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Written by Rhonda Schember, Sprout Contributor

For most cooks, Thanksgiving is the biggest, most anticipated, and most stress-inducing meal of the year. Having said that, it also has the potential to be the most delicious and satisfying spread you’ll ever prepare.

But even in the hands of an experienced cook, there’s a certain amount of kitchen panic that creeps into those meal preparations. Maybe it’s because there’ll be more family and friends seated around the dining room table…and into the next room. Or maybe it’s because of the timing…which has to be near-perfect that day.

If this sounds intimidating, you’re not alone. So here’s your chance to review the basics…again.

FRESH or FROZEN
Despite the rumors, there is no appreciable difference between a fresh or frozen turkey. It’s more a matter of personal preference – and how much time you have. If you buy a 16-pound frozen turkey, for example, it will take 4 days to thaw in the refrigerator. If you buy a fresh turkey, it must be cooked within 2 days.

TURKEY SIZE
Figuring out the size of turkey to buy is the easy part – but you’ll want to build in some extra for leftovers and hot turkey sandwiches next weekend. There is virtually no difference in flavor between turkey hens (females) and toms (males); the difference is mostly in size. Use this chart to determine how much to buy:

  • Whole Bird: 1 pound per person
  • Boneless Turkey Breast: ½ pound per person
  • Breast of Turkey (w/bone): ¾ pound per person

THAWING
Refrigerator thawing is the safest method. Although the process is slow, it results in a bird that loses very little of its moisture and will cook up moist and tender. If you’re short on time, follow the recommendations for cold-water thawing. For safety reasons, never thaw a bird at room temperature because the frozen turkey will thaw from the outside-in. As its surface warms, bacteria could multiply to dangerous levels. And you can’t rely on cooking to destroy all bacteria because some toxins can withstand heat.

  • Refrigerator Thawing:
    Thaw breast-side up in its unopened wrapper on a tray in the refrigerator
    Allow at least 1 day of thawing for every 4 pounds of turkey
  • Cold Water Thawing:
    Thaw breast-side down in its unopened wrapper in cold water to cover
    Change the water every 30 minutes to keep the surface cold
    Estimate minimum thawing time to be 30 minutes per pound for whole turkey

After thawing, remove the neck, excess fat and giblets from the neck or cavity. (You don’t want to find that plastic bag of goodies in the turkey after roasting.) Wash the inside and outside of the turkey and the giblets in cold water; drain well and pat dry with paper towels.

STUFFING
You can enjoy stuffing with your turkey whether or not you decide to stuff the bird. Cooking a stuffed turkey is actually riskier than cooking one not stuffed because harmful bacteria can cause foodborne illness if the stuffing does not reach 165-degrees. A better option would be to bake the stuffing in a greased casserole during the last hour the turkey is roasting.

  • If you still prefer to stuff your bird, be sure to follow these guidelines:
  • Prepare ½ cup stuffing for each pound of turkey
  • Stuff turkey just before roasting. If stuffing is made ahead, store wet and dry ingredients separately – combine only when ready to cook.
  • Stuff the turkey cavity lightly because stuffing expands as it cooks.
  • Cook the turkey immediately after stuffing – it must reach a temperature of 165 degrees.

ROASTING
Set the oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees. Never cook a turkey in an oven overnight at a lower temperature. And never interrupt the cooking process (ex: start the cooking in one place and finishing it at another). Turkey has to be completely and thoroughly cooked at one time to be safe.

Judging cooking time by a chart is only a guideline. A meat thermometer is needed to determine when the turkey is ready to serve. The temperature should reach 170 degrees in the breast, 180 degrees in the leg and thighs, and 165 degrees in the center of the stuffing.

A stuffed turkey will take longer to cook than a turkey without stuffing. If the turkey is cooked in a roasting bag, be sure to follow the recommendations provided with the bag. You can expect to shorten the cooking time by at least an hour when using a roasting bag.

After removing from oven, lightly tent turkey with foil and allow to rest for 20 minutes before carving.