TURKEY BASICS – Some Tips on Choosing, Thawing and Cooking your Holiday Turkey

Turkey Tips

It’s that time again folks! The holidays are just around the corner.  Are you ready?  Have you written up the menu, decided on what dishes you are serving, shopped for recipe ingredients and the turkey?  Do you have traditional dishes you prepare every year or do you like to try new recipes and surprise your family and guests?  My holiday menu consists of a little of both. There are certain recipes I have made every year for what seems like a lifetime and my family expects to partake of these traditional recipes.  However you prepare and serve your meal there are some basic turkey tips floating around on how to choose, thaw and cook the bird.  I hope you will find something here that might help you along the way.

First of all should one buy a fresh or frozen turkey?   Usually, fresh birds cost more than frozen and there is not much difference in the taste.  I think it would depend on how fresh is fresh.  How you cook it makes a big difference, too.  If you can get one that was just recently slaughtered that is what I call fresh. Turkeys labeled “frozen” are flash-frozen down to 0°F right after processing. They’re every bit as flavorful as fresh ones.  Personally,  I think frozen turkeys are not as dry as fresh.   You should never buy a fresh bird that is over three days old.  Frozen turkeys are often marked down or put on sale just prior to Thanksgiving and Christmas and will keep almost indefinitely but get drier with age. When choosing my turkey,  I allow 1 lb. of turkey per person whether fresh or frozen.

Never thaw a turkey at room temperature!  According to the USDA, you should allow 24 hours thaw time for every 4  to 5 lbs. of turkey and thaw in the refrigerator. Here are some thawing times to guide you:   4 to 12 pounds — 1 to 3 days,  12 to 16 pounds — 3 to 4 days,  16 to 20 pounds — 4 to 5 days,  20 to 24 pounds —5 to 6 days.  You can thaw a turkey in the microwave. Microwaves vary and you should follow your instruction booklet on this method.  If you do use the microwave, you should cook your bird as soon as it is thawed because the microwave may have started the cooking process for you. You can use the cold water method of thawing but to me this is the last one I want to do because you need to change the water every 30 minutes.  Your turkey needs to be in a leak proof plastic bag to keep it from soaking up the water and, like thawing in the microwave, you need to cook it as soon as it is thawed. Here are some thawing times for the cold water method of thawing: 4 to 12 pounds — 2 to 6 hours,  12 to 16 pounds — 6 to 8 hours,  16 to 20 pounds — 8 to 10 hours,  20 to 24 pounds — 10 to 12 hours.  If you forget to thaw the turkey, you can cook it frozen but it takes much longer to cook this way.  It would take 4 to 5 hours for a 12 to 14 lb. turkey that is frozen to cook and reach the internal temperature of 165-185 degrees.

There are different methods of cooking your turkey.  The USDA recommends that you cook stuffing or dressing separately for optimal safety and uniform doneness. I never stuff my turkey but make my cornbread dressing in a casserole. If you want to stuff the bird, there is a safe way of doing it using a food thermometer.  You can check this method out on the USDA site.

This is my method of cooking my Thanksgiving turkey:  I generously grease the outside of my turkey with butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Then, I separate the skin from the breast and put pats of butter under the skin, in the neck cavity, and inside the bird.  Place turkey on a roasting rack so air is allowed to circulate underneath and all around.  Cover loosely with foil and remove the last 45 minutes to brown the bird. I baste the turkey several times while cooking with melted butter and the juices from the bottom of the pan. I cook my turkey 20 minutes per pound at 350 degrees  until it reaches an internal temperature of 180 degrees taken with a food thermometer inside the thigh.  Overcooking will cause the bird to be dry.  Always let your turkey stand for 20 minutes after removing from the oven before carving to let the juices set.  (I usually cook my turkey in one of those electric roasters that has a roasting rack in the bottom. I put a little water in the bottom of the pan, too. I love my electric roaster and use it year round to cook meats because I can plug it up in the laundry room on top of my dryer and use my oven for other things during the holidays.

Check out my recipe for Cornbread Dressing and Giblet Gravy.



I hope this will help you in some way with your holiday.   We wish everyone a happy and healthy holiday season.

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Tips on Choosing, Thawing and Cooking your Holiday Turkey


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  1. you mentioned putting foil loosely on turkey…do I need to do this in roaster? first time to make turkey in electric roaster thank you

  2. Thanks for the tips. My wife passed away and I live alone. She always deforst the turkey. She always used the oven. But I do have a electric roster that I think I will try.I am going to follow your tips and cooking method… Thanks. God bless . Have a happy thanksgiving !

    • The Southern Lady says:

      Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Mac! I am so happy we could be of help to you. Thank you for your comment. God Bless.

  3. I use my slow cooker (thermostat controlled) for cooking my turkey or turkey breast…..baste same as you with exception of adding poultry seasoning to softened butter….VERY MOIST & DELISH…

  4. If you cook your turkey in an electric roaster, does it brown at all or is it white and not crispy on top?

    • The Southern Lady says:

      Mine browns in my roaster, Karen, but I think it is because I use the butter on the skin and under the skin. I also baste it several times during cooking. Mine is never white when I take it out.

  5. I plug my electric roaster in the laundry space and place on my washer too!!! I inherited my roaster from my mama and it makes the most moist turkey ever. Of course it isn’t that golden brown color but who cares once it is sliced!!!

    • The Southern Lady says:

      Thank you Terry and Happy Thanksgiving to you, too. I could not live without my roaster. lol. They are great for cooking lots of things.

  6. Thanks for sharing your tips with us!

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