When producing a Thanksgiving meal becomes a last-minute affair — and there are plenty of reasons that happens, no judging — you might think getting a bronzed bird on the table presents the toughest challenge.
Nah, you’ve got this. Cooking a whole turkey from a rock-solid, frozen state can yield respectable results. If you get it in the oven by 9 in the morning, it can be ready for carving by 4.
There is a bit of a learning curve, though, and because you probably only have one shot at it, I am happy to share lessons from testing 90 pounds’ worth.
For decades, frozen turkey has been the No. 1 concern that Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line operators hear about on Thanksgiving Day. They’ll counsel you through thawing techniques, and they’ll suggest that cooking one of their birds once it’s fully defrosted is preferable. The big takeaway: “From frozen” is doable and perhaps the least fussy way to handle a bird of any size.
And oven-roasting is the way to go. Size translates to oven time for a whole turkey, and size will be an issue when you are faced with day-of choices in your grocer’s freezer. As in, the ideal 12- to 14-pounders will be long gone. Generally, a frozen bird needs to spend about 1 ½ times as long at a low-ish oven temperature (325 degrees); an unstuffed 19-pounder that takes almost 4 hours to roast from a fully thawed state will take 6 to 6 ½ hours from fully frozen.
Search online and you won’t find a Butterball-approved chart for roasting from frozen. TheKitchn.com does have one. “It’s not something we promote,” says Butterball’s Talk-Line director Nicole Johnson, due to optimal quality control — but not any food safety issues. Speaking of, there’s this: The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service says, “It is safe to cook a turkey from the frozen state.”
The pan you use for this is nonnegotiable. It needs to be low-walled so as much air as possible circulates around the bird. You have the technology at hand:
• Seat an ovenproof wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet.
• Hoist the bird onto the rack.
• Move the middle oven rack down one level, keeping the lower rack in place (for reheating sides) and removing any upper rack.
• Pour a cup of water into the pan.
Come to think of it, that method would benefit most oven-roasted turkeys. Why sacrifice so much potentially crisped and golden brown skin to steam heat? For me, this renders those expensive roasting pans with nonstick V-shaped rack inserts unnecessary and less effective. (The same can be said for deep disposable aluminum pans, which are not great conductors of heat.) The Butterball experts agree and have recommended using low-walled pans for years.
At 2 ½ to 3 hours in, the turkey will be thawed enough for you to deal with the giblets packet, and deal with it you must. Chances are that it is either in the main or neck cavity. Remove the baking sheet from the oven just long enough to retrieve the packet via tongs. The packet’s contents will still be usable, whether the bag is made of food-safe plastic or paper. Even if you don’t plan to use it, you need to remove it, because leaving it in will cause the meat to be cooked unevenly around it. At that same time, you can use a small, sharp knife to cut a slit just under each drumstick, which is a Jacques Pepin trick to help that deep joint get cooked through.
(You can leave in the plastic handle that holds the legs together; it can handle the heat.)
Monitoring the internal temperature is not foolproof, judging from home cooks’ comments posted elsewhere online. But the same standards of doneness for roast turkey apply here: drumsticks that have a little give at the joint, 165 degrees for dark meat. None of the turkeys we tested had areas of undercooked meat, and even when the temperature registered 175 degrees, the dark meat was still quite juicy.
What about seasoning? Thanksgiving turkey cooks have wet-brined, dry-salted, injected, basted, slid compound butters under the skin and stuffed their birds with herbs. Your unseasoned bird cooked from frozen will yield a decent amount of pan juices — especially when you choose to lay a swath of butter-soaked cheesecloth on top for the last hour or so of oven time — and all you need to do is season those juices and then spoon them over the carved platter when it’s time to dig in. Consider a few applications of those pan juices a must for the sliced white meat, in fact.
The turkey should rest from 30 minutes to an hour before you carve, so that’s when you will be able to crank up the oven and reheat more than what could fit on that lower rack. With the accompanying menu of recipes, though, you will only need the oven to bake dessert, which can be done in the time it takes to enjoy your feast.
Last-minute might not be how you want to roll on Thanksgiving, but it’s nice to know it works.
Questions about frozen turkey? Join our special two-hour Free Range discussion, beginning at noon Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.
A butter-and-wine soaked cheesecloth draped over the breast will help protect it and brown it during the last few hours in the oven; for this optional step, see the VARIATION, below.
From Washington Post deputy Food editor Bonnie S. Benwick.
One 18- or 19-pound frozen turkey (see NOTE)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (optional)
1 cup dry white wine (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
Position oven racks as needed to allow for enough room in the oven for the turkey; preheat to 325 degrees. Seat a wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet.
Place the turkey, breast side up, on the rack. Roast for 3½ hours, then carefully transfer the pan to the stove top (off the heat). Use tongs or paper towel-covered hands to extract the giblets and the neck, if you can, from the turkey. See NOTE, below.
(At this point, you can drape the optional soaked cheesecloth over the bird.)
Return the turkey to the oven. Roast for about 3½ to 4 more hours, during which time you can use a turkey baster to remove some of the pan juices, as needed, and cover the breast loosely with aluminum foil if it seems like it is browning too much. The turkey will be ready when the drumsticks feel loose in their sockets, and the temperature of the dark meat (taken away from the bone) registers 175 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.
Let it rest for at least 30 minutes, and up to 1½ hours, before carving. In the meantime, strain the pan juices through a fine-mesh strainer, into a tall liquid measuring cup, discarding any solids. Let sit for 10 minutes or until the fat separates into a layer at the top. Pour off as much as you would like, then season what’s left with a good pinch each of salt and pepper.
Pour the seasoned pan juices over the carved slices of meat. Serve warm.
VARIATION: Combine the melted butter and white wine in a mixing bowl, then add the cheesecloth and let it soak up all the liquid. About halfway through its cooking, and working as quickly as possible, carefully transfer the turkey (in its pan) to the stove top (off the heat). Drape the soaked cheesecloth evenly over the whole breast, then return the bird to the oven. Carefully remove the cheesecloth once the turkey is out of the oven, taking care not to tear the skin.
NOTE: Giblets enclosed in paper may be cooked further, separately. Those packed in food-safe plastic may be too mushy to use, depending on how you wish to use them.
More turkey talk from Food: