How to tell when your Thanksgiving turkey is done

Thanksgiving turkey.
Thanksgiving turkey.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

You’re roasting your Thanksgiving turkey in the oven, and while it may look crisp, golden and ready to eat, you have no idea if it’s actually done. What do you do?

There’s only one foolproof way to check for proper doneness and that is using a thermometer. For years, the Department of Agriculture recommended 180 degrees, but that can overcook the meat and lead to a dry bird. Now it states turkey is done when a thermometer reaches at least 165 degrees.

To check, slide the thermometer into the thigh meat, in between the leg and breast; make sure the thermometer does not touch the bone, as this will give an artificially high reading (the bones heat faster than the meat). If you can, purchase a digital thermometer with a probe that you can stick into the meat when you first put it in the oven; this will allow you to check on the turkey’s progress in real time.

(If you’re stuffing your turkey before you roast it, you’ll need to take the temperature deep in the center of the stuffing, as it came into contact with the raw poultry meat and will also need to cook to a safe temperature of 165 degrees. By the time your stuffing is safe to eat, the breast meat will probably be overcooked and dry. It’s best to cook them separately.)

While temperature is the most reliable indicator of doneness, it helps to have a rough timetable when you’re planning. According to the USDA, for an unstuffed turkey roasting at 325 degrees, you should allow 2¾ to 3 hours for an 8- to 12-pound turkey; 3 to 3¾ hours for a 12- to 14-pounder; 3¾ to 4¼ hours for a 14- to 18-pounder; 4¼ to 4½ hours for an 18- to 20-pounder and 4½ to 5 hours for an 20- to 24-pounder.

For a stuffed turkey, allow 3 to 3½ hours for an 8- to 12-pound turkey; 3½ to 4 hours for a 12- to 14-pounder; 4 to 4¼ hours for a 14- to 18-pounder; 4¼ to 4¾ hours for an 18- to 20-pounder; and 4¾ to 5¼ hours for a 20- to 24-pounder.

There are other ways to tell if the turkey is done, though they are not as reliable as a thermometer. Gently twist the thigh joint; if it moves up and down easily and the hip joint gives without effort, your turkey might be done. Also, insert the carving fork or knife into the thickest part of the thigh meat; if the juices run clear and aren’t pink, the turkey is probably done.

Still, invest in a thermometer. It’s the one foolproof way to safely check for doneness. These tips are not only good for turkey; they’ll work with chicken and other poultry.

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