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How to Cook a Turkey

Updated November 11, 2019
Nothing says holiday quite like a crispy-skinned, deep-brown roast turkey. Want to know how to make it so? Read on!
Whether it’s your first time hosting the holidays, or you just need a quick review before this year’s feast, we’ve gathered all the details you need to roast a perfect turkey this year. Yes, roasting is where we recommend beginning. Sure, you can deep fry, grill, even slow cook a breast, but for the classic holiday meal, we think roasting is best. It’s simple and yields delicious results, so let’s dig in.

Our Fan-Favorite Turkey Recipe

When you need a recipe that won’t let you down, this fan-favorite should be your go-to. It yields succulent meat—thanks to the brining—and turns a deep brown in the oven. See how it all comes together in the video below.

Getting Started

When preparing to roast a turkey, it’s helpful to have the following pieces of equipment:

  • A roasting pan with handles will make it easier to move your turkey in and out of the oven. Remember this is a big bird!
  • An ovenproof meat thermometer or instant-read thermometer, because temperature is the most reliable way to tell if the turkey is done cooking.
  • Aluminum foil to help keep your turkey warm while it rests after roasting and to tent while cooking—if needed.
  • A sharp knife for carving. Your best chef’s knife will do just fine.
  • A cutting board for carving. If you have one with a moat, for catching juices, you’ll find it helpful.
  • A V-rack or other rack, while not essential, is useful when roasting a turkey. It will lift the bird above the drippings, preventing it from getting soggy and allowing the skin to crisp up nicely.

If you have a baster, feel free to use it, but a spoon will do too. If you prefer to truss your poultry—more on that shortly—you’ll want cotton string, which can be purchased at most cooking supply stores. Now that you’ve got your turkey and your supplies, it’s time to begin.

How to Prepare Your Turkey

When preparing to cook a turkey, you’ll follow a particular sequence of prep steps. These steps remain the same no matter if you plan to roast, slow cook, deep fry or grill your turkey. So, before you go any further, here’s what you’ll need to do:

  • Thaw the turkey
  • Remove the giblets
  • Season the turkey

Thaw the Turkey

Did you know a 20-lb turkey could take up to five days to thaw in the refrigerator? If you plan to brine your turkey, you’ll want to add two days for that process, which could mean turkey prep starts up to seven days before of the meal. For this reason, it’s important to plan ahead when turkey is on the menu. While we prefer thawing in the fridge, there are three food-safe methods for thawing turkey, according to the USDA.

The three ways to thaw a turkey are:

  • In the fridge. It will take about 24 hours for every four to five pounds of weight.
  • In the microwave, if your turkey is small enough. Check your owner’s manual for instructions on minutes per pound. Don’t forget to remove the packaging before microwaving. Cook your turkey immediately after defrosting with this method.
  • In cold water. Completely immerse your turkey in its original packaging. Change the water every 30 minutes to keep cold. Cook your turkey immediately after defrosting with this method.

For more details about turkey thawing and a chart to help you figure out how much time your turkey will take, check out our article on How to Buy and Store a Turkey.

Remove the Giblets

removing giblets from turkey’s cavity

Inside the cavity of your bird, you will find the giblets—neck and internal organs, including heart, liver, gizzard. It is important to remove these before cooking your bird, often they’ll be packaged up in a little bag. Wondering what to do with these bits and pieces? Don’t waste them! They have intense flavor that can be used to enrich gravy, stock or even stuffing—give it a try with our Giblets Gravy recipe or Use-it-Up Turkey Stock. If nothing else, we’ve even heard of dog owners cooking these bits for Fido’s Thanksgiving dinner.

Season the Turkey

dry brining turkey

There are several ways of seasoning a turkey prior to cooking, the most common include the following:

  • Marinating: Letting turkey stand in a savory, acidic liquid in order to add additional flavor.
  • Wet brining: Immersing turkey in salted liquid (brine) for up to two days in order to add flavor and tenderness.
  • Dry brining: Rubbing turkey with a salt-seasoning mixture and allowing this mixture to penetrate the bird for up to two days to add both flavor and tenderness.

If we had to pick a favorite method, it’d be dry brining, because it’s the simplest way to infuse the turkey with flavor, while also ensuring the meat turns out tender. Keep in mind, you must plan in advance to brine—get all details in our article on How to Brine a Turkey. If you don’t have time to brine, don’t fret, just rub your turkey all over with salt and pepper before cooking.

Other Prep Steps

You might think politics are the most hotly debated topic at the dinner table, until one of the turkey roasting questions below gets brought up. The best way to keep the peace this holiday season might be to make up your mind about these question before the big day. Otherwise, an off-hand question asked in a moment of hesitation could put you squarely in the middle of an impassioned debate among the most experienced (or most opinionated) cooks in your family!

All kidding aside, the essential prep steps are those explained above. The steps below—rinsing, stuffing and trussing—are not required, and in some cases, not advisable. Let us explain.

Should You Rinse Your Turkey?

washing turkey’s cavity

Recent studies by the USDA discourage washing poultry because of the risk of cross contamination. However, it is often recommended in recipes that include brining. If you must wash your turkey, the objective should be to rinse out the cavity with cold water being mindful of spraying water—run your faucet on low pressure. According to the USDA, it’s best to put the bird directly into the roasting pan after washing—set that pan right next to your sink, so there’s not far to go—and sanitize kitchen surfaces after washing turkey to avoid cross contamination. For the most up-to-date food safety advice, it’s always best to consult the USDA’s website.

Should You Stuff Your Turkey?

To stuff or not to stuff? This is yet another heated turkey roasting question. Stuffing cooked inside the turkey tends to be moist and has some opportunity to soak up drippings from the bird. However, cooking stuffing inside the bird also requires taking food safety precautions. Namely, you must cook the stuffing to temperature of 165F. What makes this less than ideal is that your turkey might be done cooking before the stuffing, which could mean overcooking your bird to ensure stuffing is done. One other food safety precaution advised by the USDA is stuffing the bird immediately before roasting and not in advance. This helps avoid bacterial growth.

While we have recipes for both methods, there’s a lot to be said for cooking stuffing separately in a casserole dish (beside being the optimal food safe cooking method, per the USDA. Cooking in a casserole—technically this makes it a dressing, rather than a stuffing—allows the dish to brown. Browning is a chemical reaction, which results in more flavorful food. In addition, the texture of dressing will be chewier, which makes for a nice contrast to those fluffy mashed potatoes. Here’s what chef and Betty Crocker Test Kitchens consultant Maggie Lyon has to say on the matter.

When you stuff a bird, you’re taking away air circulation through the cavity of the bird, and you’re also taking it away from the stuffing, which will brown and crisp more beautifully in a casserole dish.
When you stuff a bird, you’re taking away air circulation through the cavity of the bird, and you’re also taking it away from the stuffing, which will brown and crisp more beautifully in a casserole dish.
–Maggie Lyon, Chef and Betty Crocker Test Kitchens Consultant

Should You Truss Your Turkey?

trussing a turkey

Trussing means tying your turkey together, so it remains in a compact package while cooking. This makes for a beautiful presentation suitable to the holidays and special occasions. Some people believe trussing helps the turkey cook more evenly, but this is yet another hotly contested turkey cooking question—consult the Internet for the full debate.

We say it’s your call. Whatever you decide, the most important thing is to cook your turkey all the way through—to a temperature of 165F using the method described below.

Trussing is easily done with cotton string—here’s how.

  1. The simplest method is to fold the wings across the back of the turkey, so they are touching.
  2. Then, legs are tied together by winding string in a figure-eight around the ankles of the bird.
  3. Sometimes, the string tying the legs together is then tied to the tail, but it’s not necessary to do this.

How to Cook a Turkey

The easiest way to cook a turkey is by roasting and this recipe uses that fail-safe method to delicious ends! The secret is wet brining the turkey so it turns out mouth-wateringly tender.

What You’ll Need for Roasting a Turkey:

  • Ingredients for Brined Whole Turkey
  • Bucket or stockpot (noncorrosive)
  • Shallow roasting pan with handles
  • Rack
  • Ovenproof meat thermometer or instant-read thermometer
  • Aluminum foil

Steps for Roasting a Turkey

  1. Mix cold water and salt in a large clean bucket or stockpot (noncorrosive); stir until salt is dissolved. Add turkey. Cover and refrigerate 8 to 12 hours.
  2. Heat oven to 325°F. Remove turkey from brine; discard brine. Thoroughly rinse turkey under cool running water, gently rubbing outside and inside of turkey to release salt. Pat skin and both interior cavities dry with paper towels.
  3. Fasten neck skin to back of turkey with skewer. Fold wings across back of turkey so tips are touching. Toss onion, carrot, celery and thyme with 1 tablespoon of the melted butter; place in turkey cavity.
  4. Place turkey, breast side down, on rack in large shallow roasting pan. Brush entire back side of turkey with 1 tablespoon melted butter. Turn turkey over. Brush entire breast side of turkey with remaining 1 tablespoon melted butter. Insert ovenproof meat thermometer so tip is in thickest part of inside thigh and does not touch bone. (Do not add water or cover turkey.)
  5. Roast uncovered 3 hours 30 minutes to 4 hours, brushing twice with pan drippings during last 30 minutes of roasting.
  6. Turkey is done when thermometer reads 165°F and drumsticks move easily when lifted or twisted. If a meat thermometer is not used, begin testing for doneness after about 3 hours. When turkey is done, place on warm platter and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm. Let stand about 15 minutes for easiest carving.

How Long Should I Cook My Turkey?

Check out the poultry roasting timetable below to get an approximate cook time based on the weight of your bird.

Approximate Cooking Times for Unstuffed Turkeys (325°F oven temperature)*
Turkey Size (by weight) Time (in hours)
4 to 6 breast 1 ½ to 2 ¼
6 to 8 breast 2 ¼ to 3 ¼
8 to 12 whole bird 2 ¾ to 3
12 to 14 whole bird 3 to 3 ¾
14 to 18 whole bird 3 ¾ to 4 ¼
18 to 20 whole bird 4 ¼ to 4 ½
20 to 24 whole bird 4 ½ to 5

*information above from USDA. Always refer to the USDA website for the most up-to-date information.

Cooking Time for Stuffed Turkey

A stuffed turkey will take longer to cook than an unstuffed turkey. As mentioned above, stuffed turkeys need to be cooked until the turkey and the stuffing both reach 165F. Refer to the timetable below for approximate cook time by turkey’s weight.

Approximate Cooking Times for Stuffed Turkeys (325°F oven temperature)*
Turkey Size (by weight) Time (in hours)
8 to 12 3 to 3 ½
12 to 14 3 ½ to 4
14 to 18 4 to 4 ¼
18 to 20 4 ¼ to 4 ¾
20 to 24 4 ¾ to 5 ¼

*information above from USDA. Always refer to the USDA website for the most up-to-date information.

How to Tell When Your Turkey Is Done

Temperature is by far the best way to determine a turkey’s doneness. Turkeys need to be cooked to 165F in order to kill off harmful bacteria. The USDA recommends checking the turkey’s temperature in three different spots: the innermost part of the thigh (avoiding the bone), the innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast. Refer to the timetables below to get an approximate idea about when to check your bird for doneness.

Tips and Tricks for Cooking a Turkey

Once your turkey is in the oven, and even after it’s out, there are steps you can take to improve flavor, moisture and make managing the meal easier! Read on for some more expert advice.

Baste for the Best Flavor—and Added Moisture

butter- and soy-basted turkey being brined

Basting is a way of adding flavor to your turkey as it cooks by continuing to coat it with liquid—its juices or a marinade. This also helps keep the meat moist, so it’s definitely worth doing when cooking large turkeys—which we all know are famous for drying out. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Remove turkey from oven and set on trivet or potholders.
  2. Using a turkey baster or large syringe, suck up the drippings from the bottom of the pan and pour over the turkey. If you don’t have a baster, a spoon or ladle, will work just fine. When adding a marinade, a brush can be handy.
  3. Put the turkey back in the oven. That’s it!

Try our Soy- and Butter-Basted Turkey and you’ll never skip basting again!

Let It Rest to Preserve Moisture & Make Carving Easier

After removing your turkey from the oven and checking its temperature to make sure it’s cooked all the way through, you’ll want to let it rest before carving. Resting is important because it allows the juices to redistribute themselves. If you carve right away, the juices will run out, leaving your turkey drier than if you had waited. It will also make carving easier and help you avoid burning yourself. To rest the turkey, place it on a warm platter, cover with aluminum foil and leave for 15 minutes.

Use the Drippings for the Most Luscious Gravy

making gravy out of turkey drippings in the roasting pan

One of the great benefits of cooking a turkey is that you’re left with drippings, which are the makings of great gravy. If you’ve seen gravy go wrong before, don’t fret. We’ve got a Foolproof Gravy that’s never let us down—plus solutions for every type of gravy emergency in our guide to How to Make Gravy. But before you dig in, it’s helpful to understand how gravy works and no experts are better equipped to explain it than those from the Betty Crocker Test Kitchens.

We've all had enough bad gravy in our lives to make this the most-feared dish of the Thanksgiving feast. But I’m here to tell you that anyone can make a flavorful, silky smooth gravy. It’s a simple matter of cooking a thickening agent, like flour, in the turkey drippings (aka, fat), before adding in a liquid, like chicken or turkey broth. Cooking the flour in the fat coats it, so it can’t clump together when the liquid is added. It’s an easy technique that ensures success.
We've all had enough bad gravy in our lives to make this the most-feared dish of the Thanksgiving feast. But I’m here to tell you that anyone can make a flavorful, silky smooth gravy. It’s a simple matter of cooking a thickening agent, like flour, in the turkey drippings (aka, fat), before adding in a liquid, like chicken or turkey broth. Cooking the flour in the fat coats it, so it can’t clump together when the liquid is added. It’s an easy technique that ensures success.
—Meredith Deeds, Culinary Consultant to the Betty Crocker Test Kitchens

Carve Your Turkey in the Kitchen—Never at the Table

Don’t carve your turkey at the table! This is a piece of advice we feel strongly about. That hot, juicy bird will make a mess of your tablecloth and put undue pressure on you, the one wielding the knife. Carving, by the way, is something anyone can master and without any special equipment. All you need is your best chef’s knife, the one you use all the time—no fancy carving fork and knife necessary—and a large cutting board. A cutting board with a moat, or groove for catching liquids, running around its edge, can help contain the mess. Remember it will be easier to carve, if you let your turkey rest. When you’re ready to dig into the details, check out our article on How to Carve a Turkey.

How Long Do Leftovers Keep?

use-it-up turkey stock

Leftover turkey will keep for three to four days when properly stored in the refrigerator or freezer. It’s recommended to break large pieces down before refrigerating and remove stuffing—if you’ve cooked it in the cavity. Turkey should not sit out for more than two hours. To reheat, bring turkey to a temperature of 165F. Need some ideas about what to do with all that leftover turkey? We’ve got tasty recipes that’ll help you use up every last morsel—including the carcass!

So there you have it, all the essential details for cooking a turkey! Whether this year will be your first time hosting or fortieth time hosting—we hope you found useful advice in this article. If you have more questions, leave us a note below.