Turkey–The Big Chicken

Ok, Thanksgiving is next week.

Are you ready?

Are you having a big family dinner, or just a small gathering?  Are you cooking the whole traditional turkey-and-trimming meal, or are your guests bringing the sides and desserts? Or are you a guest somewhere else at Thanksgiving, looking for something to bring?

If you make reservations for Thanksgiving, or go to your local deli to get your holiday meals, this column is not for you. Ditto if you go to Wal-Mart and buy something from the freezer case called Thanksgiving in a Box. Ugh.

This post is for those who want to make a real, home-made turkey for Thanksgiving. It’s very possible, and easier than you think.

Until 2004, I made an effort to spend Thanksgiving in New Orleans with my family. Things changed, and Katrina blew New Orleans around. That year, 2005, my religious group’s neighborhood district leaders announced that they would have a Thanksgiving Day activity for anyone who wanted to attend, and we could cook stuff at their house. The hosts, a husband and wife with 3 children, are from Taiwan, and wanted to host it for folks who weren’t going anywhere, or were too far away from their families to visit.

It’s also a great opportunity to have a little culinary cultural diversity. With members from Japan, China, Latin American and occasionally Europe or the Middle East, along with “regular American” folks, you never know what’s going to show up for dinner. And that’s part of the fun.

So I asked, “Who’s cooking the turkey?” The husband responded, “We don’t know how to cook turkey.” I stuck my foot in it and volunteered.

Then I got home and realized what I did. AAAAAAHH!!!

Being the owner of a *number* of cookbooks, I consulted the ones I had and did a little searching online. And I realized that a turkey isn’t a big deal. It just takes a while. And once I learned how it’s done now, it was simple.

Like a lot of things, I didn’t exactly learn this growing up.

My mother always cooked it at 200F for six to eight hours. You have to “kill all the bacteria.” I know this because one year I had this idea that I would bring dessert packed in an ice chest in components (pie crust, filling, etc.) and bake it at Mom’s It’s a 6-hour drive from my front door to theirs, plus preparation.

I *thought* we could finish it and bake the pie early in the morning, but NOOOOOO!!!  Why? Because Mom bakes the darn turkey all day. It’s kind of like turkey jerky, so you *have* to put gravy on it. I don’t like gravy (the one thing I left off my earlier post on Stuff I Hate.) The pie crust was hastily rolled out and baked immediately upon my arrival, and the pie left to cool overnight. (I can’t remember anyone touching it anyway, so why did I bother?)

Listen up–it’s not that difficult to roast a turkey. Nor is it that ridiculous. But over the years, people keep on doing things “the way it’s always been done,” never considering an alternative. Not only do you get a boring Thanksgiving (or other holiday meal), you’re inefficient as well. This is particularly true in New Orleans–sorry, but it’s the truth. That’s why I live in Texas.

Anyway. . . .

Let me (pardon the pun) boil this down for you. Roasting a turkey is really no different than roasting a chicken. If you roast a chicken at 350 for an hour or so, why would it be any different than roasting a turkey, except for longer?

Listen to me: your Thanksgiving turkey is simply a Big Chicken. Got that? It’s a BIG CHICKEN.

Are you afraid of a chicken?

Trust me when I tell you that there is nothing to be afraid of. If you are that afraid of a turkey, get one ready made. Just know that it will not be nearly as good as one you made yourself–I know this personally.

A couple of years after our first “Buddhist Thanksgiving,” the hostess unknowingly invited one of my coworkers, who had no idea I could cook. Two weeks later at the department holiday luncheon, this same coworker told anyone who would listen that she had some of my Thanksgiving turkey two weeks prior, and it was completely different from the Kroger turkey we were having. Not that the Kroger turkey was bad, mind you, but Amy’s homemade turkey was “so delicious” and she continually crowed about my turkey (pardon the pun) to anyone within earshot.

This, of course, made me a very happy cat. Complete with the Cheshire grin.

In recent years, the Thanksgiving open house has moved to someone else’s house. A single woman. Who is vegetarian. No kidding. But she doesn’t mind turkey in her house. Just not COOKED in her house, which is what I did last year. Brought my roaster over there, plugged it into the laundry room socket, and left to finish other stuff. I can do it all at my place this year, then transport it a few miles away, since I’m driving a small pickup and it has to rest for a bit anyway. And the turkey roaster, which is a cross between a toaster oven and a crock pot, makes it easy.

Now, punning again, let’s talk turkey.

These “big chickens” are generally sold between 12 and 14 pounds, but larger turkeys are available. You must thaw them either in cold water (for hours) or in the fridge, on a cookie sheet or big baking tray, at the bottom of the fridge for up to 5 days. This is not the time to leave it out on your counter. Seriously. You could have a bunch of really sick people on your hands, since it takes so long to thaw. Botulism/salmonella puts a big damper on a holiday dinner.

I’ve personally roasted a few 20 pound turkeys, and it’s just a matter of leaving them in the oven longer. The only fear you should have is that of dropping a 20 pound frozen bird on your foot. THAT, my friend, is a justified concern, and a possible trip to an ER right before a holiday.

Of course, that’s still better than slicing your thumb wide open on a mandolin slicing onions the day BEFORE Thanksgiving (while on the phone with an older matron aunt) so you can brine the turkey. I did have help that day, who was nice enough to take care of all that while I held off the bleeding. No blood went anywhere else but into the first dishtowel I could put my hands on. And the second.

Ask Martha Stewart about holiday ER visits; she’s had a few battle-scarred holidays herself.

The general rule is at 325F or 350F, and you cook the turkey from 30 to 45 minutes per pound. Using an instant-read thermometer, the thigh meat must be 180F. However, before carving, the turkey must be removed from the oven, put in a safe spot, covered with foil and allowed to rest for 30 minutes; it will continue to cook while resting. Best to roast the bird until the thigh meat temp is 175, then remove it from the oven and cover it with foil for resting. (source: Therefore, a 14 pound turkey cooks in about 3 to 3.5 hours, and a 20 pound turkey, 3.5 to 4 hours (source:

Stuffing/dressing is a hotly debated topic (sorry, another pun.) The rule is this: stuffing is literally stuffed into the turkey’s cavity, increasing cooking time, possibly not completely cooking. Dressing is cooked completely and separately in a baking dish, and can go into the oven after the turkey is removed and resting (just don’t turn the oven off.) There are advantages to both, but I rather prefer the dressing route, just to be safe; it’s also easier.

A great suggestion from Rachael Ray a few years ago was to put stuffing into muffin tins and bake it that way. No kidding, she called it Stuffin’ Muffins. I did that a few years ago and it went over well. Perfect single servings, and everyone gets lots of the hot crunchy part. Perfect! Easy to do, too.

Another Rachael Ray suggestion for emergencies: if you don’t thaw the turkey on time, you can cook a turkey in 90 minutes. How? Halve it and cook it that way. No kidding. Spatchcocking, it’s called–cut it in half and roast it flat on a baking sheet. I haven’t tried it, but I’m sure it would work. I’d go to 350F, which is where I normally cook them anyway, and make sure the thigh meat is at least 175F, and let it rest for 30 minutes covered in foil in a safe place.

The “safe place” is anywhere it won’t get bothered, knocked to the floor, messed with, or pulled off the counter by little children. No fun here, please be safe, it’s easy to let safety slip by when you’re busy with a holiday dinner.

Additionally, in the new Barefoot Contessa book Foolproof, she has a recipe called “Accidental Turkey.” A friend of Ina’s put the oven on 425F and forgot to turn it down ten minutes later. The place filled with smoke, but the turkey was moist and delicious afterwards. The way it works is this: roast it for 45 minutes at 450, then lower it to 325F, and roast for another hour, until the thigh meat registers 180F. Remove from the oven, cover with foil and allow it to rest for 20 to 30 minutes. There’s a little more to it than that (seasonings, mostly) but you get the idea. Make sure your oven is VERY CLEAN if you do this one!

In my experience, a brined turkey is incredibly flavorful, and when roasted, will fall off the bone, no carving necessary. (This is good because I can never get those silly little slices done correctly, and I prefer thighs anyway.) Brining takes a little more time and work, but is TOTALLY worth the effort.

Repeat after me:  It’s a big chicken.  See? It’s gonna be OK.

Now what do you want with it? In my earlier post, I mentioned the most incredible cranberry sauce there is, which you can make a couple of days in advance. Make one batch and and see if you like it before Thanksgiving; if not, well, there are always alternatives. (Every time I make it I get requests/demands for the recipe.)

Do a search. Start with famous chefs, like Martha Stewart and Ina Garten, or try,,,, or any one of the myriad of cooking websites out there. It’s not like you’re getting advice off the street, OK? Well, maybe you are. . .sorta. . .just make sure your source is a good one.

To be safe, don’t go too far off the beaten path with lots of new or unusual recipes. If there is one really wild thing you want to try, just do ONE, say a new pie, and make the rest of your dishes familiar ones, even if you use a slightly new or somewhat different version of it.

For instance–holidays in my family are always Waldorf Salad. Know what? I like Waldorf Salad anytime, and I can make it and eat it anytime I want. Keep your Waldorf Salad, or add/have a pasta salad this year–and use tortellini if you’re feeling adventurous. If you *must* have rice pilaf, keep it and add this delicious (and vegetarian) quinoa/butternut squash pie as another side dish. (Made that one last year for the veggie hostess, went over well, and again for the department luncheon. Then again just for myself.)

What about a different version of your favorite dessert, or perhaps an alternate? If you always have pumpkin pie, why not have a fruit cobbler or crostata too?

Here’s a quick and tasty dessert I want to try soon. Sur la Table featured it on the front cover of one of their recent catalogs to advertise their professional-grade cake pans.

Really–enjoy your Thanksgiving meal, but don’t bore everyone with the same predictable menu year after year. Try a little something different, just one. Classic side dishes are great, but there’s nothing wrong with shaking them up a little and turning up the volume, too.


Let me know if you have any questions, but hurry up–Thanksgiving is next week!

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