7 Mistakes to Avoid When Cooking a Turkey

published Nov 18, 2014
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Turkey is certainly the masterpiece of the Thanksgiving table, presented with flourish and praise for the cook. Despite the idyllic image we’ve created of roasted turkey, it is essentially the same as roasting your Sunday chicken, albeit on a much larger scale. While there are lots of opinions about (and some sound advice for) roasting a turkey, there are just a few key steps to avoid for a terrific Thanksgiving turkey.

1. Not giving the turkey enough time to thaw.

If you’re using a frozen turkey, whatever you do, don’t wait until the day before Thanksgiving to take it out of the freezer. Remember, frozen turkeys take at least three days to completely thaw.

Follow this tip: When it comes to thawing turkey, it’s better to give yourself too much time than not enough. The best and most convenient way to thaw your turkey is in the refrigerator. As a rule of thumb it will need at least 24 hours for every five pounds. We’ve found that it often takes a little longer. So, if you have a 15-pound turkey, plan to transfer it to the refrigerator by the Sunday or Monday of Thanksgiving week. Using this method, the thawed turkey can also sit in the refrigerator for a day or two before cooking.

Alternatively, for faster thawing, you can place the turkey in a cold water bath, changing the water every 30 minutes. Plan on six to eight hours for a 12- to 16-pound turkey, and eight to 10 hours for a 16- to 20-pound turkey. One caveat with this method, though — you need to cook the turkey immediately once it’s thawed.

Did you completely forget? If you totally forgot and still have a frozen turkey on your hands, you can roast it. Here’s our cooking lesson to help you out.

2. Turning the oven temperature too high.

Crispy skin is one of the highlights of the turkey, but there’s no need to start the cooking at a high temperature. This will only lead to burnt skin and undercooked meat.

Follow this tip: We suggest keeping the oven at a steady, moderate temperature to get perfectly cooked meat and crisp skin. Plus, there are plenty of other ways to get crispy skin, like dry brining.

3. Putting the turkey in the oven too early.

If dinner is at three o’clock in the afternoon, there’s no reason to put your turkey in the oven at sunrise. Yes, turkey does take a long time to cook, but you don’t want it to sit out for too long before serving.

Follow this tip: The rule of thumb for cooking turkey is 13 minutes per pound, at 350°F. Depending on the size of your turkey, plan on cooking it for three to five hours. And keep in mind that you’ll want to let it rest for about 20 minutes before carving and serving.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

4. Not using a meat thermometer.

Meat thermometers are the most accurate way to determine when the turkey is fully cooked. Even if your bird comes with one of those pop-up timers, it’s best not to rely on that alone.

Follow this tip: The most reliable way to check the doneness of turkey is with a meat thermometer. Turkey should be cooked until it reaches 165°F and then removed from the oven. Test the temperature by inserting a thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, without hitting the bone.

5. Throwing out the pan drippings.

The drippings that are left in the bottom of the roasting pan after cooking the turkey are liquid gold. Think of them as the flavor equivalent of winning the lottery. So whatever you do, don’t throw them away.

Follow this tip: The caramelized pan drippings are full of rich, concentrated flavor. Put these magical bits to work and use them as a base for your gravy! Not only is this gravy quick and easy to make (it takes literally just minutes), but it’s also far more delicious that anything you might make from a powdered mix or from a jar.

6. Not planning for leftovers.

Your family is counting on leftovers, because there are few joys quite like a turkey sandwich the Friday after Thanksgiving. Plus you can put turkey leftovers into everything from soup to lasagna.

Try this tip: Plan on one pound of turkey per guest, which will leave plenty of leftovers to share. Feeding a crowd? Try roasting two smaller turkeys rather than one massive turkey.

7. Throwing away your turkey bones.

The leftover bones from your turkey are a seasonal gift. Don’t trash them — turn them into stock. You can freeze the turkey carcass for future stock fodder if you’re feeling fatigued after the marathon of cooking for the holiday, but don’t miss this opportunity to make a stunning batch of stock.

Follow this tip: Throughout the week of Thanksgiving, designate a gallon-sized zip-top bag to stock ingredients — a few stems of herbs, some extra celery, the turkey neck (if you don’t roast it) — so that by the end of the week all you need is water to make stock.

What are your best tips for cooking a turkey?