Let’s talk turkey and the best way to cook your holiday bird

To brine or not to brine? Inject it with flavor? Cook it in the oven? There are so many choices.

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Americans like their turkey this time of year.

We’ll eat at least 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving and another 22 million on Christmas.  

Since most people cook turkeys just a few times a year (if that), it’s one of the more challenging dishes. You’ll have a dry, tough bird if you overcook turkey even just slightly. Conversely, undercooking can lead to food poisoning, which would ruin anyone’s holiday.

With Thanksgiving approaching and Christmas not far behind, here are some tips to make a delicious, moist turkey.

Brining makes for a delicious, moist turkey. (Adobe Stock)

Brine it.

Brining can be difficult for home cooks. First, it takes a long time — at least eight hours and up to a full 24 — which requires significant planning.

Let’s say your gathering starts at noon, and you have a 15-pound turkey. The brined turkey would need to go in the fridge no later than 11:45 p.m. the night before so it soaks for at least eight hours. (Earlier if you’re brining it longer.) If brining, you’ll need a 20-quart stock pot or cooler, which is in the range of 12 inches in diameter and 11 inches tall, depending on the brand. It has to be that large because the brine must completely cover the bird. Whichever you decide to use, make sure your stock pot or cooler fits in your refrigerator. That’s an important step that people sometimes don’t think about.

A minimal eight-hour brine means you can get the turkey in the oven by 7:45 a.m., and it should be ready to eat by noon.

Brining gets the best results, but it’s also a headache. You can also try:

The injection method

Use a meat injector to infuse the turkey in several places with a marinade of your choosing. There are several store-bought options, but it’s easy to make the marinade yourself. Chicken stock, melted butter, and garlic form the base of one typical marinade. Some add lemon or orange, too. The marinade depends on what you like best.

Now that you have those turkeys brined or injected — you can also do both if you have the time — what’s the best way to cook them?

In the oven

A tried-and-true method. Figure 13 minutes per pound for an unstuffed turkey and 15 minutes per pound stuffed in a 350-degree oven. So that 15-pound unstuffed turkey should take about three hours and 15 minutes, give or take.

I don’t add stuffing and prefer to make dressing on the stovetop because I have a fear of bacteria. It’s not unfounded, as the USDA notes that undercooked stuffing can lead to illness.

Do yourself a favor and don’t just pay attention to the clock and assume that after three hours and 15 minutes, you’ll have a perfectly cooked turkey. Always check the temperature with a meat thermometer regardless of how long you cook your turkey. I have an oven-safe dual probe thermometer because I can check the temperature of the thigh, which needs to cook to 180 degrees, and ensure the breast is cooked to 165–170 degrees.

That’s the other tricky part about turkey — the thighs and breast cook to different temperatures. That’s why it’s essential to have two thermometers operating simultaneously. If you’re worried about the breast overcooking, cover it in aluminum foil until the thighs are up to temperature.

Smoke it

Spiced rubbed chicken being grilled in a smoker barbeque.

The good news: I think smoking is the best way to cook a turkey. The bad news: It’s more work than the oven method.

First, you’ve got to brine it; there’s no way around that step. Smoke can dry out meat quickly, and that’s bad news for a bird with little fat. Then, you should inject the turkey with a marinade, as noted above. Lastly, it would be best if you also basted the turkey each hour. These steps will result in a moist turkey.

Brine. Inject. Baste. That’ll do it.

The smoke temperature depends on how much time you’ve got. At 225 degrees, it’ll take 7.5 hours. That’s a long time, but depending on the wood you use, a slow cook should result in a deeper smoke flavor. At 300 degrees, the turkey should be ready in three hours or so.

Either way, it’s going to be delicious.

Then, there’s the way that scares the bejesus out of me. (Editor’s note: theGrio does not endorse this method.)


I’ve seen way too many videos and news stories about mishaps associated with frying turkeys. A man tripped over a turkey fryer, and 30 quarts of hot oil spilled on his leg. Another turkey fire calamity sent one woman to the hospital and burned down three homes. In what seems to be a not-too-unusual occurrence, many cooks attempt to fry their turkey in their garage, resulting in disaster

No, and thank you.

But some swear by the fry method, which entails dropping a whole turkey in a vat of boiling oil, then extracting said turkey from said boiling oil while hoping nothing falls over and causes havoc. In addition to tasting good, it only takes about 45 minutes to fry a turkey.

There are other ways to cook a turkey. You can braise it, cook it on the grill, and even use the sous vide method.

Regardless of the cooking method you choose, build in preparation time to make the best-tasting turkey. 

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