How to Prepare and Cook that Perfect Turkey Dinner

Nobody likes a dry turkey that has been cooked to death. See how to cook that perfect turkey dinner from start to finish; from thawing, to cooking, how much you need per person, and how to carve a turkey once it has been cooked to perfection.

These tips will make your Thanksgiving a success, so that your bird will be succulent and delicious, rather than stringy and dried out.

Make sure that your oven is big enough for the turkey you want to buy. It is difficult to cook a turkey properly in a small oven if the bird is too big!

Turkey Dinner Preparation: How much Turkey do you Need per Person?

First of all, you need to make sure that you have chosen the right sized bird for your meal. So how much turkey do you need for each person? Well the rule of thumb is 3/4 to 1 pound of meat per person if your turkey weighs less than 12 pounds. If your turkey weighs more than 12 pounds then you are looking at 1/2 to 3/4 of a pound of meat, per person.

Use this table as a guide:

Approximate servings needed/ Ready-to-cook turkey, pounds

For 4 to 10 servings, get a 4 to 8 pound bird.
For 10 to 20 servings, get a 8 to 12 pound bird.
For 20 to 30 servings, get a 12 to 16 pound bird.
For 30 to 40 servings, get a 16 to 20 pound bird.
For 40 to 50 servings, get a 20 to 24 pound bird.

For each serving of roasted turkey quarter or half, or braised drumsticks or thighs cut from large birds, allow 1/2 to 3/4 pounds of ready-to-cook weight.

Turkey Dinner Preparation: Thawing a Turkey

Now we have that out of the way, I also need to talk about thawing your turkey. There is nothing worse than not taking it out of the freezer in time, and then trying to cook a frozen bird. The results will be disastrous as your bird will be as tough as old boots.

The best results when thawing a frozen turkey are when you place the bird in the fridge at least 3 days before you need it.  If you have a whole bird leave it in its original wrapper and place on a baking tray at the bottom of the fridge as you don't want the thawed juices contaminating other foods in your fridge.

If you have turkey pieces, the wrapping can be opened and try and separate the pieces if possible to allow the air to get to them and to hurry the thawing process. Again these should be thawed out in the fridge. This is for health safety reasons, as poultry can spoil very quickly, especially if you live in a warm climate.

If you have forgotten to take your turkey out in time, you can still thaw the bird by filling up your sink with water and lowering the bird into the water. From time to time the water can be changed when it gets too cold. Never use warm water.  Your turkey will thaw between 2-6 hours like this, depending on the size of the bird and how often you change the water.

If you buy a commercial stuffed turkey then these should never be frozen and re-thawed.
Thanksgiving turkey and all the trimmings

Turkey Dinner Preparation: How to Cook a Turkey

There are 2 things that are important when you cook a turkey:

  • 1. Truss your turkey to keep its shape
  • 2. Baste it regularly to keep it moist.
The first thing you want to make sure of, is that your turkey is thoroughly thawed before you roast it. I usually keep mine in the fridge for 3 -4 days after dragging it out from the freezer.

After that you want to rinse your bird and clean it up. Make sure that there are no pin feathes still in the skin. If so these can be easily removed with tweezers. Secondly, wash the bird inside and out with some cold water.

Reach inside the cavity and remove any pieces of fat.

Now you will need to stuff your turkey. Pack it both inside and under the skin, as I explained, and make sure that you don't overfill the bird as the stuffing will expand as it cooks.

After that you will need to truss your turkey to keep it compact, and to give it a better shape. For this you can use trussing pins and kitchen string, a darning needle and some kitchen string, or you can use a couple of toothpicks, like I do.

If you are using toothpicks, don't forget to remove them, before carving, or serving the meat to your guests. What you are aiming for is a nice shape, making sure that the stuffing stays in the cavity.

Tuck the wings under the bird, as these will be the first thing to burn, if you don't, and tie the legs together with a piece of kitchen string as this helps to keep the stuffing inside.

Brush the turkey all over with melted butter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. I always place 8 or so bacon pieces on top of the turkey breast, overlapping as I place them. The fat from the bacon helps keep the breast moist, and it also gives the meat a better flavor. And besides, the kids like to eat the crispy bacon once cooked, while the turkey is being served.

Remember to only cook your turkey long enough, according to its weight, and to baste it every 30 - 45 minutes with the pan juices.

30 minutes before the allotted time, start testing for to see if your turkey is cooked or not.

Best Cooking Times for Turkeys

Usually, there is a cooking time guide that comes with your bird. However, if there isn't then here is a cooking guide for both stuffed and unstuffed birds.

Approximate Time for Roasting at 325 degrees F.
Ready to Cook Weight of Turkey Stuffed Bird  Unstuffed Bird 
4-6 lbs. 3 - 4 1/2 hours 2 - 3/4 hours
6-12 lbs. 3 1/2 - 5 hours 2 1/2 - 3 1/2 hours
12-16 lbs. 5 - 6 hours 3 1/2 - 4 1/2 hours
16-20 lbs. 6 - 7 1/2 hours 4 1/2 - 6 hours
20-24 lbs. 7 1/2 - 9 hours 6 - 7 hours
Turkey Pieces: Halves, Quarters or Half Breasts
3 1/2 - 5 lbs. 3 - 3 1/2 hours
5-8 lbs. 3 1/2 - 4 hours
8-12 lbs. 4-5 hours

How to Test that the Turkey is Cooked

A cooking thermometer in the turkey to test if it is cooked.

A cooking thermometer placed in a turkey to test when it is done.

You should start testing to see if your turkey is done, about 30 minutes before the end of the estimated cooking time.  This is really crucial, because it is at this point that you could end up with a juicy turkey or one that tastes like sawdust.

At this stage, insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the breast, and then the thigh, making sure that wherever you put the thermometer you don't end up touching the bone.

Your turkey is done when the breast has a temperature of at least 170 degrees F. (77 degrees C.) and the thigh 180 degrees F. (82 degrees C.)

Remove the thermometer if your turkey is still not cooked, and cook a little longer before trying again.

You will find that the breast will be ready before the thighs. To prevent it from burning or drying out, you can baste it with the juices and cover it with a bit of tin foil, shiny side up.

A turkey will continue to cook internally after you have removed it from the oven, therefore it is a good idea to remove it when the temperature is 2 or 3 degrees below the ideal temperatures you are after. Cover the turkey with tin foil and allow it to rest for 20 minutes before carving.

Of course, this is assuming that you have a cooking thermometer. Many of you may not.  However, there are a number of safe ways of testing to see when your turkey is done. First of all, stick a carving fork of a skewer into the leg of the chicken and in the breast area. If both areas run clear juice, it is done. If the juices are pink, keep the turkey in the oven for a little longer.

If the juices run clear, the next step is to gently prise open one of the legs. If the leg is white all the way through, and not pink at the joints, or still bloody, then you may safely say that your turkey is cooked, and you can take it out to rest.

How to Carve a Turkey 

how to carve a turkey.Before we launch into the recipe section, we should look at how to carve a turkey.

It is a big bird that if cooked right is succulent and tasty. If not, it is a dry, stringy, tasteless and hulking disaster.

On top of that, you need to know which way to cut the cut the meat so that you don't end up dishing up tough meat, even if it has been cooked correctly.

You need the following carving equipment:

  • 1 pronged carving fork
  • 1 electric carving knife / or a very sharp carving knife
  • 1 cutting board with a lip so that the juice doesn't go everywhere. Ideally it will have spikes so as to grip the meat as you carve.
  • 1 large platter ready to receive the carved meat
The first step is to  allow the turkey to rest for at least 20 - 30 minutes before you carve it. Although you want it to rest, you also need it still to be hot. So you have to wrap the whole bird in aluminum foil to keep the heat in.

Carving the legs, thighs and wings

Now, cut off the easy bits that can actually be bent back against the joints and then the meat is cut through at the joints. And these are the wings and the legs. When you take the legs off, make sure that you don't take the thighs as well. The turkey leg is plenty big enough to be be given as a single piece, and the thigh another. Cut through the joint to separate them.

Now scoop out the stuffing in the body cavity and place neatly as you can on the platter.

Carving the Turkey Breast

One you have the wings, the legs and the thighs off, you are left with the breast and the rest of the carcass. To get the white meat off the turkey just cut down from the top, parallel to the breastbone, slicing one side, and then the other if you are still short of meat.  Cut at a slight diagonal.

Only cut the meat you will need for one sitting.

Turkey Dinner Preparation Timetable

For those of you who are uncertain when to start thawing your turkey etc., we have a timetable telling you how soon you should start preparing your turkey and what to do to it.

This is a timetable that includes brining time. If you are not brining your turkey, then you can take your turkey out on Sunday to defrost. Never have your turkey sitting in your fridge longer than 4 days if you are not brining it.

Friday Take your turkey out of the deep freeze and place in the fridge to defrost
Saturday Allow turkey to defrost
Sunday Allow turkey to defrost
Monday Allow turkey to defrost
Tuesday Brine your turkey for 12 hours, overnight
Wednesday Rinse, dry and place turkey back in fridge for 12 hours
Thurday Roast your turkey and enjoy your dinner!

 Thanksgiving Turkey Recipes

Turkey Gravy Recipes
Turkey Stuffing Recipes
Deep Fried Turkey
Turkey Brine Recipes
Ground Turkey Recipes
Turkey Leftovers

Children feeding a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.


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