 tablespoons of butter to make gravy. But we’re already roasting the bird in a roasting pan on a rack, and since that’s the case, we’re lucky enough to have drippings (aka the juices that are left in the pan after you remove the bird to rest and carve it).
Broth, cornstarch, salt, pepper, those drippings, and 20 minutes are all that stand between you and 12 servings of luscious, lump-free gravy that’s perfect for drowning mashed potatoes, a casserole dish of stuffing, and everything else on your plate.
How to Make Gravy from Turkey Drippings
Don’t toss those bones, and no need to worry about removing every last ounce of meat. The turkey carcass is the secret to making your best batch of broth. Besides the bones, you just need an onion, a carrot, a celery stalk, and a few fresh herbs (all of which you likely have on hand for your turkey dinner anyway, like thyme and bay leaves) to make 8 cups of luscious, flavorful turkey broth. Leftover Turkey Noodle Soup, anyone?
How to Make Turkey Broth
What to Serve With Turkey
For Sunday dinners or meals throughout the year, I suggest pairing your turkey with a couple of classic side dishes like Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon, Roasted Carrots, Cranberry Sauce, and Soft Yeast Dinner Rolls.
Hosting or attending a holiday feast? Choose your favorite side dishes and desserts from the menus below.
If you’re lucky enough to have extras, don’t miss my best ways to use Thanksgiving leftovers.
Meggan Hill is a classically-trained chef and professional writer. Her meticulously-tested recipes and detailed tutorials bring confidence and success to home cooks everywhere. Meggan has been featured on NPR, HuffPost, FoxNews, LA Times, and more.