How to Cook a Turkey for Thanksgiving, According to the Experts

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iStock.com/mphillips007

In a letter written to his daughter Sally in 1784, two years after the bald eagle was chosen as the country’s national emblem, Ben Franklin referred to the species as a “bird of bad moral character” that steals fish from weaker birds. A turkey, he argued, was a “much more respectable bird.”

But many Americans have a difficult time cooking turkey. Despite their fine moral fiber, turkeys have a reputation for being among the trickiest of birds to prepare. They're big and bulky, and cooking turkey to a safe temperature can easily dry out the meat. Techniques like brining and spatchcocking—essentially snapping the turkey’s spine in order to lay it flat—are best left to advanced chefs. So how can holiday hosts cook turkey to everyone’s satisfaction?

GET TO KNOW YOUR THANKSGIVING TURKEY

A turkey is placed into an oven
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It helps to understand what kind of fowl you’re dealing with. “The average Thanksgiving turkey is 12 or 14 pounds,” says Guy Crosby, Ph.D., an adjunct associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “That’s opposed to a 3- or 4-pound chicken. And dark meat tends to need a higher temperature to cook than white meat, which runs the risk of drying out the breast when you’re trying to get the rest of it cooked. People also want a nice, crisp brown skin. Balancing all of that with safety is a big challenge.”

Undercooking a turkey can be problematic, particularly if you’d prefer not to serve up a Petri dish of Salmonella to guests. The bacteria that causes food poisoning and all its unpleasant symptoms is commonly found in poultry and has even led to a recent 35-state outbreak of illness due to contaminated raw turkey products that were apparently mishandled by consumers. The good news? Cooking turkey to an internal temperature of 165°F will kill any germs lurking inside.

Still, you want to be careful in how you handle your raw materials. According to Sue Smith, co-director of the Butterball Turkey-Talk Line, you should avoid washing the turkey. “We don’t recommend it because there’s no reason,” Smith tells Mental Floss. “You don’t want [contaminated] water to splatter around the countertops.”

BRINE A TURKEY UNDER ITS SKIN

If you bought your turkey frozen, let it thaw breast-side up for four days in your refrigerator. (A good rule of thumb is one day for every four pounds of weight.) Place the bird in a pan and put it on the bottom shelf so no juices leak on to other shelves or into food.

Once it’s thawed, you can consider an additional step, and one that might make for a juicier bird. Rather than brine the entire turkey—which allows it to soak up saltwater to retain more moisture during cooking—you can opt to moisten the meat with a 1:1 salt and sugar mixture under the skin.

“Turkeys are so darn big that brining it is not something you can do conveniently in a fridge,” Crosby tells Mental Floss. “If you want to add salt to a turkey, the general recommendation is to salt it under the skin.” Crosby advises to use the salt and sugar blend anywhere meat is prone to drying out, like the breast. Let it rest in the fridge for 24 hours, uncovered. (That’s one day in addition to thawing. But check to make sure your turkey didn’t already come pre-brined.)

This accomplishes a few things. By adding salt to the meat, you’re going to let the meat retain more moisture than it would normally. (Cooking effectively squeezes water from muscle tissue, wringing the bird of its natural moisture.) By leaving it uncovered in the fridge, you’re letting the skin get a little dry. That, Crosby says, can encourage the Maillard reaction, a chemical response to heat in excess of 300 degrees that transforms amino acids and sugar, resulting in a tasty brown skin.

Once your bird is ready for roasting, Smith advises you to place the bird on a flat, shallow pan with a rack that raises it 2 or 3 inches. “The rack lets airflow get around the bottom,” she says. If you don’t have a flat rack, you can use carrots, celery, or even rolled tin foil to give the turkey a little boost off the pan.

COOK TURKEY TO A SAFE TEMPERATURE

Sliced turkey is served on a plate
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A 12- to 14-pound turkey will need to roast for roughly 3 hours at 350°F in order to cook thoroughly. But you’ll want to be sure by using a food thermometer. Both Smith and Crosby caution against trusting the disposable pop-up thermometers that come pre-inserted in some turkeys. Invest in a good oven-safe meat thermometer and plunge it right into the deepest space between the drumstick and thigh and get it to a safe 175 to 180 degrees. (The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends heating it to no less than 165 degrees.) “By that point, the breast will be over 180 degrees,” Crosby says. If you’ve stuffed the turkey—and roughly half of people do, according to Butterball research—make sure it’s cooked to a temperature of at least 165 degrees.

Once your bird is done, let it sit out for 35 to 45 minutes. The turkey will retain enough heat that it won’t get cold (don't cover it with tin foil, because the crispy skin will get soggy). Instead, a cooling-off period allows the muscle fibers to reabsorb juices and the salt and sugar to bring out more of the flavor.

REHEAT LEFTOVER TURKEY SLOWLY

When it’s time to put the leftovers away, be sure to keep slicing. Individual portions will cool down more quickly than if you shoved the entire bird into the fridge. Eat them within two or three days. If you want to keep it from drying out during reheating, Crosby suggests putting the meat into a covered baking dish with some vegetables, potatoes, or gravy and using the oven on low heat or a saucepan on the stovetop. “You’ll retain more moisture the slower you reheat it,” he says.

Roasting isn’t the only approach, as some of your friends or family members may attest. In addition to the brutal triumph of spatchcocking, some people opt to deep-fry turkeys, grill them, or slice them up into pieces prior to cooking. There’s no wrong way, but roasting will give you the most predictable results.

“Roasting is Butterball’s preferred method,” Smith says. “It consistently turns out a tender, juicy turkey.” Or, as Ben Franklin would say, a much more respectable bird.

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

stockfour/iStock via Getty Images
stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

5 Easier Ways to Water Your Christmas Tree

Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images
Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images

A decorated Christmas tree adds instant holiday cheer to any room—for a few days, at least. If you neglect to care for it, however, it doesn't take long for that tree to start dropping needles and dry up into a brittle, brown fire hazard. The key to keeping your tree looking healthy until the New Year is to water it every day. Of course, that comes with its own problems, like sap-covered clothing and sore knees. Here are some alternative methods for watering your Christmas tree that won't have you wishing for the end of the holiday season.

1. Rig a funnel and PVC pipe.

The worst part of watering a Christmas tree is crawling around on your hands and knees, but once you've set up this funnel rig, you can water it while standing up. As Eric Palonen demonstrates in the video above, all you need to do is stick a PVC pipe into the tree stand, attach a funnel to the other end with an elbow connector, and pour in the water.

2. Dig out a pool noodle.

Don't have a spare PVC pipe at home? A foam pool noodle works just as well as the receptacle for your funnel.

3. Disguise a DIY water dispenser as a present.

On Instructables, Rickyspears shares his step-by-step process for building a Christmas tree-watering rig. Using a bucket and plastic tube with brass fittings, you can create a water-siphoning system that automatically keeps your tree hydrated. And because a big bucket of water beneath the tree isn't the most festive sight, Rickyspears also tells you how to disguise it by hiding it in a box decorated with wrapping paper.

4. Use a wine bottle.

Still have some leftover wine bottles from Thanksgiving (or the weekend) lying around the house? Use one of them to water the base of your tree while keeping a safe distance between you and the sticky branches. (Though if you do get some sap on your hands, there are a few easy ways to get rid of it.)

5. Invest in an automated watering system.

DIY watering rigs are inexpensive, but if convenience is your main concern, it's hard to beat a product that was designed just for this purpose. The Christmas tree watering bag from Elf Logic senses when your tree needs water and replenishes it automatically. Plus, it hangs on a branch like an ornament, making it easy to tuck away.

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