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Life Kit: Cooking turkey for first-timers


There's a lot of lore out there about how hard it is to make a Thanksgiving turkey. Oh, I had to wake up 2 a.m. Yeah, the thing lit on fire or, well, it's time for dinner, but it was still raw inside. None of this is exactly encouraging, but NPR's Life Kit is here to help. Life Kit host Marielle Segarra has a beginner's guide to roasting a turkey.

MARIELLE SEGARRA, BYLINE: OK. So it's the weekend before Thanksgiving, which means if you haven't bought a turkey, you need to buy it right now because you're going to need time to thaw and season it. To figure out what size turkey you need, think about how many people are coming and how many sides you'll be serving. Lan Lam, a senior editor at Cook's Illustrated, gave us this rule of thumb.

LAN LAM: A 10 to 12-pound bird, that's going to serve eight to 10 people with leftovers. And so you can kind of get away with something a little smaller if you're going to have a lot of sides.

SEGARRA: If you're serving a very large group - like at my family Thanksgivings, there could be 40 or 50 people - Lan says to get multiple turkeys and maybe ask a family member to bring one that's already cooked. For a small group, you could also get part of a turkey.

LAN: I have a colleague who did a really great recipe for a turkey crown. That's where they take the legs off. And so all you're serving is the breast meat.

SEGARRA: OK. Now, alert - frozen turkeys can take days to thaw in the fridge. And that's the method the CDC recommends for food safety reasons. You'll need to alot about 24 hours of thawing time for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey, and then tack on another day or two for seasoning. So let's talk salt. Two methods for beginners - brining and salt rubbing. Brining means submerging the bird in a mixture of water and table salt for six to 12 hours.

LAN: For every one gallon of water, you're going to add half of a cup of table salt.

SEGARRA: Another option is to rub the turkey with salt. That's Lan's preferred method because it'll give you better browning. But it takes longer - one to two days.

LAN: I like to work with a kosher salt, and I'll use about a teaspoon of salt per pound of turkey.

SEGARRA: She says you can put a third of the salt under the skin of the breast meat, a third in the cavity and a third on the legs. A quick note here - kosher salt is not the same thing as table salt. So your turkey is salted or brined.

LAN: The big day comes, and you roast it.

SEGARRA: Lan says roasting often takes 3 1/2 and a half to 4 hours, but it depends on how big the bird is. You will want to follow a recipe here. And for food safety purposes, you want to get the meat to 160 degrees, but the thighs taste better if you cook them to 170 or 175. And there are different ways to do that without drying out the breast. Some recipes will have you flip the turkey while it cooks. When you think the turkey is done, take a meat thermometer and identify the part of it that looks the thickest.

LAN: If you have the turkey so that the legs are pointing away from you and the breasts are pointing towards you, I like to kind of stick the thermometer straight in and kind of just watch the temperature. And what I'm looking for is the lowest temperature. And if that lowest temperature is 160, I'm good to go.

SEGARRA: Then take it out of the oven and leave it alone for 30 to 45 minutes to let it cool and let the juices flow. After that, you'll carve it, enjoy your dinner and let somebody else do the dishes. For NPR News, I'm Marielle Segarra. And Happy Thanksgiving.

DETROW: You know what? I'm going to add one more tip here. I say put some citrus in that brine, oranges or orange juice. Think about it. Life Kit has more tips and tricks for your Thanksgiving meal, including one about cooking substitutions and another and how to carry on a family recipe. You can find those episodes at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Marielle Segarra
Marielle Segarra is a reporter and the host of NPR's Life Kit, the award-winning podcast and radio show that shares trustworthy, nonjudgmental tips that help listeners navigate their lives.