The bare fundamentals:
Why you need to have your act together when planning to prepare turkey.
1.) A turkey that is not fully thawed by cooking day can delay the holiday dinner.
2.) An underdone turkey can ruin everyone's holiday, in ways that don't require explanation.
3.) Failure to properly sanitize hands, food prep. surfaces, and utensils after working with raw turkey...well, see #2. Clean up with hot, soapy water! For extra security, add 1 tbsp. household bleach to the cleaning water.
A good rule of thumb is to allow 24 hours thawing time for every 4-5 pounds. In the refrigerator, of course.
08-12 lbs....1-2 days
12-16 lbs....2-3 days
16-20 lbs....3-4 days
20-24 lbs....4-5 days
Emergency Thawing Procedure:
This supposes that your turkey is not going to thaw on time, in the refrigerator.
In this case, cold water thawing is a safe and effective way to thaw out a turkey fast (relatively). Leaving the turkey in its original packaging, completely submerge it in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes. To test if the bird is fully thawed, wiggle the leg and wing joints of the turkey; if they move freely, the bird is properly thawed.
Cold water thawing times:
Don't try to fudge this- and DO NOT add hot water in an attempt to make it go faster....
08-12 lbs....4-6 hours
12-16 lbs....6-8 hours
16-20 lbs....8-10 hours
20-24 lbs....10-12 hours
Preheat the oven to 325° F. For unstuffed turkeys, allow 15 minutes of cooking time for every pound of bird. Ifyou plan to stuff the bird, then an extra 1/2 to 1 hour of cooking time will be required. For maximum safety, prepare stuffing outside the bird, in a casserole dish, rather than actually stuffing the turkey.
The importance of measuring internal temperature with a meat thermometer:
Because of variances in ovens, it is important that the internal temperature of the bird be measured with a meat thermometer. It is probably best to use a meat thermometer even when cooking a turkey with a factory-inserted, pop-up timer. Insert the meat thermometer into the inner thigh, without touching the bone. The turkey is done when the thermometer reads 180° F.
Tip: Before carving, let the bird stand for 20 minutes to allow the juices to set. This also makes carving easier.
Refrigerate any leftover turkey within 2 hours of cooking. Refrigerated turkey should be eaten within 3-4 days, unless frozen for later use. Be sure to check back here closer to Thanksgiving for a host of turkey recipes to help you decimate those leftovers.