Talking Turkey: Your Questions Answered

By Ann Thelen

The Thanksgiving feast is unlike any other meal of the year. Rich in tradition, a turkey – cooked to golden perfection – is the centerpiece of the dining table. The classics of buttery mashed potatoes, savory green bean casserole, tart cranberry sauce and creamy pumpkin pie complete a festive gathering table. Kitchens and dining rooms are turned into hubs of laughter, togetherness and gratitude. Combined with the aromas that only Thanksgiving meals bring, it’s a time when memories are made.

While gathering around the table is wonderful, the days and hours of prep before that feast can oftentimes be less than magical. When you're hosting the Thanksgiving meal, you know that it's a big task with little margin for error. With so much on your plate – both literally and figuratively – it can be easy to feel stressed.

We asked Gretta Irwin, executive director and home economist of the Iowa Turkey Federation, to share some of her favorite tips for pulling off a perfect turkey and what to do when the unexpected happens! Her tips will take the stress out of preparing the star of the show, and leave you with a little extra time on your hands to enjoy the blessings of the day with friends and family.

Should I buy a fresh or frozen turkey?

Whether you buy a fresh or frozen turkey is a matter of personal preference. A fresh turkey will keep for 1 to 2 days in the refrigerator, so only purchase it a day or two in advance. Store the turkey on a tray to catch any juices. A frozen turkey may be stored in the freezer up to 1 year. (After a year it is still safe to eat, but the meat will be drier and less tender.). Depending on the size of the turkey, it may take several days to thaw in the refrigerator, a general rule of thumb is 24 hours per 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. (If the refrigerator is too full or the turkey is by an air vent a turkey may not thaw completely this way). You can also use a cold-water thawing method to speed up the process, planning for 30 minutes per 1 pound of meat. Note: It’s normal for a fresh turkey to feel a bit frozen. If that’s the case, you can thaw it using one of the above methods or cook it as is (see below).

What happens if I wake up on Thanksgiving Day and realize I forgot to thaw the turkey? Should I frantically start trying to make a restaurant reservation?

Don’t worry if you forget to thaw your turkey! It is possible to roast a turkey from a frozen state. In fact, according to the USDA, there are food safety benefits to this method. When the turkey is frozen, juices are not able to transfer from the turkey onto sinks, countertops and towels. This reduces the risk of cross contamination. We recommend following these steps:

  1. Remove Wrapper and Place in Pan. Remove the plastic wrapping from the outside of a frozen whole turkey or turkey breast. Place the turkey on a metal cooking rack in a shallow pan or in a covered roasting pan with approximately 2-inch sides. By setting the turkey on the rack, it will allow for the heat to circulate evenly around the turkey. Do NOT stuff the turkey.
  2. Place in Oven. Center the turkey in the oven, placing it on a lower rack. Roast at 325˚˚F.
  3. Remove Giblets. Remove the turkey from the oven after 2 to 3 hours of cooking. Using tongs, or a long-handled fork, remove the packages of giblets. (If the giblets are in a paper bag there is no concern if they remain in the turkey the entire cooking time.) If they are in a plastic bag, and the bag has been altered or melted by the cooking process, do not eat the giblets or turkey because harmful chemicals may have leached in the meat. If the plastic bag has not been altered, the giblets and turkey are safe to eat.
  4. Season the Turkey. Season the turkey with salt and pepper or your favorite spices. If the outside of the turkey is browning more than you would like, place a tin foil tent loosely over the turkey and return it to the oven.
  5. Test Temperature. The cooking time for a frozen turkey will take 25 percent to 50 percent longer than a fully thawed turkey. The turkey is done when the thermometer reaches 180˚F. in the deepest part of the thigh and 170˚˚F. in the thickest part of the breast.
  6. Remove and Rest. Remove the turkey from the oven, tent loosely with foil and allow it to rest for 20 minutes before carving.

I need to save time on meal day. Can I partially cook my turkey the day before and then finish it the next day?

No. It is not safe to partially cook turkey and then finish it later.

Can I roast my turkey the day before and reheat it?

Absolutely. If you prepare your turkey a day in advance, carve the turkey once it has rested for 20 minutes. Shingle the turkey slices in shallow baking dishes (to cool it quickly). Combine 1½ cups pan drippings or reduced-sodium chicken broth with ¼ cup warm water, white wine or apple juice. Pour over turkey. Cover and refrigerate immediately. When ready to serve, reheat the turkey in a 325˚F. oven until turkey reaches 165˚F.

Our guests are arriving earlier than planned. How can I cook the turkey faster without burning it or drying it out?

If you are facing a time crunch and want your turkey done faster, roast the turkey in parts instead of whole. Cut off the drumstick-thigh portions and separate the whole breast from the back. Roast on a rimmed baking dish, skin side up, until the dark meat (wing, thigh and drumstick) reaches 180˚F and the white meat reaches 170˚F. Not only will the heat penetrate the pieces more quickly, but you will be able to remove the faster cooking breast as soon as it’s done.

What type of meat thermometer do you recommend?

If your turkey has a pop-up timer, it should spring when the turkey reaches the recommended temperature. However, a meat thermometer is a more reliable gauge and should be used to test the temperature in several places. If you use an instant-read thermometer, it is not designed to stay in the turkey while in the oven.

Is it better to roast a turkey breast side down?

It’s a matter of personal preference. But, some people swear by this method of roasting with the breast side down. The juices drip down into the breast meat, making it extra juicy. However, if you plan to carve the turkey at the table, the traditional method will result in a better appearance.

What does brining do, and what is recipe you like to use?

Brining a whole turkey involves submerging it in a salt-water solution. Most “brines” also contain sugar and other seasonings. Once the whole turkey soaks in the brine, the turkey is rinsed with water to remove any excess salt. The resulting turkey is extra juicy, and it cooks slightly faster, so you need to check the turkey 30 to 45 minutes before the end of the regular roasting time. 

Basic Turkey Brine

3 cups water

2 cups brown sugar

1½ cups Kosher salt

3 garlic cloves, peeled

2 teaspoons peppercorns

4 bay leaves

In a clean, non-corrosive container (glass, plastic or stainless steel) or plastic cooking bag large enough to hold a 10-pound turkey, combine all ingredients. Add turkey and keep submerged. Cover the container and place in refrigerator for 2 hours. Remove, rinse turkey and pat dry with paper towels.

Recipe may be doubled for a larger turkey.

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Talking Turkey: When you sit down to enjoy this year’s Thanksgiving feast, here are some “table talk tidbits” that you can share about turkey. The average American enjoys nearly 17 pounds of turkey each year! Based on this amount, Iowa turkey farmers feed more than 8 million people annually!

Iowans have a lot to celebrate given our footprint in the turkey industry. With more than 130 turkey farms in the state, Iowa turkey farmers contribute $10.64 billion to the state’s economy. Iowa farmers raise 11.7 million turkeys every year and are the No. 1 supplier of turkey to Subway and Jimmy John’s.

For more recipes and tips, download the Iowa Turkey Federation’s Cooking with Turkey guide.