The Best Way to Cook a Turkey:
Recipes, Cooking Methods, and More
Put ten cooks in a room and ask them the best way to cook a turkey and you'll probably get ten different answers.
While one person perhaps favors their family's traditional roast turkey recipe, somebody who's just discovered the wonder of a deep fried turkey may decide it's the best method for saving time and keeping the turkey moist. Somebody else may encourage you to smoke the turkey for flavor and then bake it. And the list doesn't end there! With fusion cooking techniques becoming more and more popular it would seem the best way to cook a turkey is the one YOU like best.
Asking Questions: Talk Turkey
If you're having trouble deciding on the best way to cook a turkey for a holiday like Thanksgiving
, why not get on the phone or email and ask some of your guests how they like it?
There's nothing wrong with getting some input, maybe even starting a recipe exchange. A few days of scanning some of your friends and family's tried-and-true recipes should lead you towards flavor profiles your family will tend enjoy.
Being Original. And don't be afraid to get innovative. Turkey is a very flexible meat in that it accepts a lot of flavors and comes out very well using many cooking methods. Each turkey cooking method described below has its pros and cons... but no decision is the wrong decision.
Or visit Turkey Recipe Central for a ton of turkey recipes and tips, including tips for cooking the perfect Thanksgiving turkey.
Or go right here to submit your turkey cooking questions to us, and we'll answer 'em!
Choices for Adding Moisture and Flavoring a Turkey:
Brines, Marinades, and Rubs
Marinating, injecting, and brining turkeys are all methods of flavoring a turkey that are becoming more and more popular. Any one of them can be a part of your preparation process, giving you another layer of flavor and a way to bake a moister turkey, a juicier turkey, and a more flavorful turkey. Great, right?
A Wet Marinade
Marinating a turkey is one of the best ways to cook a turkey and get a ton of flavor and moisture into the bird. You can marinate your whole turkey in a big container or a large food storage bag that has an air tight seal. What you use for marinade is purely personal, but the flavors should tie into the rest of your meal somehow. Apple cider mixed with balsamic and herbs is one option, as is a beer and honey marinated turkey.
You'll find more ideas for these sorts of recipes at Turkey Recipe central.
Dry Marinating a Turkey
You don't need a big bucket and a ton of liquid to marinade a bird. You can also dry-rub a turkey with any mix of herbs and spices you like. These will sink into the bird over time and fill it with flavor. While most dry rubs have bbq-type flavors, you can make a dry rub for turkey out of almost anything!
Turkey Injection Recipes
If you find that marinating is too cumbersome, or you're making a deep fried turkey
, or you really
want to get the flavor deeply into the meat, your best option may be a turkey injection recipe
-- as far as I'm concerned, it's definitely one of the very best ways to cook a turkey.
With a turkey injection, you'll use the same kinds of ingredients you use for a marinade (though many include butter for extra moisture). Any ingredient you like --as long as it's not chunky-- can become an injected flavor sensation. You'll need a good
meat marinade injector to get the juices into various parts of the turkey, but the results are very tasty indeed.
I've got a ton of recipes for turkey injections for roasted or deep fried turkey here.
Salt Water Brining
A brine is basically a salt water solution into which various other flavors can be added. Some people like traditional turkey flavors (sage, parsley, onion, celery, apple cider), while other people add more exotic ingredients to the brine like mango, ginger, or soy sauce.
The only thing you have to remember if you brine is to RINSE afterward. Without this step you can ruin the meat-- with all that salt in the brine, it just comes out too salty. As a bonus, though, you will not have to use salt when seasoning this bird for cooking.
With brining --touted by many as the best way to cook a turkey-- you'll also need to be sure to leave the turkey to air-dry a few hours before cooking it. Otherwise the skin will stay too wet in the oven and won't crisp up properly.
Dry Brining a Turkey
This is the best way to cook a turkey that's moist, crisp, and doesn't require a big brine bucket. What do you do? Cover the turkey in a salt-herb mixture and let it sit in the fridge a few days. It brines in its own juices and pull all the flavors you apply deeply into the meat. Probably my favorite flavoring method for turkey. Easy, no-nonsense, and perfect every time.
You can find detailed instructions for how to make this moist turkey right here.
Cooking Methods: The Best Ways to Cook Turkey
I've got a whole page on the different ways to cook turkey right here.
But I'm going to go over some of my favorites here, along with some pros and cons for each.
Traditional Oven Roasted Turkey
Cooking a turkey in the oven is the
traditional way to make it. This is one of the best ways to cook turkey, as it's flexible, simple, and makes for wonderful homemade gravies. However, unless you time it just right or brine your bird, roasted turkey has a greater tendency to come out dry than some other ways to cook turkey.
Wondering what is the best way to roast a turkey, and looking for recipes? Check right here.
You can also cook turkey in a roaster oven, which frees up a little extra space in your oven!
Deep Fried Turkey
It seems like more and more people are opting for a deep fried turkey for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. And there are a TON of reasons for that.
For one, if you're short on time or oven space, this is by far the best way to cook a turkey. A deep fried turkey cooks up in less than an hour and takes up zero room in the oven-- or even in the kitchen, for that matter! It leaves you to focus on the rest of the meal.
When you cook a turkey in a deep fryer, the moisture is also locked right in, making for an ultra-juicy turkey. Plus, you get the crispest skin humanly (or turkey-ly?) possible. It's truly awesome.
The downsides? You need a ton of special equipment to make this work, plenty of safe outdoor space, and you have to invest in gallons of rather pricey peanut oil. Plus, since there's no roasting and no drippings, you can't make a gravy on the spot. (You can, however, do a make ahead gravy like this one, which is what I always do).
Sound to you like the best way to cook a turkey? I've got a ton of pages with lots of details and instructions for deep frying a turkey:
Slow-Cooked Overnight Turkey
This is a method that always results in a super most, fall-off-the-bone tender turkey. Either overnight or all morning on the day of your special dinner (like Thanksgiving dinner), you cook your turkey over a low, low heat, either in a crock pot or in your oven. It turns out delicious.
However, this isn't necessarily the best way to cook a turkey if safety is your number one concern. While a slow-cooked turkey tastes great, it cooks at a temperature that's just a bit too low. However, there are things you can do to ensure a turkey cooked this way comes out safely.
I've got a whole page on making a slow-cooked turkey, including safety tips and more.
Cooking from Frozen
If you're a poor planner and forget to thaw your turkey
, this may end up being the best way to cook a turkey for you: straight from its frozen state without thawing! And while most people just use this cooking method as a last resort, others swear by it for ending up with a wonderfully moist bird. Like any method, though, it has its pros and cons! Read here to learn how to cook a frozen bird
, including what's so great about it... and what's not-so-great.
Smoking and Grilling Turkey
If you have a large BBQ smoker and can smoke a turkey in your own home, I definitely suggest you do it. Definitely. This is THE best way to cook a turkey that's crazy-tender and full of flavor to the very last bite. Most smoked turkey recipes call for a brined bird to be cooked for a long time over a low, smoky heat. The result? A glossy, insanely moist, wonderful turkey.
Can you tell I like this one?
Even if you don't have your own backyard smoker, you can also do this at home. Simply buy a smoked turkey (this one from Artico Chef looks nice!) and bake it in the oven yourself for almost the same flavor.
Hickory Smoked Turkey
How Big a Bird to Buy
The true best way to cook a turkey? Plenty! When you pick out a turkey two things should be considered: the number of people you're feeding and the method by which you're planning to cook the turkey. You generally want a little over one pound of whole turkey per person... and I'd suggest you go with 1.5 pounds if you want leftovers. Which you do, right?
What size turkey for your cooking method? Well, it's not suggested that you smoke or deep fry a turkey that's larger than 12-15 pounds for best results. Oven baking, braising and roasting can accept larger turkeys so long as you have a big enough pan to accommodate the bird with room to spare.
Note: aluminum roasters aren't really a good idea for heavy birds you run the risk of having them bend and spill juice (or worse, the turkey) everywhere. Want an easy clean up? Compromise and put your aluminum pan in the bottom of a heavy roasting pan.
Preparing to Cook Your Turkey
Defrosting Your Turkey.
The best way to cook a turkey is to start out with solid preparation. The US Department of Agriculture recommends defrosting your turkey in the refrigerator above any other method. That means allowing for one day of defrosting for every 4-5 pounds of whole turkey.
Check here for a turkey thawing time chart.
Drying Your Turkey. No matter what cooking method you use, be sure your turkey is as dry as possible on the outside for the best result. Why? Because a too-wet bird can result in soggy skin. Which is just sad.
For more tips on getting crisp skin, check out cooking Thanksgiving turkey and my turkey tips pages.
Stuffing Your Turkey. Most experts say that it's healthier to cook stuffing outside the bird-- and helps to prevent the bird from being overcooked while the stuffing finishes up. In general, unstuffed is the best way to cook a turkey.
That said, for some people an unstuffed bird is sacrilege! If you are planning on stuffing your turkey, make the dressing the night before (so it gets all those flavors mingled) and stuff the bird loosely just before you put it in the oven. This will prevent bacteria from getting a chance to grow.
Of course, I've got lots of recipes for great stuffings that can be cooked inside or outside of the turkey: traditional turkey stuffing recipes and sausage stuffing recipes.
Cooking for YOU
No matter how you stuff it, cook it, or eat it, the best way to cook a turkey is actually pretty personal. Just remember to have fun with it! Experiment, try new things... and eventually you'll discover the recipe that works perfectly for you every time.
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