How to avoid 5 of the biggest turkey mistakes at the grocery store and in the kitchen

Even though Thanksgiving isn't upon us yet, it's time to talk turkey. Buying and roasting a bird can be intimidating, especially if you're a first-time host or hostess. Even those of us who have done it before have a hard time shaking those nagging thoughts revolving around whether the bird will be juicy or dry or-worse yet-underdone.

It's understandable. After all, if you're like most people, you're only roasting a turkey once, maybe twice a year. We've roasted quite a few turkeys in the EatingWell Test Kitchen, and through trial and error, we've picked up on some common turkey mistakes and how to avoid them.

Related: EatingWell's Best Thanksgiving Turkey Recipes

Mistake 1: You buy the wrong bird.
What To Do Instead: Not all turkeys are created equal. Some birds are self-basting, meaning that they are injected with a solution of broth, salted water or other flavorings to keep them moist during cooking. We found these turkeys do stay moister, but if you're watching your sodium intake you may want to avoid them. Check the label if you're buying a turkey from the grocery store. The label will tell you the percent of solution in the bird and will also include all the ingredients in the solution.

Mistake 2: You buy a bird that's too big or too small.
What To Do Instead: Unless you're hosting a huge gathering and buy a tiny turkey, you're not likely to run out of meat. What's more likely is that you end up buying a huge bird for just a few people. For either scenario, a good way to estimate how much you need is about a pound per person, and that number takes into account some leftovers. While that might sound like a lot, remember that the weight of the bird includes bone too.

Related: Leftover Chicken and Turkey Recipes

Mistake 3: You stuff the bird.
What To Do Instead: Stuffing a bird is tricky. Since the stuffing is in the middle of the bird, it takes the longest to cook. To be considered safe, the internal temperature of the stuffing needs to reach 165°F. Unfortunately, by the time you get the appropriate temperature reading for the stuffing, the meat is overcooked. If you want to enjoy stuffing with your turkey, bake it separately.

Related: Easy Thanksgiving Stuffing Recipes

Mistake 4: You destroy the bird while carving.
What To Do Instead: There's a lot of apprehension when it comes to carving. The first time I carved a bird, I think I may have left 80% of the meat on the bones and what I did manage to cut off was a shredded mess on the cutting board. Even though my guests loved the turkey despite its presentation, it would have been satisfying to give them perfect slices. To avoid this problem, check out a carving guide like the one referenced in the link below. But as a general rule you want to carve the turkey into it's separate parts: drumsticks, thighs and wings, and thin slices of juicy breast meat. You can even practice on a chicken, if you are roasting one between now and Thanksgiving, to give you an extra confidence boost.

Related: Step-by-Step Photo Turkey Carving Guide

Mistake 5: You throw out the pan drippings.
What To Do Instead: After you roast a turkey, don't move the bird to a cutting board and throw the roasting pan in the sink. What's left at the bottom of the pan are brown, caramelized little bits of concentrated flavors that set the stage for a rich and magical gravy. Letting those pan drippings go down the drain is a Thanksgiving crime. Making a gravy using the roasted goodness is easy and the flavor is far superior to anything you'd get out of a pouch or jar.

Related: How to Make Pan Gravy

Check out the recipe below to inspire you to pull off a flawless turkey this year:

Lemon-Garlic Roast Turkey & White-Wine Gravy

Active time: 40 minutes | Total: 3 hours 40 minutes (plus 24 hours brining time) | Equipment: Very large stockpot or clean bucket & kitchen string

The zesty lemon-garlic rub for this turkey gives it amazing flavor. Instead of using a conventional supermarket turkey that's been "enhanced" with added sodium solution, here we brine a natural or organic turkey to keep the meat extra juicy without a lot of extra sodium.

10 cloves garlic, divided
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup kosher salt
1 12-pound natural or organic turkey (see Shopping Tip, below)
1/4 cup freshly grated lemon zest
1/4 cup packed fresh oregano leaves
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
1 14-ounce can reduced-sodium chicken broth

1. Crush 6 cloves garlic and add to a very large stockpot (or clean bucket). Stir in lemon juice, Worcestershire, salt and 4 quarts cold water.
2. Remove giblets from turkey (if included) and trim excess skin. Submerge the turkey in the brine and refrigerate for 24 hours. If the turkey is not fully submerged, turn it every 8 hours.
3. Remove the turkey from the brine, rinse well and pat dry. Discard the brine.
4. Preheat oven to 350°F.
5. Place the remaining 4 cloves garlic, lemon zest, oregano, oil, pepper and 2 tablespoons water in a food processor and pulse until it becomes a paste. (Alternatively, chop garlic, lemon zest and oregano on a cutting board until finely minced, then place in a small bowl and stir in oil, pepper and water.) Loosen the skin over the breast and thigh meat. Rub the paste all over the turkey, under the skin onto the breast meat and leg meat and a little inside the cavity. Tuck the wing tips under the turkey. Tie the legs together with kitchen string. Place the turkey breast-side down in a roasting rack set in a large roasting pan.
6. Roast the turkey for 1 hour. Turn it breast-side up on the rack, add 1 cup water to the pan, and continue roasting 1 hour more. Baste the turkey with pan drippings, tent with foil and continue roasting, basting every 15 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh without touching bone registers 165°F, 30 to 45 minutes more.
7. Transfer the turkey to a large cutting board; let rest for 20 minutes before removing the string and carving.
8. Meanwhile, pour any pan juices and fat into a large glass measuring cup and place in the freezer until the fat rises to the top, about 10 minutes. (Alternatively, pour the pan juices and fat into a fat separator then pour the defatted juices into a large measuring cup.) Whisk flour with 1/4 cup water in a small bowl.
9. Set the roasting pan over two burners on medium heat. Add wine (or vermouth); bring to a simmer, scraping up any browned bits. Continue cooking until reduced, about 3 minutes.
10. Remove the pan juices from the freezer, skim off the fat with a spoon and discard. Add the defatted juices and broth to the roasting pan; return to a simmer, whisking often. Cook for 1 minute, then whisk in the flour mixture and simmer until thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Pour the gravy through a fine-mesh sieve and serve with the turkey.

Makes 12 servings, 3 ounces turkey & 2-3 tablespoons gravy each, plus leftovers.
Per serving: 180 calories; 6 g fat (2 g sat, 2 g mono); 66 mg cholesterol; 2 g carbohydrate; 26 g protein; 0 g fiber; 120 mg sodium; 273 mg potassium.
Nutrition bonus: Zinc (19% daily value).

Shopping tip: Look for turkey labeled "natural" or "organic" in natural-foods stores or well-stocked supermarkets. Turkeys labeled "heritage" are also typically "natural." If you can't find one, don't overlook this recipe. It works with conventional turkey, too; just skip the brining (Steps 1-2) and start with Step 3.

What is your biggest turkey mistake?

By Hilary Meyer

EatingWell assistant editor Hilary Meyer spends much of her time in the EatingWell Test Kitchen, testing and developing healthy recipes. She is a graduate of New England Culinary Institute.

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