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Turkey 101: Thanksgiving Tips and Techniques

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Turkey is the foundation of Thanksgiving dinner for many American families. And that comes with a heaping helping of stress — how long does a turkey take to cook, what about the lack of oven space, and what is the bag inside the bird? What about gravy? How do I carve it? Don’t worry — I’ve got you covered with Turkey 101.

Turkey 101 on www.virginiawillis.comHow to Brine a Turkey

What’s all this business about brining? Brining – soaking meat in a saltwater solution – is the key to a juicy, tender turkey. Salt causes the food proteins to form a complex mesh that traps the brine so the muscle fibers absorb additional liquid during the brining period. Some of this liquid is lost during cooking, but since the meat is juicier to begin with, it cooks up juicier at the end. That’s Step #1 for Turkey 101.

The size of the salt grains used in a brine is very important. Grains of table salt are very fine, while those of kosher salt are larger. The crystals of the two most widely available brands of kosher salt, Morton’s and Diamond Brand, differ. Half a cup of table salt is equal to 1 cup of Diamond Brand kosher salt or 3/4 cup Morton’s kosher salt. My recipes call for Diamond Brand because the conversion is easy at 2:1.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for brining – it all depends on how long you want to brine. However, keep in mind that the stronger and more concentrated the brining solution and the smaller the piece of meat, the shorter the brining period. A turkey is best brined in a weak solution for a longer period of time. For smaller pieces of meat, my philosophy is to use a strong brine that takes an hour or less.

I recommend an overnight brine for a turkey. Since most of us don’t have a refrigerator to place a turkey in a 5-gallon bucket, I suggest using a cooler with ice and ice packs. With a 10 to 14 pound turkey, dissolve 1 cup Diamond Brand kosher salt and 1/2 cup sugar in 1 gallon of hot water. Stir until dissolved, then add 1 gallon of ice water to cool the solution. Pour the brine into the bucket or cooler. Add the turkey and if that’s not enough liquid to submerge the turkey, repeat the process in a second container and pour the cooled brine over the bird. Store overnight in a cool place. If you store it outside, make sure to weigh down the lid of the cooler so a curious raccoon or other critter doesn’t take a peak, look-see, or nibble.


What about Roasting? That’s my step #2 for Turkey 101.  I roast at a higher temperature to start, then reduce the heat to finish cooking. In general, the main point about roasting a big bird is food safety. I suggest using an instant read thermometer. Instant-read thermometers are indispensable when cooking a large piece of meat because, while the doneness of steaks and chicken breasts can often be gauged by touching the meat and feeling for firmness, a large piece of meat such as a turkey needs a thermometer to really register what’s inside. The plastic pop-up timers found in many turkeys are unreliable, often resulting in an overcooked bird.

Here’s a general guideline for cooking times for  unstuffed birds: 
8 to 12 pounds 2¾ to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3¾ hours
14 to 18 pounds 3¾ to 4¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds 4¼ to 4½ hours
20 to 24 pounds 4½ to 5 hours

A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with an instant read thermometer. (I swear by my Thermapen.) Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.

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Occasionally, instead of roasting a bird whole, I will spatchcock the turkey. Spatchcocking is the process of removing the backbone and opening the bird so that it is fairly flat – and it therefore cooks quicker and more evenly. It’s typically used with smaller birds such as chicken and Cornish hens, but it’s a great technique for turkey, too. Less time in the oven also opens up the space for other dishes.

If you Google “spatchcocking turkey” you will be rewarded with images of pristine white counter tops and a calm cook effortlessly removing the back bone like it’s as easy as snipping a sheet of tissue paper. This is simply not true. In fact, it is a lie.

Spatchcocking is perfect for smaller birds under fourteen pounds. I’m not going to lie to you. Larger birds are too big and troublesome to spatchcock. The bones are too hard and it’s difficult to fit the flattened bird on a baking sheet. In full disclosure, I have a kitchen hacksaw. (Julia Child supposedly once said every woman should have a blow torch, I say add hacksaw to the list!) A hacksaw can be necessary with a 15 pound and up bird, but under 14, a good set of kitchen shears will do the trick.

Here’s a video on How to Spatchcock a Turkey and a recipe for Spatchcocked Herb Roasted Turkey with Apple Cider Gravy if you choose to go that route.

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First, once the turkey has reached the correct temperature, wrap it tightly in foil and let it rest for about 30 minutes to let the juices redistribute.

When carving a turkey, let the bird guide the way. That’s my step #3 for Turkey 101. This may sound a bit odd, but the parts should separate at the joints with little or no effort. If the bird is fighting you, the knife is not in the right place.

Place the turkey breast side up on a cutting board, preferably with a moat to catch the juices.  If the bird is hot, I use a clean kitchen towel to protect my hand and fingers instead of a carving fork, but you can use a fork or a set of tongs. I prefer to use the towel because it doesn’t tear the skin.

Pull the leg and thigh back to expose the joint that attaches it to the body.  Use a sharp knife to sever the thigh from the body, cutting through the separated joint. As you separate the leg, using the tip of the knife, be sure to get the “oyster,” a yummy nugget of delicious dark meat toward the back of the turkey, just above the thigh. Halve the leg quarter into the drumstick and thigh. Repeat the process with the other leg and thigh.

Place each leg quarter on the cutting board, skin side down. Use a chef’s knife to cut through the joint that connects the leg to the thigh. (It should be fairly easy to cut through the joint.) Look for a line of fat, and if the knife meets resistance, your knife is hitting bone and is not placed at the joint, which is easy to carve through. So, reposition the blade slightly and try again.

With the turkey breast still breast-side up on the cutting board, feel for the breastbone, which runs along the top center of the carcass. Begin separating one side of the breast from the body by cutting immediately alongside the breastbone with the tip of your knife. (You are removing the breast from the carcass, not cutting the breast on the carcass.) Work from the tail end of the bird toward the neck end. When you hit the wishbone, angle the knife and cut down along the wishbone toward the wing, then make a cut between the breast and the wing.

Finish separating the breast by simultaneously pulling back on the meat and using short strokes of the knife tip to cut the meat away from the carcass. Place the whole breast on the cutting board. Slice the breast into 1/4-inch thick slices. (Do the same to remove the breast meat on the other side.)

Find the joint where the wings connect to the body and bend until the joint pops apart. Use a sharp knife to sever the wing from the body, cutting through the separated joint. Using a chef’s knife or your hands, remove whatever meat remains on the carcass. (Reserve the carcass for stock.) Arrange the legs, thighs, wings, and meat on a platter, pour over any accumulated juices to moisten the meat, or use in pan sauce, and serve.

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Side Dishes

Everyone has their “must-have” dish for Thanksgiving and for me, it’s Cornbread Dressing. My thoughts and suggestions on Cornbread Dressing are included in this piece by Kim Severson in the New York Times.

Check out these delicious Sweet Potato Recipes for a Sweet Potato Gratin with a Savory Herb Crumble and Buttery Spiced Sweet Potatoes. Want a bit more old school style? How about my Sweet Potato Casserole over on Food Network?

I LOVE these good and good for you Braised Collards in Tomato Onion Gravy. Shh — don’t tell! They’re VEGAN.

There’s nothing like Homemade Yeast Rolls unless of course, you prefer biscuits. Take a peek at How to Make Biscuits with Five Recipes.  

Mama’s Pecan Pie in WAPO Food. That’s all. More pecans. Less goo.

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Giving Thanks

Whether this will be your 1st bird or your 50th, I wish the best for you and yours. I am most grateful for my family, friends, and many blessings.

As you start your holiday shopping, please know that my cookbooks are on sale online. For more information, check out my cookbooks page.  I’m happy to send you a signed and personalized bookplate if you shoot me a note to with “bookplate” in the subject heading.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Virginia Willis

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Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained chef Virginia Willis has foraged for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and executed the food styling for a Super Bowl commercial seen by over 160 million people. Virginia is a Beard award-winning cookbook author, chef, content creator, and motivational speaker. She has lost 65# and kept it off for more than 3 years. Because of her own health journey, she is a cheerleader for others seeking to make lifestyle changes to feel healthier and happier. Her experience inspired her to launch “Good and Good for You” a lifestyle brand rooted in culinary that shares health and wellness content through digital channels; public speaking; and print media. Fans love her approachable spirit and friendly down-to-earth style. For more information visit

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