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12. How to Get Your Turkey Ready for Thanksgiving

Photo from the National Turkey Federation, www.eatturkey.com
Photo from the National Turkey Federation, www.eatturkey.com

By Laurie Triplette



The time is NOW to get that turkey ready for Thanksgiving. These steps will ensure a tasty and safe bird. (1) Thaw the bird; do not thaw at room temperature. (2) Remove giblets from the bird cavity and reserve to use when making the giblet gravy. (3) Brine the bird, if it hasn’t already been injected with solution. (4) Season the bird properly. (5) Cook the bird for the appropriate length of time in the method of your choosing — oven-roasting, grilling, smoking, or frying.

Smoking a turkey and deep frying a turkey require some specific preparation steps and cook times that differ slightly from what we will discuss in this column; notably, deep-fried turkeys ought to be injected with a seasoning solution, and smoked turkeys require a much longer cooking time than oven-roasted turkeys. The basic steps listed below for prepping the bird apply in all instances.

Thaw-times for frozen birds:

  • 12 lb bird 3 days in fridge
  • 15 lb bird 3 to 4 days in fridge
  • 18 lb bird 4 to 5 days in fridge



Brining a bird is a step that has become popular because it works. A properly brined turkey will remain moist and juicy. Brining is a marinating process requiring equal parts of kosher salt and sugar to achieve osmosis in the tissue of the bird. It is important to adjust the amount of brine time to the weight of the bird. An 8 to 10 pound turkey should fit into a 10-quart pot or a turkey-brining bag. A large turkey might require a cooler dedicated for that purpose. NOTE: The brine container must be larger than the bird; and the bird must remain chilled while brining.

Basic Brine Recipe:

5 qts hot water

1-1/2 c kosher salt

1-1/2 c sugar (I prefer brown sugar)

1 bunch fresh thyme

2 T fresh rosemary

2 T sage

5 bay leaves

45 black peppercorns

Dried juniper berries, optional

3 c apple juice or apple cider, optional

3 qt ice

Stir the salt and sugar into the hot water to dissolve. Add the herbs, spices, nd apple juice or cider. Add the ice and let solution stand until the ice melts. Add the turkey, breast side facing down. Submerge the turkey with a heavy plate or crock. Keep chilled in fridge or on ice in large cooler. NOTE: Overbrining a smaller bird will result in the meat being too soft and too salty.

Brine Time:

12 lb or less 8-12 hrs

12-14 lb 9-14 hrs

20 lb + 15-20 hrs

About halfway through the brining time, turn the turkey over. ALWAYS rinse the brine off the bird (including the cavity) and pat the turkey dry before cooking.


If you skipped the brine stage because you bought an injected turkey, now is the time to remove the giblets from the bird cavity and rinse the bird, inside and out. Pat it dry.

Preheat oven to 450º. Coat the bird with melted butter. Sprinkle poultry seasoning (or ground thyme and sage) evenly all over the bird, including around the legs and wings, and inside the cavity. Repeat this with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Place about 2 T of butter inside the cavity. Place the bird on a rack inside the roasting pan. Add 1 to 2 c of water around the bird, not over the bird (less for a smaller bird, and more for a larger bird) to form a moisture cushion for the bird, and to absorb the drippings.

Put roaster in the oven and cook uncovered for 15-20 minutes. This high heat seals in the juices. Lower the heat to 325˚F and continue cooking. (See roasting chart below.)

Some people prefer to continue roasting at 350, but lower, slower roasting tends to keep the bird juicier. The age of the bird, whether or not it has been frozen, and its fat content will affect the amount of cooking time needed. Large turkeys should be roasted at a slightly lower temperature for a longer time. After the first hour of roasting, baste the bird with its pan drippings about every 15 minutes, or cover with a butter-soaked cloth. If self-basting with butter-soaked cloth, remove the cloth for the last half hour to allow the bird to brown. Length of cooking time depends on size of the bird. As the roasting nears completion, you may wish to loosely cover the breast with tented foil to prevent it from overcooking (white meat cooks faster than dark meat).

To determine roasting time, allow 20 minutes per pound for birds up to 6 pounds. Allow about 20 minutes per pound for larger birds. Add an additional 5 minutes per pound for stuffed birds. Test for doneness with a thermometer, checking three different parts of the bird. The breast and stuffing need to read 165-170˚F. When pricking the thigh or drumstick, juices should run clear, not pink. If the drumstick juggles, the bird MIGHT be overdone.

For additional information about your turkey, contact the following:

  • http://eatturkey.com/consumer/cookinfo/fryturk
  • (National Turkey Federation guidelines for deep-frying a turkey)
  • www.butterball.com
  • Butterball Turkey Hotline: 1-800-Butterball (288-8372) 



3 T butter

3 T all-purpose white flour

1 c pan drippings from the roasting pan, skimmed of fat

1 c chicken broth or stock

Salt and black pepper, to taste (don’t skimp on the pepper)

1 to 1-1/2 c turkey giblets, cut up

(chopped pieces of cooked liver and neck)

1 hardboiled egg, chopped, OPTIONAL

Boil the neck and liver in a pan of lightly salted water with some ground thyme. Some cooks prefer to include the gizzard, which “darkens” the flavor. When boiled, cut up liver and pull the meat away from the neck bone, discarding the bones.

Over medium heat, melt the butter in a large saucepan or skillet to the bubbly stage, then sprinkle flour over the butter and stir quickly until blended. Let cook to the crumbly stage, just before burning, and slowly stir in the turkey drippings, stirring or whisking constantly, to blend the flour-butter with the drippings. Let simmer for about a minute, then slowly add more turkey or chicken stock, stirring constantly. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the gravy has become smooth and thickened. Reduce heat to low, and add salt and pepper to taste. Add the giblets and stir. NOTE: It’s sometimes easier to do this part in the roasting pan set onto the stovetop over two burners.

VARIATION: Cook chopped celery and onion until transparent, then whisk into gravy base. Simmer, whisking. Stir in 1 c chopped hardboiled egg, just before serving, if you like egg in your giblet gravy. Keep gravy warm until ready to serve; reheating and stirring gently if needed.

Laurie Triplette is a writer, historian, and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ),Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA)  and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SOFAB). Check out the GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’ web site: www.tripleheartpress.com and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter (@LaurieTriplette).


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