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How to Cook a Turkey: Our Easy, No-Fail Method

Updated September 25, 2018
Roasted Turkey
You’ll be the host with the most when you use our tips and tricks for cooking a turkey. Don’t stress. You’ve got this. MORE+ LESS-

So, you’ve been nominated as this year’s Turkey Day host. (Or maybe you volunteered? Awesome. It really is refreshing to not pack up and drive for a one-day event.) Now what? Follow our quick how-to for tips and tricks so you can skip the stress and get straight to enjoying friends, family and YOUR fine food!

Picking a Turkey

Fresh Versus Frozen While it can be argued a fresh, never-been-frozen turkey is superior, it’s not the most critical piece of turkey prep. If your turkey is well seasoned and properly cooked no one will know the difference—so pick one that works for you. A fresh turkey can be kept in the refrigerator for one to two days before serving, so it’s your best bet if you’re planning on preparing it soon. Frozen turkeys take some time to defrost, but have the benefit of keeping longer: Turkeys can be frozen for up to 12 months and are readily available at your grocer year ‘round.

Amount per Person More critical is the size of your turkey. It’s best to plan for one pound of uncooked turkey per person. This allows enough for your table plus a few leftovers—which is especially nice at Thanksgiving. (Turkeys can weigh anywhere from eight to 24 pounds.)

It’s All About the Prep

Defrosting You should ALWAYS thaw a frozen turkey in the refrigerator—for a max of four to five days. (See our handy table below for how long to thaw your bird.) Leaving on the counter or in a sink full of water to thaw is a quick way to get food poisoning. No thank you. Another tip: Keeping the turkey in its store packaging is great for defrosting. The wrapping it comes in is designed to keep bacteria out and freshness in.

How Long to Thaw a Turkey

Turkey Size Defrost Time
8 - 12 pounds 1 - 2 days
12 - 16 pounds 2 - 3 days
16 - 20 pounds 3 - 4 days
20 - 24 pounds 4 - 5 days

Brining Brining is a great shortcut to adding a burst of flavor to any cut of meat, not just your Thanksgiving turkey. Here’s all you need to know about how to brine a turkey.

Dry It Out Also of critical importance is drying out the turkey. This ensures you get a nice crispy skin during roasting. If you’re jumping ahead and not brining the turkey (no judgment!) unwrap the turkey and remove the giblets. Check both the neck and end cavity. Then you can simply pat dry with paper towels. No need to rinse. For extra-crispness, refrigerate uncovered overnight.

Now, if you’re one of those types who doesn’t like skin, you should still leave it on and pat try. The skin serves as a protective layer to keep your breast meat tender and moist. Simply remove the skin before serving.

If you’re dry brining, your turkey should be ready for the next step.

Stuffing We’re a big fan of skipping this step for a few reasons. 1. Stuffing doesn’t add much flavor to the turkey and can even skew your turkey roasting results: Sometimes the turkey is overcooked by the time your stuffing reaches a food-safe 165°F. It takes a while! 2. Stuffing from inside the turkey is often soggy. 3. You always need more stuffing than is able to fit inside the turkey.

If you must stuff, consider some rough-chopped aromatics: an onion, apple or citrus like lemon or orange. While you won’t eat it, the addition will lend some flavor to your turkey.

Instead, try our oven-free slow-cooker stuffing. Life changing.

How to Roast a Turkey

Now, there are many ways to cook a turkey but our favorite, by far, is a simple roast. Here’s how we do it with an 18-pound turkey.

Move oven rack to lowest position. Heat oven to 325°F. Place turkey breast side up in a shallow roasting pan, on a rack if you have one. If you’re using a disposable aluminum roasting pan, place that on top of a cookie sheet for extra support.

Using fingers, gently loosen skin covering turkey breast and thighs.

Loosen sin covering turkey breat and thighs

Spread ¼ cup of softened butter evenly under skin.

Spread softened butter under skin

Season the Turkey In a small bowl, combine some simple seasonings. You probably already have these on hand: 1 tablespoon garlic salt, 1 tablespoon dried oregano, 1 tablespoon dried rosemary, 1 ½ teaspoons ground mustard and ½ teaspoon ground red pepper or cayenne. Rub dry mixture all over turkey.

Now tuck the wings underneath the back of the turkey. If it looks like your turkey is going to sunbathe in the oven you’ve done it right. At this point you could truss (tie) together your turkey legs with twine or butcher’s string to create a more compact shape. Some say this helps the turkey cook more evenly. Our bird actually came this way. (If you’re short on time, skip the trussing step!)

Rub dry seasoning mixture over turkey

Drizzle 2 tablespoons of oil over your turkey.

At this point, insert an ovenproof meat thermometer so tip is in thickest part of inside thigh muscle and does not touch bone. This is our favorite way to ensure the turkey is cooked. The pop-up timers aren’t always accurate and a regular meat thermometer takes time to insert and remove—which can influence (delay) your cooking time.

Roast the Turkey Now, you’re ready for the oven! Roast the turkey uncovered 2 hours. If you’ve trussed the turkey, you can remove it at this point to allow the inside of the thighs to cook thoroughly and evenly. Roast for an additional 2 hours 15 minutes to 2 hours 45 minutes OR until thermometer reads 165°F and legs move easily when lifted or twisted.

Keep an eye on it. If the skin is browning up too quickly at any point, cover the turkey loosely with foil to prevent over browning. Remember, our oven is set at what might seem like a low 325°F. It’s always best to start at a low temperature with a longer cook time. Not only will your turkey will stay more moist at this temperature, but the lower heat also makes it easier to control if the skin crisps or darkens more quickly in spots. If the skin isn’t getting crispy enough for your liking, you can always finish with a quick burst of heat at the end without drying out the meat.

Once your thermometer reads 165°F, you can remove the turkey from the oven. Tent with aluminum foil and let stand 15 minutes before carving to let the juices evenly redistribute.

These instructions are for an 18-pound turkey. Follow this chart for roasting instructions based on the size of your turkey.

 Whole Turkey (not stuffed) Oven Temp. 325ºF
 Weight  Roasting Time Internal Temp.
 8-12 lbs  2.75-3 hrs  165ºF
 12-14 lbs  3-3.75 hrs  165ºF
 14-18 lbs  3.75-4.25 hrs  165ºF
 18-20 lbs  4.25-4.5 hrs  165ºF
 20-24 lbs  4.5-5 hrs  165ºF

Roast Turkey

Other Ways to Cook Turkey

While roasting is the most traditional way to cook a turkey, sometimes you want to shake things up. Maybe you’re short on time? Short on oven space? Or maybe you’re just cooking for a few people. Here are other methods worth trying.

How to Carve a Turkey

Now that your turkey is cooked, it’s time to serve it up! Here’s the quick run-down of how to do it.

Step 1. Separate the white and dark meats.
While pulling leg away from body, cut to separate the drumstick from the breast. Repeat on the opposite side. Lift the breast while holding down the legs to separate the top from the bottom. Use one firm cut through the backbone to cut your turkey in half.

Separate the white and dark meat

Step 2. Carve the leg and thigh meat.
Now you can pull the thigh away from the leg and cut on the joint to separate. Remove the thigh bone from the underside of the meat. With the skin-side up, cut into slices.

Carve the leg and thigh meat

Step 3. Carve the breast meat.
Cut alongside the ribcage to remove the breast and tenderloin in one large piece. Hold the skin in place as you cut into slices.

Carve the breast meat

For even more turkey carving tips and photos, read How To Carve a Turkey. You’ll look like a seasoned pro in no time!

The whole process can get kind of messy, so we recommend carving in the kitchen before serving. Have your platter nearby, so you can add pieces as you go.

Carved turkey

Now for the best part: eating! Don’t forget some of our favorite turkey companions:

What To Do With Leftovers (If You Have Any)

If you plan on a pound of uncooked meat per person, you shouldn’t have much turkey left over. BUT, you can always plan on the generous side so you DO have some extra turkey for next-day enjoyment. Here are some of our favorite ways to keep the turkey party going.