My Turkey Cooking Adventure: Learning How to Cook a Bird

Cooked turkey.jpg

Something you may not know about me is that I have an extremely competitive side. I love to win. It doesn’t even matter what I’m winning, as long as I win. So it goes without saying that when my principal made an announcement about a turkey being raffled off for staff members, I immediately ran to enter my name.

I saw about 20 or so other names entered so I really thought I had no chance of winning. At the end of the day, I was playing cards with my students when we all stopped to listen to the announcements.

“Congratulations, Alyssa Zukowski! You have won our turkey raffle!"

The kids were all cheering and jumping up and down.  All I could think was, Great, I don’t even know how to cook a turkey and I don’t really feel like carrying this home either. But I won, and that’s what mattered.

After lugging the 23-pound frozen bird onto the public bus and the local subway train, I threw it into the sink to thaw and left for the museum. I called my parents on the way to ask for advice.

“I won a free turkey and I’ve never been allowed to help with Thanksgiving… soooo….what do I do?"

My dad informed me that I wasn’t even going to be able to cook this bad boy for a few days until it fully thawed. He recommended that I search for some recipes during these few days to figure out how I want to cook it. The following day I knocked on my landlord’s door to give him my rent check, and I told him about the turkey.  He told me about a process called brining (a mixture of salt and herbs in water that makes your turkey extra flavorful).

I don’t know what I would have done before the days of Pinterest.  I tried calling my mom for advice, but there’s only so much that you can explain over the phone.  Lucky for me, I found this great recipe from Flirting With Flavor. Of course, as straightforward as their recipe was, I still managed to read things wrong and made some mistakes. That’s part of the fun, though, right?

Let’s go on a little adventure.


After my 23-pound beauty finally thawed (6 days later), I decided to make the brine recipe.  I had never made a brine before but it was extremely easy to make. As I followed the recipe, I was impressed with the aroma that immediately filled my kitchen. The smell took me back to my childhood Thanksgivings. To speed things up, I used jarred minced garlic and some lemon juice from a bottle since I didn’t have lemons on hand.

Once a brine boils for 2-3 minutes, you need to remove it from the heat and let it fully cool. After my brine was cooled, things got a little tricky. The recipe called for an oven bag to brine the bird in. At this point I realized that I have no idea what an oven bag even is. So I decided to improvise and used the next best thing, a clear garbage bag (this is improvisational brining at its finest).

I put the turkey inside the bag and poured the cooled brine over it. I removed as much air as possible from the bag and tied it closed. The bagged turkey then sat in my sink on some ice for over 24 hours. About halfway through, I flipped the bird in the bag to make sure both sides were evenly soaked. I put it in the fridge to finish soaking overnight.

It was during this phase that I realized that my turkey had a long neck of just skin still attached to it. It had the actually neck and organ meats stuffed inside the turkey in a little bag. I trimmed the neck skin off and threw these random organs in the garbage as suggested by my mom. She also said she’s never had a turkey with neck skin, so I guess I just got lucky.

I saw that the legs were held together with plastic and in my head I thought that plastic had no place being in an oven, so I cut it and threw that out too. This turned out to be one of my mistakes. Apparently, the plastic is actually meant to withstand the heat of the oven, and it holds the bird together and makes cooking it easier.

Oh well. I moved onwards.

Preparing for the Oven

The brining was complete, and I took the turkey out of the bag and rinsed it. At this point, I put it in a foil tray on top of a baking sheet (which is much sturdier than the foil tray) and made my herb butter to stick in between its skin and meat. The butter was really simple to make, but not so easy to put into place. Luckily my sister had mentioned to me the day before that she cuts slits in the skin and sticks the butter in that way, which I tried; this way wound up being much easier.

It’s possible that I had a difficult time with this because I didn’t realize my turkey was in fact upside down (mistake number two). This seems like a difficult mistake to make, but at least 2 other people took a look at this turkey and thought everything looked normal. While it didn’t affect the overall result, it did make it more difficult to carve in the end.

After buttering the bird, I stuffed it with my aromatics. My mixture was made of apples, onions, cinnamon, sage, and ginger ale (I used diet ginger ale since that’s what I had available). To me, these were all flavors that immediately make me think of fall and winter cooking. My mother also recommended that I mix the cooked aromatics and turkey drippings with my packet of microwave turkey gravy to make it more flavorful and real tasting.

Once the ingredients were stuffed inside, I roasted the turkey (make sure to lower the oven racks so the turkey fits). Also, make sure you build up your arm muscles a few months before cooking a turkey because they can be difficult to lift out of the oven! After roasting, I took the turkey out and made a foil “hat” to prevent the meat from drying out. I then lowered my oven to 350 degrees (F) and cooked the turkey for several hours.

You’ll know your turkey is done when the internal temperature is around 160-165 degrees. Once it reaches the right temperature, you can take it out and let it rest for 30 minutes before carving. Since my turkey was 23 pounds, I checked it after 4 hours and the temperature read 161 degrees. The cooking time will depend on the weight of the bird, so take a look at the infographic below to see how long your turkey should cook for based on its weight:


Things to DO:

  • Make a brine to flavor your turkey
  • Use an herb butter under the turkey's skin
  • Stuff the turkey with aromatics
  • Roast the turkey
  • Make a foil "hat"
  • Check the turkey's internal temperature
  • Learn to carve a Turkey

Things NOT to do:

  • Buy a turkey you can't lift
  • Cut the plastic on the legs
  • Cook your turkey upside down
  • Forget to turn the oven down after the 30-minute roast
  • Rush the turkey's sit/cool time

The Simplified Recipe


  • 1.5 heaping cups salt
  • 1.5 gallons water
  • 8 bay leaves
  • 3/4 cups brown sugar
  • 6 lemons, washed and quartered (or lemon juice)
  • 2 sprigs rosemary
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 2 tbsp minced garlic

Herb butter

  • 4 tbsp butter (softened)
  • 1 cup roughly chopped parsley
  • 1 tsp salt


  • 1 red apple (sliced)
  • 1 onion (quartered)
  • 1 tsp (or 1 stick) cinnamon
  • 2 sprigs rosemary
  • 6 sage leaves
  • 1.5 cups ginger ale

Thaw the turkey. While the turkey is thawing, make the brine by combining the brine ingredients in large pot. Boil the brine for 2-3 minutes, or until salt and sugar is dissolved. Remove brine from heat and let cool completely.

Once thawed, soak the turkey in the brine for 24 hours, then rinse the turkey.

Mix aromatics ingredients in a bowl and microwave for 5 minutes. While the aromatics are microwaving, combine the herb butter ingredients and place the butter between the skin and meat. Rub your buttery hands on the outside of the bird before roasting. When aromatics have heated, stuff them into the cavity of the turkey.

Roast the turkey on the bottom oven rack at 500 degrees (F) for 30 minutes to crisp the skin. Remove the turkey from the oven and make a foil "hat." Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees (F) and cook for several hours (see infographic).

Check turkey's temperature by placing a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the breast. The thermometer should read 161 degrees (F) or higher to know that it is cooked through. Remove turkey and let sit for 30 minutes.

Learn to carve a turkey while you wait for your bird to be done sitting (I used this video and found it very helpful). Carve your cooled turkey, serve to friends and family, and enjoy!

Special thanks to our sources:


(C) Copyright Whatismyhealth, December 25th, 2016