Whether this year marks you first attempt to cook a Thanksgiving turkey or you’re an old pro (who doesn’t look a day over 32—ha!), I’ve found that there’s always room for help. Here’s everything you need to know for how to cook a turkey step-by-step, with new tips—or maybe they’re just reminders for you—on how to choose the right recipe, figure out how much your bird should weigh, thaw it safely, and all that other good stuff.
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How to cook a Thanksgiving turkey: Start with a good recipe.
My first bit of advice is to find an appealing recipe from a reliable source that you can really make. Be honest with yourself: Thanksgiving is not the time to take on a challenge or try a new, untested food blog, especially when a simple roast turkey can be so perfectly satisfying. If you aren’t sure what is a reliable source, I suggest Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well by Sam Sifton.
Choose a bird: How much turkey per person?
With a recipe in hand—or just the intention to simply roast your turkey—you’re ready to procure a bird. I suggest a fresh bird, but frozen works too. Calculate one and a half pounds of turkey per person. Pro tip: If the number comes out to fewer than 12 pounds total, round up the amount of turkey to two pounds per person, since smaller birds have less meat on their bones.
Thaw your turkey in advance !
If you’ve chosen a frozen turkey, you’ll need to thaw it first, and the best way to do that is slowly—so plan ahead. Never, ever thaw your turkey by just leaving it on the counter. Instead, place your packaged turkey, breast side up, on a platter in the refrigerator. Set the fridge to 40 degrees, a temperature at which the turkey will thaw at a rate of approximately four pounds per day. Remember, if you’ve got a twelve pounder, which isn’t even that big, this process will take three days, starting on Monday.
If it’s too late to thaw your bird this way or you just want something faster, you can thaw your turkey more quickly by using a cold water bath. Our friends at Butterball provide instructions on how to defrost your turkey this way. With this method, you can plan on a defrost rate of two pounds per hour, which is a lot faster.
How to cook a Thanksgiving turkey: A basic, foolproof method
Prep: If you’ve chosen a specific recipe, you should defer to it at this point. For a simple roast turkey, though, you really only need salt, pepper, and butter. Really. Start by making sure that the giblets and neck have been removed from the turkey cavity. Then rinse the bird and dry well, inside and out, using paper towels.
Season: Generously rub both the outside of your turkey and the inside of the cavity with salt and pepper. Three tablespoons of salt and half as much pepper should cover a 12- to 18-pound turkey. Place the turkey in a roasting pan fitted with a rack, breast side up.
The turkey should fit snugly, with some, but not much, room all around. The pan should be stainless steel, like this All-Clad Stainless Steel Roasting Pan at Williams Sonoma.
And yes, a rack is necessary. Do not skip it.
Stuff: Once in place, rub the top of the bird and also the inside of the cavity with softened butter, about three tablespoons on the outside and another three on the inside of a 12- to 18-pound turkey. I prefer to cook stuffing separate from the bird and, instead, recommend filling the cavity with aromatic vegetables, fruit, and/or herbs, especially if you’re new to cooking turkeys. (Filling the bird with stuffing can mess with even cooking and your overall cook time.) Onions and celery are a must, but you can also add carrots, apples, sprigs of thyme, or whatever else suits your fancy. Then tuck the tip of the wings under the bird to keep them in tight, and pour a cup of water or stock (turkey or chicken) into the bottom of the pan.
How to cook a turkey: How much time to roast?
You probably know that there are a million ways to cook a turkey, from grilling to frying, but did you know that there are also a million ways to roast a turkey? Breast side up, breast side down. Starting at a high temperature, cooking it low and slow. Options, options, options. Again, defer to your recipe or stick with this traditional approach:
Begin roasting the bird at 425 degrees, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Baste with pan drippings, then turn the heat down to 325 for the remaining cook time. At this point, calculate 15 minutes for every pound and be sure to baste every 30 minutes.
While you can figure out your approximate cook time based on turkey size (see chart below), do not rely solely on this calculation. Perfect timing—especially with all the other cooking that’s surely going on—relies on using a thermometer. And, no, not the plastic pop-up one that came with your turkey. If you don’t have a meat thermometer, consider buying one. A simple dial works, or if you’re feeling fancy, grab a digital thermometer.
Turkey cooking time rule of thumb
12- to 16-pounds: 4-5 hours
16- to 20-pounds: 5-6 hours
20- to 26-pounds: 6+ hours
To test for doneness, stick the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, where it meets the drumstick. Do not let the thermometer touch the bone or your reading will be off. The rule of thumb is that the thigh meat should register 165 degrees. The juices should also run clear when you pull the thermometer out.
If at any point during roasting your turkey starts to get too brown, tent it with aluminum foil. Keep the foil relatively loose for the duration of your cook time, and continue to baste it every 30 minutes.
How to cook a Thanksgiving turkey: Everyone gets down time.
When the turkey is done, remove it from the oven, cover the pan in foil, and allow the bird to rest for 30 minutes. Then grab someone else to carve the turkey while you sip on a Thanksgiving Margarita (yes, it’s a thing). If your carver needs them, find tips on carving a turkey from Lauren at Tastes Better from Scratch (her step by step video and pictures are the best!).
Don’t forget: Leftovers are gold!
No matter how delicious your turkey, you’re likely to have leftovers. Be prepared by having some compostable to-go containers on hand!