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How to Cook the Best Thanksgiving Turkey of Your Whole Life [Like Really the *BEST*, Pinky Promise]

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

I know a lot of people swear that they know how to cook the best turkey ever; but, I’ve sat enough tables to know that those people also think they make the best pork chops ever too. [They're super wrong, btw]

Maybe my standards are too high; but, I just think if I’m going to actually eat meat then it better be worth eating. I much prefer the melt in the mouth kind of meat and for it to be full of flavor outside of meat over lunch room style animal proteins any day of the week.

Now, if dry, flavorless turkey is your thing, then go ahead and follow one of their recipes. My feelers won’t be hurt at all - I promise.

However, if you want a moist + flavorful Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas turkey or Easter turkey then you are in the right spot.

This post is for the Cranberry Tangerine Turkey recipe that we made this year. It's in the schedule to be post the Rosemary Balsamic Turkey recipe that we made when we lived in Makaha. Also in the pipeline is the crowd pleasing Lemon Parmesan Turkey that I still get requests for. So, if you're a turkey person, you'll want to keep your eyes open.

Cooking a whole turkey is a whole lot less scary than it sounds + after this post, you will be the person that the family turns to for the *actual* best turkey recipes. This post is long; because there are a lot of steps. If you want to skip ahead click the links below.

I got you, Girl. ; )


Step 1: Decide - Fresh or Frozen

Fresh -

I’ve used both & I can say that I prefer fresh. The only issue with fresh is that stores often sell out before the Monday before Thanksgiving; so, you might get stuck with a frozen turkey whether you like it or not.

I’ve had luck grabbing fresh organic turkeys the Monday before Thanksgiving from Trader Joes. Just be prepared to pay a little more if you try that next year.

You really don’t want to get a fresh turkey before Monday because it will grow enough bacteria to make you sick if you leave it in the fridge longer than 2 days.

Frozen -

Let’s talk about defrosting your turkey.

2012 was the first year that I cooked a turkey for the extended family; and, it almost didn’t happen due to flawed defrosting advice. I was also deep into my pregnancy with my first son, meaning that I wouldn’t be eating that turkey even if I wanted to; but, that’s a post for another day.

In the previous years, I went in on Monday + was able to grab a fresh turkey. This year they only had frozen turkeys available; so, I asked the guy in the meat department the best way to defrost a turkey before thanksgiving.

His suggestion was to quickly defrost a turkey by putting it in the sink or bathtub and running cold water over it for 1-2 days.

You guys, don’t do that - EVER.

The cold water started at 5 pm & by 10 am Tuesday my whole house smelled like decaying flesh. I have pregnant lady nose when I’m not pregnant; so, this was one of the most disgusting experiences of that whole pregnancy [really my whole life]

I went to check on the defrosting turkey; and, the plastic had ballooned up so large, I worried that it might explode. I literally puked in the sink as I did this. It was so gross.

I put it in 2 garbage bags & took it back to Smith’s where I was informed that the last guy was fairly new. The more seasoned man explained that there are too many ways that this kind of turkey defrosting can go sideways; so, the store usually never recommends defrosting a turkey under water to anyone.

He gave me a new turkey + insisted that I give myself 1 day per every 5 pounds to defrost the turkey in the refrigerator.

Parts were still a little frozen on Thanksgiving; but, I just gave myself some extra cook time. It still ended up being the better of the turkeys recipes that night - by far. It was so good that I’ve received numerous texts + calls asking me how to make it year after year.

Step 2: Use the Right Pan + Racks

Depending on size, your turkey needs to cook on the middle or low rack of your oven.

As far as pans go, skip the disposable aluminum pans for 2 reasons:

1 Check this post to see how toxic they are for you + your precious brains.

2 They are stupid flimsy & you are likely to burn yourself trying to pull them out of the oven once the bird is cooked, even if you use a sheet pan under it. Ask me how I know.

As far as pans go, you want to choose one that can accommodate a rack. This is the turkey roasting pan that we use. I start using the pan portion the day that I start defrosting.

Step 3: Decide on Your Flavors

You guys - turkey is just giant chicken. What flavors do you like with chicken? Use them in your turkey.

As I said earlier, we’ve had Rosemary Balsamic Turkey + Lemon Parmesan Turkey in the past. Both are major crowd pleasers & leave the crowd asking for the recipe.

This year we chose a Cranberry Tangerine Turkey. I’ve got some ideas for the next couple of turkeys that I’m sure the kids and you guys will love - me, not so much. I prefer extra mashed potatoes.

Step 4: Backward Plan to Know Your Start Time

First, you’ll want to take your Thanksgiving turkey out of the fridge 1 hour before cook time to help bring it to room temp [it helps with even cooking inside the oven].

As far as how long to actually cook your turkey, you’re going to need 20 minutes per pound + 20 additional minutes to cook your turkey. Do not stuff your turkey or it will take longer to cook + your stuffing will suck. Ew, David.

You’re also going to want at least 20-40 minutes of turkey rest time to allow all the juices to redistribute if you want to maximize the moisture in the turkey.

Lastly, you’re going to want to give yourself an additional hour of “just in case it’s not at temp” time. It seems like a long time; but, remember that every time you open the door the temp drops and our ovens are different. Speaking of turkey temp, you want the white meat to be at 170*F; whereas, the dark meat should be at 180*F. Enter the thermometer into the turkey sideways to ensure that it's surrounded by flesh + not bone, which usually is a higher temp than the actual meat.

Running with that, a 10 pound turkey would need 3 hours and 20 minutes of cook time if everything works out perfectly with your oven + 40 minutes of rest time & 1 hour of precook time. Meaning that if your turkey is right at temp, you’ll need 5 hours before you can start eating.

If your oven usually takes longer to cook things, give yourself the extra 1 hour to be safe.

Step 5: When It’s Time, Prepare Your Turkey

Before you do anything else, make sure that your rack is in the right position, set your oven to 475*F, then move on to the butter mix.

Since turkey is so lean, it needs some extra fat to help it in the oven. We use soy free Earth Balance in place of butter due to our many allergies. If you can tolerate dairy butter, then I don’t need to tell you how much flavor that will add.

You’re going to want to prepare the room temp Earth Balance or butter as laid out in the recipe below, sharpen + rinse your knife, then you're going to put on your plastic or latex gloves to protect your fingernails from picking up unwanted bacteria.

The germ-a-phob in me wants you to know that it’s ok to line your working surface with trash bags or one of the $1 store tablecloths to minimize contamination potential.

Grab 2-4 toothpicks out just in case you oof the next part. Make sure they are *out* of the box and on the table cloth or trash bags - just trust me.

Next, take your knife & make slits at the bottom of your drum sticks that will be big enough to stick your fingers inside. Don’t make them too big though; you’ll want that skin to be able to stay on the meat as much as possible to lock in the moisture + flavor.

The skin covering the breast is pretty easy to separate using just your hands - do that next. Make sure that you start at the cavity and get all the way up to the shoulder.

I use about ⅓ of the butter mix [total] for the drum sticks + the other ⅔ for the breast. I’ve tried adding the mix to the wings in the past + it’s not worth the hassle or the hole it creates.

Once it’s all under the skin, mush it around from the top until it looks like it’s in a pretty even layer before adding your fruit slices.

Pull the skin as close to the starting position as possible on all areas. If your drumstick holes are too big, use the toothpick you set out earlier to recreate the seal.

Remove the innards, neck and any remaining ice from the cavity then toss in a couple of quartered pieces of fruit & the rest of the herbs. This won’t affect the cook time; but, it will impact the flavor for your benefit.

Step 6: Cook Your Thanksgiving Turkey

The first 20 minutes of your turkey cook time are to sear the meat, which is why we preheat the oven to 475*F.

When your timer goes off DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR; rather, turn the temp down to 250*F and set another timer for 20 minutes per pound of turkey.

Once your door shuts, you have to think of it like a crock pot - you don’t add or remove anything until it's done.

This means any oven-baked sides will go in *after* the turkey comes out & nothing goes in with it or the cook time will be impacted. You’ll have plenty of time while the turkey is resting for the green bean casserole + sweet potatoes to cook.

After your long timer goes off, use a meat thermometer to verify that the white meat is 170*F and the dark meat is 180*F.

One year, I didn’t check my thermometer ahead of time - it was bent + destroyed. Lesson learned - always check that your thermometer is findable, not broken and can accurately tell the temperature.

Step 7: Let it Rest

Don’t worry, that bird will still be plenty hot even after resting for 40 minutes. If you cut into it before, I promise that you’ll be sorry as you watch all the fluid gush out of that bird you worked so hard on just hours before.

Resist the urge to snitch.

Step 8: Enjoy

This is everyone’s favorite part [except mine]. I’ve always made a really good homemade cranberry sauce that guests + adult family raves about; but, this year Ariya and I made the most amazing Very Berry Cranberry Sauce. [recipe coming soon]

You’re going to want to make that as well.

Normally, only 2 of 6 the kids will eat cranberry sauce. This year, all 5 of the kids still at home ate so much of it that there wasn’t much for leftovers.

We love these square dinner plates, square salad plates, square salad bowls and square dessert bowls to eat off of. We actually use them year round since they feel so fancy. You can grab a whole set of square dishes here.

Step 9: Storage

I prefer these Pyrex glass storage containers as they don’t leach anything nasty into the food like plastic and aluminum do. I also like these circle Pyrex glass storage containers for storing leftovers of the smaller sides.

If you want to meal prep your Thanksgiving left overs, these are my favorite glass meal prep containers.

Final Step: Share the Load

You did all the hard work, let your family take care of the clean up. If they want to wait until morning for clean up, wait until they finish before you let them have any breakfast or technology. Don't feel bad - you just made them a feast the night before.

If your kids are like mine, you'll need too make sure the food is locked up for this to work.

Here is the lock we use on the French door fridge and the pantry lock [check the list page for your hardware color] to make sure the chores get done first. When we had one of those bottom drawer freezers, we used this lock. For the standard stacked fridge + freezer set, we used these locks.

For the rest of you, if you implement locks, I know this goes without saying; but, you still have to feed your kids at normal intervals. Putting this out there for the Jills + Lisas, I mean Karens, who might think I’m condoning child abuse.



Cranberry Tangerine Thanksgiving or Christmas Turkey

8-12 lb Whole Turkey

1 stick Room Temp Earth Balance or Butter

1 package Fresh Rosemary

1 package Fresh Sage

1 package Fresh Thyme

1 heaping TBSP Minced Garlic [I forgot to video + voiceover this, oops]

7-8 Clementines

½ C Fresh Cranberries

1 TBSP Sulfate Free Balsamic Vinegar

½ Tbsp Pure Maple Syrup


Prepare the Turkey -

Remove turkey from the fridge 1 hour before the planned start of your cook time and set on the counter to bring to room temp [helps with even cooking]

Prepare the Butter -

Rinse the herbs and set half of each package aside. Rise the cranberries.

Remove the rosemary + thyme from the stems. Place in a glass mixing bowl.

Slice the sage into thin strips and the cranberries in half then add to the bowl.

Add the room temp butter of choice and garlic to the bowl then stir until well blended.

Pour in the maple syrup, balsamic vinegar and the juice of 1-2 clementines. Take your time and you will be able to get a lot more of the liquid than you think blended into the butter. There will be some left though; so, don’t drive yourself crazy if it doesn’t all blend.

Place back in the fridge until your turkey has been out for an hour.

Slice 3 clementines into rings, then set aside.

Dress the Turkey -

Follow the instructions in Step 5 to get the turkey ready for cooking.

Cook the Turkey -

Follow steps 6-10 above to make sure that you end up with the best turkey you’ve ever had in your life.

You’re welcome. 😘

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