How to Cook a Turkey

We are right here with a detailed guide to preparing perfect roast turkey, starting with which turkey to buy and ending with the best way to store leftovers.

Congrats, you’ve already taken the first step towards a perfect turkey: doing your research. Here, Food Network rounds up the most important tips for cooking a juicy bird with crispy, golden skin. Start by peeking at our cheat sheet immediately following this paragraph. There you’ll find some quick answers to questions we know are top of mind.

Turkey Cheat Sheet

  • How Much Meat Per Person? 1 to 1 1/2 pounds turkey per person
  • How Long Does It Take to Thaw a Turkey? 24 hours per every 5 pounds
  • How Much Salt Goes In Brine? 3/4 cup kosher salt for every gallon of water needed to cover the bird
  • How Long to Brine a Turkey? 8-plus hours in the refrigerator
  • How Long to Roast a Turkey? 20 minutes per pound
  • At What Temperature Is Turkey Cooked? The thigh meat and stuffing (if used) should register 165 degrees F
  • How Long to Rest a Turkey? 30 minutes before carving

Which Turkey Should You Buy?

Seven different types of turkey staring at you in the supermarket can be confusing, we get it.

  • Size: Smaller birds – under ten pounds – tend to be more tender than larger ones, and they also cook more evenly. If you are feeding a big crowd, it’s better to cook two smaller birds than one large one.
  • Fresh or frozen: According to the National Turkey Federation, “There is no quality difference between a fresh and frozen turkey.” It all comes down to whether or not you have time to thaw the bird.
  • Basted or Self-Basting: These birds are injected or marinated with a solution of fat, stock and spices, which increases the moisture in the meat but also can mask the natural flavor of the bird. You don’t need to brine these birds.
  • Free-Range/Free Roaming/Cage Free: Because these birds have access to outdoor space and can move around, they develop some muscle, leading to more robustly flavored and complex-tasting meat.
  • Kosher: These birds have been killed according to Jewish dietary laws, salted from the inside out, soaked and washed. The salt pulls out moisture from the meat, making for denser meat and full flavor. These birds are often more expensive than non-kosher turkeys and don’t need to be brined.
  • Natural: This simply means that the meat hasn’t come into contact with artificial or synthetic ingredients.
  • Organic: Although these birds are more expensive than others, many regard them as having the fullest flavor. That’s because they’re raised without chemicals, antibiotics, roughage fillers, chemical fertilizers and pesticides – and they’re free range.

How to Thaw a Turkey

Allow for 24 hours of thawing time per every 5 pounds. This means that for a 20 pound turkey, you need four whole days. Make some room in the bottom of the fridge – you never want to thaw a turkey on a shelf above other food, lest some raw turkey juice drip down and cause contamination. Set an unwrapped frozen turkey on a rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan, slide it into the fridge onto that cleared bottom shelf and then let it sit.

What to Do If Your Turkey Is Still Frozen

To thaw the same day, submerge the wrapped bird in a cooler of cold water for 30 minutes per pound, changing the water every 30 minutes.

If you’re quick thawing a bigger bird, that can still mean a lot of thawing time. And if you don’t have the time, you *can* roast (but never fry) a frozen bird. Simply cook it at a lower heat – specifically 325 degrees F – for 50% more cooking time than your recipe calls for. You want a lower temperature so the turkey doesn’t burn on the outside before it’s cooked through on the inside. After about 3 hours of roasting, remove the turkey from the oven, discard the giblet bag, season the skin thoroughly with salt and pepper and brush it with butter. Return the turkey to the oven and start checking its internal temperature for doneness at the 7-hour mark.

How to Brine a Turkey

If you’re roasting a kosher or self-basting turkey, stop right there: you shouldn’t brine these birds, they’re seasoned enough on their own.

But for all other types of turkey, brining seasons and tenderizes the meat all the way through. Curious about how exactly brining works its magic?

There are two main kinds of brining, wet brining and dry brining. Choose what’s best for you.

Wet Brining

Here, the whole bird is submerged in a flavorful salt solution.

Pros: Moist, succulent meat, short brining time – just 12 to 24 hours

Cons: Skin tends to be less crisp than dry brining, the process requires lots of dedicated fridge space

  1. Add the brining mixture – 1 tablespoon of kosher salt per quart of liquid – to a pot or container that’s large enough to hold the brine and the turkey. Flavor the brine with 1 to 2 cups of juice, beer or spirits, if desired. You can also add herbs and spices.
  2. Submerge the turkey and transfer the container to the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours.
  3. Remove the turkey from the brine, rinse it inside and out with cold water and pat it dry. At this point, you can let the turkey rest uncovered in the fridge for up to 1 day so the skin dries out and becomes crispier in the oven.

Drbouz/Getty Images

Dry Brining

A salt-spice mixture is rubbed all over the surface of the turkey’s skin.

Pros: Crisp skin and juicy meat, the brine penetrates slowly so there’s no risk of the meat becoming mealy, the process doesn’t take up much space in the fridge

Cons: Takes longer than a wet brine

  1. Dry off the turkey with paper towels.
  2. Make a seasoning blend: ¾ teaspoon kosher salt and ¼ teaspoon baking powder per pound of turkey (the baking powder helps crisp the skin), plus your favorite herbs and spices.
  3. Rub the blend all over the whole bird.
  4. Refrigerate the uncovered bird on a baking sheet or in a roasting pan for 24 to 72 hours; pat the bird dry before roasting.

Matt Armendariz, 2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

How to Prep a Turkey

If you brined your turkey, pat it off if you dry brined it or rinse it inside and out with cold water if you wet brined it. Remove the giblets – they’ll be in a little sack stuffed inside the turkey. You’ll want to let the turkey stand for 30 minutes at room temperature before roasting; this will help the bird cook more evenly, yielding juicier meat.

How to Tuck Turkey Wings

If you don’t tuck turkey wings, they’ll burn. Place the turkey breast-side up with the legs pointing towards you. Then all you do is turn the wings around so the tips point towards the front of the bird and tuck the tips down underneath the turkey. The weight of the turkey will hold them in place.

How to Truss a Turkey

Trussing helps the breast and thighs cook at the same rate and gives the turkey a plump, appealing shape. Place the turkey breast-side up with the legs pointing towards you.

Wrap the center of long piece of butcher’s twine around the neck once to attach it to the turkey. You’ll now have two ends of string attached to the turkey’s neck. Draw each piece backwards on top of the wings to pin them to the turkey’s sides. Pull the ends tightly together behind the breastplate and tie them in a knot there. Now cross the legs together, tightly wrap the twine around them twice, tie the twine in a knot and cut off any remaining long ends.

Matt Armendariz, 2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

How to Season a Turkey

Transfer the turkey to whatever vessel you’ll be roasting it in. Generously sprinkle kosher salt and black pepper all over the turkey, inside and out. Consider adding flavor by loosely filling the cavity with aromatic vegetables — carrots, celery, onion or garlic work nicely — or by carefully tucking fresh herbs underneath the breast skin. Brush the turkey all over with a fat like olive oil or melted butter.

How to Cook a Turkey

There are many ways to cook a turkey. Some people prefer a roasting pan, while others advocate that a sheet tray allows for better crisping and air circulation. Some like to spatchcock their turkey in order to reduce the cooking time. Here, we focus on the simplest, most classic technique possible.

  1. Preheat the oven. Adjust an oven rack to the lowest position and preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
  2. Stuff the turkey if you wish. Fill the cavity loosely with stuffing – ½ to ¾ cup stuffing per pound of turkey.
  3. Tent the seasoned bird with foil. If you followed the steps above in our section on how to prep a turkey, at this point your bird will be dried off, trussed, seasoned, brushed with oil and resting in its roasting pan. All you have to do now is put a layer of foil over the top of the roasting pan, which will shield the turkey from burning.
  4. Roast the turkey for 2 hours. Resist the urge to peak, and if possible, roast the turkey all on its own without other sides in the oven.
  5. Remove the foil and baste the bird. Brush the turkey all over again with olive oil or butter. Increase the oven temperature to 425 degrees F. Increasing the temperature during the last bit of cooking time will make for extra crispy turkey skin.
  6. Cook until the juices run clear when you cut between the leg and the thigh. This will be for about 45 more minutes (2 hours 45 minutes total) for an 8 to 10 pound turkey. If you stuffed your bird, you’ll need to add a bit more time on because stuffing makes the bird cook more slowly. Make sure the stuffing reaches a temperature of 165 degrees F in the deepest part.
  7. Remove the turkey from the oven and rest for 15 to 30 minutes. Leave it tented with foil as it rests. If there’s stuffing inside, leave it in the bird while it rests.

How Long Should You Cook a Turkey?

How long you cook your turkey depends on the weight of the turkey and whether it is stuffed or unstuffed. However, one thing’s for certain: turkey is done cooking when an instant read thermometer registers 165 degrees F (read on below for more info on taking your turkey’s temperature). As a general rule of thumb, plan on about 20 minutes of cooking time per pound of turkey. An 8 to 12 pound unstuffed turkey typically takes 2 3/4 to 3 hours to roast in a 325 degrees F oven. For an extensive chart that includes turkey weights and cooking times for stuffed and un-stuffed birds, check out our article How Long to Cook a Turkey.

OKRAD/Getty Images

Where to Put a Thermometer In a Turkey

An instant read digital thermometer is your best friend when it comes to taking your turkey’s temperature. Don’t have one?

First, remove the turkey from the oven and close the door so no heat escapes. Now insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh near where the turkey breast begins. Make sure the thermometer doesn’t hit the bone. If it hits the bone, you’ll get an inaccurate reading, so start over. Once the thigh meat registers 165 degrees F, your turkey is done.

How to Make Turkey Gravy

A good time to make your gravy? While the turkey is resting. We’ve detailed some simple steps for you, but if you’d like to customize your gravy further, head over to our guide How to Make Perfect Gravy. If you’re short on time, you can also make gravy in the microwave.

  1. Pour the turkey pan drippings into a fat separator or measuring cup. If you’re not making the gravy in the roasting pan, you’ll want to deglaze the pan with some warm stock and rub up all the caramelized bits on the bottom. Pour this through the fat separator too.
  2. Spoon off the fat collected on top.
  3. Create a roux. Add turkey fat or butter to the roasting pan or saucepan. Then sprinkle flour over it in a 1:1 ratio of fat to flour. Cook, stirring constantly, until the roux is light brown and fragrant.
  4. Gradually whisk in hot stock. If you’re cooking in the roasting pan, rub the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to collect all the tasty caramelized bits on the bottom.
  5. Bring to a boil, reduce to low.
  6. Add the roasting juices from the fat separator.
  7. Simmer, whisking occasionally, until the gravy thickens. The gravy should coat the back of a spoon.
  8. Season the gravy and stir in other flavorings. Season the gravy with salt and pepper to taste. You can also add a dash of Worcestershire sauce, a splash of brandy or fresh herbs like thyme.
  9. Strain the gravy. This will get rid of any last bits of fat.

How to Carve a Turkey

By now, you should have rested your turkey, removed the stuffing and made your gravy. It’s time for carving. Want even more details, including step-by-step photos and a how-to video? Check out our guide, How to Carve a Turkey.

  1. Place the turkey on a cutting board, breast-side up.
  2. Remove the legs. Slice through the skin between the leg and body on one side; pull the leg away from the body, then cut through the joint to remove the leg. Repeat with the other leg.
  3. Separate the drumsticks from the thighs. Locate the joint in the middle of each leg and cut through it.
  4. Pull each wing away from the body and cut through the joint to remove.
  5. Remove the breast meat. Slice downward along the breastbone, following the curve of the ribs on each side.
  6. Place each breast on the board skin-side up and slice.

How to Store and Reheat Leftover Turkey

As soon as you’re done eating the big meal, it’s time to store your Thanksgiving leftovers (according to the USDA, leftovers should be stored within 2 hours of cooking). Carve the turkey from the bones and store it in shallow, covered containers for up to 4 days.

When reheating, warm up only what you’ll be eating rather than the entire portion to preserve moisture. We like to submerge the turkey in gravy and gently reheat it on the stove until it reaches 165 degrees F.

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