Monday, November 12, 2012

Basic Roast Turkey from Thawing to Table with Pictures

This week we're supposed to be blogging about our Thanksgiving traditions. For me, it's usually the biggest feast of the year. Turkey, two kinds of stuffing so everyone will be happy, mashed potatoes, gravy, homemade bread, cranberry sauce, veggies, and either pecan pie or pumpkin pie.

So instead of offering a fancy schmancy recipe, I'm going to talk about turkey.

First, a word about brining. If you buy an organic turkey, or a local turkey, you will probably want to brine it. Read the label. If your turkey is Kosher or has been preserved with a solution, then you should not brine it.

That was probably great news for some people. If you're planning to brine your turkey, head over here.

For those of you who are not going to brine your turkey, here are the basics of roasting a turkey, from thawing to table.


A turkey takes three days to thaw in the refrigerator. Take it out of the freezer on Sunday night or Monday morning. If you are reading this on Thanksgiving Day with a turkey on the counter that is frozen harder than rock, call 1-800-BUTTERBALL (1-800-288-8372). That's their hotline.

While I doubt that a government office would be open on Thanksgiving, you can also try  the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline number at 1-888-674-6854. It looks like they think you can cook a frozen turkey but that it takes longer. Don't do that without checking out their instructions in detail because I have no idea what happens to the giblets and neck that are frozen inside.

(may be skipped)

If you particularly relish crispy skin, remove the turkey from the bag on Wednesday. Remove the giblets and neck (see below), rinse it, dry it, salt and pepper it, and allow it to continue thawing in the refrigerator uncovered for 24 hours before roasting.

If you forget to do that, it's okay. Your turkey will still turn out fine.


Turkey roasting pans come in all shapes and sizes. This is what I use. A pan with a roasting rack inside it.

However, if you're shopping for one of these, buy the kind of pan that has handles that stand up on their own. It might be more complicated to store, but if the handles fall to the sides, it's impossible to get a grip on them when the pan is hot.

Or you can use this kind of roaster with a rack in it.


And in a pinch, you can even use the pan that came with your oven. They're not the best choice, but I've used them and everything worked out fine.


If your family has gotten together in the kitchen at 3AM for the last thirty years to cook Thanksgiving dinner and your nana, mom, and Aunt Birdie insist that a turkey must be roasted low and slow for hours and hours, then don't fight them. Do it their way.

Or you can do it this way.

Depending on the size of your oven, you will most likely have to move the rack down to the next to bottom level.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.


Most turkeys are packed with a gizmo that holds the legs together called a hock lock. Honestly, removing it might be the most difficult part of this whole process. There are several different styles in use, but the thing to note is that it has little wings to the left and the right that are wedged very firmly in your turkey.

Depress the ends of the legs, one at a time, until you can free them from the gizmo. Now for the difficult part. You'll note that the little wings on the left and the right are curved (some are, some aren't). That means if you pull it straight toward you, it's only being lodged deeper in the meat. Push it away and try, if at all possible, to squeeze it together or tug it to one side then the other side until both sides are out.

Whew! The rest is easy. Generally the neck will be found inside the cavity accessed between the legs. Sometimes the giblets are also there. If not, they are on the other end with a flap of skin holding them in place. Remove the neck and the giblets. I'm not going into gravy here, because that's a whole other thing. However, if you're cooking gravy, hold onto the neck and giblets because you'll need them. Not going there? Cook the giblets (not the neck) and chop them up for your dog. You might also want to check out Annie Knox's mushroom gravy.

Rinse the turkey with cold water and pat dry.

Rub the exterior of the turkey with salt and pepper. Just pour a little into your hand and rub it on the turkey.

Turn the turkey onto its tummy. Breast side down.

Take the end of the wing in your hand. Lift it toward the neck of the turkey and scoot it over onto the back. Repeat with other wing.

If your turkey has a pop-up timer, be sure it's not wedged on your rack. You don't want it to be touching anything.


Slide turkey into oven. Set timer for 45 minutes. If you have a giant turkey that's over 16 pounds, set the timer for 1 hour.

When the timer goes off, remove the turkey from the oven.

Forget these.

They make handy dandy weapons for murder mystery authors, but old kitchen towels are cheaper and provide a much better grip.

Double two kitchen towels, one in each hand. Grasp the knob on the ends of the legs. Make sure no one is on the other side because hot liquid is going to come out. Lift and slowly roll the turkey forward (away from you). Let the juices drip into the pan. Now lift the turkey, move it toward you, and place it on the rack on its BACK.

Put the turkey back into the oven. Be sure the side with the pop-up timer is visible.

Turn the temperature down to 375.

Set the timer for 45 minutes if it's a small turkey. Most turkeys will need at least another hour or hour and a half of cooking time or more. It's my theory that previously frozen turkeys take longer to cook than fresh turkeys. After 1 hour, watch the turkey. I usually set the timer for 10 - 20 minutes so I won't forget to check.


Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. Beware of removing the turkey from the oven too soon. It will look perfect before it's through cooking.

The USDA says turkey should cook to 165 degrees.

Loads of recipes say to tent the turkey with aluminum foil until it's served. That guarantees non-crispy skin because it ends up steaming. Just let the turkey stand for about ten minutes while you eat your soup, and then serve.

As many of you know, I write the Domestic Diva Mysteries and my domestic divas are available today to answer questions.

Dear Sophie,

My mother-in-law asked if I trussed the turkey. I don't know what she's talking about.

                   Feeling Like a Turkey

Dear Feeling Like a Turkey,

Trussing means tying the legs together. It's highly overrated. I actually think it's better not to tie the legs because they cook faster and more evenly when they're loose.


Dear Sophie,

My aunt told me to baste the turkey with butter while it's baking. You didn't mention that.

                    First Time Roaster

Dear First Time Roaster,

Cooking guru Alton Brown says that basting, while not harmful, doesn't make a difference and can be detrimental because each time the oven is opened the temperature drops a little. Skip the basting.


Dear Natasha,

Have you seen Sophie's super simple directions for roasting turkey? Is it true that I don't have to truss the turkey or baste it?

      President of the I ♥ Natasha Fan Club

Dear President of the I ♥ Natasha Fan Club,

I'm so honored! You are quite right, of course. Not only should one truss and baste, but a properly roasted turkey also wears ruffly white turkey frills on the ends of his legs. And that nonsense about using kitchen towels to turn the turkey! We are not heathens. We use turkey lifters, no matter how hard it is to lift the turkey with them.


Don't know Sophie and Natasha yet? It all started one Thanksgiving with THE DIVA RUNS OUT OF THYME.

 Happy Thanksgiving to All!


  1. What a great post Krista--I love the attitude that you should do it this way, but it you do it another way, that will turn out fine too:).

    I've been a baster all my life so not sure I can change that now...I used to soak cheesecloth in butter and drape that over the turkey before cooking. Somehow I've gotten away from that.

    Have you ever tried roasting one in a paper bag?

  2. Um, doesn't the paper bag catch fire in the hot oven? Or maybe that's for the low, slow roast? No, I haven't tried it. How is a paper bag supposed to help it roast? Seems like a formula for dinner with the fire department to me.

    I have a vague recollection of my mother trying the cheesecloth method one year. Maybe it was in vogue at one time.

    There are so many ways to roast turkey. I remember roasting one at a beach rental so everyone would have something to nosh on. Since it was a rental, all we had were the oven and the pan that came with the oven. No brining, no herbs, no basting -- and it turned out great.

    ~ Krista

  3. I've never made a turkey so I read your instructions eagerly, Krista. And while, chances are that I'll still probably never make a turkey, at least now I know where to find good basis instructions.

    A couple other points: Your mention of the Butterball hotline reminded me of the episode of the West Wing, where the president was so excited to learn that Butterball had a hotline he could call to discuss turkeys. Made me smile.

    Second, I never knew that oven pan you pictured came with the oven. Every time I've moved, I've always thought the prior owner left those pans behind. How I laughed to learn they came with the oven.

    Anyway, thanks for the turkey primer. And happy early Thanksgiving!

    1. LOL, Barb! Love that moment from West Wing. How funny!

      If you never roast a turkey, then you must have a lot of good friends and family who invite you over. That's the smart way to celebrate! I hope they send you home with leftovers -- because it's all even better the second day. Especially the turkey sandwiches!

      Happy Thanksgiving, Barb!

      ~ Krista

  4. Stellar post, Krista, and I can testify to the absolute brilliance of the crispy skin tip! I flipped when you mentioned this in the past, and Marc and I have used this tip (with great results) ever since. Thanks again for sharing your culinary know-how & Marc and I send you and your family the very best wishes for a...

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    ~ Cleo

    1. Thanks, Cleo! I'm so glad that my tip worked for you. And all because I was lazy and stuck a duck into the fridge without covering it for a day.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you and Marc, too!

      ~ Krista

  5. Love the tip about using old dish towels to grab the bird. Much easier than trying to get it out via a couple of forks! When I had a garden, I grew sage and it was usually still green and viable at Thanksgiving...even when I had to brush the snow off it! I would stick those under the skin--something I saw on Martha Stewart although the effect was never quite as impressive as hers!

    1. Peg, I have three sets of turkey lifters. They're a nightmare -- but a great weapon! Kitchen towels work so much better. You just have to remember that very hot liquid is in the cavity!

      I love that idea with the fresh thyme. I'll have to try it sometime.

      ~ Krista

  6. Krista,
    I really enjoyed your post today, thanks. Mr Nanc does our turkey in the Weber so I haven't done a turkey in the oven for quite awhile. As we are hosting several "orphan" friends this year I am thinking of getting two smaller birds and doing one in the oven and the usual Weber one. I appreciate the instructions on getting those darn doo-hickeys off the legs...what a pain those are!

    Wishing you and your family a blessed Thanksgiving,


    1. Nanc, how lucky that Mr. Nanc takes care of the turkey! That's fabulous. You're so nice to invite orphans. I think Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday for that. Hope all your turkeys turn out great!

      May you and your family also have a blessed Thanksgiving!

      ~ Krista

  7. My daughter was panic stricken at the thought of cooking her first TG dinner. I told her it was more timing the different dishes than gourmet cooking. I told her to start with the time she wanted dinner to start and work backwards. That meant if she wanted to eat at 1pm, and the turkey would need 5 hours to cook, then the turkey went in the over at 7:30am (to allow the 30 minute "resting time" before carving). Prep your other dishes the night before and relax. Her first turkey was perfect and afterward she was "why did everyone say it was so hard?" Oh, and for all you Yankees, cornbread dressing is a MUST for TG Day! Bread Dressing is optional.

  8. I used your method today and it turned out great! Thanks!!! Also, I'm half way through The Diva Wraps it Up; loving it as I have all this series. Merry Christmas!