Special Report

24 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid When Roasting a Turkey

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Thanksgiving is synonymous with many things – family gatherings, celebrations, gratitude – but one of the most celebrated appearances of the day may just be the turkey. What would Turkey Day be without a turkey? Though other options are available (goose, duck, capon, even tofurkey), most people who cook Thanksgiving dinner roast a turkey.

Turkey is typically consumed in small portions throughout the year. It is eaten in sandwiches in the form of deli slices, at BBQs in burger form, and even sausages (or one of those jumbo salt-brined drumsticks that are popular concession foods at Disney parks). As a holiday centerpiece, though, there aren’t many substitutions that can take the place of a whole bird.

According to the National Turkey Federation, the United States is the largest turkey-producing country in the world and the largest exporter of turkey products. In 2021, the U.S. consumed 5.1 billion pounds of this holiday staple. Roast turkey is such an iconic holiday food in this country that there are websites dedicated exclusively to revealing everything you need to know about the holiday bird. 

Turkey is typically one of the least expensive parts of a holiday meal. The most recent USDA figures show an average price of $1.27 per pound for frozen birds (so a 12-pound example, big enough to generously feed eight, would cost about $12.70). Fresh birds and specialty choices — like organic or wild turkeys — generally cost more, but they still are reasonably priced. (Here is how the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner has changed since the 1940s.)

As the star of the Thanksgiving show, you want to ensure this delicious bird is cooked to perfection. There is a lot of conflicting information about exactly how to best produce a beautiful and delicious Thanksgiving bird. 24/7 Tempo consulted numerous top cooking websites and considered the recommendations of some of America’s best chefs to come up with this list of common errors made by home cooks when roasting a turkey, together with advice on how to avoid them. 

. It is eaten in sandwiches in the form of deli slices, at BBQs in burger form, and even sausages (or one of those jumbo salt-brined drumsticks that are popular concession foods at Disney parks). As a holiday centerpiece, though, there aren’t many substitutions that can take the place of a whole bird.

According to the National Turkey Federation, the United States is the largest turkey-producing country in the world and the largest exporter of turkey products. In 2021, the U.S. consumed 5.1 billion pounds of this holiday staple. Roast turkey is such an iconic holiday food in this country that there are websites dedicated exclusively to revealing everything you need to know about the holiday bird. 

Turkey is typically one of the least expensive parts of a holiday meal. The most recent USDA figures show an average price of $1.27 per pound for frozen birds (so a 12-pound example, big enough to generously feed eight, would cost about $12.70). Fresh birds and specialty choices — like organic or wild turkeys — generally cost more, but they still are reasonably priced. (Here is how the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner has changed since the 1940s.)

As the star of the Thanksgiving show, you want to ensure this delicious bird is cooked to perfection. There is a lot of conflicting information about exactly how to best produce a beautiful and delicious Thanksgiving bird. 24/7 Tempo consulted numerous top cooking websites and considered the recommendations of some of America’s best chefs to come up with this list of common errors made by home cooks when roasting a turkey, together with advice on how to avoid them. 

Here are 24 rookie mistakes to avoid when roasting a turkey.

Purchasing the wrong size bird

At your holiday feast, it’s always better to have too much food than too little. Turkeys are sold by weight and the bird’s bones will account for a lot of the total. Figure about 1½ pounds per person (for example, a 12-pound turkey for eight guests). This will ensure that nobody goes hungry and that there are leftovers, which perhaps may just be one of the best things about a Thanksgiving feast anyway.

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Not enough room for it in the refrigerator or freezer

Turkeys are big birds, especially if you purchase one in the 16- or 18-pound range and above. If you buy it frozen a week or so ahead of time, you’ll want to keep it frozen until it’s time to start the thawing process, which means you will need plenty of freezer space. When it comes out of the freezer, you’ll need room in the fridge for thawing, and depending on the size of the bird should take at least four days.

Not thawing it completely

It is important to remember if you buy a frozen turkey, to make sure you remove it from the freezer early enough. While a turkey that isn’t thoroughly thawed can still be roasted, it will take much longer and be much harder to time. The best way to thaw one of these big birds is to place it, in its wrapper, on a tray in the refrigerator. It will take at least a day for every four pounds. It will keep in the fridge for up to four days after it’s thawed so should you wish to begin the thawing process a bit early, it will still hold well before cooking.

Rinsing the bird

Raw turkey is just like other poultry and is likely to be covered with bacteria. When you roast your bird at the correct internal temperature, the bacteria will be killed. Many cooks think they should try to rinse the bacteria off the bird, but this is not necessary. The USDA offers this tip: “Wash your hands, not the turkey!” Washing doesn’t eliminate all the bacteria anyway, and this rinsing process risks spreading E. coli, salmonella, and other bugs around your kitchen. But the hand-washing part is vital to avoid transmitting foodborne illnesses. The USDA recommends a 20-second scrub with soap and warm water — and use soap and warm water on any surfaces (platter, cutting board, etc.) the raw bird might touch.

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Brining the bird

Bringing your bird in a solution of water, salt, sugar, and other ingredients before roasting is a popular method among many home cooks and professionals, too. However, it does come with issues. As other cooks point out, brining just waterlogs the bird and it makes the turkey taste like luncheon meat. As no less an authority than award-winning chef and “Top Chef” host Tom Colicchio just tweeted: “Don’t brine the bird.”

 

Not drying it thoroughly before roasting

A favorite of turkey aficionados is crispy skin. If you want your turkey to have crispy skin, pat it dry thoroughly with paper towels before roasting it. If you have the time, leave the bird in the refrigerator for a few pre-oven hours, unwrapped and on a platter large enough to hold it with no overhang (so that the juices don’t drip). The arid environment in the refrigerator will dry the skin more efficiently than simply blotting it.

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Not trussing the bird

Once the turkey is well-seasoned, it should be trussed. Trussing a bird means tying it into a kind of bundle so that it cooks more evenly and the extremities (like the wing tips) don’t burn. You will be able to find many step-by-step instructions for this process online and in cookbooks, as well as a number of instructional videos on YouTube.

Not seasoning it all over

Seasoning your turkey is a crucial step before roasting it. Everyone has different tastes and methods of what works best. Some people like to rub butter or even duck fat on the exterior of their turkey before seasoning it. That’s fine, but it’s not essential. The seasoning part is. Once the bird is trussed, rub salt and pepper inside the cavity (don’t worry about the stuffing; see below) and then over every inch of the exterior. You may think you’re using too much seasoning, but you’re not. When you finish this task, though, wash your hands very thoroughly with soap and warm water.

Not using a roasting rack

Using a roasting rack, or roasting pan, is intended to allow the oven heat to circulate evenly all around the bird. If the bottom of the bird rests on the pan bottom, it’ll end up damp and pale. If you don’t have a roasting rack, ball up a few pieces of aluminum foil, scatter them around the bottom of your roasting pan, and set the bird on top of them.

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Putting the stuffing into the bird

Many recipes call for a stuffed bird, but there are others that suggest otherwise. Generations of home cooks have roasted their turkeys with the cavities filled with stuffing and survived. But the stuffing, which usually involves breadcrumbs or some other porous substance, absorbs the raw turkey juices as the bird begins to cook, and those juices are often contaminated with bacteria.

If you do stuff the turkey, the USDA recommends that both the meat itself and the stuffing are cooked to a temperature of at least 165 degrees F for safety. Stuffing cooks more slowly than the turkey because it’s farther from the heat and by the time it gets to a safe level, the meat will be way overcooked and dried out. Bake the stuffing separately in a pan or casserole dish, and if you want to put something into the turkey cavity, make it a few bunches of savory herbs and/or a lemon or two.

Opening the oven door too often

Once the turkey is in the oven, it is important that you let the bird remain, untouched, in a closed oven. Resist the temptation to open the oven door to see how it’s progressing until it is time to start checking the bird with a meat thermometer. This step is roughly half an hour before you think it will be done.

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Basting the turkey

You might be wondering how you will baste your turkey once it’s in the oven. Most authorities today say that basting makes little difference in either the appearance or the moistness of the finished bird. It also prolongs the cooking time both because the drippings cool the meat’s surface slightly and because frequent opening of the oven door lowers the temperature of the oven interior. Besides, doing it is just one more thing to have to remember when you’re trying to coordinate an already complicated meal.

Not verifying your oven temperature

It is important to make sure that the temperature inside your oven matches what’s set on the dial or display. Every oven is slightly different, and not all of them will have reached the temperature you want when the “preheated” signal goes off. You’ll need to leave a heatproof thermometer in the oven. Check it when you hear that signal, and if it doesn’t correspond to the temperature you’ve set, wait until it does.

Not using a meat thermometer

When it comes time to ensure your turkey is cooked completely, you should not trust cooking charts or intuition. Unless you’re a professional turkey roaster – does such a job description even exist? – you should always use a meat thermometer to check when the meat is done. Supermarket turkeys often come with a small indicator inset into the breast that’s supposed to do the work of a thermometer, but by the time these pop up, the turkey is often already overcooked.

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Inserting the meat thermometer in the wrong place

For your meat thermometer to work properly, and give an accurate indication of meat completion, it should be inserted in the right places. Put it into the thickest part of the breast on one side of the bird, holding it parallel to the bird’s neck and being careful not to let the tip touch the bone. Then repeat the process on the other side. Next, insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, again avoiding the bone. Repeat that too.

 

Overcooking the bird

The ideal temperature for cooked turkey meat is about 165 degrees F in the breast and 170 degrees F in the thigh. Cooking times will vary depending on the size of your bird, but you should be able to estimate the cooking time using a chart. However, about 30 minutes before you think it will be done, start checking it with the thermometer about every ten minutes.

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Not letting the turkey rest after roasting

It is important to prepare ahead to guarantee your turkey is ready by mealtime. Get an early start with your roasting, because once the turkey comes out of the oven, it should stand at room temperature for 45 minutes to an hour before carving. This gives the meat a chance to reabsorb its juices, so it will be very moist. Don’t cover it with foil if you want the skin to stay crisp.

Wasting the pan drippings

When some cooks lift the turkey out of its roasting pan, they put the pan straight into the sink to soak for easier cleaning. Big mistake. The pan drippings, including any browned bits sticking to the bottom, are the makings of a great gravy. The turkey juices, fat, and browned bits all contribute flavor to the gravy. There are many different ways to make gravy –  you can search online for gravy-making directions, but the process is fairly easy.

Not sharpening your carving knife

This is an essential step for carving any kind of poultry or meat. You can’t do a good job with a dull knife. If you’re adept at the task, sharpen the blade yourself (even just stropping it on a sharpening steel will help). If you’re not, most cookware stores and many hardware stores will sharpen knives for you — but you may have to wait a few days for the results, so start early. (Forget electric carving knives, by the way. They’re loud, hard to clean, and liable to leave the meat in stringy pieces.)

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Carving the bird at the table

Now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Your perfectly cooked golden brown turkey is brought to the table on a festive platter. Then it is deftly dissected in front of a ravenous audience. Unless you’re a real pro at turkey carving, though, the process can be a little messy, so it’s best done out of sight. Present the turkey to your guests just before you’re ready to carve to show off its beauty. You can then take it back into the kitchen, work your magic with your sharp knife (there are numerous online tutorials to help), and reemerge with a platter full of gorgeous, ready-to-eat meat.

Carving the whole bird all at once

Unless you’ve got extra guests or a very small bird, leave some meat on the carcass. It will stay moist if you need more helpings, and it’s easy enough to remove for the leftover Tupperware later.

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Wasting the carcass and bones

Every part of your turkey can be used. Save all the turkey bones and that hulking carcass. These leftover items make intensely flavorful stock to use for soups, rice dishes, ramen, and other purposes. If you’ve had enough cooking for the next few days, put everything into large freezer bags and freeze it until you have time to make the stock.

Keeping leftovers that have been out too long

Many people consider Thanksgiving leftovers to be the best part of the meal. The USDA, however, warns against saving any food items that have sat our for more than two hours. Turkey, gravy, or stuffing can have bacteria that may have begun to grow on them. If they don’t get devoured quickly, you can always take these items back to the kitchen and loosely tent them with aluminum foil until seconds are needed.

Worrying too much

There’s a lot to think about when you’re cooking a holiday turkey, and you might make some rookie mistakes. Ultimately, though, as long as you don’t put raw meat on the table, everything will be all right. The point of Thanksgiving dinner is to share a table with family and friends and give thanks for the year’s blessings. If your turkey is a little dry, that’s what the gravy and cranberry sauce are for. Does the meat look like it’s been through a wood chipper? As long as there’s plenty of it, people probably won’t care. You’ve worked hard and now it’s time to relax and enjoy the holiday.

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