How To Cook A Turkey

This Thanksgiving, approach that bird with confidence.

Roasted Herb Turkey and Gravy
Photo: Greg DuPree

While people think most of the cooking happens on Thanksgiving day, turkey preparation begins three to seven days before the big meal—when you shop for and begin to thaw the turkey. Thinking ahead and planning a turkey-cooking schedule will help your Thanksgiving dinner go on without a hitch. It's always better to allot more time, rather than less, to prepare and cook your turkey—a hungry crowd will certainly not be pleased if you delay the start time of your Thanksgiving feast. Plan out the space you'll need in the oven for the turkey and all the sides. Do as much as possible ahead of time to enjoy a stress-free Thanksgiving feast. These hints will make your meal planning easier.

Roasting is the most traditional way to cook a turkey—and the technique we'll explain here—but there are still ways to mix it up. This year, try our Sweet-and-Spicy Roast Turkey, brined with a spice rub and brushed with hot sauce and honey. Or, if you want to venture further outside the box, try smoking your turkey.

How To Select a Turkey

The week before Thanksgiving, head to the supermarket to ensure you get the best bird possible. One big decision you'll face when selecting your turkey is whether you want a fresh or frozen turkey.

There's not much difference between a fresh and frozen turkey. If pressed for time, a fresh turkey is more convenient but will cost more per pound than a frozen one. Fresh turkeys may occasionally have ice crystals (from being refrigerated and transported at freezing temperatures) that will need to thaw. A frozen turkey should do the trick as long as you plan and allow enough time for the turkey to thaw.

When selecting a turkey, you want to consider your party size. Calculate how many pounds of turkey you'll need based on the number of guests attending your Thanksgiving feast (don't worry: this handy guide helps you sort out all the math). Remember that two smaller turkeys may serve your needs better than one large.

How To Thaw a Frozen Turkey

Thaw a frozen turkey in the refrigerator in its original wrap. Place it on a tray or pan to catch any drips. Allow two to three days for an 8- to 12-pound turkey. A 12- to 16-pounder will require three to four days.

To thaw the bird in less time, place the turkey in its unopened bag in a large container and cover it with cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes to keep it cold (and safe)—This will thaw an 8- to 12-pound turkey in four to six hours, while a 12- to 16-pound turkey takes six to nine hours.

How To Prepare a Turkey for Cooking

You'll want to start preparing the turkey at least four hours before you plan to serve dinner. The cooking time, however, depends on the size of your turkey. While the turkey may only take three hours to cook, you must factor in time for it to stand before and after roasting.

After completely thawing the turkey, remove the giblets and the neck from the body cavity (usually in a sack inside the bird). Save the neck to infuse extra flavor into your gravy.

Important: Do not rinse or wash the turkey; you could spread harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illness.

Carefully loosen the skin without completely detaching it and distribute salt (or your chosen spice rub) evenly under it. Drizzle the skin with oil and a few additional tablespoons of salt.

Truss the turkey so that it will cook evenly, retain moisture, and have a compact shape. Here's how:

  1. Secure the legs. Some turkeys come with a metal clip. If yours doesn't, use cotton twine (ask your butcher for some).
  2. Tuck excess skin between the breast and the legs so the skin won't split as the turkey cooks.
  3. Lift the tips of the wings up and over the breast, and tuck them under the turkey—secure excess of the neck flap (use a wooden pick if necessary).
  4. Line the bottom of the roasting pan with foil for easier cleanup.

Instead of placing the turkey directly in the oven, let it stand at room temperature for 30 minutes to one hour to let it warm up slightly, which will help it cook evenly.

How To Roast a Turkey

Place the turkey on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. If you don't have a roasting pan, use a large foil roasting pan from the supermarket, and place it on a baking sheet for extra support. Add three cups of water to the pan to help create steam that will crisp the turkey's skin. Rotate the pan halfway through cooking. You'll want to bake the whole turkey for approximately 15 to 20 minutes per pound. Temperature guidelines will help you know when it's done cooking.

Don't seal the turkey with foil or a roaster lid because it will steam rather than roast. Drape aluminum foil over crisped areas if your turkey is browning unevenly or is golden-brown on the outside but not fully cooked inside—This will help your turkey to cook thoroughly.

How To Tell When a Turkey Is Fully Cooked

  1. Place a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh (be sure not to touch the bone). You'll know the turkey is fully cooked when the thermometer registers 180°F. Breast meat, which has less fat, only needs to come to 170°F. It also applies if you're doing a turkey breast rather than a whole turkey.
  2. Allow turkey to stand for 15 to 20 minutes before carving.

WATCH: Cooking Time for Thanksgiving Turkey: A Pound by Pound Guide

How To Store Turkey Leftovers

Don't tie up valuable space in the refrigerator with the turkey carcass. Remove the meat from the bones. Place white meat slices and dark meat pieces in separate zip-top plastic bags—ready for leftover turkey sandwiches, soups, or other recipes. And be sure to use those extra bits to make a Turkey Stock.

Other Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Cooking Tips

  • Bake, crumble, and store cornbread for dressing in a zip-top plastic bag in the refrigerator up to five days before your meal.
  • Make cranberry sauce and relish two or three days ahead of time.
  • Chop onions, celery, and green peppers for dressing up to three days ahead, and store them in zip-top plastic bags in the refrigerator.
  • Don't forget about your microwave oven. Use it to melt chocolate, soften butter, and steam vegetables.
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