7 Turkey Basics You Need to Know to Cook the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

7 Turkey Basics You Need to Know to Cook the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

Whether you are cooking your first turkey ever or are a seasoned pro at the Thanksgiving holiday, hosting Thanksgiving dinner can feel pretty overwhelming.

Our team of experts is here to help you with every step of preparing a moist, tender and flavor-filled turkey for the center of your Thanksgiving table.

We are sharing our secrets so you can prepare and cook with confidence and, in the end, serve a mouthwatering turkey with pride. So relax, take a deep breath and follow our guide to the perfect Thanksgiving turkey.

#1: How to Thaw the Turkey

The pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving could have never imagined what their humble feast would become. Their meager celebration has turned into the largest cooking holiday of the year, with turkey at the center of the table.

This Thanksgiving over 45 million turkeys will be purchased, with more than half of them frozen. Knowing the two methods for thawing a turkey and the time required for each is important to managing your Thanksgiving timeline. Let's take a look at the refrigerator method and the cold water bath.

Refrigerator Method

Recommended by the USDA and our ATBBQ experts, defrosting your turkey in the fridge lets it thaw at a consistent rate and safe temperature.

The process is simple: Simply set the wrapped turkey on a pan breast side up in the fridge. You will need to plan ahead -- it takes roughly one day for every 4-5 pounds of turkey -- and plenty of room in your refrigerator.

Along with being the best method for food safety, this method allows you to move on to other prep work--a definite win for your Thanksgiving workload. The refrigerator method gives you more flexibility with your other Thanksgiving dinner preparations. Because the turkey is being stored in the refrigerator at a safe, consistent temperature, it will not need to be cooked right away. Once it thaws, you will have about a two-day window to get it on the grill or in the oven.

Cold Water Bath

If you do not have room in your refrigerator or you are in a time crunch, give your turkey a cold water bath. The cold water bath is more hands-on but takes less time overall.

First, fill your sink with cold water and submerge your wrapped turkey for 30 minutes. Drain the sink, rotate the turkey and refill the sink with cold water (the water must be cold for food safety). Continue rotating the turkey and changing the water every 30 minutes for every pound of turkey. You will need about 8 hours to completely thaw a 16 pound turkey.

You will need to start cooking the turkey as soon as it's thawed. Plan to start the process in the immediate run up to Thanksgiving Day.

Pro Tip: Turkeys can be kept in the freezer for up to 3 years, but the first 7 months is your prime window for fresher flavor.

#2: Brining

Brining has been around for thousands of years, used to preserve food in the days before refrigeration. Now that we can chill meat to preserve it, brining is primarily used to improve flavor and moisture.

In the simplest terms, a brine is a salt water solution. Immersing a turkey into a salt water brine allows the salt to work on the proteins. Through osmosis, the brine opens up the proteins and the meat starts to take on the flavor in the liquid.

Bags and large bowls can be used for brining but we recommend briner buckets. These plastic containers include an interlocking plate to keep the turkey submerged in the brine. This eliminates needing to turn the turkey so that the brine reaches all its parts, or using a weighted plate or other object to keep the turkey submerged. The briner bucket also has a secure, snap-tight lid and is dishwasher safe.

As for how long to brine your turkey, we recommend brining at least overnight. This will give your turkey plenty of moisture and seasoning.

Pro Tip: If you like your turkey skin extra crispy, let the brined turkey dry uncovered in the refrigerator overnight. This gets rid of the excess moisture on the skin and leads to better browning.

#3: Injections

Injections are an easy way for at-home cooks to get more flavor and moisture into a turkey using melted butter, broths and sauces.

Using an injector is pretty straightforward. Load the barrel with melted butter or broth mixed with seasonings and insert the needle into the turkey breast. Move the needle around to create a little pocket and squeeze the trigger to release the injection. No need to worry if some juice comes back out -- that extra juice will serve as a binder for the flavor rub.

Inject the turkey breast several times and you will see the lean white meat start to plump up. Give the dark meat of the thighs, wings and legs a few injections, though they will not need as much as the turkey breast because they are already moist.

#4: Rubs and Seasonings

Have you ever ordered the turkey breast at a nice restaurant and fallen in love with its robust balance of flavors? You probably have a rub to thank for that.

Rubs and seasonings can be made at home, a great option if you are the experimental type and don't mind some guesswork for your Thanksgiving turkey. Pre-mixed rubs have the benefit of offering specific flavor profiles with consistent results. They're perfect for when you don't have time to experiment or have a picky family to please.

If you're looking for a turkey seasoning with rave reviews, Plowboys BBQ Yardbird Rub has become a favorite with its impressive balance of sweet and savory notes. Cattleman's Grill Ranchero Seasoning is our top selling rub for the Thanksgiving season thanks to its pitch perfect blend of holiday flavors.

Pro Tip: When applying a rub to your turkey, season underneath the skin. By gently pulling up the skin and layering in more seasoning, you add flavor to the meat, which leads to flavor-packed bites.

#5: Digital Instant Read Thermometers

Using a Meater Meat Thermometer on our Cider Brined Barbecue Turkey

Over the past several decades, home cooks have used pop up timers to know when their Thanksgiving turkey was ready. Touted as a cooking convenience, these small cylinders were inserted in the turkey breast. The promise was that when the heat inside the turkey reached 165 degrees, the button on the timer "popped up" to indicate the turkey reached the correct temperature.

These timers were -- and still are -- consistently inaccurate. They often produce either an overcooked turkey that's dry and tough or an under cooked turkey that puts everyone at risk for food poisoning. Some turkey producers have ditched pop-up timers altogether.

If your turkey comes with one, we recommend removing it and using a digital instant read thermometer instead. The Meater Plus Wireless Thermometer has a sleek stainless steel design, gives lightning fast temperature readings, and is dishwasher safe and fully rechargeable. It has an app that connects to your smart phone via WiFi or Bluetooth to give you accurate temperature data in real time.

We also like the Fireboard Spark instant read thermometer for its bright, easy-to-read display, breakneck speed and remarkable accuracy. The Spark also has a port for a leave-in probe if you want to monitor your turkey's progress.

#6: Finishing Temperatures

Checking a turkey's finishing temperature

For a tender, juicy, perfectly cooked turkey, the finishing temperature you're looking for is 165°F as measured in the thickest part of the breast. That is your sweet spot.

However, this does not mean you should cook the turkey until the thermometer reaches 165°F. For tender and juicy results, remove the turkey from the heat once it gets to 155°F. The turkey will continue to cook as it rests away from the grill and will reach 165°F after a few minutes (about 20 minutes for a 16 pound turkey).

Due to its higher fat content, the dark meat will naturally reach a higher temperature than the white meat in the same amount of time. As it cooks, the fat and cartilage in the dark meat start to break down and distribute juice into the meat, making the meat richer and juicier.

Once the temperature reaches 165°F in the breast meat, your turkey is ready to carve and serve.

Pro Tip: It may seem strange if you come from the baking world, but you have to cook your turkey to its finishing temperature rather than a specific length of time. Having a general idea of time needed helps you set your Thanksgiving prep schedule, but your best chance for a deliciously juicy turkey comes when you pay more attention to the thermometer than the clock.

#7: Turkey Kits

Now that we have reached the end, let's back up a little.

Assembling all of the turkey prep components can be a chore. In order to get you closer to making memories with your loved ones, we have put together recipe specific turkey kits to help make preparing Thanksgiving dinner easier.

Not only are turkey kits convenient, they also help you avoid the guesswork of how a turkey is going to turn out. You can rely on these ingredients and tools to help you feel confident your family will step back from the table having enjoyed one of the best Thanksgiving turkeys ever.

Bonus Tip: When To Start Preparing Your Thanksgiving Turkey

Say you have a 16-pound turkey you want to turn into the most delicious turkey ever. If you plan to start cooking it on Thanksgiving morning, here is how the week before needs to look:

  • Friday: Stick the turkey in the refrigerator and let it thaw for 4 days (one day per 4 to 5 pounds of turkey).

  • Tuesday: Set up your wet brine and lock the turkey in the briner bucket overnight.

  • Wednesday: Pull the turkey out of the brine, pat it dry and set it in the refrigerator on a sheet pan for 24 hours to dry out for crispier skin.

  • Thursday: Inject the seasonings, apply the rub, and start up the grill. Expect a grill time of 3 to 4 hours to reach 155°F in the deepest part of the breast. Pull the turkey from the heat, tent it with foil and let it rest until the temperature rises to 165°F. This should take about 20 minutes.

Bonus Recipe: Leftover Thanksgiving Turkey Sandwich

Because we know leftover turkey is a national holiday unto itself, we have a great recipe for leftovers you are sure to love. Inspired by the hit TV show 'Friends', we use what's left from the Thanksgiving feast to make a tasty next-day treat. We call it "The One Where Tom Makes a Sandwich From Thanksgiving Leftovers."

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Our goal in sharing these tips is to help you enjoy the process of preparing, cooking and serving a beautiful Thanksgiving turkey. And hopefully following these steps will take some of the stress out of the day. Because when it comes down to it, we have a similar goal in mind: you want to give family and friends an amazing holiday meal they will never forget, and we want to help you do that.

And if the meal goes incredibly well and you are asked to cook the Thanksgiving turkey again next year, we will be here to help you.

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