There’s really no holiday that’s more anchored by food than Thanksgiving. From the light bites to the sweet ending, every host wants to pull out all the stops for their friends and family. Of course, the most important dish of all is the glorious turkey that you’ll need to prep, dress, roast, and carve. It’s a huge undertaking for any cook, which is why we dug for the absolute best advice, tried-and-true tips, and surprising mistakes to avoid so that you’ll be guaranteed a perfectly browned bird on the big day.
1. Choose your bird wisely.
When picking out the bird, be sure to calculate properly. As a general rule, plan to buy at least two pounds for every guest if you consider yourselves big eaters and would like leftovers. If you don’t feel like storing any extra food or consider yourselves light eaters, multiple by 1.5 pounds per person. Butterball has a handy calculator on its website if you need additional help figuring out just the right formula for your family.
2. Never underestimate the thaw.
Once you’ve brought home your bird, make note of which day it needs to come out of the freezer. The easiest route is refrigerator thawing, which simply means you can place the packaged turkey in the fridge. This takes one day for every four pounds, so a 24-pound bird requires six days on the bottom rack of your fridge. If you’d prefer to let it thaw in cold water, keep the fully wrapped bird submerged and change the water in your sink every 30 minutes. Since you’ll need to continue this process for 30 minutes per pound, this is probably best for smaller roasts. What’s more, you’ll need at least an hour for your bird to come to room temperature before you place it in the oven.
3. Put down the butter.
Though some sing the praises of smothering their turkeys in churned cream, the milk solids in butter can actually burn and ruin your chances of crisping up the skin to just the right Maillard brown. Instead, simply dress your bird by brushing on canola or vegetable oil (plus bit of salt and pepper—and whichever herbs you prefer), and we promise you’ll be satisfied with the crispy skin when it’s done.
4. Always use a rack.
Using a roasting rack will prevent the bottom of your turkey from steaming and sticking to your pan. If you don’t already have one, pick one up now. In a pinch, you can always place a layer of whole carrots and celery beneath your bird to help elevate it.
5. Forget basting.
After testing countless birds over generations, the experts at Butterball all agree and preach the importance of keeping the oven door closed. Sealing in the heat and keeping the temperature consistent is priceless when you’re cooking up the most important meal of the year. Continually opening the door to pour juice over the roast will only waste time and energy—the bird will stay moist if you simply place a tent of foil over the breast after it’s been cooking for about two-thirds of its total time, The Kitchn reports. Otherwise, leave it alone until you need to check for doneness.
6. Trust your meat thermometer.
Your grandmother probably swears by wiggling the drumstick or checking the juice colors to decide if her roasts are done, but there is truly only one way to tell. Even counting the hours isn’t a guarantee (although the 15-minutes-per-pound rule can be very helpful). Essentially, you should never ignore the meat thermometer. Turkeys must read 180 degrees Fahrenheit in the thigh and 170 degrees in the breast before serving. And if you’ve stuffed the bird, be sure that the dressing clocks in at 165 degrees. Don’t trust those poppers, either!
7. Always let it rest.
Just like a fine cut of steak, you want to let your turkey rest for at least 20 or 30 minutes before you dig in and start carving. This will allow all of its juices to evenly redistribute and keep the entire roast moist and cooked to perfection, the New York Times advises. While you wait, cover the whole pan in foil and ignore it until your timer dings.
8. Never carve at the table.
While it’s tempting to place your perfectly cooked turkey on the table to complete your holiday mise en scène, resist the temptation. Avoid any embarrassment, mess, and stress by carving in the kitchen on a hefty cutting board. Here’s your plan of attack: Remove the wishbone and carve down one side of the breast bone, cutting the breast against the grain. Remove one leg where it attaches to the body and cut off the drumstick, then carve the thigh meat before arranging everything on a pretty serving platter.