The Turkey Whisperer

6 Last-Minute Turkey Tips

The six things you do need to do to your bird before Thanksgiving.

November  4, 2017

Thanksgiving is just two days away—do you know your turkey-cooking strategy?

If you don't, no sweat. Well, maybe a little sweat. You and your turkey are 48 hours away from your debut, your time to shine—make sure you and your bird are ready to do your best work! (If you haven't gotten your turkey already, hightail it to the nearest grocery store and cross your fingers.) Pick one of these 9 turkey foolproof turkey strategies, then go through and check this list to make sure you're all prepped. Maybe check it twice. (Wait, too soon.)

Here are the six things you need to do to (and for) your turkey two days before Thanksgiving:

Start the brining process (wet or dry)

It's no secret that the secret to a moist, succulent turkey is brining. (That is, unless your bird is already pre-brined, in which case skip this step or else it will turn out too salty.) There are two general camps: the wet brine and the dry brine, both excellent in their own ways.

In my house, we go the wet brine route. A few days before Thanksgiving, my parents dig out a red cooler from our garage that is used for one purpose and one purpose only: brining our two (yes, two!) turkeys. My mother fills it with a salt-water bath (usually around 5% salt, but she guestimates) and then drops in the turkey. We drag the whole thing outside to let the cool outdoors serve as Nature's refrigerator, leaving the bird for at least 24 hours.

Whichever way you go, wet or dry, give your brine plenty of time to do its job—at least 12 hours, but preferably at least 24. That way, you're guaranteed to end up with a savory, juicy bird.

Let it Air Dry (if you can)

Whether you're dry or wet brining, you can also go with Erin McDowell's crispy-skin method and let the turkey air-dry in the refrigerator before you roast. This will lead to a shatteringly crisp skin, and is definitely worth the advanced planning (if you have the fridge space, that is). To make it happen, simply unwrap the turkey, rinse it, and pat it dry inside and out with paper towels (or rinse off the brine, if you used it). Place the turkey onto a tray or into a roasting pan and refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 12 hours—or even up to 48.

If you're frying, get prepped

Last year, my family decided to deep-fry a turkey for the first time. Everyone was so excited (and nervous) as we set up a giant pot, a burner, and a turkey stand in our backyard. Around 11 a.m., someone cracked the first beer—it must have been the tension in the air. We test-fried a few Twinkies (definitely recommend!) and, about two hours before the guests came, we submerged our bird.

I was healthily skeptical about the whole endeavor. Frying a turkey sounds like it would be delicious in theory, but I imagined it wouldn't end up meeting our (admittedly, astronomically high) hopes. I was very wrong. The fried turkey disappeared almost twice as quickly as our second bird, which we cooked (in a time-tested manner) on our outdoor grill. The skin was so crisp, the meat was juicy but not oily, and bonus—the whole bird (about 16 pounds) cooked in only 45 minutes, without taking up any oven space.

If you are going the fried turkey route, there are a few things you need to get prepped a couple of days before the Big Fry: Make sure you have enough oil (we used peanut) to cover the whole bird, and check that your burner is working. Oh—and check that you have a Twinkie or two to fry.

dig out the big pan

Yes, *that* big pan. Photo by James Ransom

If you're disorganized like me, it's best to give yourself two days to dig out the big pan you use to cook your turkey (the one that catches all the drippings for gravy). Chances are, in the haze of last year's post-Thanksgiving exhaustion, you've hidden it in some bizarre, high-up cabinet, possibly even a basement or attic. Before things get absolutely cuckoo, find the pan, give it a good scrub, and set it aside in an easily accessible place. Voila—one less thing to worry about on Thursday morning. (Psst—If you want to treat yourself, order this top-of-the-line model for next year!)

Add your turkey seasonings to the shopping list (and even prep them!)

Seasonings at the ready! Photo by James Ransom

You've got the turkey, you've got your brine, you've got your cooking method—all that's left is to decide what you'll put in/on your turkey to season it during its trip in the oven, on the grill, or in the oil bath. We typically keep things pretty traditional in our house, stuffing our bird with sliced lemons, a few sprigs of rosemary, and a quartered onion or two before cooking. Citrus fruits, woody herbs (like sage and thyme), and alliums are always safe bets with a turkey, but this is a chance get a little wild: rub the skin (or just under the skin) with a compound butter, do a sweet-spicy chili rub, or fill your bird with stuffing so the two cook together. Just be sure to include whatever seasonings you choose in your pre-Thanksgiving shopping list, so you're not running from store-to-store the morning of, looking for an onion.

Establish a carving plan (knives, platters, etc.)

So well-carved! Photo by James Ransom

The sliver of time after your turkey finishes cooking and before everyone sits down to dinner (don't forget to let your meat rest to redistribute the juices!) can be precious. Spend it chatting with guests, eating appetizers, and enjoying a very well-deserved cocktail, instead of frantically preparing your turkey-carving tools and platters.

A few days before Thanksgiving, make sure all of your knives (especially the ones that will be slicing up your turkey) are super-sharp; this will make the carving process faster, easier, and a lot less painful. Also, plan out which cutting or carving boards will host your bird as you divvy it up. Finally, decide whether you'll serve your triumphant turkey on the board itself, or if you'd rather transfer it to a platter. You don't want to be scrambling at the last second after realizing that all of your serving dishes are already taken with Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes.

How do you start preparing your turkey two days before Thanksgiving? Or are you more of a wing it (ha!) person? Tell us in the comments!

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1 Comment

AntoniaJames November 21, 2017
One tip that seems to be consistently overlooked (so I'm just as consistently adding it in the comments) is to remove the wishbone as you prep the bird before putting it into the oven. It makes a world of difference in carving it, regardless of whether you're spatchcocking, roasting the whole bird intact, or roasting just a whole breast. If removing the entire wishbone seems too difficult then at least snip it apart at the top, on one side of the tip. Those pieces will easily come out after roasting and resting the bird. It's well worth the minimal effort! ;o)
(And to answer your question, 48 hours+ before it will go in the oven, my turkey, butterflied by the butcher yesterday, is resting peacefully in its Judy Rodgers' style dry brine of salt, thyme and rosemary; tomorrow night, it will come out of the bag to dry out overnight.)