So, it finally happened: the job of preparing the Thanksgiving turkey has fallen to you. Whether you were elected by family members to bring the turkey or you are hosting Thanksgiving in your apartment this year, it can be a daunting undertaking – cooking the Big Star of the Thanksgiving feast for the very first time and having to serve it to guests, not knowing how it turned out until you make that first slice. Visions of television sitcoms where everything goes wrong may be dancing through your head, but relax – it's actually very easy.
First, decide what kind of turkey you want. There's free-range, fresh, frozen, self-basting, and organic. Free-range means the turkeys have been raised with a little more, um, "wing-room" than your average bird. Self-basted turkeys have been filled with a mixture of some type that probably includes any combination of butter, broth, salt, and chicken fat – this is supposed to add flavor and make the bird juicier. Organic turkeys are antibiotic-free, growth hormone-free, and have been raised on organic feed. Organic birds tend to have a very obvious turkey flavor.
After you've decided on the type of turkey, it's time to pick a size. According to the USDA website, you'll want to estimate one pound of turkey per person. Large turkeys that are over 16 pounds tend to have more meat per pound, so a large turkey will feed two people per pound. If you happen to have a turkey in the freezer from last year, go ahead and use it – a turkey can be kept for a full year and still retain its quality.
If you choose a frozen turkey, let it thaw in the refrigerator – never at room temperature! – for one day per every five pounds. So a 20-pound turkey should be thawing in the refrigerator for four days. It can stay in the refrigerator for a full two days after it thaws so error on the side of caution. You don't want a frozen bird on Thanksgiving morning. The USDA has a turkey hotline: 1-888-MPHotline or you can chat live with a food safety specialist at AskKaren.com. The hotline will be open on Thanksgiving Day from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. for any potential turkey emergencies.
You can brine your turkey to make it more flavorful. You'll want to do this the day before Thanksgiving and let it soak overnight. Basically, make a "bath" of salt, water and spices in a large tub and allow the turkey to soak in the refrigerator. Make sure the turkey is fully immersed and turn it once about halfway through the brining process. Discard the brine before cooking.
The morning of Thanksgiving, take your turkey out of the fridge and remove the giblets from inside the bird. Rinse the turkey inside and out and pat dry (even if you brined it first).
Brush your turkey with melted butter or oil and place it on a rack in a roasting pan. It's recommended that you don't stuff the bird – it can be dangerous if the stuffing doesn't cook properly. Also, the stuffing tends dry out the turkey. Instead, make your stuffing separately. If you must stuff the bird, stuff it loosely and tie the drumsticks together.
Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, with the thermometer pointing toward the body. Make sure it isn't touching the bone. Place the turkey in the oven at 350 degrees. Regardless of what you've heard, don't baste the turkey. Put it in the oven and leave it alone. An unstuffed turkey of about 16 pounds should cook roughly five hours. A stuffed turkey of about 16 pounds should cook five and a half to six hours. The meat thermometer should read 165 degrees F and the turkey should be a light golden brown. Let the turkey rest for 20-30 minutes before carving.
That's it! You've roasted the perfect turkey. If you want to go a step beyond the basics, this recipe delivers a "wow" factor that will have your guests cheering and asking for seconds. Enjoy!