Last-minute Thanksgiving survival guide

The countdown is on. We’re just days away from Thanksgiving 2012.

By now you have hopefully bought and are thawing your turkey — in the refrigerator, remember — and are finalizing the last small details of your Thanksgiving feast.

Things can move pretty fast this time of year, and I’m not just talking about the onward rush of the holidays. Now more than ever is the time to be take a deep breath and enjoy the moments rather than stress about them. This advice is also relevant in the kitchen.

As the holiday cooking move into high gear, it’s good to slow down and remember to enjoy the process. If you can think of what you are doing as an expression of love instead of a load of work, it will make the day that much more enjoyable.

It’s also a good time to remind about basic kitchen safety of the fowl variety. Undercooked turkey, as we all know, does not make for good eats or safe eats. Here are some tips and facts to remember if you are cooking the bird yourself in the oven:

  • Be sure it’s thawed, but don’t do it at room temperature. Ideally, a frozen bird should have several days in the fridge to thaw, about a day for every four pounds. If you’re in a pinch, you can thaw the bird quicker by covering it in cold water, unopened in its wrapper. If you do it this way, be sure to change the water frequently, every half hour or so.
  • Before cooking the turkey, clear the cavity of the various parts we call giblets. Rinse the whole bird with cool water inside and out, pat dry, then proceed with seasoning, similar to roasting a whole chicken.
  • 325 degrees is the recommended oven cooking temperature from the experts at Butterball. A 10-18 pound bird will take from 3 to 4 1/2 hours. One as big as 24 pounds will take more than 5 hours. The general rule of thumb is about 12 minutes per pound for an unstuffed bird. Cook it breast side up.
  • The bird is done when it hits 180 degrees, as measured with a thermometer in the thigh. (Note: The USDA will let you get by at 165, but it’s better to be safe than sorry if you’re new at this.) And be sure to let it rest at least 15 minutes before you go carvin’ to let the juices recirculate.
  • For beginning cooks, I don’t recommend stuffing the bird, since this can increase your chances of picking up salmonella. The reason is, by the time the stuffing reaches the proper temperature — 165 degrees — the rest of the turkey can dry out. Make the stuffing on the stove and save yourself the headache and the risk.
  • Remember to thoroughly clean and sanitize absolutely anything that has come into contact with raw turkey before it touches anything else. That includes cutting boards, knives and your hands.
  • Toward the end of cooking, if the wings and skin are browning too much before the turkey is done, cover them loosely with foil.
  • If you want to brine your turkey, see my guide to brining.
  • If you need help cooking your turkey the day of, call the Butterball Talk Line, that famous line of yearly communication in which turkey experts will talk you through any Thanksgiving dinner anguish. The number is 1-800-BUTTERBALL, or 1-800-288-8372.
  • More helpful info can be found at butterball.com or here at fosterfarms.com.

If you’re not making the main event, remember there are plenty of other sides you can put together quickly and easily. The host will love you for it, too. Here are links to some on this site, with step-by-step photos on how to make them:

Remember to relish the day and don’t stress about the food. In the end, the most important thing at the table are the friends and family gathered.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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