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The Idiot’s Guide to Roasting a Holiday Turkey

One year, my sister called my mother and begged her to write down this recipe "as if she were talking to an idiot."

A no-nonsense, idiot-proof guide to cooking a holiday turkey

A no-nonsense, idiot-proof guide to cooking a holiday turkey

My Mother Taught Me How to Cook

When I was growing up, girls were expected to learn cooking from their mothers, but it wasn’t enforced. In the 1960s and ’70s, girls were allowed, more and more, to pursue their own dreams, which didn’t always land them in the traditional homemaker’s world.

For me, though, I always liked the traditional role. I was always underfoot in my mother's kitchen, learning to cook from her and imitating everything she did. With three younger siblings, I became the second-string cook, bottle washer, and built-in babysitter. I didn’t mind. In this way, I learned to prepare a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner with all the fixings.

My mother in the kitchen.

My mother in the kitchen.

My Sister Begged My Mother for This Recipe

My next younger sister chose to go to college and pursue a professional career. She had avoided the kitchen growing up, and although she was competent in the rudiments of cooking, she never wanted to learn anything more—until she married and began her own family.

After failing to create a traditional Thanksgiving meal for her husband one year, she called my mother and begged her to write down the instructions "as if she were talking to an idiot." I always found that funny, but I shouldn’t laugh. If I hadn’t been right there seeing her do every step of the preparation, I too would have had no clue.

So here it is, my mother’s complete instructions as she wrote them several decades ago.



Step 1: Thaw the Turkey Two Days Ahead (Tuesday Morning)

  1. If frozen, put in a pan in the fridge to thaw.
  2. Check the bird to see if the giblets can be removed.

Step 2: Prepare the Turkey the Day Before (Wednesday Night)

  1. Take the bird out of the fridge.
  2. Open the plastic wrapper at the neck and legs.
  3. Remove legs from the metal “holder," but do not remove the metal holder.
  4. Remove the giblet bag from the neck cavity.
  5. Remove the neck from the body cavity.
  6. Re-cover the bird and put it back in the fridge.
  7. Prepare the giblets for later use: Place the neck and giblets in salted water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer slowly until done. Remove from the heat and let cool overnight. Boil 6 eggs and allow to cool.
Raw turkey prepared for the oven.

Raw turkey prepared for the oven.

Step 3: Prepare for Roasting on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday Morning

  1. Remove bird from the fridge.
  2. Remove plastic wrapper from the bird.
  3. Rinse the bird off—check inside to make sure the body cavity is clean (no pieces of the lung, etc.).
  4. Pull out any leftover pinfeathers still attached to the legs or wings.
  5. Place the bird in the roaster pan.
  6. Sprinkle inside with salt, pepper, and garlic salt.
  7. Brush or rub salt, pepper, and garlic salt over the outside of the bird.
Cranberry stuffing

Cranberry stuffing

Step 4: Prepare the Stuffing

  1. On Thanksgiving Day, in a large bowl, chop giblets (save the broth). Remove meat from the neck and cut in small pieces.
  2. Remove the shells from the boiled eggs and cut eggs in small pieces.
  3. Chop finely: 1 small onion and 2 stalks of celery. Add to the meat. (this is optional).
  4. Open a bag of stuffing mix. (A pan of cornbread crumbled can be substituted for stuffing mix.)
  5. Pour the bread crumbs/cubes in the bowl with meat and vegetables.
  6. Open spice packet and pour over breadcrumbs. Add extra sage (about 1 teaspoon).
  7. Mix slightly and then add enough broth reserved from the giblets to just moisten (about 1 cup).
  8. Mix until just moistened and blended.
  9. Turn the bird over and open the neck cavity, and lightly spoon stuffing mix in until the cavity is filled but not packed, since the stuffing will expand as it bakes.
  10. Pin the flap of skin down over the cavity with a nail or toothpick. Turn the bird back over and fill the body cavity with remaining stuffing.

Step 5: Roast in the Oven

  1. Put the legs back in the metal “holder.”
  2. Cover the breast and legs of the bird with several strips of raw bacon to give the bird more moisture.
  3. Cover the bird with a loose “tent” of foil or the roaster lid, but do not allow the lid to touch the bird (it will stick to the lid if you do).
  4. Roast at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes per pound of bird (usually around 3 to 3.5 hours). If your bird has a pop-up temperature probe, watch that; if not, put a meat thermometer in the thigh meat, between thigh and body, at the thickest part, but not touching bone. The temperature, when done, should be 185 degrees.
  5. You may want to baste the bird with its own juices at about 1-hour intervals to keep it moist.

Step 6: Remove From the Oven

  1. When it is done, remove the roaster from the oven.
  2. Remove the bird from the roaster and place on a platter.
  3. Remove the stuffing from the bird and place in a bowl to serve.
  4. Have a carving chef cut the bird for serving, once grace has been said. (Assuming, of course, that in the meantime the rest of the meal has been prepared and the table is set.)
Set the table

Set the table

Step 7: Rest!

Get a cup of coffee and set down in a rocker and rest a spell.

Additional Instructions

To these instructions I would add a few things:

  • Because the oven will be in constant use on Thursday morning, you must prepare any pies, cakes, or breads the day before.
  • If you have no “carving chef” to carve the bird and have to attempt that yourself, remember that the bird has a grain to the meat and the knife should follow the grain when cutting the breast meat or it will crumble. I didn’t know this the first time I carved by myself.
  • I found it best to carve from the center down at a slant towards the drumsticks for the best-cut slices. Also, it is very important to have a very sharp carving knife and not just any old bread knife.

Cornbread Stuffing

If you are using cornbread for the stuffing instead of a stuffing mix, you will have no seasoning packet to add to the stuffing. You must, therefore, create your own. I found 1 teaspoon ground sage, 1 teaspoon ground thyme, ½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, ½ teaspoon garlic powder, and ½ teaspoon parsley flakes to work best.

I hope this helps the young homemaker prepare a turkey as much as it helped me.

Sharing With Friends

Although I am now a vegan and don’t really prepare meat for holidays, when I came across these complete instructions, I found them amusing and valuable. I can’t help sharing this with my friends.