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Cook the Perfect Turkey!

Updated on October 11, 2011

how to cook a turkey - how to brine a turkey


Cooking the perfect turkey can be challenging. Turkey is natually low in fat, so it often dries out during cooking. Remember that classic scene from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, when Chevy Chase attempts to carve the holiday turkey and the poor bird has completely dried up? Of course, this was an extreme exaggeration for comedic effect, but it’s really not a laughing matter. Just about every cook worries about her turkey being dry and tasteless. Hopefully, these Turkey cooking tips will help you serve the perfect turkey to your guests at Thanksgiving dinner.

The largest portion of a domestic turkey is the breast, which is composed of white meat. White meat is inherently dry because it has such a low fat content. Add this to the fact that turkeys have to be cooked a long time due to their size, and you have a potential culinary disaster on your hands, similar to Clark Griswold’s.


This doesn’t have to be the case, however. There are ways to ensure that your big bird is tender, juicy, and delicious!


Size Does Matter!

 

When it comes to turkeys, size is important. Large birds are older birds, and they’re usually tougher than smaller ones. The flesh is generally not as finely grained, either. So if you need 24 pounds of turkey for your crowd, buy two 12-pound birds instead of one birdzilla. The smaller turkeys are much easier to handle, and they don’t require as much cooking time. This means there’s less chance of drying out.

 

Drawing or Brining a Turkey - How to brine a turkey

Remember when you were a kid and you learned to draw a turkey by tracing your hand? Okay, you’re a grownup now, and we’re not talking about that kind of drawing. This kind of “drawing” uses salt water. In fact, I think it’s referred to as “drawing” only in the South. The rest of you call it “brining.” Okay, I admit it – that makes a lot more sense, so we'll go with that. (For fellow Southerners who might be reading, please forgive me!)

How does turkey brining work? If you recall your junior high school biology classes, you might remember a process called "osmosis." Osmosis allows molecules to pass through a semi-permeable membrane, which in this case is the skin of the turkey. When the poultry is surrounded by salt water, the water in the turkey flows out of the meat and the salt replaces it. The salt helps break down proteins in the meat. These protein molecules are too large to pass through the skin, so the cells draw in and hold more water in effort to equalize the osmotic pressure, resulting in a juicier, more tender turkey with any added flavorings you use in the turkey brine recipe.

Turkey brining has another benefit, too. Normally, cells within the turkey flesh burst at 140 degrees, which causes the meat to dry out. By changing the molecular structure of the cells, brining allows the meat to reach a temperature of 160 degrees before cellular rupturing. Again, a brined turkey means a juicier cooked bird.

How to brine a turkey? To brine a 10-14-pound turkey, you’ll need about 2 gallons of water and a cup of kosher salt for the basic brine. Adding a cup of an acidic liquid like white wine, apple juice, apple cider vinegar, or bourbon will help tenderize the meat by breaking down muscle fibers and connective tissue. Many people also like to add a cup of sweetener, like white granulated sugar, brown sugar, molasses, or honey. To this concoction, add your favorite herbs and spices, including garlic powder, black pepper, rosemary, sage, and/or ground red pepper. I’ll share a secret with you: try using a package of sausage seasoning!

Blend everything together with a whisk in a 5-gallon bucket, and add the turkey. Make sure the bird is completely submerged in the brining solution. You can also use a heavy plastic bag for this. Allow the turkey to soak for 10-12 hours.

It’s important that the turkey stays below 40 degrees, so the bucket needs to be placed in the fridge. Don’t have room in your refrigerator? Use a cooler! If the outdoor temperature is below 40 degrees, the turkey should be fine. If it’s warmer than that outside, add ice to the brine and check the solution’s temperature every few hours.

After your bird has spent enough time brining, remove it from the bucket or cooler and pat it dry. Your brined turkey is now ready for the smoker or the oven.


Baking or Roasting a Turkey

To cook a brined turkey in the oven, add a layer of flavorings to the bottom of a large roaster. Choose chopped carrots, apples, onions, celery, or peppers, or any combination of these. If you like, add some of your favorite fresh herbs, including rosemary, thyme, parsley, tarragon, basil, or lemon balm.

Next, tuck the wings under the bird so that they won’t overcook. Truss the legs, too. Coat the flesh with canola oil and sprinkle with salt, black pepper, red pepper, sage, and/or that sausage seasoning I told you about earlier. Place the turkey on top of the vegetables and add about a cup of water and a cup of apple juice.

Place the roaster in a preheated 375-degree oven. A 12-14-pound turkey should cook for about 3 hours and 15 minutes. About halfway through cooking, baste the bird with pan juices.

Smoked turkey

A smoked turkey has an incredible flavor, and with an electric smoker, this is a super-easy process! In the cavity of your brined bird, place a quartered apple and a quartered onion. Place the gobbler on the bottom rack of the smoker. Don’t worry about tucking the wings or trussing the legs – you’ll be cooking with moist heat, so you won’t have to worry about the meat becoming too dry.

Fill the water pan with apple juice, wine, water, or any combination of these. You can also add onions, garlic, celery, and other seasonings to the pan. On the burner element at the bottom of the smoker, place the wood you’ll be using. We like to use pecan twigs for this, but you might want to use apple, peach, hickory, oak, or mesquite. The twigs or chips should have been soaked in water overnight before use. The more wood you use, the more smoky flavor you’ll get.

This last step is very important: On the top rack, place a piece of fatty pork. A cured ham or a fresh Boston butt works well. As the pork cooks, the juices will drip onto the turkey, constantly basting it. If you choose to smoke the turkey alone, rub it with oil before cooking.

A 12-14-pound turkey will take about 10 hours to cook, but smokers with water pans are very forgiving. We actually never time ours. We put it on before we go to bed and take it off the next day about 11 a.m. About halfway through smoking, check the water pan and add more liquid, if needed.



Deep Frying

For deep-frying a turkey, you won’t need to brine it first. The turkey will be tender, juicy, and oh-so-delicious without taking any other steps. You might want to rub the cavity and the outside of the bird with your favorite seasonings or use an injector to place spices and dried herbs directly into the flesh, but you really don’t need to. Just be sure the turkey is dry and completely thawed.

Most outdoor fryers can handle 10-14-pound birds, depending on the size of the pot. Before you ever start cooking, place the turkey in the fry pot to make sure it fits. Next, fill the pot with enough water to cover the turkey. Remove the turkey and mark the water level. That way, you’ll know how much oil you’ll need.

For the best results, use peanut oil. Fill the pot to the mark you made, and heat to 360 degrees. Lower the turkey into the oil, and maintain the cooking heat at 350 degrees. Do not place the lid on the pot during frying! Cook for 3-4 minutes per pound. We cook our turkeys for about 4 minutes per pound because we like the skin to be extra crispy and crunchy.

Read more!

For some delicious recipes you might enjoy with your turkey, click the links below. I've included my heirloom recipe for Southern cornbread dressing. You'll also find an article with suggestions for what to do with leftover turkey.

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    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Elf, cooking a turkey is an art! lol

    • elf_cash profile image

      elf_cash 7 years ago

      Great tips for cooking a turkey!

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Nancy, try deep frying one!

      Travel, thanks soooo much!

    • travel_man1971 profile image

      Ireno Alcala 7 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

      You're really great, habee. Congrats on your winning!!!

    • nancy_30 profile image

      nancy_30 7 years ago from Georgia

      Thank you for this information. This was very useful for me. Many years ago I tried cooking a turkey, and of course it ended up being dry. Now every year we usually cook ham on the holidays. Maybe I'll try a turkey again this year.

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks Strutzas!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Anne, the brining really makes a difference!

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      UH - what a nice thing to say!

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks for visiting, Ethel!

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks, De Greek! And please extend my gratitude to Mrs. De Greek, as well!

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Glad you liked it, Pam!

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      thanks so much, Hubcrafter!

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      MG, we love turkey, too!

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Perl, thanks a bunch!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Sunny, we watch the film every December!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Many thanks, Loren!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks, Buckie!

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      James, try it fried!

    • strutzas profile image

      strutzas 7 years ago from Kualapuu, Hawaii

      Congratulations to you, the turkey looks very delicious!

    • msannec profile image

      msannec 7 years ago from Mississippi (The Delta)

      Another winner! I absolutely love turkey. I'm going to try the brining method, I haven't done that before.

    • Ultimate Hubber profile image

      Ultimate Hubber 7 years ago

      Choosing a single best hub from your cooking techniques hubs would be one of the toughest tasks. I wonder how would judges and HP staff do that?!

      Yet another great detailed hub. And, congratulations on the daily drawings win too!!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks for reading, Lamme!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Anglnwu, nice of you to visit!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks, Barry!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Charanjeet, many thanks for your support!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      HH, always good to see you!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks for visiting, Marc!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      V, that poor ol' turkey - all they could find was its heart! lol

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks for reading, HP!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Sandy, I'm thinking the same thing!

    • ethel smith profile image

      Eileen Kersey 7 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Wow everything a chef needs to know about turkey. Right from buying the best bird.

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 7 years ago from UK

      My wife and I have gone through every word of this. You cannot imagine how useful we have found it and my wife asked me to thank you on her behalf as well :-))

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 7 years ago from United States

      Habee, This is an excellent hub with so much good information to make a turkey that is good and delicious. Rated up!

    • HubCrafter profile image

      HubCrafter 7 years ago from Arizona

      You have covered the bases and hit a home run with this turkey, I mean Hub, lol. Good job and congrats.

    • Money Glitch profile image

      Money Glitch 7 years ago from Texas

      Hhhmmmm, now I am hungry! There is not like a good ole fried turkey or baked or smoked for that matter. Guess you can tell I love turkey. LOL! Great hub, Habee, congrats on your win. :)

    • Purple Perl profile image

      Purple Perl 7 years ago from Bangalore,India

      Habee,your hub has excellent pics and expert advice.Thank you and Congratulations.

    • oceansnsunsets profile image

      Paula 7 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Congratulations Habee for winning the drawing! I loved Christmas vacation, and never get tired of that movie. That part about Catherine's turkey, was funny, and now I can picture the family trying to knaw at little pieces of it like nothing was wrong with it haha. Great hub!

    • Loren's Gem profile image

      Loren's Gem 7 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      'Tis another great hub of yours. Congratulations Habee on the win! :-)

    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 7 years ago from Central Oregon

      You are on a roll, chickadee!! Congrats on the win!

    • profile image

      Twenty One Days 7 years ago

      habee! congrats on the win! Love smoked turkey. -James

    • Lamme profile image

      Lamme 7 years ago

      Congratulations on your win. You have some wonderful information here, I'll have to bookmark this for future reference.

    • anglnwu profile image

      anglnwu 7 years ago

      I learned so much just from reading your hub. They're full of clear instructions sprinkled with light humor, making it so easy and enjoyable to read. Being a transplant, I always turn the turkey over to my husband at Thanksgiving time. Good excuse not to cook! Anyway,now armed with some knowledge now, I may attempt to brine the turkey this year. Rated it!

    • barryrutherford profile image

      Barry Rutherford 7 years ago from Queensland Australia

      well done !

    • charanjeet kaur profile image

      charanjeet kaur 7 years ago from Delhi

      Wow that is one hell of a size for a turkey. Congrats again for winning the daily drawing. You go girl.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      good various tips for getting a turkey well and tasty cooked. Well done.

    • woodamarc profile image

      Marc Woodard 7 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      Book marking this as well for when turkey day comes along. Lots of good turkey cooking ideals. Great write.

    • Veronica Allen profile image

      Veronica Allen 7 years ago from Georgia

      I am bookmarking this to refer back to since my turkeys always seem to come out dry - much like the scene in the movie - that was my favorite part!

      Thanks again Habee.

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Hi, 50! We've never had any meat go bad on our trusty smoker. I think we could cook an armadillo on it and it would be tasty! lol

    • H P Roychoudhury profile image

      H P Roychoudhury 7 years ago from Guwahati, India

      It is a pleasure of happiness in Cooking in good occasion.

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 7 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      Cooking a turkey sounds like a good idea about now.

    • 50 Caliber profile image

      50 Caliber 7 years ago from Arizona

      Habee, good stuff! I've used every method you have here and save a few slight differences I can vouch that all are a winning method. I default to the smoker 90 percent of the time though. Mines manual and a feller needs a keg and friends to stay up all night stoking the fire. I find 4 hours of smoke is plenty for flavor and wrapping the bird in foil and finishing it in the oven at 220* works well. Over the years I've used the low and slow method on anything you can dream up and chickens have gone bad do to too low and too slow. Just a thought.

      Good work!, 50