Photo by Joe Lingeman
Whether you’re roasting a whole turkey for the first time, or just need your yearly refresher, this guide will help you through the steps to a perfect turkey: Crispy skin, tender meat, well seasoned, and so delicious you’ll wonder why you waited a year to eat it again. This is the easiest, simplest way to roast a turkey.
This method will work with any turkey: Big or small, brined or not, free-range or otherwise. Cooking times will vary, but the basic technique will be the same. For reference, the turkey in the photos was a pre-brined 16-pound turkey from Williams-Sonoma.
Turkey Recipe Cheat-Sheet
- How big of a turkey? This method is best for a 12 to 16 pound bird. (Buy 1 to 1 1/2 pounds turkey for each guest.)
- How long to cook the turkey? 13 minutes of cooking time for each pound of turkey if roasting empty and 15 minutes per pound if stuffed.
- What temperature to cook the turkey? Preheat the oven to 450°F then drop the temperature to 350°F after putting the turkey into the oven.
- What temperature should the turkey be? The turkey is done when it registers a minimum of 165° in the thickest part of the thigh.
- How long to rest the turkey? Rest the turkey for at least 15 minutes before carving.
Photos by Emma Christensen
How to Safely Thaw a Frozen Turkey
Be sure to let your turkey completely thaw before cooking. The best way is to loosen the wrapping and place the turkey on a baking sheet, then thaw in the refrigerator.
How Long to Thaw a Turkey
A frozen turkey needs 24 hours thawing time for every five pounds of turkey. For quicker thawing, place the turkey in a cold water bath (it is not safe to thaw a turkey with warm water) and change the water every 30 minutes until it’s thawed — about a half-hour per pound.
What to Do If Your Turkey Is Still Frozen
However, if your turkey isn’t completely thawed yet — no worries! You can roast your frozen turkey and it will turn out just fine! If your turkey is still frozen — fully or partially — just hop on over to our frozen turkey tutorial and follow the instructions. You’ll be fine (and your gravy will be even more delicious).
How to Brine a Turkey
Any turkey will taste better if brined in salt for a day or two before cooking. Brining is not necessary but it is a good idea. This method has become popular over the last few years and involves immersing the turkey in a salt-water solution or dry-brining in salt for a day or so before cooking. The end result is moist, well seasoned white and dark meat. We’ve had great results with brining and heartily endorse it, although our method here will still work without brining.
How and When to Make Turkey Gravy
After roasting the turkey should rest for at least 15 minutes before carving. This is a perfect time to make gravy (or a gluten-free version). Move the turkey to a cutting board and cover loosely with foil to keep warm. This way you can use all those tasty pan drippings for gravy making. Read these posts for more:
How to Carve the Turkey
Carving a turkey is just like carving an extra-large chicken: Remove the wings first, and then the thighs — pop out the joints that keep these pieces attached to the bird and cut straight through the joint. When carving the breast meat, slice close to the rib cage with the flat of your knife right up against the rib bones. Once you have the meat off, you can separate the thighs into thighs and drumsticks, and carve the breast meat into individual slices. For a good demonstration, watch our cooking school video on carving a chicken, or read this article:
Cooking Your Turkey
Are you ready? Let’s cook some turkey! If you get anxious during roasting, just remember that roasting a turkey is just like roasting a large chicken. The same methods and ideas apply. Even if you don’t get fancy with spices or brining or special basting liquids, your turkey will still turn out browned, moist, and flavorful.
How To Cook a Turkey for Thanksgiving
Yield: Makes 1 turkey
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 3 hours 30 minutes to 4 hours
- 1 whole turkey, any size, thawed if frozen
- 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth, vegetable broth, water, or other liquid
- 2 sticks (1 cup) melted unsalted butter or oil, for basting (optional)
- Roasting pan (or an alternative roasting dish)
- Roasting rack (or something to lift the turkey off the pan)
- Turkey baster, brush, or ladle (optional, if basting)
Prepare the turkey for roasting. Thirty minutes to an hour before roasting, take the turkey out of the refrigerator. Remove any packaging and the bag of giblets (check in the body cavity and in the neck cavity). Set the turkey breast-side up on the roasting rack set in a roasting pan and let it sit while the oven preheats. This takes the chill off the meat, which helps the meat cook faster and more evenly. It also gives the skin time to dry out, which promotes browning and crisping. (Note: Your turkey will likely still feel cool to the touch after sitting at room temperature — that's fine and you can continue on with roasting.)
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Position an oven rack in the bottom third of your oven, remove any racks above it, and heat the oven to 450°F. If you brined your turkey, as we did, no need to do anything now. If your turkey is straight out of the package, rub it with some salt and pepper before putting it in the oven. We recommend leaving your turkey un-stuffed and un-trussed, both because it's easier and because the turkey will cook more evenly.
Add liquid to the roasting pan. When ready to roast, pour the broth or water into the roasting pan.
Place the turkey in the oven and turn down the heat. Place the turkey in the oven and turn down the heat to 350°F. We recommend roasting turkeys breast-side up. Some people like starting the turkey breast-side down to shield the breast meat, but the idea of flipping a hot, sputtering turkey is not our idea of a good time. Instead, we prefer to simply shield the breast meat with aluminum foil toward the end of cooking if it starts getting too browned.
Roast the turkey. The rule of thumb for cooking a turkey is 13 minutes per pound. So our 16-pound turkey was estimated to cook in about 3 1/2 hours. However, some factors like brining the bird, cooking with an empty (un-stuffed) cavity, and leaving the legs un-trussed will contribute to much faster cooking. Plan on the 13-minute-per-pound rule, but start checking the temperature of your turkey about halfway through the scheduled cooking time to gauge how fast it's cooking.
Baste the turkey every 45 minutes. Every 45 minutes, remove the turkey from the oven, close the oven door (don't let that heat out!), and baste the turkey all over. To baste, tilt the pan if needed and use a turkey baster or spoon to scoop up the pan liquids and drizzle them on top of the turkey. Basting with pan juices cools the surface of the turkey and slows down cooking, which in turn keeps the breast meat cooking at close to the same rate as the legs and thighs. In the last 45 minutes or so of cooking, you can also baste the turkey with melted butter or oil. This helps crisp up the skin and turn it a beautiful deep golden brown.
Check the turkey's temperature. Begin checking the turkey's temperature about halfway through the estimated cooking time. Check the temperature in three places: the breast, outer thigh, and inside thigh (see photos above). In every case, the meat should be at least 165°F when the turkey has finished cooking. If any place is under that temperature, put the turkey back in the oven for another 20 minutes. Shield the breast meat with foil if needed to keep it from overcooking.
Rest the turkey before carving. Remove the turkey from the oven. Grab one side of the roasting rack with an oven mitt and tilt the whole pan so the liquids inside the turkey cavity run out into the pan. (These juices are used to make the gravy.) Then, lift the whole turkey (still on the rack) and transfer it to a clean cutting board. Tent the turkey loosely with aluminum foil and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. This gives time for the meat to firm up and the juices to be re-absorbed into the muscle tissue, making the turkey easier to slice and taste juicier.
Carve the turkey. Carve the turkey the same way you would carve a chicken; see the video above for a walk-through of the process. Remove the wings first, then the thighs, then the breast meat. Once you have the meat off, you can separate the thighs into thighs and drumsticks and carve the breast meat into individual slices.
Don't forget about the leftovers. One final note! Once you've sat down at the table, don't forget about the turkey back on the counter. The leftover meat needs to be refrigerated within two hours of cooking, after which the risk of something nasty taking up residence starts to increase exponentially. Be safe!
Ways to Add Flavor to Your Turkey: Rub your turkey with butter or oil for a richer flavor and browner skin, rub minced herbs or ground spices into (or beneath) the skin for more flavor, place a few halved lemons or garlic cloves inside the cavity of the turkey.
Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 2 months.
Emma Christensen is a former editor for The Kitchn and a graduate of the Cambridge School for Culinary Arts. She is the author of True Brews and Brew Better Beer. Check out her website for more cooking stories.