10 Common Turkey Cooking Mistakes: Thanksgiving and Christmas Dinner Tips

by Kelly R. Smith

Turkey for Thanksgiving Dinner
Turkey for Thanksgiving Dinner; YUM!
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This article was updated on 11/14/20.

It’s fair to say that there is nothing quite as emblematic of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner as that prince of birds — the turkey. It didn’t make it to be the national bird though Ben Franklin lobbied for it, but it did make it to being the savory symbol of two of our favorite national holidays.

That said, the preparation can cause severe anxiety just as holiday season loneliness can. It’s far too easy to get it wrong; too dry, undercooked, or overcooked. Let’s look at 10 common turkey cooking mistakes.

Not Thawing the Turkey Long Enough

This is a very common mistake, especially for those first-timers. This mistake will lead to forehead slapping and a mad attempt to finish the thawing process in a sink full of warm or cool water. Now which was it again?

As a rule of thumb, allow one day in the refrigerator for each 4 pounds of turkey. Using this rule it is easy to determine approximately how long you need to let it defrost before getting busy cooking your turkey. Taking this into consideration, be sure you have enough room in your fridge before you go shopping.

Over-Brining the Bird

Many recipes call for brining — soaking in a solution of salt and spice which is a snap to do with an herb brine kit. However, many of the most available commercially-produced turkeys, such as frozen Butterball birds, have already been pre-treated with a solution of salt and spices. This is done in order to stretch out the shelf life, not necessarily to please your palate. That’s why the brine kit is a better idea; it’s specially prepared for flavor, not storage.

If you do this again (just because the recipe says so), you will end up with a salty bird indeed. Just check the label before you proceed. On the one hand, if the producers have already done it, you have less work to do albeit while sacrificing some flavor. On the other hand, it’s a real chore hand-pick your favorite spices.

Not Drying the Turkey Sufficiently

If your aim is a crispier skin on the outside you’ll want to thoroughly pat the bird down using paper towels before it goes in the oven. Drying the inside cavity of the turkey is also important but not doing so is also a common mistake. Generally speaking, having a well dried turkey inside and outside will yield a more evenly-cooked and flavorful bird.

Cooking the Stuffing Inside the Cavity

Whatever Grandma told you, this is not the best of ideas. The main problem here is that to cook the stuffing through fully and guarantee that all of the bacteria inside the raw bird has been eliminated, you will need to cook the turkey for a longer period of time. The result? Dry, overcooked meat. Embarrassing, Chef.

The obvious answer is to make the stuffing from scratch or use one of those basic boxed delicacies. I like to bake a loaf using my oatmeal flax seed bread recipe ahead of time and make it from that. Super healthy. Either way, cook it outside the bird. We won’t tell if you don’t.

Trussing the Legs too Tightly

It makes sense when you think about it; closing off the cavity means longer roasting time and possibly uneven cooking. Your only real limitation is the width of your roasting pan. If you are going to buy one of those disposable roasting pans at the store, buy it at the same time that you buy your turkey to be sure you have a good fit.

Not Investing in a Real Meat Thermometer

Sure, it’s tempting to rely on that little pop-up button thingamajiggy that the poultry farmers embed in the bird’s hide, but these are notoriously unreliable. These may be faulty and pop up when the meat is already overcooked. Since you’ve only got one shot at this, go ahead and invest in a real meat thermometer. You will get more accurate results and as a bonus, you dinner guests will regard you as a professional. 

Cooking at the Wrong Oven Temperature

We all know some cooks that recommend blasting the turkey at high heat (425°F) for about 30 minutes first and then lower the temperature. However, a low, steady temperature of  325°F from beginning to end is preferable.

Certainly, the initially high-heat method may take 30 to 90 minutes off your total cooking time, but remembering to reduce the temperature  is just one more thing to remember on what is already very busy day.

Not Allowing Your Bird to Rest

No, we’re not talking about letting the turkey take a break. Resting simply means taking it out of the oven when it’s done and simply letting it sit there. This should be done with all meats actually. With a turkey the recommended resting time is 15 minutes.

Why do we do this you might ask? Resting time allows the juices inside the turkey to soak back into the meat, instead of dripping out as soon as you you slice into it. This results in a moister bird. More bang for your buck. It’s still important to keep the turkey warm so tent it with foil until carving time arrives.

Not Preparing the Surface of the Turkey Properly

It’s not clear whether the Pilgrims did this step (some history revisionists even claim that there wasn’t even a turkey present) or not but things have changed since then. It’s not a difficult step; just rub the turkey all over with olive oil or melted clarified butter. The main reason for this is to ensure that the turkey browns evenly. Aesthetics is important; just ask any chef.

Not Inserting the Thermometer in the Correct Spot

You can’t just spear the bird willy-nilly and expect to get the result that you want. Your target is in the thickest part of the thigh, right smack-dab in the crease where it meets the breast. If your bird weighs in at 18 pounds or less, monitor the temperature beginning at 2.5 hours and every 15 minutes following that. For a turkey above 18 pounds, start checking at 3 hours.

Avoid these 10 common turkey cooking mistakes and you and your guests won’t have to be confronted with a foul fowl.

It’s true that stuffing is the most traditional side dish and that’s fine. But if you like to step out of the box and add a very non-traditional dish, you won’t go wrong with Spaghetti Carbonara.

If you are worried that your guests are getting too hungry due to the extra preparation time it takes to do it just right, why not put out an appetizer? I’ve found that Panamanian-Style Ceviche hits the mark rather well.

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About the Author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

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