6 Steps to the Best Thanksgiving Turkey Ever

11/22/2016 11:35 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Photo by John Livingston.

The most popular food holiday of the year is nearly upon us. And that means high anxiety or gustatory bliss. Here are some simple tips to boost your T-Day performance.

From our barbecue family to yours, we wish you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

  1. Start with the best bird you can find, one that is labeled organic or "all natural." And this is very important: Make sure it's fresh, never frozen. If it's the former, it will have a USDA certification printed on the label. That designation protects you from unscrupulous retailers who thaw birds that have been frozen for 6 to 12 months and try to pass them off as "fresh."

  • Heritage breed birds have great flavor (not to mention trendy cache), but can cost double, or even triple the cost of the Broad Breasted White that has become emblematic of American Thanksgivings. If you do invest in a heritage breed, it's very important not to overcook it. Take it off the grill or smoker when the thigh meat reaches 160 degrees on an instant-read meat thermometer.
  • If you have acquired a frozen bird, be sure to thaw it properly. The safest way is in the refrigerator. Allow one day for every 4 pounds of turkey. If pressed for time, fill the kitchen sink with cold water and submerge the turkey, still in its wrapper. Change the water every 30 minutes to keep the bird cold. Allow about 30 minutes per pound. Never thaw a turkey in hot water or at room temperature. And don't forget to remove the giblets from both the main and neck cavities of the turkey before roasting. Yeah, I know this sounds obvious, but it's easy to forget the neck cavity.
  • The USDA no longer recommends washing raw turkey or other poultry under cold running water as the raw juices can travel up to 3 feet and contaminate your kitchen.
  • Amp up the juiciness of your bird by brining, injecting, or slipping seasoned butter under the skin.
  • Do not, I repeat, do not stuff your bird before smoking or grilling. For starters, the stuffing steams rather than browns. And it's hard to bring your stuffing up to a safe 165 degrees without overcooking the breast meat. Instead, pile the stuffing in a disposable aluminum pan and smoke-roast it at 350 degrees for about an hour. Great flavor and better crust.
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    Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Project Smoke on public television. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.