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Basics for preparing the big bird

  • TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

    Don’t be intimidated by a turkey — it’s just a really big chicken.

I’m no one’s grandmother, but I’ve made enough Thanksgiving dinners to act like one.

Are you in a panic over that big meal you’re serving in a little over 24 hours? Before you give in to fear, let me play grandmother for you: Yes, a turkey dinner is a big meal, something many people don’t cook that often. And yes, there’s a lot of expectation, anticipation and tradition. But really, it’s just one meal.

What you really need are the basics: The times. The temperatures. A few ideas for making turkey taste good. The simple things.

We’ve the most useful tips together in one place to make it easy. Hold this page close, and it should help you get through the next two days.

Save the worrying for how to take the perfect Instagram selfie while you watch the parades.

To begin: Is it still frozen?

If your turkey hasn’t been thawing in your refrigerator for several days, you’re already behind the curve. You’re going to have to speed-thaw. Submerge the wrapped bird in cold water for 30 minutes per pound (8 hours for 16 pounds).

Do you have a thermometer?

A meat thermometer can stay in the turkey throughout cooking; an instant- read is used to take readings in different spots and then removed. You still have time to go out and buy one. (Don’t trust plastic pop-up indicators: They’re often inaccurate.) The meat thermometer goes into the thickest part of the inner thigh, near the breast but not touching bone.

Preparing the turkey

>> Wet brine: This technique adds moisture and flavors but can make cooking juices and stuffing salty. Wet brines are good for grilled or smoked turkeys, though, because those tend to get drier.

For a 14-pound turkey, dissolve 1-1/4 cups kosher salt or 1 cup table salt in 1 gallon of cold water. (If you add sugar, herbs and spices, you’ll need to heat the brine to dissolve the sugar, then chill it before using.) Mix the brine in a large stock pot, then add the turkey. Refrigerate 8 to 18 hours. Discard the brine, rinse the turkey and dry thoroughly. You can also do it in a large, clean cooler filled with brine and ice.

>> Dry brine: This adds flavors and juiciness without requiring a big container of liquid. It’s a great approach for roasted turkey.

For every pound of turkey, combine 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1 teaspoon pepper and any dried herbs or spices you like (grated orange zest is particularly good). Rub it all over the turkey, including inside and under the skin. Place turkey in a large, resealable plastic bag on a large tray and refrigerate 24 hours, turning once at the 12-hour mark. Several hours before cooking, remove from the bag, pat it dry and return to the refrigerator, uncovered, to dry the skin before roasting.

Cooking times

Based on a stuffed turkey roasted at 325 degrees. If you are not stuffing your turkey, reduce the time by about 30 minutes:

>> 8 to 12 pounds: 3 to 3-1/2 hours

>> 12 to 14 pounds: 4 hours

>> 14 to 18 pounds: 4 to 4-1/2 hours

>> 18 to 20 pounds: 4 hours 15 minutes to 4 hours 45 minutes

And after that?

Let the turkey stand at room temperature at least 20 minutes before carving. If you need to hold it longer, wrap it in heavy-duty foil and a towel, then place in an empty cooler for up to an hour.

Safety first

>> Cross-contamination: It’s a big word that just means “don’t get raw stuff on the cooked stuff.” If you’ve had raw meat (poultry, sausage, oysters, eggs) in one place, like a cutting board, don’t put anything cooked or anything that will be served raw (like vegetables) on it until you wash it well with soap and hot water. That includes your hands, your knife and your spoons.

>> Contain those juices: The current recommendation is not to wash your turkey before cooking, so you don’t splash raw poultry juice all over. It’s OK to pat it dry, though, or to rinse and pat dry if you’ve brined it. Don’t use dish towels or sponges to do that. It’s safer to use paper towels and discard them.

>> Safe stuffing: If you make it in advance, don’t mix wet ingredients — especially raw eggs, cooked sausage or broth — with dry ingredients until just before you cook it. (That can give bacteria a chance to grow.) Never stuff a turkey in advance. If the stuffing is refrigerated, let it come to room temperature before you put it in the turkey. Cold stuffing will take too long to get hot. Use an instant-read or meat thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches at least 165 degrees.

>> Leftovers: Don’t let any cooked food sit out longer than two hours. Cooked turkey can be refrigerated up to 4 days and frozen 4 to 6 months. Dressing and gravy will keep 1 to 2 days. Cooked side dishes will keep 3 to 4 days. Reheat all leftovers to at least 165 degrees.

>> Cool it quickly: When you’re putting away leftovers, cut the turkey meat off the bones and wrap it well. Put the other leftovers into shallow or smaller containers so they cool faster.

Last-minute advice

>> USDA Meat & Poultry Hot Line: Call toll-free 888-674-6854 from 5 a.m.- 1 p.m. (Hawaii time) today or 3 a.m.- 9 a.m. on Thanksgiving. Recorded information is available anytime. Or go to fsis.usda.gov.

>> Butterball Turkey Talk Line: 800-BUTTERBALL (288-8372) or butterball.com/turkey-talk-line.

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