The Best Cuts Of Turkey To Buy For Every Cooking Method 

Buy the right turkey, get better results.

Smoked Turkey Breast
Photo: Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

Turkey is the ultimate Thanksgiving entrée, but it's also a favorite in sandwiches, casseroles, soups, and more. Fortunately, you don't need to roast an entire bird or host a big dinner to enjoy it.

Whether you prefer roasting, frying, braising, grilling, smoking, or even cooking in a slow cooker or Instant Pot, you'll find that turkey is a surprisingly versatile choice.

Rick Rodgers, cooking instructor and author of Thanksgiving 101 has cooked more than his fair share of turkeys in every way imaginable. He's a fan of a roasted turkey and says that while growing up, his family chose a large bird around 22 pounds. These days he personally favors a smaller bird.


When roasting a turkey, Rodgers says, "Sometimes smaller is better. Farmers are giving you a bigger selection of sizes and a 12- to 14-pound bird may cook better than a 25 pounder turkey, depending upon the cooking method."

Cooking a smaller bird means it will cook more evenly, from wing, to breast to thigh, without having parts of the bird undercooked or overcooked. If you're planning to spatchcock the turkey, a smaller bird is a winning bet, too. Once the turkey is splayed, it takes up more space, and big birds may be too large for the oven.

Rodgers adds that the good news is that these days turkeys are grown fast, and are less likely to be tough, regardless of the size.

When picking out a turkey to roast whole, keep in mind the size of your roasting pan! One recipe to try? Our Simple Roast Turkey.


Cooking the turkey on a grill frees up precious space in the oven, which can be very useful if you're cooking all the traditional Thanksgiving side dishes. According to Rodgers, when it comes to grilling, the most important thing is to pick the right size bird. Says Rodgers, "For grilling you have to pick a turkey that will fit on your grill, with a lot of room around it. That means 12 to 14 pounds or so." A larger bird just won't fit on a typical grill.


Smoked turkey is very similar to grilled turkey, according to Rodgers who adds, "You need plenty of clearance above the bird." Keep in mind that the bigger the bird, the longer it will take to smoke, and it's a long, slow process anyway.

According to Rodgers, it can be an overnight affair if you have a large bird. He says a 20-pound bird could take 20 hours whereas a 12- to 14-pound bird will be much faster and easier. On the other hand, you could go even smaller—turkey drumsticks take anywhere from 2 ½ to 4 hours to smoke depending on their size.

Deep Frying

In recent years deep fried turkey has become a popular way to cook the Thanksgiving meal. You'll find large turkey fryers on the market, and each indicates the size of the pot and the amount of oil to use.

Rodgers shares that you'll need a few inches of oil around it, so it will cook properly. Typically 14 pounds is the magic number. Below that, you can cook the whole thing, but if it's larger, you'll need to cook it in pieces.

Air Fryer

While you certainly can't cook a whole turkey in an air fryer, Rodgers says it's ideal for smaller cuts, such as thighs which are fairly small and compact.

Slow Cooker

If you want to braise turkey drumsticks or thighs, the slow cooker is a good choice. You can also use the slow cooker to make slow cooked turkey breast.

Change up the flavor by using different liquid such as wine, cranberry sauce, or broth along with aromatics such as carrots, onions, and celery.

Instant Pot

While you'll need a very large Instant Pot to cook even a smaller whole turkey, it can certainly work for a turkey breast and thighs.

Pan Fry

Turkey makes a great weeknight dinner. Pounded turkey breasts can even be made into Turkey Scaloppine. Purchase turkey cutlets for pan-frying recipes. They are thin and easy to cook quickly in a skillet on the stovetop.

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