Kathy Maister's Start Cooking

The Ultimate Guide to Cooking a Thanksgiving Turkey

posted in Meat, Poultry and Seafood by Kathy Maister

cooking a turkey

Welcome to startcooking’s ultimate (and updated) guide to cooking a turkey!

The thought of cooking your very first Thanksgiving dinner can be a bit intimidating, but with just a bit of advance planning you can definitely pull it off. Roasting a turkey is very similar to roasting a chicken except your oven temperature should be set at 325 degrees and not 400 degrees. Go have a look at that video of mine before you begin. The USDA’s Fact Sheet on Poultry Preparation is also an excellent resource. It includes information on buying, defrosting, cooking, storing, and an emergency hot-line to call for advice as well!

This post will cover the following 10 questions:

  1. What kind of turkey should you buy – fresh, frozen, whole, or just the breast?
  2. What size should I buy?
  3. What’s that stuff already inside my turkey and do I eat it?
  4. What kind of pan do I need to cook the turkey and for how long?
  5. Is making stove-top stuffing cheating or should I stuff the turkey?
  6. Should I make gravy from scratch or just buy it?
  7. Now that the turkey is cooked, how do I carve it?
  8. Is turkey healthy and why am I so tired after eating it?
  9. Is there a turkey hot-line for emergency questions?
  10. What kind of side dishes do I need and how about some dessert?
  11. What do I do with all those turkey leftover?

1. What Kind of Turkey Should You Buy; Fresh, Frozen, Whole, or Just the Breast?

Fresh Turkey

If your guests are coming tomorrow, you will need to buy a fresh (not frozen) turkey. If you have time to plan in advance, you can reserve a fresh turkey ahead of time, from your local butcher shop (if you have one!)

Frozen Turkey

Frozen turkies need time to defrost. The fastest way to defrost a frozen turkey is to put it (in its original packaging) in the sink and let it soak in COLD water. Be sure the turkey is completely covered with water. Change the water every half hour. Allow one hour of thawing time per pound of turkey. If you have the time, typically a couple of days, you can thaw your turkey in your refrigerator. Calculate five hours of thawing time per pound.

Whole or Breast of Turkey

That depends on your own personal tastes. One year, I decided to just buy and cook turkey breasts figuring it would be easier to carve and serve. Everyone asked where the legs were! You can buy whole turkeys that are “self-basting”. They are moist and delicious and I would highly recommend them for the beginning cook.

(Note: Don’t be concerned if your turkey does not come out looking like the ones on the cover of all the food magazines. Photographers sometime use shoe polish to make those turkeys have that beautiful coloring!)

2. What Turkey Size Should I Buy?

Calculate one pound per person. So, for a group of six, a six-pound turkey should suffice. Go for one that’s bigger if you want to have leftovers.

3. What’s that Already Stuffed in my Turkey and Do I Eat It?

When you remove the turkey from its wrapping you will have to reach into the cavity and remove the bag that’s inside before you cook the turkey.

(I show this in my Roasted Chicken video and — yes — there is an “ick” factor here!) The bag usually contains the neck, liver and various edible innards of the turkey. These parts can be simmered in seasoned water on the stove. They are then strained and the flavored water is used as stock to make the gravy. (Pioneer Woman shows how to do this here.) If this is the first turkey you have ever cooked, I am going to recommend tossing this bag away and using store-bought gravy.

4. What Kind of Pan Do I Need to Cook the Turkey and How Long Do I Cook It?

The Pan

A roasting pan with a V-shaped rack is your best bet – but they are expensive. The rack elevates the turkey, allowing the juices and fat to drip into the pan.

A less expensive alternative is to buy a disposable roasting pan from the grocery store.

To give a disposable roasting pan a bit of stability, it is best to place it on a baking sheet with sides.

You can make your own rack by coiling a strip of tin foil.

How long do I cook it?

Read the directions on the package of the turkey and be sure to write down the weight of the turkey. (I even cut out the cooking chart and put it on a plate for reference…just in case!)

Many turkeys come with a single use thermometer that pops up when the turkey is done. You can also use your own meat thermometer or you can buy a single use pop-up thermometer. (I prefer instant read thermometers) I explain more about thermometers here.

If you are using a regular meat thermometer, insert it about 2.5 inches into the deepest part of the turkey, without touching the bone.

The minimum internal temperature should reach 165°F.

“A whole turkey (and turkey parts) is safe to eat when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook turkey to higher temperatures.”

Prior to 2006, (as per recommendation of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service) most cookbooks recommended that the internal temperature of a turkey should reach 170 degrees F in the breast or 180 degrees F in the thigh. If you cook your turkey that long it will end up dry and tough.

For a good visual to determine if your turkey is cooked, make a slice by the leg joint to see if the juices run clear. The joint should feel loose.

An unstuffed turkey takes less time to cook than a stuffed turkey. Butterball has a great site that will help you to determine the cooking time of your turkey.

5. Is Making Stove-Top Stuffing Cheating or Should I Stuff the Turkey?

Bread stuffing (with gravy) is one of my favorite parts of this meal. Instant stove-top stuffing is surprisingly tasty. This stuffing uses dried bread croutons and you can add chopped celery and onions if you like. (That’s how my mom used to make stuffing!)

Make the stuffing and bake it in the oven (or on the stove top). You do not have to stuff the turkey. In fact the USFDA advises against this method for food-safety reasons. The unstuffed turkey will take less time to cook.

6. Should I make gravy from scratch or just buy it?

As I said above, if this is the first turkey you have ever cooked, I am going to recommend using store-bought gravy. Making gravy is not difficult but it can be tricky for a beginner cook. If you are considering making your own gravy from scratch, start by checking out my post on How to Make Gravy. There are several different ways to go about making gravy. Here are some additional links to really good photo tutorials and videos on making various kinds of gravy:

  • Epicurious has an excellent video on How to Make Gravy by deglazing a roasting pan first.
  • The Mayo Clinic also has an excellent video on Making Healthy Gravy. Their recipe uses cornstarch instead of butter and flour to thicken the gravy.
  • Instructables has a great photo-tutorial on a superb looking Vegetarian Mushroom Gravy.
  • For lovers of Giblet Gravy, head over to Cook Like Your Grandmother for a very well done photo-tutorial.
  • Martha Stewarts Perfect Gravy is made with Madera Wine. She thickens her gravy by making a “slurry” of giblet stock and flour in a jar.

7. Now that the Turkey Is Cooked, How Do I Carve It?

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Once the turkey is out of the oven, loosely cover it with tin foil and let it rest at least 20 minutes to 30 minutes. When carving the turkey, make sure you have a sharp knife and be sure to carve it in the kitchen – not at the dinner table. Any spills or mishaps should happen behind closed doors. Garnish the turkey platter with lots of fresh parsley and maybe even some sliced oranges. (By the way, there are about 65,000 videos on Google showing you how to carve a turkey!)

8. Is Turkey Healthy and Why Am I so Tired After Eating It?

Turkey is a great source of protein but the l-tryptophan can make you sleepy. Or maybe it’s just that you worked so hard preparing your first, utterly fantastic, turkey dinner!

9. Is There a Turkey Hot-Line for Emergency Questions?

Of course! And there are real people on the other end of the phoneline!

10. What Kind of Side Dishes Do I Need and What About Dessert?

Startcooking.com has tons of appetizers, side dishes and desserts to choose from. Here are just a few suggestions:

Pumpkin Soup

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Cranberry Sauce with Mandarian Oranges

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Mashed potatoes

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Gravy (from a jar) or Make Your Own Gravy

Sweet Potato Casserole

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Butternut squash

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Steamed fresh vegetables

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And for dessert how about Pecan Pie!

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Pumpkin Pie

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Chocolate Cheese Cake Pie

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11. What Do I Do with all Those Turkey Leftover?

Cooked turkey can be substituted for any recipe that calls for cooked chicken.

Chicken (or turkey) Salad with Wild Rice and Avocados (video) can get made in the morning and dinner will be ready and waiting when you get home from work (or shopping!).

Chicken (or turkey) Noodle Soup is everyone’s favorite. This recipe takes less than 20 minutes to prepare.

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Chicken (or turkey) Salad is great made with walnuts and grapes!

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Caesar Salad often has cooked chicken add so why not some cooked turkey!

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Taste of Home definitely knows what to do with their turkey leftovers. They have a great list of the Top 10 Things to do with Leftover Turkey.

Kate’s Global Kitchen does something really cool called:Turkey 3 Ingredients = Luscious Leftovers

Jennie-O as well as HubPages both have some great tips how to store your leftovers and how long they will keep.

Good Luck and Happy Holidays!

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Split Pea Soup Recipe

print recipe card posted in Soups, Salads, Sides and Sauces by Kathy Maister
Difficulty:

Split pea soup is a “stick to your ribs”, hearty soup. I make it with turkey kielbasa (Polish sausage), which turns it into a great winter’s meal.

(In Adelaide, Australia they serve green split pea soup with a meat pie floating in it. You buy it from street vendors and, as odd as it sounds, it’s actually delicious!)

Split pea soup, like all soups, has a flexible ingredient list. For this recipe you will need:

  • 1 pound of green split peas
  • 4 medium leeks
  • 2 Tablespoons of olive oil
  • 6 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 pound of Polish Turkey Kielbasa
  • 2 Tablespoons of Fresh chopped lemon thyme
  • Zest from one lemon
  • Juice from one lemon
  • Salt and Pepper


Leeks, a tasty vegetable, are a part of the onion family, but have a much milder flavor than their cousins. Trim the ends off and slice them into about ¼ inch slices. Be sure to wash them well!

Heat 2 Tablespoons of olive oil in large pot. Add the dry leeks and cook on medium heat for about 5 minutes.

As the leeks are cooking, “sort” the dried split peas. That means to look through them to make sure no tiny stone ended up in the bag. (Many dry beans need to be soaked for several hours or overnight before you can cook them. YOU DO NOT NEED TO SOAK THE SPLIT PEAS FOR THIS RECIPE, or any recipe for that matter.)

Then rinse them under cool, running water.

Add them to the pot, along with 6 cups of chicken or vegetable stock. You can use the bouillon cubes to make the stock, or buy stock in a can.

Bring the pot to a boil and then turn it down to simmer. Cover the pot and simmer it for about 1 hour, giving it an occasional stir.

The peas are going to get totally soft and mushy, and the leeks are going to cook down completely. The soup is going to get really (really) thick.

Cut the turkey kielbasa into bite size pieces and add it to the pot.

Simmer the soup for about another 10 minutes. The sausage is already cooked so we are mostly just heating it through.

While the soup is simmering, chop the fresh lemon thyme. This has a wonderful, fresh, lemony flavor that adds such a lift to this soup! Pull the tiny leaves off the stem. Discard the stem and chop the leaves up.

I also like to add the juice of one lemon along with the zest.

Turn off the stove and add the lemon zest, juice, and lemon thyme. Give it a taste to see if it needs some salt and pepper. If the soup is too thick, add some more chicken or vegetable stock to thin it down a bit.

The soup is ready to serve!

Enjoy!

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Cranberry Pinwheels

print recipe card posted in Appetizers and Snacks, Vegetarian by Kathy Maister
Difficulty:

These cranberry pinwheels are a great hors-d’oeuvre to serve year round, but they are especially perfect for the holidays. The dried red cranberries and the green scallions make them look really festive. Plus the sweet/savory combination of the cranberries, feta cheese and green onion make them particularly tasty. They can actually be made 1 day ahead of serving them.

You will need the following ingredients:

  • 1-8 ounces carton of whipped cream cheese
  • 1 cup (8 ounces) crumbled feta cheese
  • ¼ cup chopped green onion
  • 6 ounces of dried cranberries
  • 4-10 inch flour tortillas

There are many different brands of feta cheese. Some are saltier than others. You may have to try a few different brands until you find one that suits your taste! (Feta cheese is the one that is always served on a Greek Salad. I have used it on my Cold Mediterranean Plate.)

Tortillas are a Mexican, round, flat, unleavened, bread made of either corn or flour. For this recipe be sure to buy the flour tortillas. They can be found in the refrigerator section of the grocery store.

Preparation:

The green onions need to be washed. Then cut off the hairy end.

The white part has a stronger onion flavor than the green part. For this recipe I use the whole thing. Cut the green onions into thirds and line them up.

Now dice them into about 1/8 inch slices.

Put the crumbled feta cheese into a large mixing bowl.

Now add the whipped cream cheese.

And the chopped scallions.

Now all the cranberries.

Mix everything together.

Spread the mixture onto a dinner plate. Divide the mixture into four equal size piles. This way you know you have divided the filling equally and each Cranberry Roll-up will have the same amount of filling.

Using a knife spread ¼ of the mixture onto a 10 inch tortilla. If the filling is difficult to spread, dip your knife into water then try spreading the filling. (You can use the leftover flour tortillas to make Quesadillas!)

It is not necessary to spread the filling right to the very side edges. Those edges will get trimmed away later anyways in order to make perfect rounds.

Tightly roll up the tortilla.

Wrap each tortilla in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour. (Or you can make them a day in advance.)

Slice off the ends about 1 inch on each side. (These are the bits that you sample!) Now cut each roll into about 10 slices. (If you cut them too thin they will fall apart.)

Arrange the slices on a serving dish and garnish (decorate) with fresh parsley or leftover green onion. Enjoy!

Source: Taste of Home

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