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Biggest Turkey Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t make these common mistakes while cooking your turkey. Find out how to fix your bad turkey habits in the kitchen and at the grocery store.

José Andrés

Buying and roasting a turkey can be intimidating, especially if you’re a first-time host or hostess. Even those of us who have done it before have a hard time shaking those nagging thoughts revolving around whether the bird will be juicy or dry or—worse yet—underdone.

It’s understandable. After all, if you’re like most people, you’re only roasting a turkey once, maybe twice a year. We’ve roasted quite a few turkeys in the EatingWell Test Kitchen, and through trial and error, we’ve picked up on some common turkey mistakes and how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Buying the Wrong Turkey
Traditional Herbed Roast TurkeyNot all turkeys are created equal. Some birds are self-basting, meaning that they are injected with a solution of broth, salted water or other flavorings to keep them moist during cooking. We found these turkeys do stay moister, but if you’re watching your sodium intake you may want to avoid them. Check the label if you’re buying a turkey from the grocery store. The label will tell you the percent of solution in the bird and will also include all the ingredients in the solution.

Mistake #2: Buying the Wrong Size Turkey
Cider-Brined Spatchcock TurkeyUnless you’re hosting a huge gathering and buy a tiny turkey, you’re not likely to run out of meat. What’s more likely is that you end up buying a huge bird for just a few people. For either scenario, a good way to estimate how much you need is about one pound per person, and that number takes into account some leftovers. While that might sound like a lot, remember that the weight of the bird includes bone too.

Mistake #3: Putting the Stuffing Inside the Turkey
Herb-Roasted TurkeyWhat To Do Instead: Stuffing a bird is tricky. Since the stuffing is in the middle of the bird, it takes the longest to cook. To be considered safe, the internal temperature of the stuffing needs to reach 165°F. Unfortunately, by the time you get the appropriate temperature reading for the stuffing, the meat is overcooked. If you want to enjoy stuffing with your turkey, bake it separately.

Mistake #4: Cutting the Turkey Wrong
Lemon-&-Fennel-Rubbed Turkey with Homemade Giblet GravyThere’s a lot of apprehension when it comes to carving. The first time I carved a bird, I think I may have left 80% of the meat on the bones and what I did manage to cut off was a shredded mess on the cutting board. Even though my guests loved the turkey despite its presentation, it would have been satisfying to give them perfect slices. To avoid this problem, check out a carving guide like the one referenced in the link below. But as a general rule—carve it just like you would a whole chick. You want to carve the turkey into it’s separate parts: drumsticks, thighs, wings and slices of juicy breast meat. But before you start cutting thin slices of turkey vertically straight from the bone, cut the breasts away from the bone, then cut into horizontal thick chunks to avoid shredded, dried out slices.

Mistake 5: Throwing Out Pan Drippings
Sage-Rubbed Roast Turkey with Lemon-Bay GravyAfter you roast a turkey, don’t move the bird to a cutting board and throw the roasting pan in the sink. What’s left at the bottom of the pan are brown, caramelized little bits of concentrated flavors that set the stage for a rich and magical gravy. Letting those pan drippings go down the drain is a Thanksgiving crime. Making a gravy using the roasted goodness is easy and the flavor is far superior to anything you’d get out of a pouch or jar.

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