Turkey tips: Everything you need to know about prepping, cooking your bird

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

MILWAUKEE -- Cooking a turkey can raise a lot of questions  -- how long should you cook it, how often do you baste it? Chef Alisa Malavenda joins Real Milwaukee to take us through the basics so you can have a stress-free Thanksgiving.

  1. Size Matters: choose your turkey wisely

Plan on at least 1 to 1 ½ pounds per person if you want leftovers (and who doesn’t want leftovers).  When feeding a big crowd – I always opt for two smaller turkeys instead of a big tom turkey. It cooks quicker and more even and you can also opt for grilling, smoking, frying, spatchcock or preparing in different styles of brining and seasoning.

  1. Read the label

I prefer to buy a fresh turkey instead of a frozen or previously frozen one and look for all natural or antibiotic free – Just because it says cage free doesn’t mean they are antibiotic free.  Ice crystals form during the freezing process and can damage cell structure. Also as the bird thaws it leaks more liquid and tends to dry out the meat. If you do buy a frozen turkey make sure you thaw it slowly in the refrigerator for several days.

  1. Self Basting vs Brining or No Brine

A self basting turkey has been injected with a solution of extra fat, water , salt  and flavor enhancers and some other substances to make a juicy bird.

You can get the same juicy bird by brining it with your own natural solution of chicken broth and water, kosher salt, some sugar and any custom flavor you want like herbs, spices, apple juice, bourbon, honey or maple syrup. Remember whatever you soak the turkey in it will absorb the salt, sugar and water and any flavor you add. ( recipe below)

You can also dry brine your bird for ultimate flavor if you don’t have time or the energy to go through the wet brine. For this method I encourage you to rub butter under the skin of the turkey. by Stick your hand between the turkey skin and meat so it is detached and rub with butter and the dry rub. As the butter melts it will self baste the turkey.

  1. Make sure you dry your bird well after brining or even if you are not brining.

Dry your bird with paper towels after you remove from package or after brining . Lay on a rack on a baking sheet in the fridge to dry out for several hours. This produces a crispier skin

  1. Get the turkey off the bottom of the pan-

Place the turkey on a rack, ring of aluminum foil or even a layer of onions, celery and carrots to create some air flow underneath the bird.

  1. Stuffing or Dressing ( the great debate)

If you put your mixture inside the bird it is stuffing – if you serve it on the side it is a dressing for the bird. Is it actually safe for you to stuff the bird with your stuffing? IT IS ,BUT... make sure you bring that stuffing to 165 degrees and do not stuff it too early or pack to tightly.

One trick is to put the stuffing in a wine and butter soaked cheesecloth so it is easier to pull out the stuffing after the bird rests and before carving.

I prefer to make a dressing – mostly so I don’t have to fight my guests for the crusty crunchy bits that sticks out of the turkey. I also like to make a savory bread pudding for a contemporary twist. (recipe below)

If you opt for dressing on the side , try stuffing the turkey with herbs, lemon or orange halves and a head of garlic cut in half. This too makes for a juicy flavorful bird and delish drippings for your gravy.

  1. Back to basting 

Don’t keep opening the door to baste every 15 minutes- the fluctuation in temperature can also dry out the breast. I like the cheesecloth method – soak cheese cloth in butter and white wine- even a little soy sauce adds a little saltiness and helps browning.

And again rubbing a little butter under the skin and on top of the skin before you add the cheesecloth. YES I AM YOUR CHEF NOT A CARDIOLOGIST!

  1. Cooking Times

You should plan on about 20 minutes per pound , but keep in mind ovens vary so your best bet is  a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of turkey by the thigh- be sure it is not touching the bone.

  1. Let it Rest in Peace

 Remove your turkey before it reaches 165 degrees as it will carry over cooking about 10 degrees while you let it rest. Letting it rest is very important for the juices to redistribute and lock in your juices so they don’t end up on your cutting board.

  1. Use the right sharp knife and don’t hack away at that poor bird

TIP- It is much easier to carve your turkey if you remove the wishbone ahead of time.

Remove drumsticks first, and cut the drum from the thigh at the joint. Remove thigh bone.Then you can run your knife down along side of the keep bone to remove the breast. Cut the breast against the grain for a meatier and more tender piece of turkey. Then remove the wings

* Bonus tips for a stress free Thanksgiving

  • Roast a pan of turkey wings or legs with some vegetables a few days ahead and remove dripping. Add the rest to a stock pot , add water and make stock.

You can make your gravy with the drippings and stock the day before so you don’t have to mess with it while trying to carve the bird and get everything else on the table. The new drippings can be frozen for more gravy later.
( recipe below)

• Keep a pot of turkey stock on the stove on simmer – after you carve the turkey and before serving – ladle a little stock over the meant to keep it moist when serving.

• Use a potato ricer, food mill or masher to make your potatoes- using a mixer or food processor will give you a starchy ,gummy potatoes. The potato ricer makes the fluffiest potatoes.

Turkey Brine Recipe


  • Hand full (10-12 sprigs ) Fresh Thyme
  • Same amount of Fresh Sage
  • 4-5 Sprigs Fresh Rosemary
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • 2 t peppercorns
  • pinch of crush red pepper
  • 2 Cup Kosher Salt
  • 4 T sugar

Blend all this in a food processor – store in a well sealed jar – use approx ¼ C on your turkey depending on how big a bird you purchased.


1 gallon water and 1 gallon chicken stock ( you can also just use all water) heated in a stock pot with 2 Cups of the dry brine in above recipe just until the mixture dissolves.


  • 2 C wild turkey bourbon 101
  • ½ C maple syrup
  • 1 onion cut into quarters
  • You can also add cut up apples, or oranges

Chill mixture before submerging turkey

Refrigerate Turkey at least over night or  up to 24 hours.

Remove turkey from brine and discard brine. Dry the turkey really well with paper towels and put on a rack and let dry out at least 2 hours and then bring to room temperature before proceeding with roasting.

Make Ahead Turkey Gravy

  • 5 cups Roasted Turkey Stock made from Turkey legs and vegetables. OR store bought quality brand like kitchen basics.
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 T unsalted butter
  • 4 T flour
  • 1 t minced herb like (sage , rosemary and thyme)
  • Salt and pepper to
  • Drippings from turkey pan


  • In large saucepan, combine turkey stock, the onion. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until mixture is reduced to four cups, about 30-45 minutes.
  • When broth is almost reduced to the correct amount, in another heavy saucepan combine flour and butter.
  • Cook and stir over low heat until flour begins to take on a bit of color and turns tan. Strain the stock into the pan with the flour mixture, stirring with a wire whisk. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Pour into containers, cover, and chill for up to 6 days.
  • When ready to eat, scrape some drippings from the turkey pan into a saucepan and pour in the gravy. Heat until simmering. Taste the gravy. If it tastes flat, add more salt, a bit at a time, until the gravy tastes rich and meaty. Then stir in pepper and serve.

Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding

  • 3 T. olive oil
  • 1 ½  lbs. wild mushroom (shiitake, oyster, crimini, portobello) coarsley chopped
  • 1 medium onion, medium chopped or ½ C shallots
  • 1 celery rib, medium chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 2 T. fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 T. fresh sage
  • 1 T. fresh thyme
  • 5 large eggs
  • 3 cups half and half
  • ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
  • salt and pepper
  • 6 cups of day old bread, cut into 1 inch cubes ( you can also toast them in the oven for better absorption
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Lightly butter a baking dish or muffin pans.• Heat oil in a heavy pot over med-high heat. Add mushrooms, garlic, onion, celery, parsley, sage and thyme.
    • Sauté until the mushrooms are tender and brown, about 15 minutes.
    • Remove pot from heat and season with salt and pepper.
    • Whisk eggs, cream and milk with the 1/4 cup grated cheese, salt and pepper in a large bowl to blend.
    • Add bread cubes, toss to coat. Let stand for about 15 minutes, stir in mushroom mixture.
    • Transfer to prepared dish or muffin tins and sprinkle with the remaining cheese
    • Bake until pudding is brown and puffed and set in the center. (About an hour for the baking dish and 30 minutes for muffins.)
    You could also add sausage to this recipe. Add 1 # of sausage to the pan after the mushrooms are tender.
    * Make this the day before and heat or bake in individual ramekins
  • Note* Using butter and stock in this recipe instead of the half and half and eggs which make it richer – it would be more dressing than a bread pudding