8 of the Biggest Turkey Mistakes to Avoid
Pictured recipe: José Andrés' Brined Roast Turkey & Gravy
Buying and roasting a turkey for Thanksgiving can be intimidating, especially if you're a first-time host or hostess. Even those of us who have done it before have a hard time shaking those nagging thoughts revolving around whether the bird will be juicy or dry or-worse yet-underdone.
It's understandable. After all, if you're like most people, you're only roasting a turkey once, maybe twice a year. We've roasted quite a few turkeys in the EatingWell Test Kitchen, and through trial and error, we've picked up on some common turkey mistakes and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1: Buying the Wrong Turkey
Pictured recipe: Traditional Herbed Roast Turkey
Not all turkeys are created equal. Some birds are self-basting, meaning that they are injected with a solution of broth, salted water or other flavorings to keep them moist during cooking. We found these turkeys do stay moister, but if you're watching your sodium intake you may want to avoid them. Check the label if you're buying a turkey from the grocery store. The label will tell you the percent of solution in the bird and will also include all the ingredients in the solution.
Related: Turkey Buyer's Guide
Mistake #2: Buying the Wrong Size Turkey
Pictured recipe: Cider-Brined Spatchcock Turkey
Unless you're hosting a huge gathering and buy a tiny turkey, you're not likely to run out of meat. What's more likely is that you end up buying a huge bird for just a few people. For either scenario, a good way to estimate how much you need is about one pound per person, and that number takes into account some leftovers. While that might sound like a lot, remember that the weight of the bird includes bone too.
Mistake #3: Turkey Isn't Thawed
Pictured recipe: Red Chile-Citrus Glazed Toast Turkey & Pan Gravy
If you have ever tried cooking a turkey that wasn't completely thawed, odds are you ended up with a bird that was burnt on the outside and not cooked all the way through (and undercooked turkey is not safe!). So if you have a frozen bird, make sure you leave yourself enough time to thaw it. Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator takes at least 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of meat. But if you find your bird is still partially frozen on Thanksgiving morning, try this quick-thaw method that only takes 30 minutes per pound: Submerge your wrapped turkey in a sink filled with cold water. Switch out the water every hour to ensure you maintain a safe temperature.
Mistake #4: You Forget to Remove the Giblets
Prepping your turkey before you cook it is an important step. And one crucial part is removing the giblet bag from the cavity (because no one wants to find it during carving). In our Roast Turkey with White Wine Gravy (pictured above), we use the neck and giblets to make a stock that you'll use later. Prepping the stock while the turkey brines ensures you won't leave those giblets in your bird while roasting it.
Related: How to Brine a Turkey
Mistake #5: Putting the Stuffing Inside the Turkey
Pictured recipe: Herb-Roasted Turkey
What To Do Instead: Stuffing a bird is tricky. Since the stuffing is in the middle of the bird, it takes the longest to cook. To be considered safe, the internal temperature of the stuffing needs to reach 165°F. Unfortunately, by the time you get the appropriate temperature reading for the stuffing, the meat is overcooked. If you want to enjoy stuffing with your turkey, bake it separately (Need ideas? Check out our healthy stuffing recipes).
Mistake #6: You Go to Roast Your Turkey, Only to Find a Broken Oven
Pictured recipe: Southwestern Grilled Spatchcock Turkey
Don't fret—your grill is the perfect backup. Preheat it to medium using an indirect method (turn on only half of the gas burners or move the burnt-down charcoal to one side). Then grab heavy-duty kitchen shears to spatchcock the turkey: Cut down one side of the backbone, through the ribs. Make an identical cut on the opposite side and remove the backbone. Place the turkey, breast-side up, on a cutting board and flatten with the heels of your hands (press hard!). Splay the thighs outward and tuck the wings under. Place the turkey breast-side up on the unlit side of the grill. Cover and cook, rotating the bird 180 degrees once halfway and adjusting the heat as necessary, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part registers 165°F, about 2 hours for a 12-pound turkey.
Related: How to Spatchcock a Turkey
Mistake #7: Cutting the Turkey Wrong
Pictured recipe: Lemon-&-Fennel-Rubbed Turkey with Homemade Giblet Gravy
There's a lot of apprehension when it comes to carving. The first time I carved a bird, I think I may have left 80% of the meat on the bones and what I did manage to cut off was a shredded mess on the cutting board. Even though my guests loved the turkey despite its presentation, it would have been satisfying to give them perfect slices. To avoid this problem, check out a carving guide like the one referenced in the link below. But as a general rule-carve it just like you would a whole chick. You want to carve the turkey into it's separate parts: drumsticks, thighs, wings and slices of juicy breast meat. But before you start cutting thin slices of turkey vertically straight from the bone, cut the breasts away from the bone, then cut into horizontal thick chunks to avoid shredded, dried out slices.
Related: How to Carve Turkey
Mistake 8: Throwing Out Pan Drippings
Pictured recipe: Sage-Rubbed Roast Turkey with Lemon-Bay Gravy
After you roast a turkey, don't move the bird to a cutting board and throw the roasting pan in the sink. What's left at the bottom of the pan are brown, caramelized little bits of concentrated flavors that set the stage for a rich and magical gravy. Letting those pan drippings go down the drain is a Thanksgiving crime. Making a gravy using the roasted goodness is easy and the flavor is far superior to anything you'd get out of a pouch or jar.
Related: How to Make Pan Gravy