Now You’re Talking Turkey! Tips for Taking your Turkey to the Next Level.

By Cecelia Wilken, Current ASU Nutrition Student

The holidays are approaching fast, and if you are like me, you’ve been planning your Thanksgiving meal for the last month. Thanksgiving has always held a close place in my heart. I grew up helping my grandmother and father in the kitchen every year, and they taught me how to make pies, ham, roasted vegetables, sweet potatoes… You name it, we probably made it.

However, the one thing that I never really helped with was the turkey. That was my father’s job, and one he took rather seriously. So, when I left the nest, my knowledge on turkey-prep was very limited. But being rather motivated and dreaming about a beautifully roasted bird on my table, I got to work researching various recipes and techniques all over the internet.

To put it lightly, the first turkey was… disappointing. It was dry, overcooked and (I’m cringing thinking about it) … bland. Since then, I have honed and perfected my own turkey techniques and have helped many of my friends conquer their own first turkeys with wild success.

Here are some of my tips for cooking the perfect turkey:

1) Find the right bird.
First things first. In order to cook a turkey, you must find a turkey. But how do you choose? I go by a simple rule; fresh is best. The fresher your turkey, the better it’s going to taste. I try to avoid frozen turkeys at all cost, favoring a local butcher or farm to supply my bird. A lot of farms and ranches offer pre-ordering for fresh turkeys. The USDA recommends purchasing a fresh turkey no more than 2 days before you plan on cooking it.

Use the Fill Your Plate “Find A Farm Product” search to help you get started.

Of course, fresh birds are not always available, and I’ve cooked a pre-frozen turkey with great success! The trick is making sure you thaw a frozen bird correctly, a half-frozen bird will cook unevenly and result in a dry, grainy texture. Thaw times vary depending on how big your bird is. Use this guide by the USDA for appropriate thaw times

2) Stay away from STUFFING!

I avoid birds filled with stuffing like the plague. I find that stuffed birds take longer to cook, are less flavorful, are dry, and unless cooked correctly, can result in a range of food-borne illnesses. Do yourself a favor and don’t stuff your bird.

If you DO insist on stuffing your bird, here are a few rules (courtesy of the USDA):
– Do not buy FRESH pre-stuffed turkeys.
– Only buy frozen pre-stuffed turkeys sporting a USDA or State seal of approval. This ensures safety by being manufactured and processed in controlled conditions.
– Do not thaw stuffed-frozen turkeys! Cook right from a frozen state or follow the directions on the packaging.

3) Bigger isn’t always better!

It’s recommended that you allot 1 pound of meat per person. So, if you are serving 20 people, you’ll need a 20-pound turkey. However, that is a pretty big turkey and bigger turkeys take longer to cook. The longer you cook something the dryer it tends to be. My perfect turkey size is around 12-15 pounds. If I am cooking for a large group of people, I’ll cook two smaller sized turkeys instead of trying to purchase one big enough to feed everyone. I find that smaller turkeys cook more evenly and tend to stay juicier than the larger ones. And by cooking 2 turkeys I’m almost always guaranteed leftovers! Which is a must in my household.

4) Trust me. It’s worth it.

A brine, in food-processing, is a process in which meat is soaked in a salt-water solution before being cooked. The process is like marinating and is aimed at tenderizing the meat. When I first heard about bringing, I was skeptical. But ever since that year when I first brined my turkey, I’ve been doing it ever since and swear it’s THE ONLY WAY to prep a turkey. Bringing a turkey takes away the need to “baste” your turkey. By pre-soaking the meat in a salt-water bath, the salt and flavor molecules within the brine saturate the meat, helping it retain moisture and flavor, even as it cooks.

Comparatively, basting your turkey does little to enhance the flavor of the meat inside your turkey, and the constant opening and closing of the oven door only increase the cooking time, which, as I mentioned before, dries out the meat.

BUT ISN’T IT SALTY?! Nope. Not at all. Don’t trust me? Well, take a moment to watch this short video by Alton Brown, Food Network star and a pioneer of food science which explains bringing perfectly!

Now I love to add a bunch of other ingredients into my brine. I’ll add leftover apple peels and cores from pies I’ve made, dried cranberries, dried herbs, peppercorns, some sugar and orange peels. All these wonderful flavors will saturate deep inside the meat during the brining process making the juiciest most flavorful turkey. (See my recipe below for more information.)

To brine, I usually buy a sealable brining bag that you can find in any grocery store. If you are cramped on space in the fridge, like I usually am, you can place the bagged turkey swimming in the brine in a large cooler and cover it with lots and lots of ice. I’ll usually let it soak overnight the day before I roast it. You can find a brining bag on Amazon like this one here:

5) The big day! It’s time to roast!

After my turkey has been bringing for at least 12 hours, I’ll take it out and place it on a roasting rack in a large pan (like this one here, dry it off completely, inside and out, with paper towels and take out the neck bona and giblets. Making sure the skin is dry will help make it crispy and beautifully golden brown during the baking process.

At this point, I like to add additional flavor by coating the whole bird in a butter, herb, salt & pepper mixture. The butter enhances the flavor and the fat molecules help make the crispy and delicious skin. I’ll roughly chop up onions, apples, oranges, and fresh herbs and place them loosely in the turkey cavity and around the bottom of the pan with a splash of chicken broth or white wine.

I know I said stuffing is bad, but the ingredients inside aren’t meant to be eaten. Instead, by loosely filling the cavity with aromatic ingredients it will help enhance the flavor without increasing cooking time or risking food-borne illness contamination.

I will usually wait until the bird has reached room-temperature before placing it in the oven. Making sure the bird is room-temp will decrease cook-time and help with even cooking. Once I place my turkey in the oven, that door remains closed until an internal temperature of 165°F is reached. Which brings me to my next point.
6) Purchase a good oven safe thermometer.

The USDA recommends that a turkey reaches an internal temp of 165°F before it is safe to be consumed. In order to keep from having to open and close your oven door (which will increase cooking time), invest in an oven safe thermometer. I have a thermometer that has an oven safe prob that connects to a timer/temperature reader outside of the oven like this one here I can set it to alert me after a certain amount of time or when it reaches a specific temperature.


I’ll usually set it to alert me around 150°F and will pull it out once it reaches 165°F in the thickest part of the breast and innermost part of the thigh and wing. Once it reaches that temp. I’ll take the bird out of the oven and cover it with aluminum foil and let it rest for at least 30 minutes before cutting into it.

Cooking times will generally fall into this category:

For an unstuffed turkey:

  • 4-8 pounds 1 1/2 – 2 1/2 hours
  • 8-12 pounds 2 1/2 – 3 hours
  • 12-14 pounds 3 – 3 1/2 hours
  • 14-18 pounds 3 1/2 – 4 hours
  • 18-20 pounds 4 -4 1/2 hours


7) Start the oven temperature high, then lower it.
This was a trick I learned over the years that I swear by. I preheat my oven to a raging 475°F before placing my bird inside. I’ll keep it at this temperature for about 30 minutes before dropping it down to 350° This sort of sears the outside of the bird, crisping the skin and trapping all the juices and flavor inside.

If you notice that your bird is getting a bit too crispy/getting burnt you can always place a blanket of aluminum foil over the entire thing and then pull it off 5-10 minutes before it finishes cooking. Again, try to keep the door closed throughout the entire cooking process only opening it unless you REALLY need to.

People often tell me that they are scared to cook a turkey and think that it’s hard to do. But with a little bit of finesse and patience, you too can roast a perfect bird and impress your family and friends on Thanksgiving.

My Favorite Turkey Brine

  • 3 cups apple juice/ apple cider
  • 2 gallons of water
  • A handful of fresh rosemary leaves
  • 5 cloves of minced garlic
  • 1 cup of dried cranberries
  • 1 ½ cups of course kosher salt
  • 2 cups of brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons of peppercorns
  • 5 bay leaves
  • 3 oranges sliced up
  • 2 apples sliced up

Bring all the ingredients to a boil in a large pot, stirring until completely dissolved. Let rest until completely cooled before pouring over a clean, completely thawed turkey in a brining bag. Ensure the entire bird is covered, seal the bag and place in the fridge or a cooler with lots of ice overnight or up to 24 hours.

Citrus & Herb Buttered Turkey

For the butter:

  • 1 large orange; juiced and zested
  • 1 large lemon; juiced and zested
  • 3 cloves of minced garlic
  • A handful of fresh chopped sage
  • A handful of fresh chopped rosemary
  • A handful of fresh chopped thyme
  • A couple pinches of salt & pepper
  • 1 stick of room-temperature butter

For the turkey:

  • 1 large orange; cut into quarters
  • 1 large lemon; cut into quarters
  • 1 yellow onion; cut into wedges
  • 1 granny smith apple; cut into wedges
  • 4-6 cloves of garlic
  • Handfuls of fresh sage, rosemary and thyme sprigs
  • 1-2 cups of white wine or chicken broth
  • Kosher salt and pepper


  • Preheat oven to 475°
  • Mix all butter ingredients together, set aside.
  • Place room-temperature, pre-brined turkey on rack in roasting pan. Dry completely inside and out.
  • Place oranges, lemon, onion, apple, garlic, herbs loosely inside of turkey and along the bottom of the pan. Add white wine or broth to the bottom of the pan.
  • Completely cover the turkey in butter mixture, massage onto and under the skin.
  • Place turkey on the oven rack placed so the turkey sits in the middle of the oven. Insert an oven-safe thermometer into thickest portion of turkey breast.
  • Bake at 475°F for 30 minutes, lower the temperature to 350°F and cook for allotted time or until internal temperature reaches 165°
    • 4-8 pounds 1 1/2 – 2 1/2 hours
    • 8-12 pounds 2 1/2 – 3 hours
    • 12-14 pounds 3 – 3 1/2 hours
    • 14-18 pounds 3 1/2 – 4 hours
    • 18-20 pounds 4 -4 1/2 hours
  • Remove turkey from oven and cover with aluminum foil and let rest for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Check out these articles for more information on all things turkey!


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