Treat it right and a Thanksgiving turkey can be a centerpiece worth celebrating. Just be sure to avoid these mistakes. 

By Betty Gold
Updated November 21, 2019
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“Cooking a turkey for a huge, hungry crowd of Thanksgiving guests is a no brainer. I think I’ll just wing it,” said no one, ever.

(Actually, we all probably know one holiday host who has uttered a statement along these lines and has yet to live it down. At least the family golden retriever ate well that evening!)

For the rest of us, cooking a perfectly moist, tender, and evenly browned turkey takes years of technique. And once you roast your Thanksgiving turkey with the respect it deserves, you'll realize why it became a tradition in the first place. We tapped Chef Yankel Polak of ButcherBox for the top tips that'll help you nail your beautiful bird—and avoid a dry, sub-dog-food-worthy dinner disaster. Sidestep these snafus for the best Thanksgiving dinner yet.

Not defrosting in time.

Turkeys can take more than an hour per pound to defrost, so make some room in your fridge early. “I’ll put mine in the fridge on Sunday night, and it should be fully defrosted but Wednesday. This gives me sufficient time to brine it overnight before cooking on Thanksgiving Day,” says Chef Polak.

Cooking a wet turkey.

Moisture is the enemy of crispy, folks. Make sure to pat the surface dry with a paper towel before rubbing the turkey with butter or oil and then seasoning. This way, you can cook the turkey at one temperature throughout and get some nice browning action without risking overcooking or drying out.

Not salting or brining ahead of time.

This is a key step in having a moist and juicy bird. Turkeys are naturally lean, which makes them all too easy to overcook—or at least to overcook the breast while the legs and thighs reach the right temperature. Pre-salting a turkey will help prevent this by allowing the turkey to retain its natural juices (through dry brining) or adding additional salty moisture (through a wet brine). Try and get this step done at least a day in advance for a wet brine and three to four days ahead for a dry brine.

You’re roasting your bird without fat.

Basting is among the *most* important steps of all for a couple of reasons. First, as the turkey heats up, the juices will flow towards the surface and often out and into the pan. Basting is a way of redistributing these juices back into the turkey. Another smart reason to baste? If you get into the habit of basting every half hour or so, you end up learning a lot about how the turkey cooks and what it looks like over time. This means you will be twice as prepared for next year. Look at you, overachiever!

Cramping the turkey.

Turkeys need plenty of airflow for even cooking. That means the more room around the bridge in the pan, the better. We beg of you: don’t try and stuff your bird into a little pan. Most turkey roasters have a raised and removable rack. This is helpful, but room around the sides is important, too.

Pre-stuffing the bird.

I’ll start any saying that stuffing cooked in a turkey is the best kind of stuffing,” Chef Polak says. “I’ve been stuffing turkeys with a heady bread stuffing for years, but the truth is it really slows the cooking process down.” Since the center of the turkey is full, it can take several hours longer to finish cooking, meaning risking all the exposed areas to overcooking and drying out (or worse, exposing your guests to harmful bacteria from undercooked meat). So if you do want to stuff your turkey, Chef recommends covering the bird with foil for most of the cooking time to keep it moist and tender and uncovering toward the end for crispy skin.

Carving your turkey before it has time to rest.

Did you know that you can leave your turkey uncovered on the counter for an hour and when you slice it, it will still be steaming? That’s because it will continue to cook for quite a while after you take it out of the oven. Letting it rest in the pan is essential to a juicy turkey. This is the final chance to let any escaped juices fully redistribute. If you will be waiting for more than an hour to eat after the bird is done, you can tent it with foil after about 30 minutes. That’s enough time for some steam to escape so you won’t lose the crispy skin you worked so hard for.