So this year, you鈥檙e in charge of the true star of Thanksgiving: the turkey. Even seasoned cooks struggle to make their bird into a crisp, golden centerpiece. You may have mastered the art of spectacular stuffing or a fabulous pumpkin pie, but everything changes the first time you host the meal yourself. If anyone knows how to perfectly prep and roast a bird, it鈥檚 Heidi Diestel, a fourth-generation turkey farmer at Diestel Turkey Ranch. Read on for her most essential turkey tips.

Choosing Your Turkey

Being a turkey farmer, Diestel is picky about what her family eats at Thanksgiving. 鈥淚 recommend looking for birds that are antibiotic free and have been vegetarian fed. It鈥檚 also best to seek out options that have nothing added to them, i.e. no salt solutions or fillers,鈥 she tells us. The most important thing is buying the best turkey you can afford. Diestel says that the extra $1-$2 per pound really makes a difference. The bird will have a richer flavor, better texture, and more meat-to-bone ratio. If you want to go really gourmet, you can seek out an heirloom or heritage-breed turkey.

Stocking the Kitchen

There are a couple of special cooking tools that you might want to purchase for your first Thanksgiving turkey. Diestel recommends:

A roasting pan with a rack: This is the most essential item 鈥 a roasting pan large enough to fit your turkey. And make sure it comes with a roasting rack. 鈥淎 roasting rack is great to use because it allows air to circulate around the whole bird while it roasts, resulting in perfectly golden, crispy skin,鈥 says Diestel.

A carving set: 鈥淧urchase items like a nice carving set, which can be passed down throughout generations,鈥 she advises.

Plastic or glass containers: 鈥淒on鈥檛 forget to have enough containers for leftovers!鈥 Diestel says. 鈥淲hen my family celebrates Thanksgiving, we typically roast a 30+ pound bird for our group of 10-15 people, which leaves us with a lot of delicious turkey to enjoy over the next few days.鈥

Thawing聽the bird

If you buy a frozen turkey, you need to plan ahead to make sure it鈥檚 properly thawed before you pop it in the oven 鈥 otherwise, it won鈥檛 cook evenly. Keep the turkey in its plastic packaging and place it in the fridge.

Here are the USDA鈥檚 recommended refrigerator thawing times:

4 to 12 pounds 鈥 1 to 3 days

12 to 16 pounds 鈥 3 to 4 days

16 to 20 pounds 鈥 4 to 5 days

Once your turkey is thawed, it should be cooked within two days. But if you鈥檝e been checking your turkey and realize it won鈥檛 be fully thawed in time for your meal, Diestel recommends using the cold water bath method to thaw it. 鈥淪ubmerge the turkey (in its original bag) in cold tap water 鈥 Allow about 30 minutes per pound. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed, and cook the turkey immediately after it鈥檚 thawed,鈥 adds Diestel.

Seasoning Your Turkey

Diestel suggests keeping the seasoning on your first turkey simple; once you become a turkey pro, you can experiment. She uses a mixture of olive oil, paprika, and salt. Rub it into the skin and the cavity of the bird before it goes into the oven.

Roasting it right

Diestel recommends a simple roast to let the flavor of the meat shine through. Here鈥檚 her family鈥檚 foolproof method:

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove thawed turkey from the bag. After removing the neck and giblets from the body cavities, pat the inside and outside of the bird dry with paper towels. If you choose to stuff your bird, this would be the time to do so.

2. Rub the exterior of the turkey with a blend of your favorite herbs and spices. Place the turkey in an open roasting pan fitted with a rack, breast side up. Cover the bottom of the pan with approximately two cups of water or broth. Place your turkey in the oven.

3. There鈥檚 no need to turn the bird while roasting, as it will brown to a rich, golden color. A foil tent can be placed loosely over the turkey during the last hour of roasting to prevent over-browning. When the turkey reaches the desired internal temperature (minimum of 165 degrees Fahrenheit), remove from the oven.

Remember, don鈥檛 baste your turkey throughout the cooking process, as it can make the skin soggy, not crispy. That said, doing so once can give you great gravy. 鈥淲e always say that the key to a fabulous gravy is basting the bird with a hearty white wine about half to three-fourths of the way through the roasting time,鈥 Diestel says. 鈥淭he wine gives the gravy a fantastic base flavor.鈥

Once the bird is out of the oven, let it rest for 20-30 minutes before carving. 鈥淭his allows time for the juices to seal within the meat and makes for a delicious finished product,鈥 she explains.

Equipped with these tips, cooking your first turkey doesn鈥檛 have to be so daunting.

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(Photo via Diestel)