Mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy and turkey sandwiches for days-these are hallmarks of a good Thanksgiving season. All Americans know that the centerpiece of the holiday table is undoubtedly the bird, but this tasty entrée can be tough (quite literally) to get right. As such, for about as long as Thanksgiving has been around—that’s about 400 years, if you were wondering—gorgers have sought to cook the perfect turkey. Juicy and tender inside, with crispy skin outside. It’s truly the American dream!
We’re joining in on the fun and presenting a few of the best ways to cook a turkey, according to our team of dedicated taste-testers. We hope you’ll put a few of these time-honored cooking methods to use and let us know your results! We’ve got you covered with all the small appliances and tools required for a standout bird this Thanksgiving.
Top Ways to Cook a Turkey
1. The Classic Method: Roasted
If it’s your first time cooking a turkey or if you’re aiming for foolproof rather than novel, you’ve got to go with the roasted turkey. This is your classic, basted bird stuffed with a bouquet of delectable aromatics or nothing at all, depending on your preferences. New to the turkey game? There are a couple of authorities on the bird who can help guide you to the perfect Thanksgiving centerpiece. We recommend:
- Gordon Ramsay’s Turkey—The key to the British chef’s juicy, delicious turkey is an herby butter that gets slathered all over, even beneath the skin. Stuff it with a large white onion cut in half—Ramsay says the onion steams inside the bird as it cooks, adding sweetness—as well as a lemon and bay leaves. After dousing it in olive oil, Ramsay suggests zapping it in a hot oven for 10 or 15 minutes before dialing the heat down, basting it, covering it with bacon and then slow-roasting it for a few hours (the general recommendation is about 15 minutes per pound).
If you’re looking for a foolproof way to roast turkey in the oven, consider following Ramsay’s recipe in a Miele oven with auto roast to totally simplify the process.
- The New York Times’ Simple Roast Turkey—Melissa Clark’s seminal Simple Roast Turkey Recipe is one of the very best for first-time poultry chefs. What makes her version unique is the elimination of the brining, stuffing, trussing and basting. “No stuffing or trussing allows the bird to cook more quickly, with the white and dark meat finishing closer to the same time,” she writes. This stripped-down recipe requires just the bird itself, fresh herbs, onions, a lemon, dry white wine and some hard apple cider.
2. The All-American Method: Deep Fried
“If it can be deep fried, deep fry it.” This old, American proverb (that dates back to just seconds ago since we just made it up) proves true for turkey, in part because it addresses all of the major challenges associated with making the perfect bird. Dropping it in the deep fryer allows you to cook it faster—seriously, a 15-pound bird takes only about 45 minutes to deep fry, compared to over three hours roasted in the oven—and it does an incredible job of sealing in all those juices for a tasty, tender result.
To deep fry a turkey, you’ll need a turkey fryer to ensure that the bird fits and that everything’s cooked nicely and evenly. Start by brining the bird in a mixture of salt, sugar and water. Peanut oil is generally the recommended medium for deep frying a turkey. Chef Alton Brown says you’ll need enough oil to cover the top of the turkey, with about four or five inches to spare at the top of the pot. Be extra careful when working with a deep fryer, as the hot oil can burn the skin and cause serious accidents.
3. The Old-School Method: Spatchcocked
Dating back to the 1700s, spatchcock is shorthand for “dispatch the cock,” according to old cookbooks. But this method has little to do with dispatching and instead refers to the way the bird is prepared. To spatchcock, use a pair of sharp kitchen shears, cutting along the backbone of the turkey so it splits down the middle. This allows you to lay the bird flat, belly-side down so that it will cook quickly and evenly.
The primary benefit of spatchcocking your turkey is that it shortens the cooking time—ideal if you’re starting prep late! It also helps crisp up the skin and lock in those mouthwatering juices. As far as how you flavor, stuff and prepare the turkey, there are tons of different options. You can keep it simple with fresh herbs, salt and pepper or kick it up with a butternut squash stuffing.
4. The Triple-Poultry Method: The Turducken
Poultry fanatics, meet the turducken. A portmanteau of the words turkey, duck and chicken, the turducken is a three-bird roast that sounds like something invented by the internet, but in fact it dates back to the 1970s when Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme put it on the menu (and, ultimately trademarked it). Other sources cite a southern surgeon (seriously) for the turducken’s invention.
Either way, this triple-poultry creation requires stuffing a turkey with a duck stuffed with a chicken, and it’s said to be among the most indulgent and calorically dense Thanksgiving dishes out there. The upside of this preparation is that it brings quite the rich, decadent and layered flavor. Plus, there’s the pure novelty of it. On the other hand, it’s notoriously hard to get right, and it requires deboning all the birds, which can be a massive challenge.
If you do decide to take this very ambitious route, we recommend turning to J. Kenji López-Alt from Serious Eats, who’s got the skinny on how to make the perfect turducken.
5. The Single Guy’s Method: Slow-Cooked
Who says you can’t use small kitchen appliances to cook a turkey? Not us! In fact, busting out the slow cooker may be the very best thing you ever did for your sanity this season. Though it produces super-juicy, tender meat, the slow cooker has its limitations, especially size-wise. So even if you’ve got the biggest slow cooker available (that’s about 6.5 quarts), this one is best for smaller gatherings or couples who want a hassle-free turkey dinner without the basting.
How do you cook a turkey in a slow cooker, you ask? It’s surprisingly simple and, if you do it right, can yield some pretty tasty poultry with crispy skin. Start with a bird small enough to fit in your slow cooker and slather it with an herb butter and salt and pepper. The key to achieving a crisped up turkey with this method is to take it out and stick it in the oven to crisp up for the final 15 minutes of cooking. Just be careful not to let it dry out in these crucial final moments!
6. The Flavorful Method: Smoked
Have you been looking for an excuse to finally buy that smoker you’ve been eyeing? Good news, because you’ll probably get the best price on one as the weather’s starting to cool down, just in time for turkey. If you love the rich, smoky flavor of grilled meat but want to cook a large bird, the smoker delivers. With flavors of aromatic hickory and mesquite, this method truly piles on the flavor. Juiciness is a given with the smoker, too.
To smoke a turkey, you’re going to need a smoker big enough for the job. Prepare the bird how you would with any other method, sprinkling it with salt, pepper and herbs and stuffing it with all the good stuff you can imagine (including a can of soda, if that’s your thing). Note that this isn’t the speediest method out there, and you’ll need to smoke your bird for seven to 10 hours, depending on the size and the equipment you’re working with.
7. The Juice-Trapping Method: In a Bag
This method requires you to cook your bird in an oven bag, which you can usually get in your local grocery store around Thanksgiving time. The benefits to this technique abound, with the primary one being that it seals in all the juices and produces a moist, fall-off-the-bone turkey. On top of that, roasting in an oven bag also makes cleanup a total breeze, which is really helpful when you’re cooking five things at once!
To cook a turkey in a bag, prepare your bird however you want, seasoning the skin and filling the cavity with flavorful stuffing to help infuse flavor into every single nook and cranny. Sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of flour onto the bottom of a turkey-sized oven bag (to prevent sticking) and transfer the turkey into the bag so that it’s completely covered. Toss in some celery and onions, seal the bag and roast to perfection!
Why Your Cooking Method Matters
Before you get cooking, there are a few important things to know about the anatomy of a turkey that guide the way you handle it in the kitchen. First off: size. Turkeys are big, with lots of nooks, crannies and differing textures to consider, making your extra-large oven one of the go-to appliances for cooking. Turkey meat is lean, delicate and easy to mess up, but don’t let that stress you out!
When you’re cooking a 35-pound monstrosity, it can be a challenge to ensure that everything cooks evenly so you don’t wind up with a dried-out breast and undercooked thighs. Indeed, turkeys are notorious for drying out, and the wrong move in the kitchen can leave you with a breast that tastes like shoe leather. Because of this, the aim of almost any good Thanksgiving chef is to serve a turkey that’s as moist as humanly possible.
Flavor is important, too, but it tends to be secondary when it comes to this kind of poultry. All of the cooking methods listed below are uniquely designed to seal in the turkey’s natural juices for the perfect combo of tasty and tender. Some of them even speed up cooking time so you’re not stuck with a half-done bird when everything else is ready to serve.
Tips for the Perfect Turkey
Once you’ve selected your ideal turkey cooking method, there are a few things you can do to ensure that your Thanksgiving dinner goes off without a hitch. These tips apply to every cooking technique, from roasting to smoking.
- For a safely thawed turkey, transfer it from the freezer to the refrigerator. You’ll need approximately 24 hours to thaw every five pounds of turkey, so make sure you think ahead!
- Be picky about breed. Some turkeys are better than others and remember that quality should trump size. Look out for heritage breeds, Narragansett turkeys and Bourbon Reds.
- Buy from a local butcher. It will probably surprise you to find that poultry from your local butcher isn’t necessarily more expensive than poultry from the supermarket. But you get the added bonus of quality and expertise that you may not get at the grocery store.
- For a fancy display, consider trussing the bird (tying the bird up into a tight, little bundle). This will help it cook more evenly.
- Don’t waste the giblets! These parts—generally the neck, gizzard, heart and liver—are amazing for making turkey gravy and broth.
Nailing Turkey Day the Poultry Way
Nothing puts a damper on the festivities quite like a dry, burnt or overcooked bird. Luckily, if you follow any of the methods above, you’ll come away with a turkey to write home about. Just don’t blame us when you’re suddenly the poultry master of the family and are required to cook the bird year after year!