Nicole McLaughlin, aka NicoleMcmom, shares her secrets for making a moist and juicy Thanksgiving turkey, from start to finish.
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Advertisement

Nicole McLaughlin — Allrecipes home cook and mother of three — demystifies the process of buying, prepping, roasting, and carving a turkey. Read on to get all of her tips so you can cook and serve your Thanksgiving turkey with confidence.

What to Consider When Buying a Turkey

How much? Nicole says to plan for 1 pound of whole turkey (bones and all) per person if you don't want leftovers, and 1½ to almost 2 pounds per person if you do want leftovers. To serve six people and have leftovers, you'd get a nine-pound turkey.

Should you choose fresh or frozen? Frozen is more readily available and tastes good, so go ahead and get a frozen turkey when it goes on sale — and if you have the freezer space to store it in.

How do you thaw a frozen turkey? There's a right way and a wrong way. Never thaw your turkey by leaving it sitting out on your countertop. The safest way is in the fridge. Leave it in its package, place it on a rimmed baking sheet or pan in case any of the juices leak out of the package as the turkey thaws, and just pop it into the fridge. Allow one day for every four to five pounds of whole frozen turkey: A nine-pound turkey will take about 2½ days to thaw in the fridge.

To thaw it faster, you can run it under cold water in the sink. Leave it wrapped up in its original package, set it in a large container or in your kitchen sink, and let cold water run slowly and continuously over the frozen turkey. Change out the water it's sitting in about every 30 minutes. The sink method takes about 30 minutes per pound: A nine-pound turkey will thaw in about four to five hours.

Tip: It's okay to cook your turkey while it's still a little bit frozen. The skin might not be as crispy as you like, and you might have to cook it for a little while before you can take out the frozen packet of giblets and the neck. You absolutely should NOT cook a partially frozen turkey with stuffing inside; bake the stuffing in a casserole dish instead.

Tip: How can you tell if your turkey has gone bad? The nose knows! Nicole says if you smell something bad when you open the package, or if the surface is very slimy, you need to get a new turkey.

To Brine or Not to Brine

Brine is a salt-based solution that can help your turkey turn out moist and flavorful. There are two ways to brine a turkey: wet or dry.

Wet brine. In a large pot, dissolve kosher salt in simmering water, along with brown sugar and whatever other flavorings you want (try this recipe for Ultimate Turkey Brine). When the salt is dissolved, let the brine cool completely, then pour the brine into a large pot or bucket with ice, or into a plastic food-safe brining bag containing the turkey.

Add more water to make sure your turkey is completely submerged. Store in the fridge to keep it cold — or keep it iced in a cooler — for at least eight to 24 hours. Before roasting, rinse off the brine and pat the turkey dry with paper towels. Tip: Nicole says you can finish thawing your turkey right in the wet brine.

Dry brine. This is Nicole's preferred method for brining because it's not as messy and doesn't take up so much fridge space. You can make a dry brine or rub with kosher salt and whatever dried herbs and spices you wish. (Try this recipe for Dry Brine Turkey.) Set the turkey on a rimmed baking sheet and coat the turkey inside and out with the dry brine mixture, rubbing a little under the skin so it flavors the breast meat. Chill the turkey uncovered for one to three days. (Some cooks like to cover it for two days and uncover it on the third day to dry out the skin so it crisps up.) No need to rinse off the dry brine before roasting.

How Nicole Preps Her Turkey for Roasting

  1. Remove any metal or plastic clips.
  2. Remove bag of giblets and turkey neck (if you haven't already removed them before brining) and set aside to make broth for gravy.
  3. Pat down the turkey with paper towels. Do not rinse unless you've wet-brined the turkey.
  4. Season the inside of the turkey with a mixture of salt and pepper (you can skip this if you've brined the turkey).
  5. Stuff the turkey with aromatics. Roughly chop carrots, onion, apple, and celery to go inside the turkey cavity. These ingredients are meant for flavoring, and are generally not eaten. Nicole likes to tuck a few sprigs of fresh herbs such as thyme and rosemary into the cavity as well.
  6. Make a compound butter with softened butter and chopped herbs, salt, and pepper (omit the salt if you've brined the turkey). Tuck some under the skin on the breast meat and rub it until it coats the underside of the skin evenly. This bastes the meat as it roasts and imparts more moisture and flavor.
  7. Tie the legs together with kitchen twine. Pat the skin dry one more time. Tuck the wing tips under. Place the turkey on a rack in a rimmed baking sheet fitted with a rack so air can circulate around the turkey (buy it: $36 at Target). Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper (omit the salt if you've brined the turkey). Drizzle with olive oil and rub to coat.

Ready to Roast!

Nicole likes to use a leave-in meat thermometer (try this $18 Amazon best-seller) so she doesn't have to open the oven door. (That's right, she doesn't baste the turkey.) You can use this method, or use an instant-read meat thermometer. The turkey is cooked when the breast meat reaches 160 degrees F (70 degrees C).

  1. Cook at high heat (around 450 to 500 degrees F or 230 to 260 degrees C) for 30 minutes, reduce the heat, and cook for another 2 to 2½ hours at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
  2. When the turkey is cooked, remove it from the oven and let it rest for at least 20 to 30 minutes to let the juices redistribute throughout the meat.

Making Gravy

While the turkey is roasting, Nicole simmers the giblets and the neck to make a broth, which she uses to make gravy. (Note: Many cooks prefer to omit the liver.) She also incorporates the juices from the roasted turkey to capture that freshly roasted flavor.

Nicole's first step to making gravy is to cook flour and butter together to make a roux. This will thicken and flavor the broth, turning it into gravy.

  1. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons melted fat from the turkey pan. When butter and fat are melted and bubbly, whisk in a half cup of all-purpose flour. Cook for three to five minutes or more, or until the mixture smells toasty and is a little brown.
  2. Whisk in the broth and let it simmer to thicken.

Nicole also heats the roasting pan in the oven to make it easier to deglaze the pan so she can use the pan drippings in the gravy. When the pan is hot, she deglazes it by pouring in enough wine or other liquid so the roasted bits on the surface can be scraped up with a spatula. Strain out the solids and she's got liquid gold to whisk into the gravy.

Time to Carve

Even the most intrepid cooks can get a little intimidated when it comes to carving a turkey. Nicole shows you how easy it can be.

carved turkey on a platter garnished with fresh parsley, sage, and rosemary sprigs
Credit: Nicole McLaughlin

You'll Need:

  • Cutting board with grooves to capture all the juice. (Try this $24 Amazon best-seller.)
  • Large chef's knife
  • Platter
  1. Set the turkey on your cutting board. Cut away the twine you tied around the turkey legs.
  2. Remove the legs. Cut down through the thigh joint to remove the drumstick and thigh in one piece. You can then cut through the joint where the drumstick meets the thigh.
  3. Remove the breast and wings. Starting at the center of the breast, cut through the breast meat keeping as close to the meat as possible. This will remove half of the breast in one piece. Then you can cut across the breast meat to make slices. Repeat with the other half of the breast. Nicole says she just rips the wings off by hand so she can snack on them, but you can remove them by cutting down through the joint where the wing is attached to the body.
  4. Place the meat on the platter as you carve, and garnish with sprigs of fresh herbs before serving. Keep the carcass as a base for turkey soup.

Related:

You can connect with Nicole as NicoleMcmom on Allrecipes and on Instagram @nicolemcmom.