I Roasted a Turkey for the Very First Time and This Is What I Learned
This year, like every year, my mother will roast a turkey for Thanksgiving. She will also make the stuffing and the mashed potatoes, the gravy and the green beans, and all her kids and their spouses and children will come over for dinner. My sister and I will volunteer to help, but we know she won’t really want it. This is her kitchen and she likes it how she likes it. Maybe, just maybe, she will let me trim the green beans.
But she will ask for advice — because I work for a cooking site and I should know things about food, right? And when she asks me how long she should cook the turkey and at what temperature (even though, as I’ve mentioned, she’s been doing this forever), I will have informed answers.
That’s because this year, I decided to roast a turkey — just because. Because I work for a cooking site and should know things about food. Because one day my mother might not want to host Thanksgiving. Because roasting a turkey feels like the kind of thing one should do before one turns 4o (even if that is still a few years away).
So, I roasted a turkey for the very first time. And this is what I learned.
1. It helps to have friends with a turkey or two under their belts.
This actually came as a surprise because I am not someone who likes help in the kitchen. Come hang out and have a glass of wine, sure, but when it comes to the actual cooking, I consider it a solo activity.
A turkey is a daunting thing, however — even if your turkey, like mine, is on the smaller side. So I invited my coworkers to join me in my galley kitchen: our assistant food editor Kelli would provide the experience and know-how, while Ariel was there to provide moral support and liquid courage, if necessary.
2. You can’t order your turkey too early.
I know there are many people out there who procrastinate when it comes to nearly everything. Some even really like it! They thrive on the stress of the last-minute save!
This is not me. I prefer to have as much done ahead of time as possible. This is why I ordered my turkey a month in advance. Counting on about eight guests, I ordered a 10- to 12-pound organic turkey from Diestel Turkey Ranch. It arrived frozen and went straight into my freezer, where it could safely stay until a few days before Roasting Day.
3. A plan is a good thing. A plan close at hand is even better.
About a week before Roasting Day, Kelli emailed me a detailed timeline and relevant How-Tos, which I immediately printed out and taped up on my refrigerator and backsplash for easy access. This way I wouldn’t have to run back and forth like a turkey with its head cut off (I had to) between my office (where my computer is) and my kitchen.
4. You should definitely brine your turkey.
As a first-time roaster, I wasn’t sure if I should attempt to brine my bird. It seemed like an extra step that could be eliminated and ameliorate my anxiety. But my coworkers convinced me that this wasn’t the thing to skip.
For starters, brining can help speed up the thawing process. As it turned out, I was out of town earlier in the week and behind schedule on thawing. Brining also means you don’t have to season your bird. Just pat it dry and it’s basically ready to roast.
The most important reason to brine, though, is this: it’ll make your turkey juicy and tender. Just don’t over-brine it! You want a ratio of one cup salt to four quarts water, plus any aromatics. Let it sit overnight in your refrigerator (which you have prepped in advance, right?) and you’ll be ready to get cooking the next morning.
Read more: How To Brine a Turkey
5. More butter is better.
One ingredient you can’t overdo it on? Butter. Once you’ve dried the turkey, slip a few pats of butter beneath the skin. Don’t worry if it looks lumpy; that butter will melt quickly and keep the breast meat, which cooks more quickly than the darker thigh meat, moist.
6. Say no to stuffing in your bird and yes to lemons and garlic.
One of the questions I had about roasting a turkey for the first time was whether I should stuff it. The answer, according to my coworkers, was yes — just not with stuffing. This isn’t to say that stuffing isn’t an acceptable thing to put in your turkey, but rather that if you’re a rookie, like me, you might want to cook your stuffing separately for food safety reasons. (This is also wise if you have vegetarians at your Thanksgiving meal).
But, according to Kelli, having an empty cavity isn’t ideal — something to do with air flow? — so it’s a good idea to fill it with something else. We went with lemons and garlic, which are pretty much my favorite flavors and a good way to add some depth of flavor to your bird.
7. You don’t need a roasting pan or a baster, but you probably want both.
Here are two things that I, having never roasted a turkey, do not own: a roasting pan and a baster. I do have a very large, very heavy cast-iron casserole pan and I have a spoon. I thought these would serve me fine, but Kelli and Ariel insisted on a proper roasting pan (I used this one from All-Clad and it served me well) and a baster.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t have made my turkey without these two tools, but they definitely made the process easier — especially the roasting pan, which was lighter than my clunky pan, and had easy-to-grip handles and a removable rack, which made it a cinch to just lift the turkey out of the pan and let it rest. But the baster was surprisingly key, too. The drippings, I realized, would have been rather hard to reach with a spoon. Even with the baster, I needed to tilt the pan with one hand while collecting the juices with the other.
8. You will make mistakes and it will be okay.
I am sure I made many mistakes during the cooking of this turkey, but there were at least two big ones: I didn’t take the giblets out — and this is one of the first things you are instructed to do when roasting a turkey — and I set the oven temperature too high, by about 100°F.
The first mistake was not really my fault. I could only find the neck. Kelli and Ariel peered into the turkey and couldn’t find the giblets either. We shrugged and agreed that this was unusual, but perhaps this gobbler already had them removed. It wasn’t until the turkey was finished, rested, and ready to carve that I discovered that this bird did, in fact, have giblets. They were hidden behind a flap near the neck. So, what did I do? I just took them out. Problem solved.
The second error was entirely my fault. I was feeling pretty good about myself as I put the bird into the oven, preheated to 450°F. I set the timer, cleaned up the kitchen, and got to work on my sides — sage & onion stuffing and the creamiest mashed cauliflower. And then I remembered, nearly 45 minutes into my 2 1/2 hour cooking time, that the recipe for roasting a turkey calls for you to reduce the temperature to 350°F once you put the bird in.
It was, it turned out, no big deal. I turned the heat down and, when the skin started to look a little dark, I covered it in aluminum foil. Was the breast meat perhaps a tiny bit drier than I would have liked? Possibly. Could that be cured with gravy? Absolutely.
9. Your thermometer does not lie.
The suggested cooking time for a turkey is about 13 minutes per pound. Since my bird weighed 10.66 pounds, I was looking at around two hours and 20 minutes. I started checking the temperature about halfway through, which is advisable generally speaking, but especially if your oven was set too hot for nearly an hour (see above).
I expected my turkey to be done right on time. It was not — so said the thermometer at least. And I was tempted, oh so very tempted, to just take it out. But Kelli and Ariel prevailed. The thermometer had to read 165°F when inserted into the thigh, or else the dark meat would be inedible.
So I waited. And waited. And waited. Until, at least three hours in, the thermometer finally said it was okay to take it out. And you know what? The bird was pretty perfectly cooked.
10. The carving is the hardest part.
I have to admit: I was pretty proud of my very first turkey when it came out of the oven. Not only was it perfectly bronzed, but it also smelled amazing — and I don’t even like turkey that much! As it rested underneath its tinfoil tent, I started to feel more than a little excited about cutting into it.
And then I cut into it. It wasn’t hard, physically speaking; it was just messier than I thought it would be. I wanted that perfect drumstick, the cleanly carved breast, sliced into nice, neat pieces. That was not the reality.
Was it presentable? Sure. Was it pretty? Nope. Did my guests care? Not one bit. We ate turkey and stuffing and mashed cauliflower and drank bubbles and for dessert we had ice cream. Because ice cream is easy and delicious, especially when it’s Jeni’s.
Post-Script: Don’t get distracted by Instagram.
When my guests left, I decided why not make turkey stock straight away? It would actually make cleanup easier to do it now rather than later, I reasoned.
So I set to work cleaning up the turkey carcass. I threw it, any questionable bits, and some roughly chopped onions, carrots, and celery in the pot. While it simmered, I shredded the breast meat and wrapped up leftover legs.
I also reserved the turkey skin for cracklins. I had never made cracklins before, but I had never roasted a turkey either. I turned on my broiler, laid out the skin on a baking sheet, and popped it in the oven.
I got distracted by social media — possibly I was bragging about the success of my very first turkey — and then the oven started to beep. I opened the door and flames leapt out. I slammed it shut, turned it off, and ran out of the kitchen as it filled with black smoke.
Four brawny firemen arrived shortly thereafter. The fire had already extinguished and so had my pride. But it was an important lesson, perhaps the most important of the day: Leave the Instagramming for when the cooking is all done. Or better yet? Turn your phone off and just enjoy the meal.