It’s everyone’s nightmare: the turkey is ruined. Well, probably not ruined, but it certainly needs some major help or your beautiful holiday dinner will be a bust. So before you throw out that bird, here are a couple of quick tricks that might just save the day.
Turkey Emergency Toolkit
There are a few things you need to have on hand as part of your turkey emergency kit. These items will be necessary at the last minute so you better make sure you are prepared.
- An accurate meat thermometer
- Lots of heavy-duty aluminum foil
- Lots of chicken or vegetable stock (low sodium preferred)
- Spray bottle
- Gravy mixes
The Problem: The Turkey Is Frozen Solid
The only effective way to thaw a turkey is by submerging it in cold water. Only cold water will keep bacteria from growing out of control. Now by cold, we mean 40 F/5 C. Any warmer and bacteria will grow. Plan on 30 minutes per pound—in short: if you need to get a 22-pound turkey defrosted, you won't be eating it until tomorrow. Since the water temperature can be 40 degrees F, keep it there. Put a thermometer in the water and add warm or cold water to keep the temperature where you want it.
No time to thaw the turkey? It IS possible to cook a turkey that is still frozen. It isn't ideal, but you will be able to save the meal.
Watch Now: How to Safely Thaw a Frozen Turkey
The Problem: The Turkey Cooked Too Fast
Dinner is not for another four hours and the turkey is already done. Yes, somewhere the math went wrong and you have a perfectly cooked turkey ready way too early. Take the turkey out and wrap it tightly in several layers of aluminum foil. Then wrap it in a big towel. If you have one, put it in a large cooler that has been heated by filling it with boiling water, then emptied. The trick here is to let the turkey hold its temperature without letting it cook anymore. Keep it warm without adding heat. The turkey's internal temperature should stay above 140 F/60 C, or else harmful bacteria might grow. When the serving time comes, carve and serve.
The Problem: The Turkey Won’t Cook
Everyone is ready to eat. Unfortunately, the turkey hasn’t broken 120 F/50 C. You need to get this bird done now. You have two choices depending on how you are cooking the turkey. One method is to wrap the turkey in foil and turn up the heat to 450 F/230 C for 2 to 3 minutes per pound of the bird (depending on how far you still have to go). Check the temperature now and see how close you are. Chances are you are pretty close.
Another method to speeding up your turkey is to cut it in half. Right down between the two breasts on the front side and to one side of the backbone on the other side. By separating the turkey into two parts, you can reduce the cooking time dramatically. Remember that you still will have to test for doneness (165 F/75 C) everywhere. You can take this one step further and remove the legs and wings. Lay everything out so that you expose as much surface to heat as possible and the turkey will cook much faster.
The Problem: Turkey Parts Are Undercooked
You start carving and despite the fact that you were confident that the turkey was properly cooked, it is clear that parts of it are not. If you try to put it back to cook more you will end up with a dry turkey. Well, there is a quick trick to cooking these parts fast without the risk of drying. In a large pot, bring a large amount of broth (chicken, turkey, or vegetable) to a boil and place these parts in the boiling liquid for a few minutes. This will cook the turkey piece quickly and ensure that it is safe to eat. Note that if this is a smoked turkey, the meat might appear pink or reddish. This does not mean it is undercooked. Use the thermometer to verify. The chemical reaction between smoke and protein will cause this coloring and it is perfectly normal.
The Problem: The Turkey Is Dry
We’ve all had dry turkey before. It’s probably the worst outcome for any bird, but one of the hardest to avoid. While this is caused by overcooking the turkey, it sometimes seems that some birds are just made dry. Step one in dealing with dry turkey is to fill a spray bottle filled with warm chicken stock and spray it over the meat as you carve it (it's best to keep this secret). The meat won’t be moister because of this, but it will have moisture on it and the spray will prevent further drying.
Next is the ultimate trick: gravy. From barbecue sauce to beurre blanc, sauces (of which gravy is one) were invented for one reason and one reason only, to add moisture and flavor to dried-out, flavorless meat. Be prepared to make up a lot of good gravy. Also, be prepared to do it without the benefit of turkey drippings. Just be ready to make gravy and the second you put down the platter of turkey start offering everyone extra gravy. A good gravy can do a lot to make a bad turkey much better.