Cooking a traditional Thanksgiving meal is a rite of passage for most American cooks, marked by repetition like a hard cook Mario Level that you repeat every year until you beat it. The final castle houses Bowser’s boss of a turkey – a giant bird at least three times the size of anything we’ve cooked on easier levels. But the worst thing about this boss bird is that it is invariably purchased frozen. Americans eat more than 40 million turkeys on Thanksgiving, and despite what you’ve heard about free-range, pasture-raised turkeys, at least 85 percent are sold frozen. So the first hurdle for Thanksgiving dinner for me as a chef is getting this bird off the ice and into a pliable state.
This is a source of great psychological distress for our fellow Americans. In late November, the Google search “how long to defrost a turkey” peaked with over 300,000 increasingly panicked hits. There are pound calculators for when to start defrosting, but the process is unreliable and prone to developing forgetfulness before the holiday. I spoke with Meredith Carothers, a U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety specialist and veteran of the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, and asked her to tell me about some of the most hair-raising calls she’s personally fielded. There was the chef who tried to defrost his bird in the dishwasher cycle. Another had left his turkey in a hot shower with running water. Another had called in a panic to say their employer had given them a turkey but they had left it in their work locker over the weekend – was it still safe to cook? (That wasn’t the case, but at least it was thawed.)
I myself, a food editor and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, retrieved a bird after three technically correct days of thawing and found that it was still stiff from ice. Frozen turkeys don’t care how good a cook you are! Additionally, leaving a 20-pound bird in your crisper drawer for a week puts you at risk of a leak. If you’re concerned about poultry cross-contamination, thawing turkeys isn’t right for you.
Time for some good news: all this stress is completely unnecessary. As with many other aspects of our annual American Gladiator Cooking Challenge, there is a better way, as shocking as it may be: Not. Thawing. Your. Turkey. Cook it frozen. Rock solid. Straight into the oven. Not only is it much easier right out of the box, it’s also – don’t you hallucinate – completely safe and USDA approved. And your guests never have to find out.
“You can cook anything frozen,” Archie Magoulas, Meredith’s colleague and USDA food safety expert, told me. “Here’s the general rule of thumb for frozen: You can make it, but it will take about 50 percent longer.” This is the official USDA guideline for cooking frozen protein. In fact, it’s perfectly safe as long as you cook it at a temperature no lower than 325 degrees. (No matter what your grandmother did, it’s just not a good idea to cook a turkey at 200 degrees overnight, okay?) Just make sure it reaches a completely food-safe temperature that – and here’s the bottom line – about 50 percent takes longer than when thawed. First, consult this USDA chart for recommended cooking times by turkey weight and add 50 percent to roughly calculate your estimated time.
Did I mention it’s safe? Sure! In fact, I would personally argue that it is safer Cooking a turkey this way means you don’t have to deal with the potential for cross-contamination when you thaw a bird and open its juicy, bubbly pouch within spraying distance of your clean work surfaces.
Salmonella crime scenes aside, Meredith pointed out the real problem most chefs will have if they forego the marathon defrosting: “It’s more about quality considerations – you can’t add seasoning until further into the process.” Yes, we’re on board arrived at the big question. How does this bird taste? No brine? Can you even season it? I’ve been cooking turkeys this way for years, and hand on heart, a turkey cooked this way tastes more or less the same as your average roasted turkey. In fact, I often find that the breast is better and doesn’t dry out because it cooks more slowly than a traditional thawed turkey.
If you’re a cook who’s always been committed to dry-brining and split-spatchcocking, this isn’t available to you, but then again, you’re probably not the type to land on an article about cooking your turkey from frozen.
For the rest of us, I have a confession. I just think turkey isn’t the absolute best protein out there. In fact, I am committed to the belief that whole turkeys serve only two God-given purposes: to act as the ritual centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner and, more importantly, to serve as the turkey stock that is the golden elixir of life. (If you don’t turn your turkey carcass into soup, please mail it to me. I’ll take it!) The difference in quality between the best and worst turkey you’ve ever eaten is probably pretty small, and it’s certainly smaller than The effort gap between a turkey cooked effortlessly from the freezer and a turkey lovingly brined and basted using the laborious method that America’s Test Kitchen has deemed this year’s scientific best.
This is a long-winded way of telling you that if you cook an average roasted turkey every year, you probably won’t notice any difference in flavor if you roast it from frozen. Plus, it will look extremely gorgeous, thanks to that extra cooking time, burnished and golden like a Norman Rockwell painting.
That’s how it’s done. Buy a frozen turkey. The size can be any (check out this table to find the right size for your audience). Ideally, this will be a turkey that has already been brined, as is the case with many commercial turkeys these days. For kosher turkeys, you can also skip the giblets step later because they are sold without packaged stomachs.
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Cut off the turkey netting and plastic wrap. (I use a pocket knife for this.) The turkey is coated in ice cream and makes a pleasant dish tink-tink Sound when tapped with a spoon. Place it in a large roasting pan, ideally on a rack (but don’t let it sweat if you don’t have one). Place directly in the oven and roast for two hours. Carefully remove from heat and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast for another two hours. Meanwhile, melt ½ cup (1 stick) butter and set aside. Cut a large lemon into quarters and a clove of garlic in half crosswise (leave the peels on) and select a handful of herb sprigs such as sage, thyme and rosemary. When the time is up, back on the stove, pull the giblets and neck out of the body cavity using tongs (unless you purchased a kosher turkey, in which case you can skip this grisly step).
Stuff the lemon, garlic, and herbs into the now empty cavity and brush or drizzle all of the melted butter over the turkey. Put the turkey back in the oven for about another hour, but start taking the temperature after 30 minutes. Depending on the size, it can be ready in around four and a half hours, but it can also take up to six and a half hours. I used this method over the weekend to roast a 15 pound turkey and after five hours it was done.
You should definitely not roast a turkey using this (or any other) method without a food thermometer. Meredith and Archie wanted me to remind you: It is very important that you take the temperature in three places: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing, and the inner thigh. Make sure everyone has reached at least 165 degrees.
At this point your turkey is done. Congratulations! You won the game. Let the turkey rest and prepare your gravy. This is where you really are Take the easy route because the longer cooking time means your drippings will be particularly browned and you will end up with a particularly delicious sauce.
I tried this no-defrost bird at my cookbook club a few nights ago just to see how it went down. My friend Logan took a bite and declared that it “just tasted like turkey.” This is, let’s face it, everything you could want in a turkey, and it’s good enough for your Thanksgiving table, where everyone came for the sides anyway. This holiday, take the easy way out and cook from frozen with confidence and even cheerfulness—that’s a cheat code you can be proud of.
● To see complete frozen turkey cooking instructions and get answers to any questions, check out this recipe from Kitchn.
● The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline (1-888-MPHotline or 1-888-674-6854) is open daily and will accept calls on Thanksgiving Day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern Time Time.