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Thanksgiving turkey: everything you need to know

Preparing a perfectly roasted Thanksgiving turkey doesn’t have to be difficult. 

Yes, frozen turkeys must thaw for days (days!) before cooking. 

Yes, sometimes people (no one we know, of course) forget to thaw their turkeys until Thanksgiving morning, when they wake up in a cold sweat with T-minus three hours until the mother-in-law is scheduled to arrive. 

But you can avoid that situation with a little planning and our step-by-step guide.

1. Purchase a turkey.

You’ll need 1½ to 2 pounds of turkey per person, according to Martha Stewart. So if you need to feed eight people, for example, get a bird that’s between 12 and 16 pounds. 

Buy the turkey one or two weeks before Thanksgiving and stick in the freezer. 

2. Thaw the turkey. 

A whole turkey needs to thaw in the refrigerator for 24 hours per 4 to 5 pounds according to the United States Department of Agriculture. A 12-pound turkey should thaw for three days in the refrigerator, for example. 

Don’t set your turkey out on the kitchen counter to thaw, because the outside of the turkey will be warm long before the center defrosts. That’s just not safe. 

Emergency quick-thaw method: If you forgot to thaw your turkey, there’s hope. Just fill up your kitchen sink with cold water and set the turkey in the cold-water bath, for about 30 minutes per pound, according to the USDA. 

When you’re ready to cook the thawed turkey, let it sit at room temperature for about an hour first. 

3. Prep turkey for roasting. 

Take the turkey out of its packaging and remove the bag of giblets inside. Then, set the bird in a large roasting pan. You can also use a cast iron or stainless steel skillet, large casserole dish, broiler pan or any large pan, according to The Kitchn.  

Rub the turkey with salt, pepper and butter if you like. You can also add your favorite spices. 

4. Roast. 

Cook the turkey in a 325 degree oven until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees (check with a meat thermometer). 

According to the USDA, recommended cooking times are: 

  • 4 to 6 lb. breast — 1½ to 2¼ hours
  • 6 to 8 lb. breast — 2¼ to 3¼ hours
  • 8 to 12 lbs. — 2¾ to 3 hours
  • 12 to 14 lbs. — 3 to 3¾ hours
  • 14 to 18 lbs. — 3¾ to 4¼ hours
  • 18 to 20 lbs. — 4¼ to 4½ hours
  • 20 to 24 lbs. — 4½ to 5 hours

Good Housekeeping suggests covering the turkey with foil until the last hour of cooking to keep the meat moist.

5. Carve. 

Top Chef winner Hosea Rosenberg demonstrates how to carve a fully cooked turkey in this helpful video from Whole Foods Market.

What are your tips for cooking the perfect Thanksgiving turkey? Share them in the comments section below. 

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