10 Mistakes You’re Probably Making When Cooking a Turkey
Hosting Thanksgiving dinner can be stressful. But if you avoid these common mistakes when cooking a turkey, it'll be that much easier!
Every product is independently selected by our editors. If you buy something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Taste of Home
It seems to me that hosting Thanksgiving dinner is designed to stress us out. Think of all the people out there who never normally cook. Now think of them cooking a turkey (which equals anywhere from three to five chickens, depending on the size) along with a whole slew of sides. That’s enough to send anyone over the edge! This year, make Thanksgiving less stressful by avoiding these turkey mistakes.
Not thawing your turkey soon enough
This one gets me every year. Since Thanksgiving turkeys are so big, they take a seriously long time to defrost. If you’re thawing your turkey in the refrigerator (the recommended method), plan ahead because it takes 24 hours for every 4 pounds of meat. That means a 16-pound turkey will take four days!
Skipping the brine
Unless you’re buying a kosher, self-basting or enhanced turkey, you should definitely brine your turkey. It helps protect against overcooking the meat and creates the most tender turkey possible. All you need is some salt, water and a little time—that’s it! Learn everything you’d ever want to know about brining here. And for a little extra flavor, pick up a brining kit.
Not drying your turkey before it goes in the oven
Think about the most picturesque Thanksgiving turkey you’ve ever seen. Do you know what helps the skin turn out perfectly browned and crispy? You dry the turkey before popping it in the oven! It’s such a simple step, but damp skin can prevent your turkey from caramelizing, creating a limp, soggy exterior instead.
Not using a meat thermometer
No one wants to be greeted by a raw bird when they sit down at the Thanksgiving table. The best way to ensure a perfectly cooked turkey is to probe it with an instant-read thermometer. Without one, it’s all guesswork. For best results, insert the probe into the meatiest portion of the thigh. When it reaches 170°F, the bird is finished. Don’t own a thermometer? Buy our Test Kitchen’s favorite brand.
Not knowing how long to cook the turkey
A thermometer is the best way to know (for sure) when the turkey is finished, but you should have a good idea how long it will take. That helps you get it into the oven with plenty of time, not to mention making it easier to plan out your side dishes. A general rule of thumb is to allow 15 minutes per pound, so a 16-pound turkey takes around four hours.
Opening the oven door too often
Do you remember that old adage, “A watched pot never boils?” Well, that might be a myth, but my mother always added that a turkey won’t cook with the oven door open. That one’s actually true: When you open the oven door, you’re letting out the heat. It can take the oven several minutes to recover, which means the turkey will take longer than you intended.
Overbrowning the skin
In your attempt to create a picture-perfect turkey, you may overcook the skin or brown it unevenly. A golden brown color is ideal, but you don’t want it to be burnt. If the skin is looking just about perfect but the turkey hasn’t hit its temp yet, tent the turkey with foil to keep it from overbrowning.
Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock
Cutting it right away
It’s tempting to carve that turkey right away—after all, you’ve been waiting for hours to eat it. Without proper resting time, all those delicious juices will spill out onto the cutting board instead of being reabsorbed into the meat. Let your turkey rest for at least 15 minutes, but preferably 30 to 45 minutes. That will give you time to make the gravy.
Throwing away the pan drippings
What’s the secret to the best gravy you’ve ever had? Using the pan drippings! These browned bits and juices are basically culinary gold, so don’t let them go to waste.
Not sharpening the carving knife
My dad always said the hardest part of carving the turkey is sharpening the knives. He was onto something, though, because there’s nothing worse than approaching a perfectly cooked turkey with a dull knife. So sharpen your favorite knife before the big day (or reach for an electric knife) and learn to carve a turkey like a pro.