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Let's talk turkey: when to take your bird out of the freezer and other advice from a chef

We want your Thanksgiving holiday to go smoothly. Here's how to make sure the conversation at the dinner table isn't the dry turkey.

KEWANEE, Ill. — Thanksgiving is less than a week away and your list of to-do's is getting longer and longer. News 8 wanted to take the guesswork out of your turkey plans so the only conversation at the dinner table will be about how good your cooking is and other more cringe-worthy topics, like mom wondering when you will give her grandchildren.

News 8's David Bohlman spoke with Mississippi River Distilling Company's Chef, Stephanie Godke, about the do's and don'ts of cooking a turkey. Chef Godke has been a chef for over 40 years and has cooked innumerable turkeys in her time as a chef, caterer and mother, so she definitely knows what she's doing.

When should we take the turkey out of the freezer?

You are going to take the bird out based on weight. Be sure you know the weight of your bird. Put it in a pan because as it thaws it will begin to drip. If there is a hole in the plastic that the bird comes in, wrap it with plastic wrap so that it doesn't dry out. 

When to pull the bird out of the freezer?

Chef Godke says to follow this guideline:

  • For 22-24 lbs birds, pull out of the freezer on Friday, Nov. 18th
  • For 16-19 lbs birds, pull out of the freezer on Saturday, Nov. 19th
  • For 12-15 lbs birds, pull out of the freezer on Sunday, Nov. 20th
  • For 4-11 lbs birds, pull out of the freezer on Monday, Nov. 21st

What if I forget to take the bird out in time, is there a magic way to speed up the thawing process?

Short answer, yes but you need to be careful.  A lot of people will submerge it (you will need to weigh it down) in running cold water. The water must be running. Don't use hot water because it will thaw the outside, not the inside, and will begin to grow bacteria on the outside. You need cold water because you need the water to remain above freezing but below 40 degrees because above that is when bacteria will begin to grow.

In your opinion, what is the best way to cook a turkey?

First things first, remove the spring thermometer from the breast. In Chef Godke's experience, those actually pop out when it's been overcooked. She recommends using a meat thermometer to measure the temperature.

You can brine two ways. One is a dry rub in which you let the bird sit. This will give you a very flavorful skin and first couple inches into the bird, but the flavor runs out as you reach the turkey's center. Chef Godke prefers a wet brine. The flavor is unmatched throughout the whole bird, and after cooking you are left with juice that can be used for gravy. 

Her brine recipe can be found here.

When you take the bird out of the oven, let it rest for 15 to 20 minutes. Don't carve right away. If you cut your bird right away you will let the juice inside the bird run out and that will dry out your turkey. 

Chef Godke recommends cooking your bird at 325 degrees, with the cook time depending on the weight. The USDA recommends the following cook times at 325 degrees.

Credit: USDA
USDA Turkey Cook times

What are some other good ways to cook a turkey?

If you're not going to follow the suggestions above and have another recipe, then you will need to cook your bird breast side down. Insert butter, seasoning, lemons, oranges or garlic under the skin to flavor the meat. 

You can also stuff onions, garlic and olive oil loosely with salt and pepper in the cavity and then cook it upside down. It will allow those flavors to soak into the meat.

Don't rely on the color of the skin to determine when a turkey is done. Use a meat thermometer. Put a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh. It should read at least 165 degrees to be safe. When you remove the meat thermometer, the juice that comes out should be clear. If there is any pink juices, it's not done. 

Note: Don't let the thermometer touch the bone because the bone will be hotter than the meat.

While the turkey is resting, put a loose sheet of foil over the top.

What can I do if the bird does come out dry, is there a way to mask it?

Yes. You would slice the bird, use the drippings from the pan to moisturize the meat, and then serve it with extra gravy. 

It's taking too long to cook and people are waiting what can I do to speed up the cooking process? 

You can cut the bird along the backbone and then spread the bird out in one large layer. Do not turn up the temperature of the oven to speed up cooking. 

Chef Stephanie is no stranger to News 8, here are some other recipes she's made with us recently.


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You can find full cooking episodes with Chef Stephanie Godke on the WQAD News 8 Youtube channel, too!

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