Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving with or without stuffing.

We are going to look at cooking a turkey, both stuffed and unstuffed, for an inexperienced cook.  If this is your first "Thanksgiving" meal or even second or third, I'm going to try to help make it a little less daunting of a task.  In the blogs for today, Thursday and Friday I will give you a menu, recipes and help walk you through it.

I'm going to make some assumptions.  You are having 8 or fewer guests over for the special dinner and you are doing it all by yourself.  Remember that you could have guests contribute to the dinner by bringing a specific dish that you want for the menu.  If not, let's start with the turkey.  I'm not putting the turkey in a recipe format like I normally do.  The other recipes will be in the usual format that I use.

You will want to buy a 12 lb. frozen turkey.  This will give you plenty of turkey for the meal plus leftovers for future meals.  I would buy the turkey on Saturday or Sunday before Thanksgiving because it will need to thaw.  It will take 3 to 5 days for the turkey to thaw in your refrigerator.  You don't want to thaw it in cold water so get it thawing early.  It's all about planning.

To thaw the turkey, leave it in it's wrapper and place in a pan (9x13 pan should work) to catch any juices as it thaws.  Place the pan on the bottom shelf in your refrigerator and leave it until Thanksgiving Day.

Now as part of our planning, when will we serve dinner?  We need to know this so we can figure out the time we need to start prepping our food.  I will use 1:00 PM as our dinner time and use that throughout all the recipes.

On Thanksgiving morning, we will start working with the turkey at 8:00 AM (5 hours before we want to eat).  We want to remove the turkey from the refrigerator and move it to the sink area.  First clean your sink with soap, water and rinse well, then place the turkey in the sink and remove the plastic cover on the turkey.  Be careful because usually, on the wrapper, there are instructions for cleaning, cooking temp and cooking times.  They may come in handy for reference.

Once the wrapper is off, remove the neck and anything else in the main body cavity of the turkey.  To do this simply place the turkey in front of you with the legs towards you.  Grab one leg and push down on it to release it from the clamp.  Repeat with the other leg.  Do not remove the clamp because when you are ready to put the turkey in the oven, both legs need to be back in clamp.  Next, remove the giblets (usually in paper bag) that are found in the neck cavity of the turkey under all that loose skin.  It you don't have both items (neck & giblets) keep looking.  I know several people that have left the giblets in the turkey while cooking only to find them as they carve the turkey.  It won't kill you but it will embarrass you in front of others.  If giblets are left in, discard them if they have not reached an internal temp of 175 degrees.  If they have then enjoy the giblets if you like them.

Once everything has been removed, rinse the turkey under cold water inside and out.  Drain the turkey as best you can and then pat it dry with paper towels.  Set the turkey on its back, and one wing at a time, tuck them in.  To do this consider the wing has 3 sections with the out section called 1.  Take the wing and stretch  it out, bring section 1 over to section 3 and hook it under section 3.  This should tighten up the wing to the body of the turkey.  Repeat with the other wing.  Now place the turkey on a rack in a roasting pan with the breast side up.

Remote Oven Thermometer
If you are going to bake the turkey unstuffed, pour a little olive oil in your hands and rub it all over the outside of the turkey.  After washing your hands, sprinkle salt and pepper all over the inside and outside of the turkey and place back on the rack.  Bake in a pre-heated 325 degree oven uncovered until the outside is nicely browned.  Then place foil loosely over the turkey to keep it from getting too dark.  A 12 lb. turkey should take about 3 to 3 1/2 hours.  You should use an oven thermometer into the thickest part of the breast (not touching bone) for a reading of 165 degrees.  I use my remote oven thermometer with a probe and set the alarm for 165 degrees.  Remember you can get one at my favorite shopping places Kohl'sFood Network and QVC.  Remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes with the foil still tented on it.  The internal temperature will rise as it rests to 170 to 175 degrees.

Now if you want to stuff your turkey, follow everything already mentioned and add the following.

You want to make your stuffing (recipe tomorrow) early so that it has time to cool down before it goes in the turkey.  We don't want anyone getting sick.  You could make it the day before and pull it from the refrigerator up to an hour before stuffing the bird.

The rule of thumb on the amount of stuffing is around 3/4 cup of stuffing to each lb. of the turkey.  So our 12 lb. turkey should get about 9 cups of stuffing.  Remember that there are 2 locations to stuff.  Fill the body cavity first and re-do the legs.  Then fill the neck cavity with all that loose skin.  I would use tooth-pics or small skewer to keep the skin in place.  You don't want to pack it in there too tight because it will take longer to reach the internal temperature it needs to be safe.  The internal temperature of the stuffing should be 170 to 175 degrees.  The turkey will take longer to cook because of being stuffed.  A stuffed 12 lb. turkey will add 30 to 60 minutes to the total.  So you will be looking at 3 1/2 to 4 hours total.  I would also temp the stuffing in the body cavity to 170 degrees before removing it from the oven.  Put the probe into the middle of the stuffing.  It is just a little added safety.

If you are using a smaller or larger turkey, adjust accordingly.  Most turkeys that you can buy have detailed cooking information right on the wrapper.  Just follow them if in doubt.  Another option to the whole turkey is to use a bone-in turkey breast.  It is a little easier to handle, gives you the same great flavor and the bones can be used for carcass soup the same as a whole turkey.

The recipes to follow on Thursday and Friday include: Stuffing or dressing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, orange pudding and pumpkin pie.  So have a great Thanksgiving!

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