Turkey 101: How to Make the Ultimate Holiday Bird
Everything you need to know about preparing and cooking your turkey
Resident grill master, John Setzler wrote the ultimate guide to prepping and smoking a turkey that your family will love this holiday season.
Step 1: Choosing Your Turkey
Out of all the turkeys I have cooked over the years, the best tasting ones are the birds that fall into the 12-14 pound range. I don’t know WHY these birds taste best but they just do. If I need more meat than can be provided by a bird in this weight range, I prefer to cook multiple birds rather than buying one larger than 14 pounds. I feel the same way about turkey breasts. If you are buying just a breast to cook, I recommend buying one that weighs no more than 7-8 pounds. If you need more than that, buy more breasts instead of buying anything much larger than that. When you are deciding how much turkey you need for a meal, figure on about one pound per person. If you are feeding 12 people, buy a 12 pound bird. If you are feeding six people, buy a 12 pound bird so you can enjoy leftovers later!
If you can get a farm fresh turkey that has never been frozen, consider yourself lucky and BUY IT. You will get your best results from a fresh bird. All fresh birds are not created equal. Some of these turkey are air chilled (the best option) and some of them have been liquid chilled. Liquid chilled birds have been dunked in a sub-freezing solution to get them chilled properly. That solution contributes to less-than-optimal moisture levels in the skin of the bird. More water in the skin translates to less crispy skin after cooking. These birds should not have been injected with any solution containing salts or sugars.
Organic / Free Range / Cage Free / Et Cetera:
If you want to buy poultry that falls into these categories, feel free. If they meet the specifications listed above in the Quality section, consider it a bonus. Just because a bird carries one of these designations doesn’t mean that it’s fresh in terms of overall quality.
Know your Chicken: What USDA Poultry Labels Actually Mean
Frozen Grocery Store Variety Poultry:
I have cooked a LOT of chickens and turkeys that were just cheap frozen birds. While not optimal choices, they can still be great meals if you cook them properly. These birds are usually frozen solid when you buy them. They are also usually water chilled prior to freezing and they have also been injected with a solution that contains some amount of salts and sugars. These birds are not brined. See the section of this document about brining for more information on that. Your packaging will contain a statement that says something like “contains up to 10% of a solution of water, salt, and spices to enhance tenderness and juiciness…” The 10% number on this label simply means that if you bought a 10 pound bird, you actually bought a 9 pound bird that has about a pound of fluid injected into it. The 10% does not reflect the amount of salt or other ingredients in that solution. During the Thanksgiving season, you can find grocery store variety turkeys for as low as $0.39/lb in some cases. If you are buying frozen turkeys, I recommend buying one or two extras if you have freezer space for them. They can keep a pretty long time as long as they are frozen.
A Note on Food Safety:
Poultry can carry salmonella among other things. You should be careful and follow a few simple guidelines when handling poultry. When you touch uncooked poultry, everything you touch after that needs to be cleaned and sanitized. Clean with soap and warm water. Soap and warm water is enough most of the time if it has ample contact time. I like to use a solution of bleach and water in the ratio of 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water to sanitize my items after they have been cleaned.
When I am working with raw poultry, I like to wear a nitrile glove on the hand I’ll use to handle the meat. I leave my other hand ungloved. I use my ungloved hand to handle things I do not want to cross-contaminate like seasoning shakers and other utensils. The work surface you use to prepare the uncooked meat should be cleaned and sanitized before placing cooked meat or any other food you are preparing on it. I like to keep the Clorox Disinfecting Wipes on hand. After I have finished my prep, I will use those to wipe down everything I have touched, whether it was with the gloved hand or not just for safety.
Step 2: Preparing Your Turkey for the Cook
If your turkey needs to be thawed, it can take a while in the refrigerator. It can take 5-6 days to thaw a frozen 14 pound turkey depending on the refrigerator in use. Your turkey should be completely thawed before cooking so plan this in advance. If you are short on time you can speed up the thawing process by placing your packaged turkey in an ice water bath. The ice water bath should be kept at a temperature below 40°F/4°C for the entire duration. If you have a refrigerator large enough to hold a bucket that will hold your turkey, fill that bucket with cold water, put your turkey in and put the entire bucket in the refrigerator for 24-48 hours. In most cases that will thaw the bird completely. If you are planning to brine your turkey, the brine process will usually finish thawing a partially frozen bird.
Some people like to brine their turkey to introduce extra salt, sugar, and moisture into the meat before cooking. This is an optional step. If you choose to brine your turkey, you should either buy a commercial brine mix and follow the instructions on the packaging or prepare your own brine mix from scratch. My personal preference on brine solution is a ratio of 1 cup of sea salt and 1 cup of sugar per gallon of cold water. You may add any other herbs or seasonings to the brine that you may like but this salt and sugar ration works well for me. When you brine your turkey, the turkey should be completely covered in brine solution and the brine should be kept at at temperature below 40°F/4°C at all times. You should brine your turkey in a bucket or other container in the refrigerator to keep it cold. You can also use an insulated cooler. If you use a cooler, you might want to put your brine and turkey in a brining bag and surround it with ice inside the cooler to keep it cold. If you are working in a cold climate and the outdoor temperature is cold enough to keep your brine below the recommended temperature, you can simply set the brining container outside with a cover on it. You should brine the meat for 1 to 1 ½ hours per pound. If your bird is partially frozen you can go for 2 hours per pound if needed.
Read more about the brining process:
The Food Lab: The Quick and Dirty Guide to Brining Chicken or Turkey
The Food Lab: The Truth about Brining Turkey
These two articles are worth your time to read. They give you everything you need to know about brining and some possible reasons why you might want to skip the brining process. The first article also gives you information on the dry brining process and how to do it if you choose.
There are many commercial and homemade options for injecting additional flavor components into your poultry. My favorite is a simple injection of melted butter (unsalted). Sometimes I like to add a tiny amount of garlic to that butter for some added flavor. Injecting your turkey or chicken is another excellent way to improve the moisture and flavor. You can tailor the injection and its flavor profile to suit your own taste.
Be careful with brining and injecting. Try to keep things simple and don’t over do it. You can easily over season by these methods, especially if you choose to do both. Start simple. See what works for you. Make small changes the next time you cook if you think it’s necessary.
Spatchcock or Whole Bird:
The ‘spatchcock’ technique is a popular method of cooking whole chickens and turkeys. This is simply a term that means to butterfly the bird or open it up and spread it out flat. There are lots of videos on YouTube on how to do this process. I recommend checking some of those out before you decide to try it. The process simply involves cutting out the backbone of the bird and laying it flat. The advantage of this process is that the bird cooks faster and more evenly. It’s easier to get the breast meat and the dark meat to finishing temperatures at the same time. I prefer the spatchcock technique unless I am cooking a whole bird on a rotisserie.
Knife Skills: How to Spatchcock a Turkey
Removing the Wishbone:
I also prefer to remove the wishbone whether I am spatchcocking or cooking the whole bird. I prefer to do this before the cook as well. Removing the wishbone makes it super easy to remove the breast meat from the bird in two large whole pieces.
Removing a Wishbone from a Raw Turkey
Seasoning the Exterior of the Bird:
There are a lot of great commercial poultry seasonings out there or you can easily make your own. Once you decide what you will use to season the outside of your bird, loosen the skin of the bird and make sure you get a good amount of that seasoning between the meat. You can also add that seasoning to the outside of the skin as well. Be aware of the sugar content of your seasoning. If your seasoning has sugar in it, you will need to avoid cooking at temperatures above 325°F/163°C. Sugar can scorch and turn black at these higher temperatures.
Step 3: Cooking the Bird
Direct Heat vs Indirect Heat:
There are two basic techniques for cooking. One is over indirect heat with a heat deflector between the fire and the bird. The second method is over direct heat with no heat deflector. Most traditional turkey cooks are done over indirect heat with a heat deflector in place. More recently people are venturing into direct heat cooking with a spatchcocked turkey. This is accomplished by putting the turkey on the grill directly above the flame with the heat deflectors removed. The grill grates are typically placed in the highest position available above the fire. Indirect heat (roasting/smoking) provides the most even cook of the bird. Direct heat (grilling) is a much faster cooking process that gives you some char on the outside of the bird during the cooking process. The indirect heat process is mostly hands free once you put the bird on. The direct heat process requires a good bit of attention during the cook because you will be flipping the bird regularly to keep it from burning on one side or the other.
At What Temperature Should I Cook?
Here you will find a LOT of different information on how to cook a turkey. There are a lot of ways to do it and the results vary with each of them. When roasting/smoking over indirect heat you can cook your turkey at temperatures anywhere between 225°F/107°C and 425°F/218°C. Lower temperatures take a lot longer and provide a heavier smoke profile on the bird. Higher temperatures take less time and provide a lighter smoke profile. Skin texture on the turkey or chicken changes based on your cooking temperatures also. Lower temperature cooks may not get the skin as crisp as a higher temperature option. This is where you should take some opportunities to experiment. I like to cook my turkey and chicken at 375°F/190°C.
If you are grilling your spatchcocked turkey over direct heat, you will want to settle your grill temperature around 350-400°F / 177-205°C. The grate level temperature over the direct fire will be hotter than this and in a perfect range for this kind of cook. You need to stay with the turkey during this cook and flip/turn the bird every 5-8 minutes for even cooking.
What Kind and How Much Smoking Wood Should I Use?
Poultry is like a SPONGE with smoke. It absorbs smoke quickly and it absorbs a lot of it. I can not stress enough how important it is to use smoke wood sparingly on poultry. Until you have a lot of experience with smoking poultry, I recommend using no more than ONE chunk of smoke wood. I also recommend using a wood with a light smoke profile such as cherry, peach, or apple. For some people, the charcoal alone provides enough smoke for poultry. Apply the “less is more” theory of smoke on this cook and adjust to your taste in future cooks.
When is the Bird Finished Cooking?
This is another big area of debate in the cooking world. For food safety reasons, the FDA recommends that the meat be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F/74°C. This is the temperature at which harmful pathogens will be killed INSTANTLY.
Here is another article that I use to help me figure out finishing temperatures for my poultry:
The Food Lab’s Complete Guide to Sous Vide Chicken Breast
The pasteurization time chart in this article is of high importance to me. I like to cook my chicken and turkey to an internal temperature in the thickest part of the breast to 150°F/66°C instead of 165°F/74°C. As long as that temperature is reached and achieved for a minimum of 2.8 minutes, you will have the same pasteurization effect that you get instantly at 165°F/74°C. The benefit of cooking to the lower finishing temperature is more moist meat. As you heat muscle fibers, they contract and squeeze out moisture. Heating them less cause them to contract less and squeeze out less moisture.
When checking the temperature of your turkey or chicken to determine when it’s done, you should check in the thickest part of the breast. That is the thickest part of the meat on the entire bird and it will be the last part to be done. Don’t worry if your leg and thigh temperatures go a good bit higher than your target temperature because they definitely will. The dark meat can handle much higher temperatures without drying out. The breast can not so pay attention closely to the breast meat temperatures.
Step 4: Resting the Bird
When your cook is complete, cover the bird with aluminum foil and let rest for a minimum of 20-30 minutes before carving.
Step 5: Carve your Turkey or Chicken and Serve!
These links provide two excellent videos and commentary on carving your turkey!
The Culinary Institute of America: How to Carve a Turkey
Bon Apetit: How to Carve a Turkey
Some Useful Tools:
The Briner - The Ultimate Brine Container
These brining buckets are fantastic. I got the kit of two because the large size is perfect for large turkeys and other large cuts of meat that like to brine and cure such as briskets that I use to make pastrami or whole fresh hams. The smaller brine bucket is perfect for whole chickens and other smaller cuts of meat. The part of these buckets that make them unique is the plate that comes with each bucket that allows you to keep the meat submerged more easily in the brine. The plate turns and fits between the ridges in the bucket so your meat not float above the surface of the brine. This also allows you to use less brine.
Stainless Steel Meat Injector
This injector is a perfect tool for injecting flavors into your meat. I have been using this one for over a year now. It’s my go-to injector.
Lavatools Javelin Pro Duo
The Javelin Pro Duo is the best bang for the buck in the instant read digital thermometer community. For $54.99 you can get super fast temperature readings.
I don’t recommend leave-in thermometer probes for Turkey simply because I cook my turkey at around 375°F/190°C. I don’t get consistent results with ANY of them when cooking at this temperature range. You might have better luck with these if you wrap the exposed part of the thermometer with aluminum foil. I find that the exposed part gets hot enough that it radiates heat into the sensor portion of the probe causing it to read higher than the actual meat temperature. If you choose to use a leave-in probe to measure your meat temperature when cooking at the higher temps, ALWAYS double check it with an instant read thermometer for accuracy.
- John Setzler