BUTLER, Mo. – The Thanksgiving turkey isn’t just a dish, it’s an event. Carving the holiday turkey before a table full of guests is an eagerly anticipated holiday tradition. Someone, however, has to prepare that large bird before the festivities can begin.
Cooking a large bird can seem daunting, especially for a novice cook, but cooking a turkey is really not that difficult. You start by removing the package of giblets from the turkey cavity, then rinse the turkey inside and out, said Tammy Roberts, nutrition specialist for University of Missouri Extension.
There are several ways to prepare the turkey. Roasting is the most common cooking method, but turkey can also be smoked, deep-fried, grilled, cooked in an oven bag, and braised.
For roasting, place the turkey breast side up on a rack in a shallow pan, Roberts said. “That rack allows for the drippings to come down below the turkey and for the heat to be evenly distributed.”
Cooking time will be longer for a stuffed bird. For example, an 8-12 pound stuffed turkey will take 3 to 3 1/2 hours to cook. An unstuffed bird of the same size will cook in 2 3/4 to 3 hours.
If you want to serve stuffing, it’s safer to cook it in a casserole than inside the turkey.
“Because the stuffing is inside the turkey, it takes a long time for it to reach a safe temperature,” Roberts said. “So there’s a much greater risk of foodborne illness from stuffing cooked inside poultry.”
Traditionalists who insist on stuffed turkey need to take extra precautions.
“Prepare the stuffing right before the turkey is going into the oven, and pack the stuffing loosely,” Roberts said. When the stuffing is loose inside the cavity it can reach a safe temperature quickly. Remove the stuffing as soon as the turkey is done.
A meat thermometer is essential to determine when the turkey is completely cooked. Place the thermometer in the thickest part of the breast or the thigh. Make sure you don’t place it near a bone, which will give you a higher temperature reading that does not accurately reflect the temperature of the meat, Roberts said.
“The turkey is done when the meat thermometer reaches a minimum of 165 degrees,” she said. “Another doneness test is if the juices run clear when the turkey is pierced. But you don’t want to do this too many times because it will dry out the turkey.”
You can assure a moist turkey if you let it sit for 20 minutes after taking it out of the oven, Roberts said. This will allow for the juices to be evenly distributed throughout the turkey.
Brining the turkey before cooking is increasingly popular. In brining, turkey is steeped in a strong solution of salt and water. Other flavors can be added, but the salt makes the turkey moist.
“The salt dissolves the protein in the muscle, and that reduces moisture loss during cooking,” Roberts said. “The turkey will need to be rinsed once it’s removed from the brining solution to reduce the saltiness.”
Brining will require some planning because it takes six to eight hours to complete the process.
If you want to smoke your turkey, start by soaking hardwood chips such as hickory, apple or maple in water for one or two hours. This will prevent flare-ups, Roberts said. Avoid using soft woods such as pine, cedar, fir or spruce, which will give the turkey an unpleasant flavor.
According to Roberts, smoking can be done in a covered grill or a commercial smoker. You will need two thermometers, one for the smoker and another for the turkey. The smoker temperature must stay above 225 degrees, and the turkey must reach 165 degrees to be done.
Whatever preparation method you use, once the annual gorge-fest is over, you’ll need to take care of the leftovers.
“Remove the turkey from the bone and store the turkey pieces in shallow containers in the refrigerator,” Roberts said. “The turkey and stuffing should be used within three or four days. When you reheat, make sure the turkey reaches 165 degrees.”
Don’t leave leftovers out for more than two hours. Refrigerate them as soon as everyone has finished eating, Roberts said.