by Tammy Roberts, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist University of Missouri Extension
Cooking a large Thanksgiving turkey can seem daunting, especially to a novice cook, but it’s not that difficult, says a University of Missouri Extension nutrition specialist.
The first question: to stuff or not to stuff.
“We don’t recommend stuffing the turkey,” said Tammy Roberts. It’s safer to cook the stuffing outside the turkey in a casserole dish. That’s because it takes stuffing a long time to reach a safe internal temperature when cooked inside the cavity of the bird. Roberts says more people get sick whenever the turkey is stuffed with stuffing.
If your heart is set on a stuffed turkey, there are ways to do it safely.
“Prepare the stuffing right as you’re getting ready to put the turkey in the oven, and stuff it loosely,” Roberts says. Packing the stuffing loosely will make it reach a safe temperature much sooner.
Once it’s ready for the oven, put the turkey, breast-side up, on a rack in a shallow pan. Using a rack lets the drippings fall below the turkey and will help to evenly distribute the heat around the bird, Roberts says.
Then grab a meat thermometer. “Place the meat thermometer in the thickest part of the breast or the thickest part of the thigh, and roast the turkey until the thermometer reaches a minimum of 165 degrees,” she says.
Make sure the thermometer is not touching bone. The temperature of the bone will go up faster than the meat.
Set the oven for 325 degrees. An 8- to 12-pound unstuffed turkey will take about 2 3/4 to three hours to cook. A stuffed turkey of the same size will take three to 3 1/2 hours, Roberts says.
Some turkeys you buy are labeled “basted” or “self-basting.” That means the meat has been injected with something to make it flavorful and moist, Roberts says, adding that instead you might want to do that yourself with butter, oil, broth or spices.
But there’s no need to baste while the turkey is cooking. The image of mom lovingly spooning the juices over the roasting turkey is a perfect Norman Rockwell picture, but it doesn’t really add to the flavor.
“The liquid only penetrates about an eighth to a quarter of an inch, so it only makes a difference in the very top layer of the turkey,” Roberts says.
There is one trick for a moister turkey.
“Once you take the turkey out of the oven, allow it to sit for 20 minutes,” she says. “That allows for the even redistribution of the juices so they spread back through the turkey, and the whole turkey will be moist.”