Thanksgiving can be a confusing and overwhelming time when it comes to cooking. Luckily, you’re not alone when it comes to Thanksgiving cooking horror stories.

For one Pittsburgher, the legend of the Paper Bag Turkey lives on. She decided to cook their turkey using the brown bag method for the first time. This method involves cooking the turkey in a brown paper bag and claims a moist and delicious result. After some time in the oven, her mother-in-law saw the paper bag beginning to smolder and expressed her concerns. She decided to open the oven to check on the turkey. Opening the oven added oxygen to the smoldering paper and ignited a fire. The mother-in-law panicked and grabbed the fire extinguisher to douse the flames. In a matter of seconds, the entire kitchen was covered in the white fluffy mess, coating all the food that was lining the counter tops.

Dismayed and hungry, the family consulted Poison Control and was informed that their provisions would be safe to eat as long as they disposed of all the “fire extinguisher” contaminated food. They ate pies without the crusts and threw away any beans or peas that couldn’t be salvaged. While it wasn’t the picturesque dinner they’d hoped it would be, it provided them with a comical stories that is sure to be shared for generations to come!

If you ever think you’ve made a big mistake at Thanksgiving, take some solace in knowing that you’re not alone and that there are plenty of tips to ensure that your dinner preparations move smoothly!

If you’d like some insight on how to best cook your turkey, read on!

1. Thawing a Turkey

The type of turkey you buy determines the process by which to thaw and prepare it.

  • You should allow one pound of meat per person for both fresh and frozen turkeys, but make sure to allow 1 1/4 pound per person if you’ve chosen a frozen pre-stuffed turkey.
  • Buy your fresh turkey only one to two days before you intend to cook it. Keep it in a pan or tray in your refrigerator to collect any juices that leak out.
  • You should not buy a fresh pre-stuffed turkey. There is a high risk of bacteria.
  • You should thaw your frozen turkey only right before cooking.
  • You should not thaw a frozen pre-stuffed turkey.
  • You may keep a frozen turkey in your freezer indefinitely, but it’s recommended to cook it within one year.
  • You should only buy frozen pre-stuffed turkeys with the USDA or State mark of inspection on the packaging to ensure that it has been processed properly.

You should be aware of the time and process it takes to thaw your turkey.

  • If you choose to thaw your turkey in the refrigerator, make sure it is set for 40 Fahrenheit or below.
  • When thawing your turkey in the refrigerator, keep it in its original package. Place it on a tray or in a pan to contain any juices that may leak. Allow your turkey to thaw 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds. You may refreeze the turkey if needed.
  • If you choose to thaw your turkey in cold water, make sure to allow 30 minutes per pound. Wrap your turkey securely to ensure that no water can leak through the packaging. Fully submerge your turkey and change the water every 30 minutes. You must cook your turkey immediately after it has thawed and you cannot refreeze it.
  • If you choose to thaw your turkey in the microwave, make sure to consult your owner’s manual for the proper size turkey that will fit in your microwave and the appropriate thawing time. You must remove all packaging and place on a microwave-safe dish to catch any leaking juices. The turkey must be cooked immediately after thawing and cannot be refrozen or refrigerated after thawing.
  • Make sure you have removed the giblets from the turkey cavities after thawing. Cook separately.Roasted Turkey

2. Roasting a Turkey

There are many tips for safely roasting your turkey.

  • Do not set your oven temperature any lower than 325 Fahrenheit.
  • Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperatures of your food.
  • Place your turkey or turkey breast on a rack in a shallow roasting pan.
  •  It is not recommended to stuff a turkey. You will achieve a more even cooking if you cook the stuffing outside the bird in a casserole. Make sure your stuffing reaches an internal temperature of 165 Fahrenheit.
  • A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 Fahrenheit. You can check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. You may cook your turkey to higher temperatures.
  • If your turkey has a pop-up temperature indicator, it is still recommended that you also use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature.
  • You should allow the turkey to stand for 20 minutes before carving to allow the juices to set. This will allow the turkey to carve more easily.
  • Remove all stuffing from the turkey cavities.
  • You may cook a frozen turkey, but it will take at least 50 percent longer than a fully thawed turkey and is not recommended. It will also make it difficult to remove the giblet packages, which you must do during cooking time with tongs or a fork.
  • Be aware of the time it will take to cook your turkey based on the temperature you have set your oven to, the weight of your turkey, and whether or not it is stuffed.

3. Other cooking tips

  • Tuck wing tips under the shoulders of the bird for more even cooking. This is referred to as “akimbo”.
  • Add 1/2 cup of water to the bottom of the pan.
  • You can place a tent of heavy-duty aluminum foil over the turkey for the first 1 to 1 1/2 hours to allow for maximum heat circulation, keep the turkey moist, and reduce oven splatter. You may also place foil over the turkey to prevent overbrowning after it has reached the desired color.
  • If you have an oven-proof thermometer, you can place it in the turkey at the start of the cooking cycle to check the internal temperature of the turkey while it’s cooking. For turkey breasts, place it in the thickest part. For whole turkeys, place in the thickest part of the inner thigh. Once the thigh has reached 165 Fahrenheit, check the wing and the thickest part of the breast to ensure the turkey has reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 Fahrenheit throughout.
  • If you are using an oven bag, follow the manufacturer’s guidelines of the package.

There are many different ways to cook your turkey. It’s important to know exactly how to prepare it and the risks involved in different methods. There are many popular methods and strategies that could be dangerous. Some of these methods include:

  • While deep frying a turkey produces a safe turkey, there is a high risk for fire in the process.
  • Crock-pots cook at such a low temperature that it can allow bacteria to breed in the internal cavity of a whole turkey. A turkey breast is safer, but still slightly risky.
  • The microwave cooks unevenly which can leave some spots less cooked than others. Even turkey breast is risky in the microwave.
  • Do not stuff your turkey the night before. The USDA does not recommend stuffing the turkey at all, but stuffing the night before can allow bacteria to produce toxins that heat cannot destroy.
  • Do not thaw your turkey at room temperature. This also allows bacteria to breed at high levels.
  • It is not recommended to cook a turkey in a brown paper bag unless it is one that has been approved for food use. Make sure you follow the appropriate steps when using this method.
  • Do not use a trash bag to bring or marinate your turkey. There are chemicals used in making trash bags that makes them unsafe for use with food.
  • It is not recommended to roast your turkey overnight. This method usually calls for the oven to be set around 200 Fahrenheit which is too low. The lowest temperature you should set your oven at for cooking turkey is 325 Fahrenheit.

4. Storing Leftovers

When storing your leftovers, be aware of the following:

  • Discard any turkey, stuffing, and gravy left out at room temperature longer than 2 hours; 1 hour in temperatures above 90 Fahrenheit.
  • Divide leftovers into smaller portions. Refrigerate or freeze in covered shallow containers for quicker cooling.
  • Use refrigerated turkey, stuffing, and gravy within 3 to 4 days.
  • If freezing leftovers, use within 2 to 6 months for best quality.

You may also call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) for more information.

You can visit their website to follow the guide.