A flavorful, moist turkey is the centerpiece of every Thanksgiving dinner. These easy tips show how to cook a roast turkey that’s always juicy and moist, and proves that it’s 100% not as scary as it seems.
How to Cook a Roast Turkey
Last year I cooked six turkeys in two weeks, with two more to go for my own Thanksgiving feast for twenty. Why you ask? So I could be sure this how to cook a turkey primer was nailed down right. Was I up tot he task? You bet your drumstick I was.
The thought of cooking a whole turkey can be intimidating. I mean, why wouldn’t it be? Thanksgiving is a big deal. Eager dinner guests depend on YOU—the little home cook who could—to deliver a juicy, delicious turkey dinner you may never, ever have cooked before. That’s grandma’s job! Or mom’s! Well guess who’s the mom now?
Rest assured, this recipe and these tips will calm your turkey cooking fears.
Thanks to hosting the past dozen or so Thanksgivings, and plenty of recipe testing, I’ve discovered a few turkey cookin’ tricks. To get a deliciously juicy bird, there’s no need for special cookers or clumsy techniques like flipping a piping-hot, roasting turkey upside down midway through cooking. Thank you, but not this year.
My 5 Big Tips: How to Cook a Turkey
There are a couple of rules for cooking a tender and juicy, golden-skin-crackling, turkey every time. These tips do take some planning ahead, but the steps are so easy to follow you’ll wonder why you don’t cook turkey more often than just Thanksgiving Day. (Now you will!)
Here’s what you’ll learn in the post below to create a succulent Thanksgiving turkey that’s totally easy to prepare. Then, continue scrolling down to discover my 5 main guidelines:
- If you do nothing else, do this: Make time to brine the turkey before cooking—24 to 48 hours before cooking day.
- Don’t cook the bird with bread stuffing inside, but do stuff the cavity with aromatics for flavor that bakes into the meat from the inside.
- To give the bird that gorgeous brown color, cook the turkey on high heat for 1 hour, then lower the oven temperature to slowly roast.
- Know that suggested cook times are a gauge of how long it takes to cook a turkey. Depending on how big your bird or how cold it is going into the oven, they are not absolute. Always rely on your thermometer to tell you whether that golden bird is really done or not.
- Before carving, allow the turkey to rest and reabsorb all of the juices for at least 30 minutes to 1 hour.
What You’ll Need for Cooking a Turkey
The ingredients for cooking a turkey are super simple, and require only a few basic kitchen tools.
Roast turkey ingredients:
- 12-16 lb. turkey (I use a basic grocery store frozen turkey)
- kosher salt and sugar for brine (recipe here)
- fresh herbs such as thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, sage
- don’t forget to remove the giblets and neck from the turkey
Turkey roasting tools:
- brining bags if doing a wet brine (try this brining bag if you only need one, or this set that contains three)
- 12 X 16 roasting pan with V rack (I like this non-stick roasting pan for easy clean up)
- kitchen twine to truss the legs
- silicone basting brush
- Thermapen instant read digital thermometer
- a sharp carving knife or 8″ chef’s knife
How Long Does It Take to Cook a Turkey?
First, let’s talk turkey timeline for prepping your bird.
- 1-2 days for thawing the turkey in the refrigerator
- 24 hours for wet brine time, plus 12-24 hours uncovered in the refrigerator to dry the skin
- 24-48 hours for dry brine time
So, how long does it take to cook a turkey?
Cook times for turkeys depend on the size of the bird. After years of cooking 20+ lb. birds stuffed with my favorite bread stuffing, I’ve changed my ways. Now, I cook two smaller birds, 12-14 lbs. each, unstuffed. This makes cook time faster and more consistent.
Instead of a hard rule, use suggested cooking times for poultry as a gauge. And those little red-nosed pop-up plugged into the breast? They can be an indicator of the breast being done, but what about the dark meat? Let’s talk about that below.
At What Temperature Is a Turkey Done?
My cooking method starts the bird off at a higher temp, then reduces the heat, so the bird gets a caramelized head start on that golden delicious skin.
Always depend on the temperature reading of an instant read digital thermometer as your guide.
Turkey breast meat should be cooked to at least 160°F, up to 175°F to 180°F in the thickest part of the leg and thigh not touching the bone. However thanks to the brine beforehand, I find that my brined turkey breasts that register at 180°F (which is the recommended temperature for a fully done turkey) are still juicy and delicious.
When cooking at 325°F, plan on 13 minutes of cooking time for every pound of empty roasted turkey. If the turkey is stuffed, plan on 15 minutes per pound. For a 12-16 lb. bird, that equates to 3 to 3 3/4 hours cooking time.
Another sign of a turkey being done is when the juices run clear, not pink. If you’re off in your times and your turkey isn’t done, just open another bottle of wine, and stick it back in the oven to continue cooking.
For more info on cooking times, check the USDA Safe Cooking Turkey Basics.
Brine the Turkey for More Flavor
Brine your turkey for the best juicy bird. Brines are a great flavor infuser for lean proteins like poultry and pork, tenderizing the meat while keeping it firm, juicy, and well-seasoned.
In recent years, brining has become more popular and can be done with either a wet or dry brine.
- A wet brine involves immersing the turkey in a salt-water solution for 12-24 hours.
- Dry-brining is where salt is rubbed over the turkey skin for 24-48 hours before cooking.
After testing both methods, my taste testers chose the wet brined turkey as their favorite. But there are many devotees of dry brines too.
The one down side about wet brines is a sometimes less than golden skin. To create a crispier skin, pat the turkey dry with paper towels and pop it into the refrigerator, uncovered, for 24 hours before cooking.
Leave Your Bread Stuffing On the Side
I grew up with my mom’s easy stuffing cooked in the bird. It’s probably why it’s my favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner. Stuffed in the cavity as the turkey cooks, the juices seep into the bread stuffing and give it a flavor that’s tough to replicate. But, this year, I’m cooking my turkeys with the stuffing on the side.
Cooking the turkey unstuffed creates a more level cooking field so the white and dark meat to can be done at the same time. Dense bread stuffing reduces air flow inside the bird and slows the cooking time. Dark meat cooks slower than white breast meat, and stuffing the bird compounds the issue.
Unstuffed birds cook more evenly, and faster. It also reduces the chances of salmonella infiltrating your stuffing if it isn’t cooked internally to 165°F.
While I don’t stuff my turkey with bread stuffing, I do stuff it with aromatics like onion, celery, garlic, carrot, and herbs. These flavor the turkey from the inside as it cooks.
A perfectly juicy turkey is why I’m learning to love my stuffing on the side.
How to Cook a Turkey
I’ve cooked turkeys in bags, topped with a wine and butter soaked cheesecloth, and I’ve started them breast up, down, and on the hour flipped them all around.
But once I discovered how easy and delicious it is to brine my turkey first, all those extra methods went out the window.
Now, my method is easy, and far more simple.
- Brine the turkey with a wet or dry method. Get my brining recipes and tips here.
- Place the turkey on a v-rack roasting pan (I love this inexpensive non-stick roasting pan) and stuff the turkey with aromatics and herbs, scattering more onion, carrots, celery and garlic on the bottom of the pan with herbs.
- Gently pry the skin from the breasts with your fingers or the handle of a wooden spoon. Spread butter between the skin and meat, then baste the whole bird with a combination of melted butter and wine that has cooled so it’s just barely clumpy so it sticks to the skin and doesn’t roll off.
- Add a combination of water and wine (or chicken broth) to the bottom of the pan to add moisture to the cooking environment and flavor the drippings for gravy later.
The Best Turkey Cooking Method
- My cooking method starts with roasting a 14 lb. bird, breast side up, at 425°F for 1 hour. Reduce the heat to 325°F for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The first blast of high heat gives the turkey a head start on achieving that golden delicious skin.
- Don’t baste. You can baste the turkey if you want, but it’s not needed. You’ve already infused your turkey with flavor from the salt brine and basting softens your skin so it won’t be as crisp.
- After the first 45 minutes of cooking, loosely tent the top of your turkey (the breast and legs) with a piece of aluminum foil, then cook for 15 minutes more. Adding the piece of aluminum foil protects the breast meat by deflecting the heat to avoid over cooking.
- Check the progress of your bird midway through your expected total cooking time. Use a digital thermometer to check the thickest parts of the breast, thigh, and leg. Continue to check every half hour or so. Add more water to the bottom of the roasting pan as needed.
- Turkey breast meat should be cooked to at least 160-175°F. The thickest part of the leg and thigh should cook to170-180°F. Be sure to avoid touching the bone. I find that even registering 180°F—the recommended temperature for a fully done turkey— my my brined turkey breasts are still juicy and delicious.
- Save those drippings! They’re the key to the best gravy. Strain the veggies from the drippings then use the residual with flour and chicken stock or water to make the best gravy ever.
Give the Turkey a Rest
Have you carved a turkey or roasted chicken and been left with a drippy, leaky mess? Before jumping in to carve the turkey while it’s still piping hot, give that baby a rest.
Give the turkey time to sit and relax, redistributing those delicious juices back into the meat. So the juices settle, allow at least 1/2 to 1 hour before carving. I don’t tent the turkey while it’s resting. A turkey tented with aluminum foil emits steam as it rests, making the crispy skin soften. It will still stay hot untented, where the hot bones and cavity keep the meat warm from the inside out, and even continue raising the temperature.
PRO TIP: Remove the turkey from the oven to rest and free up oven space. Once the turkey is done, have your other Thanksgiving side dishes ready to go in once the turkey is done and you’ll be on the fast track to a great dinner served.
How to Carve a Turkey
When it comes to the centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner, presentation is everything. Carving a turkey right calls for separating the light meat from the dark with little waste and less destruction.
Carving a turkey is a whole lot easier to do than you might think.
And once you’re done carving the turkey, use the same method when you carve my favorite roast chicken too.
Easy Thanksgiving Side Dishes
- 50 Easy Thanksgiving Side Dishes Recipes
- How to Make the Best Creamy Mashed Potatoes
- The Best Easy Traditional Stuffing Recipe
- Easy Glazed Carrots
- Easy Green Beans With Browned Butter Almondine
- My Favorite Ambrosia Salad Recipe
- 5-Ingredient Slow Cooker Creamed Corn
- Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta
If you make this recipe, please let me know! Leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ rating on this recipe below and leave a comment, take a photo and tag me on Instagram with #foodiecrusheats.
How to Cook THE BEST Juicy Turkey
- Roasting pan with V-rack
- turkey brining bag (if doing wet brine)
- kitchen twine
- basting brush
- 1 14-16 lb turkey thawed with giblets, neck, and tailpiece removed
- wet or dry turkey brine (recipes here) , if doing a wet brine
- 3 carrots cut into 1-2 inch pieces
- 3 celery stalks cut into 1-2 inch pieces
- 1 onion cut into 1/8s
- 1 head of garlic halved
- 8-10 sprigs fresh thyme
- 4 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 4 bay leaves
- 6 tablespoons butter , softened
- 2 cups white wine
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1-2 cups water
- Brine the turkey with the wet or dry brine method. NOTE: To avoid spreading bacteria, do not rinse the raw, pre-brined turkey with water. For a wet brine, brine the turkey for 12-24 hours then remove the turkey from the brine and drain the turkey well. Place the turkey on the rack in a roasting pan, pat dry, and truss the legs of the turkey and tuck the wings under the bird. Place the turkey in the roasting pan uncovered in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours to air dry and the skin to dry out. For a dry brine, salt the bird with the brine mixture and refrigerate uncovered for 24-28 hours. Do not rinse the brine from the bird. Brush off any large salt particles not absorbed into the skin.
- Bring the turkey to room temperature for 1 hour before cooking. Adjust the oven rack to the lowest part of the oven and preheat to 425°F. Stuff the cavity of the turkey with a few of the vegetables and herbs then scatter the rest under the rack on the bottom of the roasting pan. Use your fingers to gently pry the skin from the breast meat. Use the handle of a spoon or fork to work your way between the skin and meat if your fingers won't reach, being careful not to puncture or tear the skin. Rub 2 tablespoons of the softened butter and under the skin, flattening it to evenly cover the breast meat.
- Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of the butter in a small saucepan. Stir in 1/2 cup of the white wine. Let the butter and wine mixture cool slightly so it becomes a bit clumpy. Use a basting brush to brush the butter mixture over the skin of the breast, legs, thighs and wings. Add any extra to the roasting pan. Sprinkle the top of the turkey with freshly ground black pepper. Add the rest of the wine and 1-2 cups of water to the roasting pan.
- Roast the turkey for 45 minutes. Lightly tent the top of the turkey with a piece of aluminum foil and cook for 15 more minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F and roast for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Check the temperature of the turkey midway through roasting and add more water if necessary. Roast until the breast registers 160-175°F and up to 180°F for the thickest part of the thigh away from the bone, and the juices run clear when the thermometer is removed.
- Remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest for 30 minutes up to 1 hour for the juices to redistribute into the meat. Transfer to a cutting board, carve, and enjoy!
- Allow 2-3 days of thawing time in the refrigerator for frozen turkeys.
- Allow 12-24 hours of wet brining time, plus 12-24 hours drying time uncovered in the refrigerator for the skin to dry out and become crisper when cooked.
- Allow 24-48 hours of dry brining time for the salt seasoning to do it's work.
- Allow 3 - 3 3/4 hours cooking time for a 12-16 lb turkey.
More Turkey Recipes
- Wet Or Dry? How To Make The Best Turkey Brine
- Juicy Roast Turkey Breast
- Herb Butter Rotisserie Turkey
- Roasted Turkey Breast With Lemon And Oregano
- Buffalo Oven Roasted Turkey
- Curry Turkey Pot Pie With Homemade Butter Pie Crust
- Turkey Pot Pie Soup Plus 10 More Leftover Turkey Recipes You’ll Gobble Up
- 21 Easy Recipes For Leftover Thanksgiving Turkey
And with that, I believe I am all turkey’d out! Enjoy!!!
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