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10 Mistakes You’re Probably Making When Cooking a Turkey

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner can be stressful. But if you avoid these common mistakes when cooking a turkey, it'll be that much easier!

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Maple sage brined turkeyTaste of Home

It seems to me that hosting Thanksgiving dinner is designed to stress us out. Think of all the people out there who never normally cook. Now think of them cooking a turkey (which equals anywhere from three to five chickens, depending on the size) along with a whole slew of sides. That’s enough to send anyone over the edge! This year, make Thanksgiving less stressful by avoiding these turkey mistakes.

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Cooking Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey in a roasting pan with lemons and herbsElena Veselova/Shutterstock

Not thawing your turkey soon enough

This one gets me every year. Since Thanksgiving turkeys are so big, they take a seriously long time to defrost. If you’re thawing your turkey in the refrigerator (the recommended method), plan ahead because it takes 24 hours for every 4 pounds of meat. That means a 16-pound turkey will take four days!

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Cooking pot with turkey soaked in flavored brineAfrica Studio/Shutterstock

Skipping the brine

Unless you’re buying a kosher, self-basting or enhanced turkey, you should definitely brine your turkey. It helps protect against overcooking the meat and creates the most tender turkey possible. All you need is some salt, water and a little time—that’s it! Learn everything you’d ever want to know about brining here. And for a little extra flavor, pick up a brining kit.

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Turkey Cooked Brined and Seasoned with Spices in Roasting Pan for Thanksgiving Dinner with Blurred Oven BackgroundJPL Designs/Shutterstock

Not drying your turkey before it goes in the oven

Think about the most picturesque Thanksgiving turkey you’ve ever seen. Do you know what helps the skin turn out perfectly browned and crispy? You dry the turkey before popping it in the oven! It’s such a simple step, but damp skin can prevent your turkey from caramelizing, creating a limp, soggy exterior instead.

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Young woman measuring temperature of whole roasted turkey with meat thermometerAfrica Studio/Shutterstock

Not using a meat thermometer

No one wants to be greeted by a raw bird when they sit down at the Thanksgiving table. The best way to ensure a perfectly cooked turkey is to probe it with an instant-read thermometer. Without one, it’s all guesswork. For best results, insert the probe into the meatiest portion of the thigh. When it reaches 170°F, the bird is finished. Don’t own a thermometer? Buy our Test Kitchen’s favorite brand.

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Roasted turkey garnished with cranberries on a rustic style table decoraded with pumpkins, gourds, asparagus, brussel sprouts, baked vegetables, pie, flowers, and candles.Bochkarev Photography/Shutterstock

Not knowing how long to cook the turkey

A thermometer is the best way to know (for sure) when the turkey is finished, but you should have a good idea how long it will take. That helps you get it into the oven with plenty of time, not to mention making it easier to plan out your side dishes. A general rule of thumb is to allow 15 minutes per pound, so a 16-pound turkey takes around four hours.

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Housewife prepares roast chicken in the ovenAndrey Armyagov/Shutterstock

Opening the oven door too often

Do you remember that old adage, “A watched pot never boils?” Well, that might be a myth, but my mother always added that a turkey won’t cook with the oven door open. That one’s actually true: When you open the oven door, you’re letting out the heat. It can take the oven several minutes to recover, which means the turkey will take longer than you intended.

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Slightly burned turkey dinnerJennifer McCallum/Shutterstock

Overbrowning the skin

In your attempt to create a picture-perfect turkey, you may overcook the skin or brown it unevenly. A golden brown color is ideal, but you don’t want it to be burnt. If the skin is looking just about perfect but the turkey hasn’t hit its temp yet, tent the turkey with foil to keep it from overbrowning.

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Thanksgiving: Roasted Holiday Turkey Sits And Cools Before MealSean Locke Photography/Shutterstock

Cutting it right away

It’s tempting to carve that turkey right away—after all, you’ve been waiting for hours to eat it. Without proper resting time, all those delicious juices will spill out onto the cutting board instead of being reabsorbed into the meat. Let your turkey rest for at least 15 minutes, but preferably 30 to 45 minutes. That will give you time to make the gravy.

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Roasted small turkey for celebration Thanksgiving day in roasting pan on old rustic wooden table.twomeerkats/Shutterstock

Throwing away the pan drippings

What’s the secret to the best gravy you’ve ever had? Using the pan drippings! These browned bits and juices are basically culinary gold, so don’t let them go to waste.

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Carving rustic style roasted Christmas turkey garnished with roasted garlic, lemon, and rosehips.Bochkarev Photography/Shutterstock

Not sharpening the carving knife

My dad always said the hardest part of carving the turkey is sharpening the knives. He was onto something, though, because there’s nothing worse than approaching a perfectly cooked turkey with a dull knife. So sharpen your favorite knife before the big day (or reach for an electric knife) and learn to carve a turkey like a pro.

Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.