Thanksgiving Turkey Q and A

Everything you need to know about cooking Turkey!

smoked turkey

Holiday time!  Finally, America starts remembering that they love turkey!  I don’t know about you, but I go through the year lamenting the fact that it’s pretty dang hard to buy a good quality turkey in the summer!  It’s very underrated as a dinner choice, and I cook several a year.

Since most people don’t have turkey very often, they often don’t have a lot of experience cooking them.  Don’t fret, Turkey is really nothing to stress about.  The most important thing to remember is DON’T OVERCOOK it!

I’m a proponent of cooking my turkey on a smoker or grill.  First, that will allow you to clear some oven space.  Secondly, I love the gently nuanced flavors of a nice smoked turkey.  However you decide to cook it, I’m sure it will be wonderful.  I get tons of questions this time of year about turkeys, so I decided to write some out to help.  I’ll post some different recipes later, but let me know if you have any other questions!  I’ve got a couple of smoked turkey recipes on my website – Holiday Smoked Turkey here and a Smoked and Lacquered Turkey recipe. There’s also a wonderful turkey leg recipe.  Those should be good guides.  The Holiday turkey recipe is a brined recipe, the smoked and lacquered recipe is not brined.

Question- Do you brine?

Answer- Sometimes, but not normally.  Brining can add moisture and flavor to the turkey, but I’ve never been a huge fan of brining.  One problem with it is the way turkeys are packaged now- most are “enhanced with up to (6/8/9%) solution.”  (Note, many types of meat are “enhanced” now.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you have to be aware of it so you can adjust your cooking method.)  With enhanced turkeys, brining can have minimal impact on moisture (I don’t want to get into a “science of brining” here,) but if a turkey has been injected with a saline solution, brining won’t necessarily add more moisture and you have a good chance of making it too salty.  It’s also a mess.  A big, wet mess.

Melissa with Turkey Leg


Question- What about dry-brining?

Answer – Dry Brining is a method of rubbing a turkey with a “dry brine mixture,” usually a combination of salt, sugar, and spices, and letting the turkey rest for 1, 2, or 3 days in the fridge before cooking.  I’ve tried this with mixed results (I think it works better with chicken than turkey.)  I have been able to tell the turkey is slightly moister.  However, the flavor increase is outweighed by a saltiness aspect that I don’t care for usually. And yes, I’m from Mississippi, and we like things salty.  However, between wet brining and dry brining, I’m going dry every time.

Question- Do you fry turkeys

Answer- No, I like my house to be not on fire during the holidays.

Question- well, how do I get a moist turkey then?

Answer- Cooking methods, times, temperatures and BUTTAH!

In the BBQ world, I still consider myself a “low and slow” type of girl.  I like old-school BBQ that way- tended over long hours in a nice, smoky pit.  This method started because most traditional bbq meats have a lot of connective tissue that breaks down over a long time, thus turning tough pieces of meat such as brisket, into wonderfully delicious treats.  Poultry, however, does not have this same amount of tough connective tissue, so it doesn’t need to break down that way.  When I cook a turkey, I cook it as hot as possible, without hurting certain aspects of it.  For example, you could cook a turkey at 600 degrees- but the outside would be a charred mess before the interior got to a safe temperature.  So even if we’re not trying to “tenderize it,” we are trying to get it cooked to a safe temperature and still leave it as moist as possible.  My go-to temp is 275 to 325, depending on the specific recipe.

One aspect that you may focus on is the appearance of the turkey.  Are you carving it at the table, or ahead of time and then serving from a platter?  A juicy, golden, turkey will be the result of light, no sugar added seasonings, a moderate temperature, and a bit of glossing and basting.  If you are looking to just cook a delicious turkey and serve from a platter, skin color may not matter as much.  Then, season away with your favorite seasonings!  A side note- almost all turkey skin, no matter the appearance, just kind of sucks.  There, I’ve said it.  It’s almost always rubbery and doesn’t really add much to the meat on the plate.  My advice?  Focus on moisture and flavor.

Now, about butter.  I love it, you love it, so use it!  I make a lightly seasoned herb butter (with sage, rosemary and thyme) and rub it under the skin.  This will help flavor the meat and keep it moist through cooking.

Question- OK, fine. But how do I do all that?

Answer- Well, I’m glad you asked!  Click the links above to get some recipes, but remember this first-  GET A GOOD INSTANT READ THERMOMETER.  I cook for a living, and I’m pretty good at guessing doneness, but I use one, especially on poultry!  I want to pull the turkey at the exact temperature that leaves it safe to eat, and still juicy.  Poultry is recommended to be cooked to 165 degrees internal temperature (sure, you can go under this, but I’m not really going to risk my Holiday dinner with a game of Salmonella  Roulette!)  When I’m cooking turkey, I pull it when the breast temp is 160 degrees, then cover and allow it to rest for 10-15 minutes.  The internal temp should climb to above 165, while the resting period gives you a safe, juicy bird.

Question- What is a  “spatchcock turkey”

Answer- when you prepare a spatchcock chicken or turkey, you are basically cutting the backbone out, and then laying the bird out so it cooks more evenly.  I generally prefer this method as the cooking time is lower and it’s easier to cook it more consistently.  It takes up more grill surface (so plan ahead,)  Especially for someone not used to cooking turkeys, I would recommend this to give you the best chance at a good, juicy bird.  This is how I cook my turkey for my home every year.

Question- Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving, when should I start thawing my turkey?

Answer- Ummm, I hope you have a small turkey.  The absolute best way to thaw a turkey is in the fridge.  A 10-12 lb turkey will take around 3 days.  A big 20+ pounder can take 5-6 days!  I always put my turkey in a pan before putting in the fridge, because if you don’t, you’ll get icky turkey juice all in the bottom of your fridge as it thaws.  You can thaw a turkey under cool running water, but it’s not recommended except in emergencies.  It’s wasteful, and a mess.  Please, don’t just leave a turkey sitting out overnight to thaw.  I know your grandmother “did it that way for years and nothing ever happened,” but just don’t.  Food safety practices are there for a reason, they prevent illness.  And no one wants food poisoning ever, much less on Thanksgiving.

If you are in a super rush (it happens.) Thaw the turkey as much as possible up until 3 hours before cooking.  Unwrap the turkey from any plastic, etc, and run it under cool water.  Using kitchen shears, cut out the backbone to spatchcock it (it will be tough but doable.) This will allow the turkey to thaw and then cook much more fast.

Question- How big of a turkey do I need?

Answer- When buying a whole turkey, allow around 1 pound of raw weight per person (turkey doesn’t have a great cooking yield.)  The larger the turkey, the higher the yield.  If you have a lot of people to feed, usually buying two smaller turkeys will be easier to handle than one large one for most people.

Question- What type of turkey should I get?

Answer- Your average supermarket is literally stuffed (pun intended) with turkeys around Thanksgiving.  Generally, you will see “self-basting” turkeys (these will be the ones on super sale.)  These are usually injected to add weight and moisture.  Generally, don’t brine or heavily season any turkey that says something along the lines of “saline solution of up to xx% added” as you will have a very salty bird.  Natural turkeys are minimally processed and have a more natural turkey flavor.  Kosher Turkeys are already brined in salt, so don’t brine or use a seasoning with a high salt component.  Heritage turkeys have a much better flavor but are generally leaner.  These are turkeys from breeds before large-scale processors began breeding them for huge breasts (so you may not get as much white meat.)  Wild Turkeys don’t really resemble the supermarket turkey.  The meat will be much leaner, and have a stronger flavor, with much smaller amounts of white meat.  If you’re not familiar with them (and enjoy the flavor) don’t risk Thanksgiving with the family on a wild turkey.

What’s the most important thing?

The answer to that is easy- relax!  Don’t let the small stuff bother you, enjoy the day, and I’m sure your Turkey will be perfect!