Turkey Tips

I love a turkey dinner. It’s complicated, labour-intensive, and delicious. As a person whose love language is food, it’s the ultimate gesture of affection. Because my mother-in-law doesn’t love cooking as much as I do, I’ve wrested control of the Thanksgiving and Christmas turkey-making. I’ve probably made a turkey at least once a year for the last 17 years, and as a food nerd and control-enthusiast, I’ve developed some tips for a successful, stress-free, and most importantly – TASTY, turkey.

This isn’t so much a recipe or how-to guide. I’m assuming you’ve maybe made a turkey before, or at least looked at recipes online. There are tips beyond the recipes that they may not include.

Tip 1: Time and Space are Not Your Friends

You’re going to be balancing several dishes, which all require different cooking temperatures and cooking times, and all in one oven and 4 burners (likely). This means you’ll want to cook things ahead as much as possible. I’d recommend doing all the prep a day ahead:

  • Chop ingredients for salads and prepping dressings, but don’t mix them yet! If you have crunchy toppings, like nuts or croutons, keep them separate from the veggies.
  • Cook casserole-type sides so they only need to be warmed up the next day. Ideally, the only thing you COOK on the day of is the main course.
  • Desserts – whatever that is

Tip 2: Let’s Talk Turkey – plan at least 4 days out

Prepping said turkey

Turkey takes time, particularly if you get a frozen one. They take 2 whole days to defrost. And in order to ensure your turkey is flavourful and delicious, you’ll want to brine it at least a day ahead. I recommend a dry brine. Here’s a pretty good guide to making turkey from start to finish.

More timing notes

You can cook your turkey a few hours ahead of time and reheat it in a low oven if you think people are going to be late. 

Cooking the damn thing

Roast the turkey in a deep roasting dish that can also go on the stove for gravy reasons. You should also lay your turkey on a bed of cut-up onions, celery, and carrots. This also helps with the gravy flavouring and keeps your turkey from sticking to the pan.

In order to keep things juicy, breasts (aka the body) should be cooked to 130º and thighs should be 160º. This creates a disparity in cooking times. I usually cook the whole thing to 130º, then remove the thighs and pop them back in the oven while making the gravy.

To remove the thighs hold the turkey at the drumstick, pull it away from the body, then slide the knife in between to cut through the joint that attaches the thigh to the rest of the turkey. I put tin foil over the breasts to keep them warm. This ruins the whole “carve the turkey at the table” thing, but it prevents eating breasts that feel like sawdust. I just carve the turkey in the kitchen and lay out slices on nice platters while the sides are reheating in the oven.

Getting a super heavy turkey out of the roasting pan

I’ve experimented with some turkey lifter devices. The best thing I’ve ever used is silicone heat-proof gloves that my mother-in-law has. You lift from the bottom to avoid ripping the turkey skin. It’s kind of a 2-person job, depending on the size of the turkey. You don’t want to drop it!

Don’t cut the turkey straight out of the oven. Give it about 10-15 minutes for the juices to redistribute. Otherwise, when you cut into it, all the juices come out and you get a dry turkey.

Tip 3: It’s all Gravy, Baby

I like to make a LOT of gravy. Like, a pitcher of it. Unfortunately, if you cook your turkey correctly, you won’t get a ton of drippings. So this is what I do to get that homemade touch.

  1. Chop the giblets into manageable chunks (except the neck, it’s all bone) and fry it all in a medium-sized soup pot with oil until browned. (including neck)
  2. Add in a couple of boxes of organic chicken stock (or homemade chicken stock if you have it)
  3. Let that simmer, covered, for at least half an hour, and keep on the stove on low heat while you’re making the roux for the gravy.
  4. When the turkey is out of the oven, take the empty roasting tray and put it on the stove on medium heat. If you followed my directions above, the body is sitting under some foil, and the legs are back in the oven. You can leave the veggies in the roasting pan. Turn the oven to low – 150-200º and put in your casseroles and sides for reheating.
  5. Clear a little spot in the veggies and add about 1/4 cup of flour. Hopefully, there’s enough grease to brown it, but if it seems really dry, then add some butter. If it’s looking very very dark and crusty, add up to half a cup of dry white wine, a little at a time to deglaze the pan and bring up all the tasty brown bits. Keep this up, adding wine until the brown bits are all lifted, and you’re left with a paste of fat, flour, and browned-up bits. 
  6. Now you stir in the chicken stock one ladle at a time, making sure you keep it thick. If you add the stock too quickly, you’ll lose the thickness. No biggie if this happens, you just add cornstarch in some water at the end. After you’re done adding stock, add the giblets in and let this all simmer, covered, while you do other stuff.
  7. When you’re ready to serve, get someone to help you pour this through a sieve. 

If you’re not as extra as I am, feel free to buy powdered gravy. It’s still good.

Tip 4: Don’t get stuffed

I love stuffing, but I hate how it messes with the internal cooking temperature of a turkey, leading to possible salmonella poisoning. For this reason, I never ever stuff a whole turkey. I mean, you’re going to pour gravy all over it anyway, right? And every few years, I’ll make my turkey roast where I stuff a deboned turkey. But even I admit that that is a wild thing to do.

Tip 5: Get the right tools for the job

This will make your life a hell of a lot easier:

  • A very sharp chef’s knife. If you don’t have one, go and spend the $60-80 to get one. This will help you chop through the joints in order to carve your turkey right. You will also be able to slice turkey without shredding it. While you’re at it, get a honing steel to keep the knife sharp between uses. (Though you’ll need to get it actually sharpened if you use it a lot)
  • A reliable instant-read thermometer. I use a very extra Thermapen. They have a regular-person version that is not $100
  • Heat-safe silicone gloves for handling turkey and getting stuff out of the oven
  • A deep roasting tray that fits in your oven (measure before you buy! Also, make sure your turkey isn’t too big… but if it is, you can cook it in pieces. Which will actually yield better results)
  • Tin foil
  •  A fat separator for the gravy. Unless you’re wild like me and just keep the fat in.

Good luck to all you turkey fans! I hope your holiday dinners are only somewhat chaotic!

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