You put off buying a turkey until the day before Thanksgiving, and now there are none left. Or you missed your pre-dawn alarm and now you only have three hours until a noon lunch — and your turkey is still in its Butterball packaging in the refrigerator. Or you weren’t planning on making turkey at all, but suddenly your entire family is clamoring for a traditional holiday spread.
‘Tis the season for best-laid plans going haywire. There’s only so much you can do to avoid last-minute kitchen catastrophes when you’re cooking Thanksgiving dinner, and even the most experienced home cooks will encounter a mini fiasco now and then. When it comes to the centerpiece of your meal, however, there’s no need to worry. It’s possible to put delicious turkey on the table under almost any circumstances — even if you only have an hour to do it.
Keep in mind a few safety tips, however. Just because you’re rushed doesn’t mean it’s OK to cut corners. Your family would rather wait an extra 30 minutes to eat than risk food poisoning. Your turkey should be 165 degrees Fahrenheit at the thickest area of the thigh before pulling it from the oven. The USDA also recommends cooking your stuffing outside the turkey for safety reasons, but provides estimated cooking times for both stuffed and unstuffed birds.
When you simply don’t have the five hours to cook a stuffed, 20-pound turkey, there are some alternatives that are just as delicious. Get Thanksgiving on the table without breaking a sweat using these recipes.
1. Frozen turkey
We’ll start with the most clichéd Thanksgiving problem: You have a whole turkey, but it hasn’t thawed in time. Or worse yet, it’s still in your freezer where you forgot all about it. If you still have a few hours until the Thanksgiving meal, it’s possible to cook your turkey without an issue. Plus, the USDA says there’s no safety concern for doing so. The Kitchn offers a simple tutorial for roasting your frozen bird. You might want to send out a warning about delayed lunch, however: Frozen turkeys take about 50% longer to cook than a thawed bird.
- 1 frozen or partially thawed turkey
- Melted butter
- Additional herbs or seasonings as desired
Directions: Heat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Place a rack in the bottom third of the oven.
Unwrap the turkey and place it on top of a roasting rack inside a roasting pan. Don’t try to remove the giblets or season the turkey right now.
Roast for 2½ hours. Try not to open the oven door or let out too much heat. After 2 ½ hours, your turkey should just be starting to turn golden.
Check the temperature: This temperature check is just to get a reference point for how quickly the turkey is cooking. At this point, the breast and thighs will likely be in the low 100-degree range.
The turkey should be thawed enough at this point that you can remove any trussing mechanisms. Check the neck cavity and remove the bag of giblets if you see it. Check the cavity of the turkey for the neck or giblets, and remove them if you can. If you can’t get to the giblets, or if the giblets are still frozen inside the turkey’s cavity, continue roasting, but check every 30 minutes to see if you can remove the giblets. Be careful — the turkey is still mostly frozen, but the juices around the surface are hot.
Tuck the wings behind the turkey: You can also leave them untucked — either way is fine. Brush the turkey with melted butter. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and any other seasonings you’d like to use. Rub in the spices with your fingers.
Tip the turkey to pour out any juices: Juices tend to collect inside the cavity of the turkey as they melt. Lift the roasting rack and tilt the turkey so these juices pour out into the pan.
Refer to The Kitchn’s chart for estimated total roasting times. Check the temperature in the breast and thigh meat every hour or so to gauge how fast it’s cooking, and tilt the pan to pour out any juices. Brush the turkey with more butter if you’d like. If the skin over the breasts is browning more than you like, cover loosely with foil. If the pan starts looking very dry or if the drippings start looking burnt, add a few cups of water or broth.
Cook until the turkey registers at least 165 degrees in all areas: The breast meat is the thickest part of the turkey and will cook the slowest. The middle of the turkey, closest to the bone, will also be the last to cook through; the temperature may be well above 165 degrees close to the surface, but below temperature deeper in the meat. Make sure you take the temperature in multiple places and also at multiple depths in the meat, making sure to avoid hitting the bone, to be sure you’re getting an accurate temperature reading throughout.
Rest the turkey for 30 minutes. Carve the turkey and serve.
2. Stuffed Turkey Breasts with Butternut Squash and Figs
If you’re truly in crunch time, your best friend becomes the turkey breast. It cooks relatively quickly, is still large enough to serve several people, and can be stuffed with all kinds of delicious flavors associated with autumn. In this case, the blogger at Skinny Taste stuffs hers with squash and figs, though she notes pears or apples can be substituted for the figs in a pinch. With a few easy steps, you’ll have turkey on the table in less than an hour.
- 2 boneless turkey tenderloins
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon light olive oil
- 1 small white onion, chopped
- 1¼ cups diced butternut squash, ½-inch dice
- 5 black mission figs, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 cup baby spinach
- 3 sage leaves, chopped
- ¼ teaspoon crushed black pepper
- Cooking twine — 6 to 8 pieces
- Cooking spray
Directions: Add olive oil to a large skillet on medium-high heat. Add onions and sauté for 2 minutes or until golden. Add squash and 2 tablespoons of water and cover, cooking on low for 10 minutes. Uncover and add figs, garlic, spinach, salt, sage, and pepper; then cook an additional 3 to 4 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Cut a slit into the sides of the tenderloins, taking care not to cut all the way through. Season the inside and outside with salt. Then, stuff each breast with about ¾ cup of the squash and fig mixture. Cut cooking twine long enough to tie each breast with 3 to 4 pieces of string, then cut off extra twine.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, then lightly spray skillet with cooking spray. Sear each stuffed turkey breast on three sides, omitting the end with the stuffing. Cover your skillet with foil and place in the center of the oven, or transfer turkey to a baking dish if your skillet is not oven proof. Roast for 30 to 35 minutes.
Allow turkey to rest for 5 minutes before cutting twine and slicing each turkey breast into 4 slices to serve.
3. Rosemary and Thyme Turkey Breast Cutlets
Regardless of whether you’re making chicken or turkey, a cutlet is one of the fastest cooking cuts. You’ll have turkey ready in no time (we’re talking less than 30 minutes here) with this recipe from I Wash You Dry, which could be a lifesaver for a rushed Thanksgiving meal. The bonus on this one is that you’ll spend just a few minutes cooking the turkey, but the rest of your efforts go into making a delicious white wine sauce to go over the top.
- 1 pound thinly sliced turkey breast cutlets
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ¼ cup white wine
- 4 tablespoons butter, cut into 4 pieces
- ⅓ cup chicken broth
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
Directions: Heat a large cast-iron skillet or other heavy skillet over medium heat, then add olive oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan.
Season the turkey cutlets with salt and pepper on both sides. Once the pan is hot, add the cutlets and sear for about 1 minute on each side. Remove from the pan, covering on a plate to keep the turkey warm. This can be done in batches if the skillet can’t hold all the turkey at once.
Once the turkey is removed, pour in the white wine and use a spatula to scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen all of the browned bits. Allow the liquid to reduce, then lower the temperature to medium low and add the butter, stirring until the butter is melted and fully combined. Add in the chicken broth, rosemary, and thyme, and simmer for about 2 minutes.
Add the turkey back to the pan, along with any juices that collected at the bottom of the plate. Cover the turkey with the sauce and simmer for a few more minutes, until the turkey is heated through. Serve immediately.
4. Three-Hour Roast Turkey with Gravy
If you still have the luxury of a few hours to roast your turkey, you’re in luck. You won’t have the picture-perfect full turkey your family members might expect, but butchering the turkey a bit before sticking it in a pan ensures the turkey cooks evenly, and in less time. A popular method for doing this is called spatchcocking, a term that sounds dirty but is really just a culinary word for butterflying the bird. You remove the backbone, then lay the bird flat in a roasting pan. (For a true shortcut, ask your butcher to spatchcock the bird before you even take it out of the store.) Today shares a recipe and full instructions, along with a few photos to make sure you’re on the right track.
- One 12-13 pound turkey
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 2 tablespoons chopped chives
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 medium onion, sliced
- 1 large carrot, thinly sliced
- 1 head garlic, halved horizontally
- ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 4 cups turkey stock, preferably homemade or low sodium chicken broth, warmed
Directions: Place the turkey breast side down on a cutting board. Wedge some moist paper towels on either side of the breast to keep the bird from rocking.
Using a sharp knife, make an incision on either side of the backbone, about 2-inches apart. These lines will guide you when removing the backbone.
Using sturdy kitchen shears, cut out the backbone, following the lines created with the knife. You will have to use both hands to cut through some of the bigger bones, so it’s very important the bird is secure.
Once the backbone is removed, open the turkey like a book. Flip the turkey and using both hands, press the breast at the thickest part, using your body weight to crack the breast bone and flatten the bird.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and place the rack nearest the bottom. Working from the neck end, slip your fingers under the breast skin, being careful not to tear it or separate it completely near the bottom. In a small bowl, mash the butter with the chives and 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper.
Slip the herb butter under the skin. Season the turkey on both sides with salt and pepper and place it on a rack. Scatter the onion, carrot and garlic on a large rimmed baking sheet and place the rack with turkey on top.
Place the pan in the oven and add 2 cups of water. Roast the turkey for 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 350 degrees and roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh, breast and wing joint reads 165 degrees, about 2 hours longer. Tent the turkey with foil during cooking if the skin browns too quickly and replenish the water to prevent the vegetables from scorching.
Transfer the turkey to a cutting board while you make the gravy. Carefully strain the liquid into a heatproof cup. Ladle 3 tablespoons of the fat into a saucepan and add the flour. Discard the remaining fat. Whisk the flour mixture over moderately high heat until sizzling about 4 minutes. Whisk in the stock and strained, defatted pan juices and bring to a boil. Simmer over moderate heat until thickened, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Carve the turkey and serve with hot gravy.
5. Apple Cider-Braised Turkey Drumsticks
If your family fights over the drumsticks more than anything else, take a shortcut and braise a bunch of those instead of making the rest of the turkey. Braising is the term used when you brown or sear meat lightly, then stew it more slowly until it cooks through. You’ll have this recipe from Food & Wine ready in less than 2 hours, but the true miracle is that you can make it mostly ahead of time, warming right before serving. If your oven is competing for room on Thanksgiving, this will save you a little space. Plus, braising ensures the meat won’t dry out — a common complaint among even the most loyal turkey enthusiasts.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 4 (2-pound) turkey drumsticks
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 cup diced celery
- 1 cup diced carrot
- 2 cups diced onion
- 1 quart apple cider
- 1½ cups turkey stock, chicken stock or low-sodium broth
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 thyme sprigs
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Directions: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. In a very large deep skillet, heat the oil until shimmering. Season the drumsticks with salt and pepper, add them to the skillet and cook over moderate heat, turning, until browned all over, about 8 minutes. Transfer the drumsticks to a platter.
Add the celery, carrot, onion and a pinch of each salt and pepper to the skillet and cook over moderate heat until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the cider, stock, bay leaves and thyme and bring to a boil. Pour the mixture into a large roasting pan. Add the drumsticks and cover tightly with foil. Braise the turkey in the oven for 45 minutes. Uncover and braise for 15 to 20 minutes longer, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 160 degrees. Carve the drumsticks and transfer the meat to a deep serving platter.
Strain the braising liquid through a fine-mesh strainer into a medium saucepan, pressing hard on the solids. Spoon off any fat. Boil over moderately high heat until reduced to 4 cups. Season the cider jus with salt and pepper and spoon some of it over the turkey. Sprinkle with the parsley. Serve remaining alongside gravy boat.
Make ahead: The drumsticks can be prepared through Step 2 and refrigerated. Reheat gently before proceeding.
6. Boneless Stuffed Turkey Breast
If you would like to go the stuffed turkey breast route but don’t care for butternut squash or figs, this more traditional stuffing from chef Andrew Zimmern saves the day. This recipe requires a bit of preparation, including roasting chestnuts for your from-scratch stuffing. However, you’ll still be able to have a main dish for six to eight people in about two hours, which isn’t too shabby for hosting Thanksgiving.
- 1 (4- to 5-pound) boneless breast of turkey (both breast lobes attached, skin on)
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 6 sage leaves, chopped fine
- 1 recipe stuffing
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon paprika
For the stuffing
- 12 to 14 chestnuts
- 1 cup celery, minced
- 1 cup onion, minced
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
- 4 ounces chicken livers
- 3 tablespoons melted butter
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 6 cups dried bread cubes for stuffing
- 2 teaspoons dried sage
- 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
Directions: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Make an incision about ⅛-inch deep through each chestnut shell, just into the flesh of the nut, and work your way almost around its circumference. After slitting the shells, transfer the chestnuts to a rimmed baking pan, and roast them in a 350-degree oven for about 35 minutes. While the chestnuts are hot, remove and discard each shell and the papery skin. Chop the chestnuts.
Mince the celery, onion and parsley. Set aside. Mince the chicken livers very fine. Combine the chestnuts, celery, onion, parsley, liver, butter, cream, bread cubes and spices in a large mixing bowl and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside.
To prepare the turkey, place it skin-side down on a cutting board and slice open the middle of each breast, cutting away from the center. Your knife will be parallel to the cutting board, slicing toward the outer edges of the roast. You are opening up the breast meat to even out the thickness of each breast. The new meat flaps should open up from the middle of each breast like pages of a book folding out to each side.
Season with the thyme, sage, salt and pepper.
Place stuffing on the breast and fold the edges of the turkey over the stuffing. You should have a football-shaped piece of turkey. (Zimmern’s site provides a sample photo.) Flip to skin-side up. Roll and tie turkey with butcher’s twine. Rub the turkey with butter and season with salt and paprika. Transfer to a rack in a large pan. Roast for about 1 hour.
Raise temperature to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and continue roasting until internal temperature of the meat is 160 degrees. Keep an eye on your roast, this may not take as long as you think. Let rest for 10 minutes, slice and serve.
7. Butter Roasted Turkey Breasts
Stuffing the turkey breast is well and fine, but it means adding cooking time and extra prep work. If you’re already planning to make your stuffing on the side, this recipe for butter-roasted turkey breasts from Epicurious will still serve 8 people, without much fuss at all. Best yet, the turkey will be cooked in an hour or less. One thing to note: Since you’re not cooking the entire turkey, Epicurious suggests roasting the turkey until it reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, instead of 165. That slightly lower temperature will mean the turkey retains some its moisture so it doesn’t become too dry.
- 2 skin-on, bone-in turkey breasts
- ½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
- Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
- 6 sprigs thyme
- 4 sprigs rosemary
- 1 head of garlic, cloves peeled, crushed
Directions: Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Gently loosen skin from turkey breasts and rub butter under skin and all over outside of breasts; season with salt and pepper.
Scatter thyme sprigs, rosemary sprigs, and garlic over a large rimmed baking sheet and arrange turkey breasts, skin side up, on top. Roast turkey breasts, turning halfway through, until skin is crisp and golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of breasts registers 160 degrees, 45 to 55 minutes.
Transfer turkey breasts to a platter and let rest 10 minutes before carving. Serve turkey breasts with pan drippings alongside.