We answer all your burning Thanksgiving cooking questions, and provide graphics to make your Thanksgiving reference easier. Let’s get started!
Meal Planning and Timing
Even the most experienced cooks find it difficult to time Thanksgiving perfectly, trust us. Lucky for you, we worked out the details to help relieve some of your timing stress. This infographic on how to time your Thanksgiving right is based on typical cooking times. Don’t forget, if you’re brining your turkey, you’ll need to do that ahead of time. Overall key to success? Wine breaks. Don’t forget to take these, and a breath every now and then!
Before we get into the turkey questions, check out our quick guide to Thanksgiving turkeys below. Be sure to plan in advance!
Q: How big should my turkey be?
A: Count on 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of turkey for each guest, depending on whether you want plenty of leftovers or just a few. (If you have lots of guests to feed, you might choose two medium-sized turkeys rather than one giant; the cooking time will be shorter.)
Q: How do I thaw my turkey? (Or, Help! my turkey is still frozen!)
A: The best way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator. Allow one day for every five pounds of turkey. You can speed up the thawing process by placing the wrapped, frozen turkey in your kitchen sink and covering it with cold running water. Use your bathtub if your sink isn’t large enough. Drain and refill the water every half hour to prevent freezing. The turkey will thaw at the rate of about a half hour for each pound. Never thaw a turkey at room temperature.
Q: How long does a turkey need to roast?
A: The roasting time for a 12-pound bird is approximately 3 to 3½ hours. However, don’t rely on a timer to determine doneness. The best test for doneness is the temperature of the meat. The turkey is done when the thigh meat reaches an internal temperature of 180 degrees F, and when the breast meat reaches an internal temperature of 170 degrees F. If your turkey has been stuffed, it is important to check the temperature of the dressing. The stuffing should be 165 degrees F. When the turkey is done, remove from the oven and allow to stand for 30 minutes. Check out our Turkey Cooking Time Guide for more info!
Q: Why is my turkey burning while it’s roasting? A: It could be that your oven needs to be calibrated and that you’ve been roasting it at a much higher temperature than you thought. (Note to self: purchase an oven thermometer.) Or you may be relying on one of those “pop-ups” to tell you when the turkey is done, which aren’t as reliable as a meat thermometer inserted into the turkey. Flip the bird over immediately and continue to cook. When you carve the turkey, begin by removing any blackened skin and about half an inch of the meat below any burnt area. You can then layer slices of the meat on individual dinner plates (outside the view of your guests), ladle gravy spiced with a little cayenne pepper on top and call it your special “Cajun Smoked Turkey.”
Q: Can I roast my turkey the day before Thanksgiving then reheat it? A: Never partially roast a turkey the day before to save on cooking time the next day. This creates the perfect environment for bacterial growth. That said, you can carve the bird and layer the meat in a baking dish for reheating. Seal the baking dish with foil to reduce moisture loss. Breast meat has a greater likelihood of drying out, so place it on the bottom of the dish–and consider covering it with gravy or perhaps a small amount of turkey stock.
Q: How do I smoke a turkey?
A: Smoking a turkey is very easy provided you have the right equipment. The right equipment, in this case, is a smoker. Smokers allow you to carefully regulate the temperature, which is vital when cooking a large beast over a long period of time. It’s possible to smoke a turkey using a charcoal grill, but only if you’re prepared to get comfortable next to the barbeque and watch it constantly for the better part of a day. Find out all you need to know to perfectly smoke your turkey here.
Q: Can I grill a whole turkey?
A: A whole turkey can be cooked on a grill using indirect heat. Turkey should be cooked to 180 degrees F (80 degrees C). Clear juices are not a good indicator of doneness. Depending on the age of the bird, the juices might not run clear until the bird is overcooked. We suggest you read How To Grill A Turkey for a full understanding of the procedure.
Q: How do I deep-fry a turkey?
A: Deep-frying a whole turkey is a Cajun tradition that produces sensationally juicy meat and delightfully crispy skin. An added advantage of cooking a turkey this way is it takes less than an hour to cook the whole bird. That being said, the process is a fairly involved one. We suggest you read How To Deep-Fry Turkey for a full understanding of the procedure.
Q: How long can cooked turkey be frozen?
A: Although freezing keeps food safe for an indefinite amount of time, we recommend,for quality’s sake, eating it within a reasonable time period. Cooked turkey can be frozen for up to four months. Read: Freezing Foods: A Real Time-Saver. Suggestions for using those leftovers can be found in Thanksgiving Leftovers.
Q: Can I prepare my turkey in an electric roaster?
A: An electric roaster is a great alternative to roasting your turkey in the oven. Roasters typically cook at the same temperature and time as your oven, however, for best results, please refer to your manufacturer’s instructions.
Q: How can I fix dry turkey meat?
A: There are several simple ways to moisten dry turkey meat. Check out the short VIDEO: How To Fix Dry Turkey Meat. But, the quick answer is, cover your turkey slices with extra gravy. To prevent this ahead of time, brining is a good way to go for delicious juicy turkey. By the way, leftover dry meat is perfect for BBQ, stews or turkey salads!
Q: What is the best way to store cooked turkey meat?
A: Layer the meat in a baking dish and seal it with foil to reduce moisture loss. Since breast meat has a greater tendency to dry out, place it on the bottom of the dish and cover it with gravy if you like, or perhaps a small amount of turkey stock. Cooked turkey will last 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator. You can also freeze turkey. Sealed in an airtight plastic wrapping or freezer bag, turkey can be frozen for up to four months. Freezing turkey with gravy will help it retain moisture better.
Q: Can I stuff the turkey the night before baking?
A: You should never stuff a bird hours before roasting, as the cavity can provide an environment for bacteria to grow. When cooking stuffing in a turkey, it is always best to prepare it just before filling and roasting the bird. The stuffing should be warm when placed in the turkey so it cooks and reaches 160 degrees F (70 degrees C) by the time the turkey is done. Stuffing should always reach a temperature of at least 160 degrees F (70 degrees C) to kill bacteria. This temperature can be measured by placing a meat thermometer into the center of the body cavity. If the turkey is finished cooking before the stuffing has reached the correct temperature scoop it out, and place it in a greased baking dish. Microwave it on high or bake it at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) until it reaches 160 degrees F (70 degrees C). By the way, you can make some other things the night before, to give you more time to focus on the turkey.
Questions About Thanksgiving Sides
Q: What is the best way to mash potatoes?
A: The best thing to use for potatoes is a potato ricer or food mill. These two gadgets work so well because the potatoes achieve a uniform texture as they pass through evenly sized holes, and they get smashed only once. With these methods, the potatoes’ cell walls are much less likely to break open and the texture will remain light, fluffy, and creamy.
Q: How do I fix sticky, gluey mashed potatoes? A: Adding more milk or butter may not thin out sticky potatoes. Try forming into patties, chilling for about an hour and then frying until golden brown. You can also spoon the potatoes into a casserole dish, top with butter and cheddar cheese, bake and serve as a mashed potatoes casserole.
Q: What is the secret to perfect gravy?
A: Gravy becomes lumpy when the flour is not mixed in properly. This can be avoided by starting with equal amounts of flour and a fat such as butter, turkey grease, or other meat drippings. This is known as a roux. Mix them into a paste over medium heat, then gradually introduce more liquid, while stirring constantly. Cook until thickened, while stirring continually to prevent lumps from forming on the bottom of the pan. As a general guideline, 1/2 cup of roux will thicken 4 cups of liquid.
Q: How can I fix lumpy gravy?
A: The flour may not have been fully dissolved in liquid before you added it to the pan drippings or the gravy may have cooked at too high of a temperature. Pour the gravy through a mesh strainer into a new pan and heat gently, stirring constantly; serve immediately.
- Check out the short VIDEO: How To Fix Lumpy Gravy.
Q: My gravy burned. What do I do? A: Quickly transfer the gravy to another pan without touching or scraping the blackened bottom. Most of the burnt flavor should stay with the pan. Worst-case scenario? Keep packaged gravy on hand as a back-up.
Q: How can I fix gravy that’s too thin?
A: There are some easy fixes for watery gravy. Check out the short VIDEO: How To Fix Thin Gravy.
Q: How do I roast nuts?
A: Preheat your oven to 300 degrees F (150 degrees C). Remove the shells of the nuts if this has not already been done, and arrange the shelled nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast until the nuts begin to turn a golden brown. You can use this method to roast all types of nuts.
Q: Can I use frozen or dried cranberries in place of fresh? A: Yes, you can. You can substitute frozen for fresh in equal amounts. In fact, you will not even have to thaw them, as they are fairly low in moisture. If you wish to substitute dried for fresh, use 1/3 the amount.
- For more tips, see How To Cook Cranberries.
Q: What is mace? A: This spice tastes and smells like a pungent version of nutmeg, and for a very good reason…mace is the bright red membrane that covers the nutmeg seed. After the membrane is removed and dried it becomes a yellow-orange color. It’s sold ground and, less frequently, whole (in which case it’s called a “blade”). Mace is used to flavor all manner of foods, sweet to savory.
Q: How can I fix a burnt pie crust?
A: There are several quick fixes for burnt crusts.
- Check out the short VIDEO: How To Fix Burnt Pie Crust.
Q: How can I fix a pie crust with a soggy bottom?
A: Check out an ingenious fix in the short VIDEO: How To Fix A Soggy Pie Bottom.
Q: Can I use fresh pumpkin in place of canned pumpkin?
A: Fresh pumpkins must be cooked before using in baking recipes. One of the best methods is to bake the pumpkin in pieces. Puree the flesh until smooth, and use as you would canned pumpkin. You can also use canned pumpkin in place of fresh pumpkin. One 15-ounce can is approximately equal to 1 ¾ cups pumpkin puree.
Q: Help! I have run out of pumpkin pie spice. What can I substitute?
A: You can make your own blend at home using cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves. We have two recipes for pumpkin pie spice.
By the way, here are some helpful conversion charts to keep handy while you’re baking up a storm.
And, one for baking pan conversions. Nobody likes a disproportionate cake.
Good luck! And if you’re still trying to get set for your best Thanksgiving, check out thousands of tried and trusted Thanksgiving recipes.
Related: See step-by-step cooking tips in our Top 10 Thanksgiving Videos.