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Present your guests with a golden, juicy Thanksgiving bird by following these simple tips.
Selecting the bird: Today’s stores carry more than the famous frozen Butterball. You may find fresh birds from local farms or even heritage breeds.
For frozen turkeys, the safest way to thaw them is in the refrigerator. You will need at least 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds, so plan for at least 5 days for a 16- to 20-pound bird. If you get in a pickle, you can thaw a frozen bird, wrapped, in cold water (use a large vessel like a cooler.) You must change the water every 30 minutes and plan on 30 minutes per pound.
Prepping the bird: For best results, spend a little extra time brining the bird, using either a wet brine or dry rub method. The salt begins dissolving proteins and adds flavor, resulting in a more tender, delicious bird. Wet brine by soaking the bird in a 5% to 8% salt solution overnight and then patting it dry (Alton Brown has great instructions for this procedure on foodnetwork.com).
Some people claim that wet brining results in less true turkey flavor and have turned to dry-brining. (It is also much easier.) The following method is from Russ Parsons of the LA Times, inspired by Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café in California:
Use 1 tablespoon kosher salt for every 5 pounds of turkey. Salt every bit of that turkey (it is ok if it is still frozen or partially so) — front, back, sides and inside the cavity. Seal in a plastic bag and let sit 1 to 3 days in the refrigerator, flipping and rubbing the salt around in the bag if you can.
The night before cooking, remove turkey from the bag and let sit uncovered in the fridge. Just before cooking, let it sit at room temperature for about an hour (do not rinse the bird). Pat dry and baste with butter before cooking.
What about stuffing? Don’t do it. By the time you get everything you put in the cavity cooked to a safe temperature, your turkey will be overdone. A cut onion, half a lemon or a few sprigs of rosemary is OK.
Instead, cook your dressing in a separate dish. After the turkey comes out of the oven, gather some drippings and drizzle them over the prepared dressing and bake it while the turkey rests.
Cooking: Start the oven at 425 degrees. Start breast side down and cook 30 minutes. Then remove from the oven and carefully flip the bird, using kitchen towels to protect your hands. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.
If you have a corded oven thermometer, you can place in the thickest part of the thigh (not touching the bone) and monitor the temperature without opening the oven; your turkey will cook faster and turn out better. Cook until the thigh temperature is 165 degrees. But watch closely — an unbrined bird cooks faster, and so does a heritage breed or pastured bird.
Resting: Loosely tent the bird with foil and let rest at least 30 minutes, but up to 60. This lets the juices redistribute while giving the cook time to make gravy and finish the sides. Carve and serve.