How to Adapt Your Turkey Recipe
Even the best Thanksgiving planners can be confounded by their turkey choices. Maybe you're not in charge of shopping, maybe you're feeding way more than you're used to, or maybe it's your first year trying a heritage bird.
Your best bet is always going to be using a recipe that was developed for the kind of bird you have. Giant birds need lower heat so that the inside cooks before the outside scorches; heritage birds need extra care paid to make sure their often-chewy meat comes out perfectly tender, and kosher birds assume a certain level of salt. That said, though, turkey recipes are pretty malleable — there are a lot of good ways to arrive at a tender bird with bronzed skin — so there's plenty you can do to tweak your recipe to fit the bird you were dealt.
A couple of notes on temperature: The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends you cook turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F, which we endorse because it's as close to foolproof as you can get while still having palatable turkey. They say 165 because if turkey meat stays at 165 for 10 seconds, salmonella is completely wiped out. Many chefs, though, comfortably recommend 150 degrees F, because a turkey needs to be at 150 for only four minutes before salmonella dies out, which happens very easily with carryover heat.
Measure with an instant-read thermometer, not a pop-up thermometer, as pop-ups only pop once the breast is basically sawdust.
The lowest recommended safe temp at which to cook a bird — because it's going to be hanging out in the oven for a while — is 325 degrees F.
The recipe calls for a small turkey, and I need to feed a crowd.
Is it too late to convince you to do two small turkeys instead of one huge one? Smaller turkeys are a lot easier to get right than big ones are. If you've already got the big turkey, go with a low oven and plan for a long cook time.
My recipe calls for an unstuffed turkey, but I'd like to cook it stuffed.
Keep the temperature the same and add about a half-hour to the expected cook time. Remember that your stuffing needs to hit that same internal temperature of 165, so if the meat's at 165 but the stuffing's lagging, you can either scoop the stuffing out into a casserole dish and bake till it hits 165, or you can keep the whole bird in the oven (and thus chance overcooked meat).
My recipe calls for a whole turkey, and I already got spatchcock-happy.
Obviously you won't be stuffing the bird this year. Lay your turkey out flat on a rack in a sheet pan, crank the oven, and revel in how short your cook time will be.
I wanted to brine the bird but bought a kosher turkey.
Kosher turkeys are salted already, so if you're cooking kosher, no need to brine, and keep an eye on the salt in your recipe if it wasn't written with a kosher turkey in mind. Self-basted turkeys are similar, though often not quite as salty as kosher turkeys.
I want to deep-fry my turkey, but I'm pretty sure it's still partially frozen.
Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope. Just don't.
I bought a heritage turkey and I'm terrified of messing up this expensive meat.
Heritage turkeys tend to be super-flavorful and also often pretty lean, so while they're delicious, they can be hard to cook. Definitely brine — either wet or dry brine works amazingly — and slip some flavored butter under the breast (or top the breast with a bacon weave) so that the lean meat gets a little extra love
My recipe calls for a ton of basting and I can't be bothered.
Smart. Butter or oil the skin before the bird goes in, and start checking the temperature about a half-hour before your recipe expects the bird to be done.
My recipe calls for a huge turkey and I'm using a small one.
Obviously, you're going to need less cook time. But also, a large turkey will brown at 325 over hours, and a small turkey might not. So set your oven really hot for the first half-hour or so to brown the turkey, then turn it down to cook.
My turkey says 375, but my potatoes need 350.
Cook everything at 375 and check your potatoes regularly; maybe cover them with foil if they're browning too fast. Thanksgiving sides are pretty forgiving, and 25 degrees one way or the other won't hurt them.
My recipe wasn't written for a convection oven.
Use the same temp, but start checking the turkey about an hour before your recipe says it ought to be done.