How to Cook a Turkey
So you've decided to be in charge of the turkey this year? You've come to the right place for advice. First of all, if you haven't already purchased your bird, be sure to read all about how to buy a turkey and how to safely thaw frozen turkey. Next, let's talk about how to cook that bird.
Related: Find Your Perfect Turkey Recipe
How to Cook a Turkey
You'll be glad to know that cooking a turkey is surprisingly easy. Even with just a little bit of prep, you'll get great results you can be proud of. Here's how to prepare a thawed turkey for roasting in the oven:
Step 1: Prep the Turkey
Unwrap the plastic around your turkey over the sink to ensure that any juices will run down the drain. Remove the packet of giblets from the cavity of the bird and save them for gravy or stuffing. Next, use paper towels to pat dry the bird inside and out.
Step 2: Stuff the Turkey (Optional)
If you are stuffing the turkey, stuff it loosely, allowing about ½ to ¾ cup stuffing per pound of turkey. While stuffing a turkey is traditional (and picturesque), it has become less and less common over the years for a number of reasons. Most importantly, cooking your stuffing to 165 degrees F likely means that you'll over-cook the rest of the bird.
If you don't want to miss out on stuffing, it's much easier (and safer) to prepare the stuffing in a separate baking dish instead of the bird's cavity.
Read more: How to Stuff a Turkey
Step 3: Truss the Turkey
The purpose of trussing is to ensure that the bird will cook as evenly as possible. If the legs are not secured tightly, more air will be able to circulate around them in the oven, which will cause them to cook more quickly. This can eventually lead to portions of the bird becoming over-cooked, while other portions aren't quite there.
Tie the drumsticks together with kitchen twine, and brush the skin with melted butter or oil. If you don't have kitchen twine, you can opt to truss with (unflavored) dental floss or even use the turkey's skin to fold the legs tightly together. While you're trussing, make sure to tuck the wings behind the back of the turkey. If they're exposed, they will burn quickly in the oven.
Read more: How to Truss a Turkey
Step 4: Roast the Turkey
Place the bird on a rack in a roasting pan, and into a preheated, 350 degree F (175 degrees C) oven (or follow your recipe's instructions). To enhance the gravy you'll likely make with the turkey's drippings, place aromatics and herbs below the roasting rack, such as carrots, onion, celery, garlic, rosemary, and sage. As the turkey cooks, drippings will coat these aromatics for a savory, flavor-packed sauce. You can add some stock and white wine to the aromatics as the turkey cooks to deglaze the roasting pan.
Read more: How Long to Cook a Turkey
Roast until the skin is a light golden color, then cover the breast loosely with a foil tent to prevent further browning. During the last 45 minutes of baking, remove the foil tent to brown the skin. Basting is not necessary, but it helps to promote even browning. As the turkey approaches the end of its cook time, check the temperature of your bird with an instant read thermometer. The breast should be 155 degrees F (it will continue to cook while it rests) and the thigh should hit 165 degrees F. If the turkey is done, transfer it to a clean sheet pan and tent with foil.
Step 5: Serve the Turkey
Be sure to allow at least 30 minutes between the time you take the turkey out of the oven and when you serve it. The turkey needs to "rest" for 20 to 30 minutes (you can use that resting time to warm up your Thanksgiving side dishes and make the gravy), and then you can carve your turkey. Carve away the breasts, then carefully slice them, keeping the golden brown skin intact. Next, carve away the legs, separating the thighs and drumstick at the ligament.
Serving Tip: Warm your serving platter in the oven for about five minutes before you put the sliced turkey on it. You've put in too much work to serve cold turkey!
More on How To Tell When the Turkey Is Done
The only reliable test for doneness is to check the internal temperature of the turkey meat, not the color of the skin. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh. The thermometer should point towards the body, and should not touch the bone. The turkey is done when the meat reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F (75 degrees C) at the thigh. If your turkey has been stuffed, it is important to check the temperature of the stuffing as well. The stuffing should also be 165 degrees F. See our review on the best thermometer.
Optional First Steps
If you have 8 to 24 hours to spare before you put the turkey in the oven, consider using that time to brine the turkey either in a liquid saltwater brine or with a dry rub. This optional step ensures the turkey meat will be juicy and flavorful.
Read more: How to Brine a Turkey
Removing the backbone of the turkey and flattening it out before roasting cooks the turkey faster and more evenly. If you're not comfortable spatchcocking or you don't have a pair of sharp kitchen shears, you can always ask your butcher to do it for you.
Related: How to Spatchcock a Turkey
Turkey Roasting Chart by Weight
You might also want to know how long to cook a stuffed turkey.
Other Cooking Methods
Roasting a turkey is the easiest cooking method; the oven remains a constant temperature, and it's easy to baste the turkey and check the internal temperature periodically. But there are other methods that provide a different experience:
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Can I roast my turkey the day before Thanksgiving then reheat it?
A: Never partially roast a turkey the day before to save on cooking time the next day. This creates the perfect environment for bacterial growth. However, you can fully roast a turkey the day before and heat it for Thanksgiving dinner:
- Carve the roasted bird and layer the meat in a baking dish.
- Seal the baking dish with foil to reduce moisture loss, and heat in a 350 degree F oven for 20 to 30 minutes.
- Breast meat has a greater likelihood of drying out, so place it under the dark meat, and consider covering it with gravy or spritzing with a small amount of turkey stock.
Q: Can I stuff the turkey the night before baking?
A: You should never stuff a bird hours before roasting, as the cavity can provide an environment for bacteria to grow. When cooking stuffing in a turkey, it is always best to prepare it just before filling and roasting the bird. You can also opt to bake the stuffing in a separate baking dish. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake at 400 degrees F for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake the stuffing until the top is golden-brown, about 15–20 minutes more. Whether you bake it in the turkey or on the side, the internal temperature of the dressing should be 165 degrees F to ensure it's fully and safely cooked.
Q: How long can cooked turkey stay out at room temperature?
A: Turkey, or any cooked food, should not be left out for more than 2 hours. Any longer than that, and bacteria will start to develop, leading to food-borne illness. No one wants that. See more about refrigerating, freezing, and reheating Thanksgiving leftovers.