For as long as I can remember, I’ve gathered with my family for turkey dinners around the large dining room table at my parents’ house. They’ve always done all of the work, while I reap the benefits. Perfectly roasted turkey sits piled high on a large platter my dad made in high school shop class. Alongside are dishes of dressing (our family’s term for stuffing), mashed root vegetables, spinach and gravy.

Thanks to my dad’s careful tutoring (and abundant patience) I’ve learned to make near-perfect turkey in my own house! If you’re new to roasting holiday birds, here are some basics. And if you’re a seasoned expert, these simple tips will help you make the most of your own family dinner.

Thawing 101

Though tempting to let a giant frozen bird sit and thaw on the counter, it’s not the safest thing to do. We place our frozen turkey, with the plastic packaging intact, in a large glass baking dish in the refrigerator for two to three days before roasting. If you don’t have time, try filling the kitchen sink with cold water. Submerge the frozen turkey, and change the water every one to two hours. Depending on the size of your turkey, thawing can take anywhere from three hours to all day.


To Brine or Not to Brine?

Whether you’re considering a wet brine (submerging your turkey in a salt-water solution for a couple of days before roasting), or a dry brine (coating the skin with a seasoned salt mixture for up to 72 hours before cooking), brining a turkey can make a big difference in the texture and flavor of the meat. Salt adds flavor, but, more important, it breaks down lean muscle proteins, resulting in juicier, more tender meat. Our family generally purchases frozen, butter-injected turkeys. However, when we do buy plain, fresh turkeys, we dry-brine for two days prior to cooking. Whether you’re dry or wet brining, remember to always keep your turkey refrigerated.

Drying the turkey

Give Your Turkey a Bath

After thawing, remove the packaging and any bagged organs found inside the neck and body cavity. Be sure to check both areas, as I once roasted a bird with the heart and kidney still tucked in the neck cavity inside a small bag! After removing the organs, wash the turkey thoroughly, inside and out, with cool running water. Pat it dry, again inside and out, with paper towels. Sop up as much water as you can from the rinsed bird. Dry skin equals crispy skin!

How to Stuff a Turkey

Whether you choose to stuff your turkey or cook the dressing separately is a personal choice. In my family, we stuff the bird in a manner that we feel is completely safe. To stuff your turkey, place the middle of a large piece of aluminum foil over your closed fist. You want a piece of foil large enough to fit inside the turkey with some overhang on the outside. Shape the foil over your fist and along your wrist to make a cone. With the foil still around your fist and wrist, place your hand into the body cavity of the turkey. Shove the foil cone inside the body cavity to hold the dressing. We use potato dressing, which compresses easily without changing shape; however, note that bread stuffing will swell and should not be packed too tightly. Once the dressing is inside the bird, fold the excess foil overhang on the outside to make a sealed pocket. Secure any hanging skin with turkey lacers if you have them, and then stuff any leftover dressing into the neck of the bird.

Securing the turkey and covering the wing tips with foil.

Secure and Season

Wrap cotton twine (not nylon, as it can melt) twice under and around the body and wings of the turkey to secure. Tie the twine into a knot on top of the turkey’s breast. If you’re using a fresh turkey, or one that has not been injected with butter, feel free to slather the outside skin with a generous amount! Sprinkle the entire outside of the bird, top, bottom, and sides, with any spice blend you like (we use Old Bay). Scrunch two small pieces of aluminum foil over the tips of the wings to prevent them from burning.

How to Roast

We’ve tried roasting turkeys breast-side down, which many people say yields juicier meat; however, we don’t find a noticeable difference and we don’t think it looks as nice. Place your turkey on a rack in a turkey roaster. If the lid fits on top with the turkey in the pan, great! If the lid doesn’t fit, place two long sheets of aluminum foil on a work surface, stacked one on top of the other. Fold one long edge of the foil sheets together to essentially make one large piece of foil. Drape the foil over the turkey, centered over the bird with the folded edge running lengthwise, and gently fold the foil around the edges of the roasting pan. Roast the turkey to temperature using a meat thermometer, basting for the last hour with the foil removed.

Basting the turkey.

Make the Gravy

When the turkey has finished cooking, remove it from the roasting pan and place it on a large platter to rest while you make the gravy. Scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom of the roasting pan, then pour the bits and any juice through a fat separator.

Separating the turkey juices from the fat. 

Give the fat a few minutes to rise to the top inside the separator, and then release the juice back into the roasting pan. Place the roasting pan across two burners on your stovetop and bring the liquid to a simmer over medium-low heat. Add one finely chopped onion and simmer it in the turkey juice until translucent, whisking occasionally with a whisk. Add the cooking liquid of any vegetables you’re making with your dinner to the pan, upwards of two to three litres, as well as a few tablespoons of cooked dressing from the roasted turkey. Continue to whisk to break up the dressing, and then add your thickener of choice – cornstarch, flour, instant gravy thickener, or any other you prefer. Sprinkle in any herbs or spices you like, to taste (we use dried summer savory and a bit of Italian seasoning). Whisk the gravy to your desired thickness, then get ready to eat!

Using a whisk to stir the gravy.

The number one thing I’ve learned about making turkey dinner is it doesn’t have to be intimidating. The process above is basic and simple, yes, but it’s also tried-and-true. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can branch out and play with any tools, techniques, and flavors you like! And that, right there, is the joy of cooking.


Kelly Neil

Kelly Neil is a food photographer and blog publisher living and working in her hometown of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. See more of her work at kellyneil.com.

Tools for the Chef

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EV198 - Fat Separator

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EV124 - Take-Apart Roasting Rack

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45K0960 - Reusable Pop-Up Turkey Timers, pr

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HK330 - Garlic Mincer

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MP111 - Cole & Mason Salt & Pepper Mill Set

Cole & Mason Salt & Pepper Mill Set

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