These eight tips, covering everything from how to defrost a turkey to what to make with leftovers, will ensure that your Thanksgiving dinner goes off without a hitch (or at least comes close).
Choose the right size bird1) Choosing the Right Size Turkey
For a large party, you'll need a big bird -- say, 15 to 20 pounds; figure 1 1/2 pounds for each person. Smaller birds -- 12 pounds or less -- have a smaller meat-to-bone ratio, so allow 2 pounds per person. Remember that the larger the bird, the more likely you are to have leftovers for the next few days.
Plus: 36 Delicious Turkey Recipes
Defrosting frozen turkey2) Defrosting Frozen Turkey
It is best to thaw turkey in the refrigerator, where it's too cold for harmful bacteria to grow. Use the bottom shelf, in case of drips. Place the turkey, breast side up, in its original wrapper, onto a rimmed baking sheet. Plan ahead to allow a full day for every 4 pounds of turkey being thawed.
Cleaning the bird3) Cleaning the Turkey
When you bring a fresh turkey home or thaw out a frozen one, remove the giblets and save them for gravy stock. Rinse the turkey under cool running water, and dry it inside and out with paper towels.
Choosing the right pan4) Choosing a Pan
If you make turkey and other roasted meats frequently, you should consider investing in a sturdy stainless steel pan that will last a lifetime. Heavy stainless performs much better than lightweight aluminum, and distributes heat evenly. And it won't sag under the weight of a big roast. Look for a rectangular pan just big enough to fit your turkey, with medium-height sides (about 3 inches) and strong handles you can rely on. A pan with a nonstick surface will not allow foods and meat juices to brown and caramelize. Some pans come with racks; if not, you will need to buy one.
Stuffing safety5) Stuffing Safety
Stuffing cooked inside a turkey is more flavorful and moist, but you run the risk of exposure to bacteria. Instead, cook the stuffing in a separate buttered casserole dish at 350 degrees; cover it with aluminum foil, and baste it occasionally with turkey juices. It only needs an hour of cooking time. If you do stuff the bird, make sure to do it right before the turkey goes in the oven, not ahead of time.
Stuffing 1016) Stuffing Basics
If stuffing the turkey, do so just before roasting to prevent unwanted bacterial growth. Because the stuffing will expand as it bakes, fill the turkey's cavity loosely; this also allows the stuffing to cook more evenly and keeps it from becoming too dense. A 12- to 15-pound turkey needs about 10 cups of stuffing; a 15- to 20-pound bird can hold up to 12 cups. To test doneness before serving, insert an instant-read thermometer in the center of the stuffing to make sure it reaches 165 degrees.
Plus: 24 Stuffing and Dressing Recipes
Roasting the turkey7) Roasting
Always roast the bird on a rack set in a shallow roasting pan so the oven heat circulates and helps the turkey to brown. After the first hour, baste the turkey often with pan drippings to keep the meat moist and give the skin an even color. Roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted in thickest part of a thigh, avoiding the bone, registers 165 degrees. Let the turkey rest, loosely tented with aluminum foil, for at least 30 minutes before carving so the juices can reabsorb. If the turkey is stuffed, remove the stuffing before carving.
Leftovers can serve as the main ingredients for dishes you might not otherwise make. Sliced turkey can become the main ingredient in an open-faced sandwich, a turkey-and-green-chile burrito, or a turkey-salad sandwich. Even the turkey bones can have a second life: Use them as the basis of a delicious turkey stock, which can be frozen for up to four months and used in any recipe calling for chicken stock.