How to Cook a Turkey, a Letter to my Daughters

I’m writing this to my daughters because someday, a long time from now, they might want to know how to cook a turkey. Chances are they will be able to call me and ask, but there is also a chance that I will be living in a remote fishing village in Greece with my Greek God husband (their Dad), and I imagine it will be hard to get ahold of me there. All I know is that anything can happen to anyone at anytime so it’s best to be prepared. And also prior preparation prevents poor performance. And also cleanliness is Godliness, especially when cooking a turkey.

Feel free to follow along if you are a newbie at cooking a bird.

Dear Tiare and Leila,

So you want to know how to cook a turkey. I remember the first turkey I cooked. I was a junior in college and I lived with your Dad in a little ohana in Hendrix park, Eugene, Oregon. We invited a bunch of friends over for Thanksgiving and had so much fun drinking and cooking all day that I can’t really remember how the turkey came out. What I do remember was calling my mom and asking her how one like me might go about the intimidating task of cooking Thanksgiving dinner.

She gave me step by step instructions which I furiously scribbled down in my five subject notebook. Here’s what she said:

First of all, don’t be intimated, cooking a turkey is easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. Just because the bird is big does’t mean it is complicated.

Always buy a jar of gravy from the store. Why? Just in case. Smart, yeah?

There are only a few ways you can go wrong. The most common and most grave mistake is not letting your turkey fully defrost. This is a biggie. If your turkey is frozen in the middle you will have problems. Big problems. Raw turkey on the inside and dry turkey on the outside problems. Even if you buy a fresh turkey I would still be wary. People lie, and sometimes stores keep fresh turkeys in extremely cold environments, like freezers. I’ve seen it happen.

This goes back to prior preparation prevents poor performance. Buy your turkey in advance, wrap it up in a few trash bags so it doesn’t leak and leave it in the bottom drawer of your fridge giving it ample time to fully defrost.

An example, once at a big family Thanksgiving that you were too young to remember, we had a “fresh” turkey that was somehow frozen in the middle. The turkey was in the oven for the appropriate amount of time. It was given ample time to rest. Everything was ready and it was time to carve the turkey and eat, hooray! No, not hooray. When we sliced into that turkey, it was raw and like ice in the middle.

We had to cook it and cook it. It got a little dried out during this process to say the least.

My grandpa, may he rest in peace, was very old at this point of his life, slightly senile and full of witty one liners. When we asked him how his food was, he replied, “Well, it’s better than cat shit.” True that Grandpa, true that!

Luckily, Thanksgiving is about more than just a turkey, and we all had a fabulous time catching up and being together as a family. No one got salmonella and the desserts were off the hook.

If this happens to you, which it shouldn’t if you listen to your mom, don’t be too hard on yourself. Just break out an extra case of wine and pour heavy.

The second big mistake is overcooking. Luckily there is an easy remedy for this, a meat thermometer. You are not psychic, invest in one.

Alright, here we go. Cooking a turkey is not a precise science, it is not a precise recipe. Just follow the guidelines and keep it simple.

I start with making a spice rub in a little side bowl. That way I don’t get my spice jars all icky.

If you are going to stuff your turkey which I recommend, get all that love ready. I’m doing a brussel sprout and kale stuffing.

I also like to get a stock pot of water ready with carrots, onion, celery and a bay leaf. That way when I open the turkey, I will have a place for the giblets to go. Why you ask? Gravy, yum! Stock, yes! You paid for them, you use them!

Once you have all this ready, open up your turkey in the sink and give it a rinse. Pat it dry with paper towels and put it in a roasting pan. Make sure it is nice and dry before you season it.

Brush your turkey with melted butter, then add the spices, then stuff it. There are some rules these days about stuffing a turkey. Basically, for safety reasons, don’t overstuff. If you have leftover stuffing, wrap it up in foil and cook it next to the turkey for the last hour.

You also might want to fold the wings under so the tips don’t burn, like in the picture below. If you can’t figure this out, just put foil over the wing tips. You are smart girls though, I think you can do it! Also, make a little foil square and cover the exposed stuffing so it doesn’t burn.

And that’s that. Add 2-4 cups of stock to the bottom of the roasting pan and into the oven at 325 until it’s done. Don’t baste for the first hour. I pull the turkey out when the meat thermometer reads 175 in the thigh. I know 160 is technically done and safe for poultry, but the juices always seem too pink for my taste at 160.

When your turkey is done roasting, let it rest. Cover it lightly with foil and let it be for 20 minutes before carving.

What’s in my spice blend?

1 T Kosher salt

1 T Lawry’s Seasoning Salt

1 t Cracked Black Pepper

1 t Dry Mustard

1 T Chopped Fresh Rosemary

There is nothing stressful about cooking a turkey. However, there are some external elements that can make it seem stressful. Ironically, these are also the elements that make Thanksgiving special. It is why the smell of a turkey roasting brings up nostalgic memories of family holidays.

So may your house be filled with lots of screaming kids running through the kitchen, with loud uncles watching football, with wacky grandparents who say things like, “Well, it’s better than cat shit,” and “This is exactly how I like my brussel sprouts-overcooked.” May you be thankful for family drama, a turkey without it just wouldn’t taste right.

Stock up on wine and embrace the holidays.