Turkey is the big meat dish for Thanksgiving, but it isn't all that easy to cook. If you spend some time learning a few bird basics, you're a lot more likely to have an easier time with the main event on Thanksgiving Day. Here are some things you'll definitely want to write down if this is your first time at bat:
- Turkey takes a surprisingly long time to thaw. You can plan on 30 minutes for each pound if you immerse a frozen turkey in cold water (never use hot). If you put it in the refrigerator instead, count on one day for each five pounds. You can also defrost it in your microwave -- if it will fit. Review your microwave manufacturer's directions ahead of time because defrosting times vary.
- Turkey usually comes with the neck, heart, liver and gizzards stuffed inside. It may be in the front cavity, in back or both. Take out this packet before you cook the bird. Leaving it in is a newbie mistake you don't want to make. You can use the neck and gizzards for gravy and stuffing, too, so these extra bits can be useful.
- When you cook a turkey in the oven, the breast will cook faster than the dark meat on the legs and thighs. To keep the breast moist while the rest of the bird cooks, you'll probably need to cover the breast with foil. You'll have to remove the foil occasionally to baste the bird, too. A turkey baster is a useful tool for this and worth the investment.
- Although stuffing the bird sounds like fun, it really isn't -- and it can be a health hazard if the inside of the bird doesn't get up to temperature. A safer method is to cook the dressing in the oven instead.
- You can buy a fresh turkey (not frozen) for the Thanksgiving holiday, but you may have to put your order in a few days ahead of time.
- Some savvy cooks prepare two smaller turkeys instead of one large one when they're expecting a big holiday crowd. Larger turkeys can be harder to cook and relatively tough.
Experienced cooks have lots of turkey tricks, alternative cooking methods (like deep frying), and funny but embarrassing stories about turkey dinners past. If you take a couple of hours to become an armchair expert before you're up to your elbows in raw bird, you'll definitely be better off.