It’s that time of year, when dreams of roasted turkey and mashed potatoes dance through our heads. We decided to talk turkey with Chef Lesli Sommerdorf and get the skinny (or should it be plump and juicy?) on everything you need to know about preparing the very best turkey for your holiday meal.
Q. In your opinion, what is the hardest part of cooking the perfect turkey?
A. Determining when the turkey is done. i.e., reaching 165° throughout the bird. For example, if I have an 18-pound unstuffed bird, experts say in a 325° oven it should be done in 3 1/2 to 4 hours.
The dark meat takes the longest to cook so you should insert an instant-read thermometer in the thickest part of the inner thigh, not touching the bone. You should also check the temperature of the breast, which should also be 165°. If the breast reaches 165° before the thigh does, cover the breast lightly with foil and continue cooking.
The temperature will rise a few degrees as the turkey rests (loosely tented with foil) before carving, which should be anywhere from 30-45 minutes.
Q. What is your favorite recipe made with turkey leftovers?
A. Traditional turkey soup made from scratch turkey broth.
Chef Lesli's Traditional Turkey Noodle Soup
Q. What is the most unusual way you ever cooked a turkey?
A. I once assisted a chef who spatchcocked and smoked a turkey. It was delicious in the end but not enough to convince me to purchase a smoker.
Q. Do you recommend brining a turkey?
A. I absolutely recommend brining any turkey that is over 16 pounds. At that point, the extra moisture will help the breast meat remain moist until the dark meat is cooked. I also recommend you baste every turkey you cook. That simply means pouring broth over the turkey every 20-30 minutes.
Q. You told us you only cook with Diestel Family Farms turkeys. Can you explain why?
A. I have cooked with turkeys from Diestel Ranch since 1999. When I was a copy editor for the San Francisco Chronicle Food and Wine section, there was a taster’s choice column and professional chefs and cookbook authors would come in monthly to blind taste a variety of products. One of those categories was turkeys. Out of nine turkeys, Diestel came in first. Year after year, Diestel birds never disappoint.
Q. What are some of the most common mistakes people make when preparing to cook a Thanksgiving turkey?
A. Forgetting to defrost it. Remember, it takes days in the refrigerator for a frozen turkey to thaw. As a rule of thumb it takes 24 hours for every 4 pounds of turkey. If your bird is 12-16 pounds you could potentially quick-thaw it in cold running water. However, that’s a lot of wasted water. Just remember to thaw it in time or, better still, purchase a fresh turkey. A fresh turkey could still be “flash frozen” which means it has a thin frozen layer around it. Left in the refrigerator two days before Thanksgiving will be enough time for it to thaw.
If you plan to brine your bird, buy it at least 4 days in advance of brining.
Q. Do you prefer to stuff your bird or cook the stuffing/dressing on the side? Do you call it stuffing or dressing? What is the difference? Does it even matter?
A. I grew up eating Stove Top stuffing stuffed in the bird—which was always dry and overcooked. At some point, we stopped stuffing the bird and served it on the side. Technically, I think stuffing is stuffed in the bird and dressing is served on the side. That said, like green onions are scallions on the East Coast, do East Coasters tend to use the word dressing more often? I’ve always referred to it as stuffing. And I don’t make Stove Top anymore. It’s always from scratch, baby!
Q. Can you stuff a turkey the night before?
A. If your entirely cooked stuffing is room temperature (hot would be a dangerous no-no) and you stuffed a cold bird and then immediately refrigerated the whole lot overnight, I would think you could do this. Thanksgiving day, I would remove the bird from the refrigerator 1-2 hours before cooking (but no more as 4 hours is the total amount of time it can be out before bacteria becomes a major issue).
Q. Are you supposed to rinse a turkey and dry it off before you roast it?
A. No! Same thing goes for other poultry like chicken. Simply remove the bird from the plastic, and place directly on a roasting rack in a roasting pan. Remove the giblets and neck and pat the turkey dry with lots of paper towels.
More Turkey Talk Tips with Chef Lesli
There aren’t many things in life more disappointing than dried-out, cardboard-textured, overcooked turkey for Thanksgiving.
In order to ensure a juicy, moist bird, you’ll need a meat thermometer. As a word of advice, don’t rely on that plastic white and red pop-up timer that may already come inserted in your bird.
To check a turkey’s internal temperature, insert an instant-read thermometer into the inner meatiest part of the thigh, not touching bone. You may need to probe a couple of times. I always go with the lowest temperature reading. Roast until the internal temperature reaches 160°-163°. Remove the bird from the oven, loosely tent with foil, and let rest 20-45 minutes, depending on the weight of the turkey. Carry-over cooking will increase the temperature above 165°, the safe cooking temperature for all poultry.
Roasting an Unstuffed Turkey
Use these guidelines to roast an unstuffed turkey:
14-16 lb turkey: Roast at 350°. Total roasting time: 2-2 3/4 hours
16-18 lb turkey: Roast at 350°. Total roasting time: 2 3/4-3 hours
18 or more pounds: Roast at 350°. Total roasting time: 3-4 hours
Defrosting a Frozen Turkey in the Refrigerator
If you’re planning on cooking a frozen turkey, make sure to leave plenty of time – in most cases, days – for the bird to defrost in the refrigerator.
12-14 lb: 2-3 days
14-16 lb: 3-4 days
16-18 lb: 4-5 days
18-20 lb: 5-6 days
Never leave a frozen turkey out at room temperature to thaw as bacteria will grow and you could sicken yourself and your guests.
A Salt Lake native, Chef Lesli Sommerdorf has always been passionate about food. As a child, she fondly recalls heading to the kitchen after watching Julia Child reruns, where she would create inedible concoctions made from condiments in the refrigerator.
Her skills improved, and during her college years, while her roommates opted for fast-food, she would regularly craft from-scratch meals.
You can read more about her here.