Monday, November 4, 2013

How to Cook a Turkey in the Oven – Want to Get it Right the First Time?

How to Thaw and Cook a Turkey - Quick and Simple Tips - Photo by Alvimann
You bought the big bird for big bucks and have committed to cooking the holiday main course. You want this holiday to be a memorable one but not one that the family discusses for years to come because the meat was pink and cold, leaving those who ate it with a foodborne illness. Alternatively, you don't want to cook the turkey for the perfect amount of time and then continue to overcook it for another two hours, leading to reminiscing stories of the turkey that no one could chew without chipping teeth.

When to Buy a Frozen Turkey

According to the CDC, a frozen turkey that stays frozen in the freezer can safely stay that way indefinitely. The USDA recommends cooking a frozen turkey within 12 months for optimum taste. If you are shopping for a turkey on the day of or day before the holiday, I would highly recommend going with a pre-cooked or fresh turkey or one prepared by the manufacturer to go straight from the freezer to the cooker.

Only two quick thawing methods are considered safe: cold water and the microwave. Trying to quickly thaw a turkey in cold water will demand quite a bit of your attention during holiday meal preparations and really dampen the holiday spirit for the one who is changing water and bathing this big bird every thirty minutes. Many turkeys will not easily fit into a microwave, and microwaves often tend to heat unevenly, which leaves lots of room for error using this method.

If you purchased a turkey too late, there is a bright side: you now have a frozen turkey in the freezer ready for the next big get-together. Once the turkey temperature is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you should commit to cooking it because one cannot safely re-freeze a turkey once it begins to thaw.

Purchasing two frozen whole turkey breasts rather than one frozen whole turkey can save a little thaw time if you have the room in the refrigerator and are a little short on time but have enough time to thaw a smaller piece of poultry.

Weight...It's Time to Thaw!

Thawing and cooking times depend on the size of the turkey and how they have been prepared by the manufacturer. In general, larger turkeys will require longer thaw and cook times while smaller turkeys will require less time for cooking and thawing.

Place the turkey in the refrigerator to thaw. Some refrigerated items near the turkey may tend to freeze, so adjust items inside accordingly. It is a good idea to place the turkey on a tray or in a pan while thawing in the refrigerator because liquid can ooze out of the packaging, making a big, unexpected holiday mess.

A tag typically accompanies a turkey that lists the net weight in pounds. If the tag has fallen off or you cannot find it, hold the turkey and weigh yourself. Then weigh yourself without holding the turkey and subtract the two numbers – the difference is the weight of the turkey.

A general rule of thumb is to allow a day of thaw time for every four pounds of turkey. For example, thaw a turkey breast that weighs eight pounds for two days; thaw a whole turkey that weighs 12 pounds for three days. Butterball provides a web page in which you can enter the turkey's weight to see how long to thaw in the refrigerator.

One Chance to Cook the Turkey Correctly

When determining a time to start cooking the turkey, add 20 minutes of cool down time after cooking. Trying to clean out and slice a turkey that was just removed from the oven is asking for trouble. You don't want to end up with a painful burn after working so hard to prepare this special meal!

When cooking a turkey in the oven, make sure that you:
  • Completely thaw the turkey before placing in the oven
  • Adjust racks to allow room for the turkey before pre-heating the oven
  • Wear thick oven mitts or gloves without worn places or holes when handling the hot pan
  • Set the oven temperature to at least 325 degrees F
  • Place the turkey in a roasting pan 2 to 2 1/2 inches deep with the breast side up
To ensure that the meat will be safe to eat, the internal temperature of the meat must reach at least 165 degrees F – you can determine this with a food thermometer inserted deeply into the center of the thigh, wing, and breast.

The following are approximate cooking times based on weight in pounds; however, the safest way to ensure that the turkey is at a safe temperature is to use a food thermometer. Some turkeys have a button that pops out when it reaches a safe temperature, but it is a good idea to check the temperature to be absolutely sure. Hint: you can usually find this information on the packaging for the frozen turkey.

These approximate cooking times (in hours) are recommended by the USDA for roasting a turkey that does not have stuffing in it. Times are for cooking in a regular (not a convection) oven. I've also converted cooking times to minutes for those who have timers set by minutes.

Weight of Turkey
Approximate Roasting Time (325°F) in hours
Approximate Roasting Time (325°F) in minutes
4 to 6 pounds
1 1/2 to 2 1/4 hours
Or 90 to 135 minutes
6 to 8 pounds
2 1/4 to 3 1/4 hours
Or 135 to 195 minutes
8 to 12 pounds
2 3/4 to 3 hours
Or 165 to 180 minutes
12 to 14 pounds
3 to 3 3/4 hours
Or 180 to 225 minutes
14 to 18 pounds
3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
Or 225 to 255 minutes
18 to 20 pounds
4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
Or 255 to 270 minutes
20 to 24 pounds
4 1/2 to 5 hours
Or 270 to 300 minutes

If you have the weight in kg, here is how to convert kilograms to pounds.

Times are shorter for cooking a turkey in a convection oven or if using a baking bag.

Once you begin cooking the turkey, ensure that it is completely and safely cooked before serving. Some people like to add about a half cup of water to the bottom of the roasting pan. If you are looking for a pretty golden brown skin, place aluminum foil loosely over the top for the first hour or hour and a half or cook the turkey and watch for the desired color and then cover loosely with aluminum foil. Ensure that the aluminum foil is not too close to the heating elements.

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