Texas Living

Turkey Guide for a Stress-Free Thanksgiving

By Susan Wiles 11.8.23

The big day is around the corner, and the biggest decision you’ll make — even more important than whether to put marshmallows in your sweet potatoes — revolves around one big bird: the turkey. This guide will help first-time Thanksgiving hosts know when to buy their turkey, when to put it in the oven, how many pounds to buy, and more.

Temperatures are finally dropping, and pumpkins and chrysanthemums abound. If, in the spring, a young man’s fancy turns to love, in the fall, most people’s fancy turns to turkey! And pumpkin spice. And Thanksgiving sides. And desserts.

The fact is cooking turkey scares a lot of people. If you doubt that, what other food requires a turkey talk hotline for questions ranging from, “Can I cook a turkey that has been in the freezer since 1969?” (The answer was, “NO!”) to “How do I get bikini tan lines on my turkey?” to “I forgot to thaw my turkey. Now what?” to the most often asked: “How do I wash my turkey?” The Butterball hotline is open from November through December. Enough said!

So, how do you select this fowl that will grace your Thanksgiving table? And how should you cook it? 

There are many ways to cook a turkey: stuffed or unstuffed; deep fried, smoked, or roasted; breast or whole bird (or smoked thighs if you are in a RenFest mood). There is even the option of making a turducken, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a poultry dish consisting of a boned chicken inside a boned duck which is in turn placed inside a (partially) boned turkey.” Because Thanksgiving cooking just isn’t busy enough.

Hack: Locally Smoked Turkey

If your guests are clamoring for a smoked turkey, but you’re not inclined to smoke it yourself, Greenberg Smoked Turkeys in Tyler is a great option. Their turkeys can be found in Tyler- and Dallas-area grocery stores starting in early November, and their website offers handy tips for how much to order and inspirational recipes.

Recipe: Brined Turkey Breast

Maybe it’s just two to four guests, and you don’t want to eat turkey leftovers for the next six months (Weird, but OK!). An alternative to cooking a whole bird is to cook a breast. A beautiful recipe is the brined turkey breast from “Christmas Feasts and Treats” by Donna Hay. Brining is also a popular option for a whole turkey, but that requires some big pots!  


  • 1/8 cup rock salt
  • 1/8 cup brown sugar
  • 1 sprig tarragon
  • 1 bunch thyme
  • 4 cups water 
  • 1 3-pound turkey breast
  • 1/2 lemon, peel grated and reserved, lemon sliced into thin slices
  • 1 clove garlic 
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil


  • Boil the first four ingredients with 1 cup of water for 4 minutes, let cool, and add them, along with 2 more cups of water (adjusted from original recipe), in a glass, stainless steel, or plastic container.
  • Loosen the skin on the turkey breast, add to the brine, and refrigerate for 2 hours.
  • When ready to cook, mix lemon peel, butter, and garlic.
  • Remove turkey from brine, pat dry, spread lemon butter under skin, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and brown in a heavy frying pan with olive oil over medium heat for 4 minutes, skin side down.
  • Turn turkey skin side up, add another cup of water, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and cook for 20 minutes, until golden and cooked through.

Recipe: Traditional Roast Turkey

You may have a larger gathering, and a traditional turkey is your only way. There are many wonderful and flavorful ways to roast a turkey, so let’s go to the source for tried and true, relatively stress-free cooking: Ina Garten. From her cookbook “Barefoot Contessa Parties!,” here is her recipe for the “perfect” roast turkey. She uses a fresh 12-pound turkey that will serve 8.  


  • 1 12-pound turkey
  • Salt and pepper, to taste 
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • 1 large bunch of thyme
  • 1 head of garlic, halved crosswise
  • 1 Spanish onion, quartered, plus 2 more, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 4 tablespoons butter, melted butter
  • 1/2 cup olive oil, divided
  • 8 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 10 red new potatoes, halved
  • 3 heads of fennel, cut into wedges 


  • Preheat oven to 350 F.
  • Take giblets out, wash the turkey inside and out, and pat dry.
  • Place turkey in a large roasting pan and liberally salt and pepper inside the cavity.
  • Stuff the cavity with your lemon, thyme, garlic, and one of your onions. 
  • Brush the outside of the turkey with your melted butter. Sprinkle with more salt and pepper.
  • Tie the legs together with string, and tuck the wing tips under the turkey.
  • Toss remaining 2 onions with 1/4 cup olive oil and scatter them around the turkey in the roasting pan. Roast for 1 hour.
  • Toss carrots, potatoes, and fennel with remaining 1/4 cup olive oil and add them to the pan. 
  • Roast for another 1 1/2 hours or until juices run clear between leg and thigh. 
  • Remove turkey to a cutting board, cover loosely with foil, and let rest for 20 minutes. 
  • Stir the vegetables and continue roasting while the turkey cools.  
  • Slice turkey and serve!

Tips: Buying Your Turkey 

Follow these guidelines for a stress-free turkey day, however you end up cooking it!

When to buy it: Turkey breasts are available all year round. Fresh and frozen turkeys appear in stores beginning in early November. Remember that frozen turkeys thaw in the fridge for one day per 4-5 pounds of turkey — so you’ll want to get it and start thawing in time! 

How much to buy: A rule of thumb is to buy 1 1/2 pounds per person, or 8 ounces if boneless.

How long it takes to cook: Here’s a handy chart for how many hours to cook a turkey at 325 F, according to how many pounds you are cooking:

  • 8-12 lbs.: 2.75-3 unstuffed; 3-3.5 stuffed.
  • 12-14 lbs.: 3-3.75 unstuffed; 3.5-4 stuffed.
  • 14-18 lbs.: 3.75-4.25 unstuffed; 4-4.25 stuffed.
  • 18-20 lbs.: 4.25-4.5 unstuffed; 4.25-4.75 stuffed.
  • 20-24 lbs.: 4.5-5 unstuffed; 4.75-5.25 stuffed.

For more Thanksgiving Day tips, tricks, and inspo, check out these start-to-finish Thanksgiving dinner ideas.

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