Turkey and Most of the Trimmings

How to cook a turkey for a complete Thanksgiving or holiday dinner.

Whether you're a novice at preparing a holiday meal or an old hand, Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner can be daunting. Even if you are able to delegate preparation of some of the dishes to friends and relatives, more than likely you will be responsible for the basics; that is, the turkey, the dressing (that's stuffing to you non-Southerners) and the gravy.

And since friends and families like to get together for these dinners, you will no doubt find yourself cooking for more people than you are accustomed to. Cooking a meal for a comparatively large number of people is a challenge for most of us, unless you happen to be regularly employed as a quartermaster cook.

The trickiest part of such a meal can be getting everything to the table, hot and ready to eat, at the same time. Many of us face this task with only four burners and one oven, so coordination and timing are important.

Selecting the turkey:

The "rule" stated by some authorities is three-quarters to one pound of turkey per serving; so if you are expecting 10 guests with healthy appetites that would mean you buy a 7- to 10-pound bird, right? Wrong. I don't know about your crowd, but I'd have a riot on my hands if I presented my Thanksgiving regulars with a bird that size. There are two reasons I ignore that rule:

  • It completely overlooks the deep and abiding need Americans have for Thanksgiving dinner leftovers; and
  • Turkeys these days are bred to have as much white meat as possible. In my experience, there are plenty of people who demand dark meat, and you need a bigger bird to accommodate them.

My advice, then, is to at least double the rule.

Okay, so that decided, should you buy fresh or frozen? If you know you can get a fresh turkey no more than a few days before you need it then, by all means, buy a fresh one. Some meat markets let you reserve a fresh turkey. If, however, you show up on Tuesday and discover that all the fresh turkeys have been gobbled up (couldn't resist the pun) and no more are available, you have a problem. Frozen turkeys take a long time to thaw. In an emergency, you can use the cold water method, but it's messy and troublesome. Quoting the Butterball people: "To speed thawing, place breast down in cold water, changing water every 30 minutes. Allow 30 minutes per pound. DO NOT THAW AT ROOM TEMPERATURE."

You can avoid all that by simply making sure that you buy your turkey early enough for it to thaw in your refrigerator.

Fresh or frozen, it doesn't matter a whole lot really. I've cooked many of each, and either can be excellent. I think it depends as much on the individual turkey, not to mention the individual cook, as anything else.

Roasting the turkey

I hope I won't disappoint too many of you by not including instructions for stuffing, trussing and roasting your turkey. I stuffed a turkey only once, and that was on the occasion of my first Thanksgiving dinner. I was an over-eager neophyte determined to roast the perfect turkey. Stuffing is the traditional method, but I had to worry about whether the dressing was getting hot enough to prevent our all coming down with food poisoning, while at the same time fretting that the turkey was drying out. The poor bird was bristling with meat thermometers. And I ended up having to make a side pan of dressing anyway which, by the way, is every bit as tasty. A turkey would have to have a body cavity the size of a beach ball to accommodate the amount of dressing it takes both to feed my guests and be available for leftovers. (As you can tell, leftovers are important to me.)

The Butterball people say that the most often asked question on their Turkey Talk-Line (1-800-BUTTERBALL or 1-800-288-8372) is "How long do I cook it?" Here is their table, which I completely endorse, for thawing and roasting (stuffed, if you must, and unstuffed):

Size Thawing Roasting - Stuffed Roasting - Unstuffed
10 to 18 lbs. 3 to 4 days 3-3/4 to 4-1/2 hours 3 to 3-1/2 hours
18 to 22 lbs. 4 to 5 days 4-1/2 to 5 hours 3-1/2 to 4 hours
22 to 24 lbs. 5 to 6 days 5 to 5-1/2 hours 4 to 4-1/2 hours
24 to 30 lbs. 6 to 7 days 5-1/2 to 6-1/4 hours 4-1/2 to 5 hours

The times given in this table assume that you are roasting your turkey in an uncovered roasting pan at 325°F.

There are a number of ways to determine if your turkey is done:

  • Use the above chart as a general guide.
  • Use a meat thermometer; insert it deep into the thickest part of the inner thigh without coming into contact with the bone. Roast until the temperature reaches 180°F.
  • Using a paper towel to protect your fingers, pinch or squeeze a leg. If it's nice and tender, your turkey is done. (Of course, you should squeeze it before you put it in the oven, too, so you'll know what it felt like in the first place.)
  • Using a meat fork, pierce the thigh all the way to the bone and make sure the juices run clear.

You can use one, some or all these methods, but don't expect your perfectly roasted turkey to look like they do on television and in magazines -- that's artwork, not reality.

More roasting tips

  • Be sure to remove the neck and giblets from both the neck cavity and the body cavity.
  • Rinse the turkey thoroughly in cold water and drain.
  • If you plan to use a heavy aluminum foil roasting pan from the supermarket, buy two and nest one inside the other.
  • For roasting, leave in place the little gadget that holds the drumsticks together.
  • Brush or rub olive or canola oil all over the turkey before putting it in the oven.
  • Some people like to preheat their oven to 450°F and reduce it to 325°F when they put the turkey in, the theory being that it seals in the juices at the outset. If that makes sense to you, go for it.

The all-important timing:

Now, this is important: Let's say you want to put dinner on the table around two o'clock in the afternoon and you are cooking a 20-pound unstuffed turkey. Do the math, and you'll see that your turkey should be in the oven no later than ten o'clock in the morning.

Okay, so your pies are all baked and you readied the bread for the dressing the day before. Here's the drill:

  1. Set your table. It's more peaceful early, and you can enjoy handling your nice linens and the tableware you use on special occasions. Actually, you can do this the night before, but get it done early so when people start arriving they can admire your table.
  2. If you haven't been successful in delegating the sweet potato or other casserole, make it and bake it now. You'll reheat it later.
  3. Wash, dry and refrigerate any salad greens you will be using.
  4. Start preheating your oven, get your turkey ready, and put it in.
  5. Around noon, things start happening fast. You may have some guests that arrive early. If they are agreeable and handy in the kitchen, you may want to put them to work. In any case, have a glass of wine or whatever. Your house is beginning to smell really good.
  6. Start assembling your dressing. Sauté the vegetables for the dressing (onion, celery and green pepper or what have you -- recipes follow) and mix them together with the crumbled bread.
  7. Every hour or so, I check on the turkey. I know it supposedly increases the cooking time and pre-basted turkeys aren't supposed to need it, but I like to do it. I baste it with pan juices and the juice from the body cavity. The last hour or so, I usually have to put a piece of aluminum foil over the bird to keep it from getting too brown. See what you think.
  8. Peel the potatoes and cover them with cold water.
  9. If you're cooking the giblets separately, start them now.
  10. Ready your rolls or whatever bread you will serving. Set them out on the baking pan.
  11. Assemble the salads, green and/or fruit.
  12. You'll need about a cup of drippings from the turkey for your dressing (use a turkey baster or ladle to remove them from the pan). Finish putting together the dressing.
  13. The turkey is pronounced done, so let it trade places in the oven with your pan of dressing. Don't forget to turn up the heat to 375°F.
  14. Remove the turkey from the pan, cover it loosely with aluminum foil and let it rest.
  15. Start cooking the potatoes at this point. Start earlier for turnips.
  16. Make the gravy (recipe follows) and keep it hot on the back of the stove.
  17. Check on the dressing after 15 minutes, stir it around, away from the sides of the pan so it bakes evenly; then put it back in. If you have a sweet potato or other dish that was cooked earlier, pop it in with the dressing so it can reheat.
  18. Get someone to fill up the cream pitcher and put butter on the table.
  19. Pour yourself another glass of wine.
  20. Mash the potatoes, cover and put them on the back of the stove.
  21. Put the salads and cranberry sauce on the table.
  22. Take the dressing out and make any seasoning adjustments. (Remove any other dishes, too.) When the dressing is done (you need about eight hands at this point), let it quickly trade places with the rolls. Get someone to watch the rolls for you while they bake. Don't forget to turn up the heat again.
  23. Put the turkey on its platter and keep it covered.
  24. Dish up the dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, etc., and cover.
  25. Remove the now golden-brown rolls, and put everything on the table.
  26. Sound the dinner bell, although you probably won't have to -- people will have been edging toward the table for some time.

My, my. Only 26 easy steps. If this sounds exhausting, that's because it is a lot of work, especially during the last hour. The adrenaline surge will carry you through, however. Some accomplished extra hands in the kitchen can lighten your load considerably, so enlist aid if at all possible to avoid chaos.

Some cooks prefer to take full responsibility for preparing the meal in exchange for the cleanup by others. Don't feel shame if your kitchen looks like it has been shelled.

Finally, you are encouraged to make full use of your turkey. See our recipe for Turkey Frame Soup and a complete article on fully using your turkey leftovers. It's the smart thing to do.

Turkey Dinner Buffet

If you have too many dishes for your table, set up a buffet so people can line up and help themselves. And (again, this isn't the way they do it in the movies) matters will be simplified enormously if you carve the turkey in the kitchen before it gets to the table. That way your family and guests don't have to sit around watching the carver perform while all the food gets cold.

Most every familys' holiday meal is a law unto itself. You may enjoy dishes that are unique to your table, and your meal preparation routine may differ in scope or scale to the one described above, but holiday meals are very special to all of us.

There are links below to two kinds of dressing -- my favorite Cornbread Dressing with Giblet Gravy, and an excellent Southwestern Cornbread Dressing.

We at Texas Cooking wish you the happiest of holidays and the most successful holiday meals.