Cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner or a Sunday dinner doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Follow these basic steps for how to cook a turkey and you will enjoy a tender, juicy turkey without fail.
Whether it’s the first time or tenth time you are cooking a turkey, there is something that can be slightly intimidating about it. Will it be cooked in time? Am I going to have enough turkey? Will it be dry? Take a deep breath and be assured that you can do this! Follow this recipe along with the guidelines we’ve included, and you will be placing a flavorful, moist, and tender turkey on the kitchen table for all to admire.
To start off, here are some frequently asked questions to consider when purchasing a turkey, thawing a frozen turkey, and planning for cooking time.
How many pounds of turkey do I need?
This is a key question to ask when preparing a turkey for Thanksgiving or a Sunday dinner. You definitely don’t want to run out of turkey during dinner, and you need turkey leftovers for turkey sandwiches, turkey pot pie, and turkey noodle soup, right? A good rule of thumb when buying a turkey, if you want leftovers, is 1 1/2 pounds of turkey per person. This takes into account the weight of the bones, it’s not all meat weight. If you don’t want a lot of leftover turkey meat, estimate 1 pound of meat per person. I like leftover turkey, so if I’m serving 12 people at Thanksgiving dinner, I will buy an 18 pound turkey.
How long do I thaw a frozen turkey?
For food safety, and thorough cooking, a turkey should be completely thawed before it is cooked. To slow thaw a turkey, place it in the refrigerator for 3-6 days prior to cooking. The chart below shows when to thaw your turkey for Thanksgiving 2018.
What temperature to cook a turkey?
Low and slow is the name of the game when it comes to cooking a turkey. A lower heat and longer cooking time results in tender, juicy turkey meat that is worth the wait. We’ve found that 325 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for a Thanksgiving turkey. See the chart below for cooking time.
How long to cook a turkey?
This is the crucial question when preparing Thanksgiving dinner! Timing is everything! The cooking time depends on the size of the turkey, and it’s important to remember that all ovens are not created equal. This is why a meat thermometer is essential. This chart will help give you an idea of how long to cook your turkey, but keep in mind that all ovens are not created equal. Keep in mind that the turkey will also need to rest once it is out of the oven for 20-30 minutes. This allows the juices to distribute throughout the turkey before it is sliced. This will give you time to bake the rolls, make the gravy, and finish up side dishes.
Approximate Turkey Cooking Times from USDA
|Weight||Unstuffed Timing||Stuffed Timing|
|Whole turkey||8 to 12 pounds||2¾ to 3 hours||3 to 3½ hours|
|12 to 14 pounds||3 to 3¾ hours||3½ to 4 hours|
|14 to 18 pounds||3¾ to 4¼ hours||4 to 4¼ hours|
|18 to 20 pounds||4¼ to 4½ hours||4¼ to 4¾ hours|
|20 to 24 pounds||4½ to 5 hours||4¾ to 5¼ hours|
Meat Thermometer Guidelines from the National Turkey Federation
This is the recommendation from the National Turkey Federation for meat thermometer placement and internal temperatures:
Proper Placement of Meat Thermometer in Turkey
An important part of using any thermometer is the proper placement in the turkey.
- Insert the thermometer 2 1/2 inches in the deepest portion of the turkey breast or into the inner thigh near the breast.
- Make sure the thermometer does not touch a bone.
- When inserting the thermometer in the turkey breast, insert it from the side.
- The thermometer is easier to read and more accurate than when inserted from the top.
The internal temperature should reach:
- 165 degrees F to 170 degrees F in the breast
- 175 degrees F to 180 degrees F in the thigh and
- 165 degrees F in the center of the stuffing.
How to Make Turkey Gravy?
What is a delicious roasted turkey without the gravy? The gravy is the icing on the cake when it comes to turkey. The flavorful drippings from the turkey are what make the gravy! Use our Mom’s Famous Turkey Gravy recipe for the best tasting turkey gravy made from turkey drippings.
How to Cook a Turkey
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
- Remove turkey from packaging. Remove any giblets or gravy packets included with the turkey. Throw the neck and giblets away. Keep the gravy packet in the refrigerator until you make the gravy (see link for turkey gravy recipe in recipe notes).
- Rinse turkey well, inside and out, and pat dry (this is important so the butter will adhere to the turkey).
- Spray a shallow roasting pan with cooking spray. Add the chicken broth to the bottom of the pan then place the turkey on a wire rack inside the pan. Thick celery stocks and thick onion slices can be used instead of a wire rack (see next instruction step).
- If using an aluminum roasting pan, do not place the turkey directly on the aluminum. Place some thick celery stocks and thick onion slices in the bottom of the pan, and place the turkey on top of them. If the turkey is placed directly on the pan, the skin will stick to the bottom of the pan as the turkey cooks and the turkey will be difficult to remove from the pan.
- Tuck the wing tips under the bird so that they will not get too brown while cooking. This also looks much more appetizing.
- Melt butter and brush evenly over the turkey. Gently lift the skin and rub some of the butter under the skin layer.
- Combine the spices and rub them evenly over the buttered turkey.
- Make an aluminum foil "tent" to go over the entire turkey. Using a wide aluminum foil sheet, or two long sheets crimped together to form a wide sheet, loosely cover the entire turkey. Tuck the foil inside the roasting pan around the turkey so the condensation from the turkey drips from the foil back into the pan.
- Place the turkey in the oven and cook according to turkey package directions. Cooking time will vary according to the turkey size. See turkey cooking chart in post above. A meat thermometer is always recommended. A turkey is fully cooked when the internal temperature reaches 170 degrees.
- If the turkey has been "stuffed" with dressing, add 15-45 minutes to the cooking time. The dressing, or stuffing, is fully cooked when it reaches 165 degrees in the center of the dressing.
- Remove the foil tent after one hour of cooking. The foil keeps the moisture in the turkey. As the skin browns, it thickens and will do the job of keeping the moisture in without the foil.
- If the turkey is getting too brown near the end of the cooking time, replace the foil tent.
- Once the turkey reaches 170 degrees, remove it from the oven and allow it to rest for at least 20 minutes, and up to 40 minutes before carving. This allows the juices to redistribute through the meat.
- While the turkey is resting, make turkey gravy. See the link to "How to Make Turkey Gravy" in the recipe notes below.
- Carve and slice. Enjoy a moist, delicious turkey!