The Thanksgiving holiday is about breaking bread with the ones you love and celebrating traditions passed down for generations. With turkey as the centerpiece, a Thanksgiving (or Friendsgiving!) feast can play a large part in bringing everyone together. While the thought of tackling the entire Thanksgiving meal can be intimidating, a little bit of advance planning and organization can go a long way in helping your holiday run smoothly. And we’re here to help.
Don’t go at it alone! New home chefs may not have had the opportunity to perfect their cooking skills, but sharing in the meal preparation is one way for seasoned Thanksgiving veterans to impart their wisdom on crafting the traditional family feast. Including newer cooks in the kitchen will help them gain valuable experience – plus, it’s a chance to create new memories of the occasion!
Here are several turkey preparation tips to get you started:
How much turkey should be purchased?
Allow at least 1 lb. of uncooked turkey per person from an 8 to 12 lb. turkey. Larger birds have a larger proportion of meat to bones, so 3/4 lb. per person may be sufficient.
If you want plenty of leftovers, plan for 1.25-1.5. lbs. per person.
Need more than 15 lbs. of turkey? Consider cooking two smaller birds.
Need a little bit more than one turkey? Prepare a bone-in turkey breast in addition to your whole bird.
By purchasing a larger turkey than needed for the holiday feast, you can transform holiday leftovers into time-saving meals. Freeze the extra cooked turkey and you’ll have your own “ready-to-prepare” healthy food for quick and easy post-holiday dishes. The National Turkey Federation database offers dozens of recipes for cooked turkey. Check the variety of cooked turkey recipes for entrees, salads, appetizers, sandwiches and soups in the recipe section.
Frozen turkey, like all meat and poultry, should be thawed in the refrigerator, never at room temperature. When foods are thawed at room temperature, surface bacteria can rapidly multiply to dangerous levels.
For safety and superior quality, leave your turkey in the original packaging and place in a shallow pan. Thaw, in the refrigerator, using this simple formula: whole turkeys thaw at a rate of 4 to 5 lbs. per 24 hours. Example: A 15-pound frozen bird will take 3 to 4 full days to thaw in the refrigerator.
Speed thawing: Keep your turkey in the original tightly sealed bag and place in a clean and sanitized sink or foodservice safe container. Submerge in cold water and change the cold water every 30 minutes. The turkey will take about 30 minutes per pound to thaw. Refrigerate (at 40°F or below) or cook the turkey immediately once thawed. Do not refreeze uncooked, defrosted turkey.
Stuffing should be prepared and stuffed into the turkey immediately before it is cooked. If making the stuffing ahead-of-time, wet and dry ingredients should be refrigerated separately and combined right before stuffing the turkey.
Stuff the turkey loosely, about 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound of turkey.
Test the internal temperature of the stuffing as well as the turkey. The internal temperature in the center of the stuffing should register 165°F.
For optimal food safety, cook your stuffing separately.
When is the turkey done?
For a whole turkey, use your food thermometer to check the internal temperature in three places: the innermost part of the thigh, the thickest part of the breast and the innermost part of the wing. Try not to hit the bone or pan, which can throw off the temperature reading. The internal temperature of the turkey should measure 165°F.
Juices should run clear and the drumsticks should be soft and move easily at the joint.
Since turkey is low in fat and high in protein, the meat is sensitive to extreme heat and prolonged cooking. Loosely place an aluminum foil tent over the turkey breast during the first 1 to 1 1/2 hours of roasting, then remove to allow the turkey to brown.
You may also want to try cooking your turkey breast down to help keep the meat moist and tender.
Click here for our food thermometer use guidelines!
Have a question while you’re cooking your turkey? There’s a hotline for that! USDA’s Meat & Poultry Hotline is available year-round to answer food safety and recipe questions at 1-888-MPHotline.