6 Common Thanksgiving Turkey Mistakes

Thanksgiving Turkey Mistakes
Thanksgiving! There’s no other meal so rewarding yet so anxiety ridden then this once yearly feast. Your heritage turkey is going to be the star of Thanksgiving dinner. Protect your investment and your reputation this year by avoiding these 6 Common Thanksgiving Turkey mistakes!

1. Give It A Rest
Sometimes the best ingredient is time itself. No matter what recipe you follow, plan to rest your heritage turkey at least twice during your cooking process— once at the beginning, and once at the end. Before you begin cooking let your turkey rest outside of the fridge for at least 40 minutes.

Allowing your bird to come to room temperature first will decrease the time it spends in the oven. This will help improve texture and prevent the white meat from drying out.

The second rest should come after you take your turkey out of the oven. Put down the knife! If you want your turkey to taste as good as it looks it needs to rest. Plan to give a full 30 minutes before carving.

2. Skip The Stuffing, But Don’t Forget To Stuff
Long gone are the days of warm, doughy stuffing overflowing from the cavities, nooks and crannies of holiday turkeys. Thanks to science, concerned mothers, and a better understanding of food borne illness it is now accepted that cooking stuffing inside of the actually turkey is a big no-no.

Play it safe and prepare your stuffing in a separate baking dish, but don’t ignore that cavity! Think of it as your flavor cave. The perfect basket to hold all of your favorite aromatics- herbs, citrus, onions, fennel, and don’t forget lots of salt and pepper!

Fill it up but keep it loose. Over stuffing can cause your heritage turkey to cook unevenly.

3. To Brine or Not To Brine
Brining has gained considerable momentum over the last few years. Many cooks have come to love this technique, which adds an additional buffer against dry white meat. When you use a traditional liquid brine both the salt and the liquid permeate the meat. The salt acts to help relax the proteins, aiding in tenderness, and a small percentage of the water is retained, increase the overall weight just slightly and helping preserve juiciness while roasting.

This works great for your average grocery store bird who’s a lack of natural fat can cause it to dry out quickly in the oven, but when you use a brine, even a delicious recipe full of herbs and spices, it does little to impart actual flavor. We will spare you the boring science of molecule size and cell wall semi-permeability and just say that no matter what you add to your brine the internal meat of the turkey will only retain the water in the solution. Adding water will help against drying out, but that water will also act to dilute the turkey flavor.

With a commercial bird this isn’t such a loss. Your average grocery store turkey isn’t known for its deep, rich turkey flavor, but heritage breed turkeys are unique. They are very distinct in their flavor and you run the risk of losing that richness.

There is a middle ground in the battle over the brine and that is the dry brine. This technique involves generously salt your turkey inside and out and allowing it to rest uncover in your refrigerator for 24-48 hour. Rinse the salt off before starting your final pre-over preparations and proceed as you normally would. The salt is still able to work its magic and help add tenderness to the turkey without adding the wateriness of a liquid brine. Trust us, the generous fat found in heritage turkeys (as much as 10 times that of their commercial counterparts) will be all you need to keep your turkey juicy and delicious this year.

4. Low and Slow Baby!
When compared to their commercial counterparts, our heritage turkeys enjoy a long leisurely lifestyle roaming and forging on the open prairie. Unlike your average grocery store turkey, whose fast growth rates out paces their bodies ability to develop and store fat, heritage turkeys are known for packing on the pounds!

They can develop as much as 10 times the amount of fat when comparing the white meat from both. This means a turkey that is juicier and more flavorful, but that fat needs time to render.

Cooking at a low and steady 325 will ensure your bird has enough time in the oven to render out that fat and break down connective tissue while still keeping it safe from drying out.

5. Live By The Thermometer
The only way to know if your heritage turkey is done is to take its temperature. We recommend pulling your turkey out of the oven when the thigh meat reads 165. The internal temperature of your heritage turkey will continue to rise even after you pull it from the oven.

If you are really a heritage turkey perfectionist you may opt to divide your turkey into pieces before cooking. This is best done separating the leg and thigh quarters from the breast. Because white meat and dark meat cook at different rates, this is the only way to ensure perfectly cooked and tender dark meat without over cooking the white meat.

Many chefs also swear by starting their turkeys breast side down and roasting them in that position for the first hour or so. This can help protect the white meat while the dark meat gets a head start on cooking, but be warned— if you’re planning to roast a big ol’ turkey this year, it ain’t easy flippin’ a big, hot, greased up bird without the help of a small crane.

6. You Carve What You Eat
Finally. You’ve navigated your way through the many perils of preparing the perfect Thanksgiving meal. Time to carve! While every movie ever made featuring a turkey dinner shows the turkey being carved and served right from the table like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, no one actually does this and ends up with a good result. This is a step that is best left in the kitchen.

After presenting your beautiful heritage turkey, remove both halves of the breast from the turkey in complete sections and slice. Carve and pull the remaining dark meat from the legs and thighs. Be carful not to slice more turkey then you plan to use immediately. The best way to store turkey and all meat for future meals is un-carved.

Still have a heritage turkey question!? Leave your question in the comments and please share your favorite Holiday tips with us!

Have a Healthy and Happy Thanksgiving!


24 thoughts on “6 Common Thanksgiving Turkey Mistakes

  1. If you start the leg quarters first at 325. At what point (internal temp)
    would you add the legless bird so that it all finishes at the same time.

    1. I would start the thighs skin side down and cooking them to 135-140 degrees before starting the rest of the turkey. Once you have hit 135-140 with your dark meat, flip the thighs skin side up and add the turkey breast skin side up to the oven. They should finish together nicely. Dark meat becomes delicious and more tender when cooked low and slow. The final internal temperature for your dark meat should reach 175 degrees for ultimate tenderness, and we recommend 150 for the breast to preserve the delicate but juicy white meat.

      Happy Thanksgiving and let us know how everything turns out!

  2. What is number 3?
    How many hours approximately does it take to cook a 20 lb turkey? If we want to eat at 1pm, I was thinking that I needed to cook the legs the night before and finish it all in the morning.
    Does that spell disaster?.

    1. Hey Sally!

      3. To Brine or Not To Brine (this one may be a little contentious)

      Your cooking time will definitely be benefited by separating the dark meat from the white meat and starting the dark meat first. I am apprehensive about par cooking the dark meat the night before because I have never tested this method myself. Our friends at Nomiku have a great solution for this, but the recipe requires an immersion circulator. I would recommend starting the dark meat early the same morning. This means a very early start but it will be the best way to ensure a good result. Divide your turkey the night before so that everything is prepared and ready to go and plan to take the dark meat out of the fridge and let it rest at room temperature for an hour before going into the oven.

      Start the dark meat skin side down on a wire rack in a 325 degree oven. The good news is once the dark meat is in the oven it will be at least a full hour before you have to worry about the next step so you can take a cat nap. Once the dark meat has reached 135-140 degrees flip them skin side up and add the white meat to the oven. Heritage turkeys have a greater fat content and baste themselves while roasting so you wont have to do much once everything is in the overn together. Expect as much as 3 1/2 hours of roasting time. You can only truly tell doneness by using a meat thermometer. We aim for an internal temperature of 175 for the dark meat and 150 for the white meat. After the breast meat and dark are done they should rest for at least 30 minutes. For extra crispy skin and golden brown color turn your oven up to 500 degrees and return the legs and breast after their first rest for another 20 minutes. Everything should have another rest of at least 15 minutes before carving.

      With this method you are looking at 6.5 hours of total cooking time, although much of that time may be spend doing other things, or perhaps drinking a glass of wine. 🙂

      We wish you and your family a Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving and would love to hear how everything turns out!

  3. Thanks for the tips. This will be my first Heritage and am looking forward to the big day. I have brined before and love it. Will try the dry brine.

  4. I’m so excited! (Although I wish my turkey came with two wing tips – my favorite part!) I have salted under the skin. I assume that I will need to rinse the salt out prior to cooking. The Cook’s Illustrated recipe does not specify this step. Thoughts? Anne

    1. My favorite part of a crown roast are the little chef hat booties that go on top! You would be surprise how hard they are to find. I end up searching every year, so if you have a line on antiquated but adorable meat accessories LET ME KNOW!

      Before I give any advice on rinsing or not rinsing, let me first talk about what salting accomplishes. One of the goals of salting your turkey is to help relax the proteins in the meat that contracting when heat is applied, preventing them from literally squeezing the moisture out of the intercellular space of the meat. The second goal is to draw out moisture from the surface of your turkey. This may seam counter intuitive but dry skin crisps much better in the over and some chefs believe it also creates a stronger barrier against internal moisture lose.

      If you have used a very generous amount of salt I would recommend using a dry clean towel to brush away excess salt from the skin before roasting. If you are salt sensitive or any of your guest are salt sensitive you may wish to wash the salt more thoroughly from the surface, if this is the case I would pat the turkey dry with a clean towel and allow a little additional time for your turkey to dry.

      Happy Thanksgiving! We would love to see any pictures of your finished heritage turkey!

    1. I still like the results of a wet brine when smoking, but if you’re using a heritage turkey you can really go either way. Heritage turkeys have much more fat than commercial birds and that fat really has a change to render and the connective tissue break down with the slow gentle heat of smoking. We would love to hear what you end up doing and your thoughts on how everything turned out.

  5. I got a lovely email back from Alexes encouraging me to leave the salt under the skin where the CI recipe had instructed to put it as a dry brine ( unlike the heritage turkey recipe, the CI recipe did not say to put in on the outside skin as well). It was fabulous and not a bit salty. I missed having the bird flavor the stuffing so I snuggled the backbone piece into the pan of stuffing and cooked both of them slowly together (in my neighbor’s oven since the height of the breast did not allow me the use of any other rack in my oven – what if next year I broke the breast bone to make the turkey flatter??). I must say my stuffing rivaled the bird in praise. In all event, I was a slave to my meat thermometer and the meat was PERFECTLY cooked. Everyone raved but my daughter’s comment that the meat tasted “so clean and healthy” captured the experience. Thank you to all who raise these special birds. Anne

    1. We are thrilled to hear that your heritage turkey was a hit! I recently posted my favorite roast chicken recipe where I briefly mention spatchcocking the chicken before roasting.

      This butchering technique involves removing the backbone and roasting the bird splayed out flat. This sounds like what you are referring to. I think its a great technique which really helps poultry cook more evenly. Let me know if you have any questions about the process, and thanks for keeping your eyes peeled for those little hats!!!

  6. Ok, help from anyone…I brined a fresh turkey from Whole Foods for Thanksgiving. It was great. But the dripping tasted absolutely rancid. Not salty…just AWFUL aftertaste…inedible.I panicked when I tasted it thinking the turkey would be the same. Nothing could fix it…not brown sugar, not salt and pepper…so no gravy. What could have done it? The candied ginger from the brine? Bad garlic? Fresh sage in the turkey cavity? I layered oranges, lime, onions, fresh rosemary, thyme and sage in the bottom of the roasting pan with Pinot Grigio and a little vegetable broth…Of course I rinsed out all the brine. Any thoughts? Again, the turkey was delicious and didn’t have that awful flavor.

  7. I know this question has been addressed and debated through the ages! Still, I can’t strike the right formula for making a rich, thick turkey gravy. I have tried both slurries and rouxs to get the right degree of thickness, but the results are never consistent. What is the best point during preparation to add the thickener, what type of thickener do you recommend, and how much thickener do you need? if you can help me resolve this, I shall be eternally grateful…and far more relaxed on Thanksgiving! Thanks!

    1. John,
      I always stick to a 1:4 roux : stock & drippings ratio. Rather than adding the thickener to the stock, I like First, melt 1 cup of butter in a large saucepan or small rondeau. Whisk in 1 cup of sifted flour, stirring constantly over a low flame. It’s important to cook the flour very low and slow so that the starch can swell up and absorb the butter. If the flour is cooked at too high of a flame, the starch will shrink, unable to properly act as the “liaison”. Cook the roux until it is a pale, almost golden paste. This will take about 3-5 minutes. Once your roux is ready, whisk in 2 quarts of warm stock & turkey drippings (there are never enough drippings, so I always compensate with chicken or turkey stock) – make sure the liquid is warm to avoid lumps in your gravy. Continue to stir until the gravy is thick and ready to serve!
      Please let us know if you have any other questions or comments, we are happy to help!


      1. Thank you, Patty, that’s very helpful! I’ve never heard that detail about cooking the flour “low and slow”–very good. Do you then whisk in the 2 quarts of warm stock and turkey drippings gradually, a little at a time, or do you pour it into the roux all at once? In the past, I think I added too much stock all at once and the gravy never thickened. I gather from what you’re saying above that the gravy should thicken fairly quickly. Is that correct?

        Thanks again…your description is very helpful!



      2. Patty,

        One more question: Can you prepare the roux ahead of time or is it best to make it just before making the gravy? I like to do as much as I can in advance so there isn’t that last minute crunch when the turkey is “resting” and you have a hungry crowd waiting to eat!

        Thanks again,


        1. John, I apologize that I wasn’t able to respond to your post in a timely manner! I know this response is just a little too late, but let me answer it anyway. The roux isn’t meant to be made in advance, it shouldn’t be waiting around/drying out – you want to go from one step right into the next for best results. Always add your liquid slowly (a mistake I also make because of my impatience), because each gravy made is different! Sometimes the gravy needs more liquid, sometimes less, you have control of this when adding slowly. With practice, the complete process should be quick, simple, and stress free!

        2. I made my roux earlier in the day, hours before I used it, and had no problems. I imagine you can make it the day before with no problems. It won’t “dry out” — it’s just fat and flour; there’s very little water in roux so no much to evaporate. If you make the roux the day before, keep it in the fridge covered. But do rewarm the roux before adding the hot stock, and add the stock gradually, whisking (not stirring with a spatula but using a wire whisk) constantly as you add the stock to ensure the stock is being incorporated into the roux.

          I highly recommend the turkey giblet gravy recipe from the Cook’s Illustrated “The New Best Recipe” cookbook (although I omit the giblets). Their technique of browning the turkey neck and tail, adding aromatics, and then covering over low heat extracts amazing flavor from those parts that would otherwise be tossed out. I also add several chicken necks I’ve frozen from chickens I’ve roasted butterflied/spatchcocked and then add chicken stock to simmer with the parts to get an amazing gravy. You can make the enhanced stock a day or two ahead and keep in the fridge, skimming off the fat that coagulates. Then on serving day you can finish the gravy using aromatics from the bottom of your roasting pan, per the Cook’s Illustrated recipe, while your turkey rests for 30-60 minutes. Before serving put the turkey back in a 400 degree oven for 5 minutes to re-crisp the skin and get it nice and hot.

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