How to Cook a Turkey: Your A-Z Guide to Buy, Prep, Cook, and Carve
Don’t play chicken with your Thanksgiving centerpiece! Whether it’s your first time cooking a turkey or your 14th, this step-by-step guide will help ensure that the star of the holiday table comes out perfectly.
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Photograph by Olga Ivanova
(Want more Thanksgiving recipes and tips? Check out our big Yummly Thanksgiving page!)
The holidays are no time to wing it when it comes to the turkey. But with a little preparation and knowledge, you can be sure not to run afoul of a tasty Thanksgiving dinner. OK, OK ... enough with the bad poultry puns. Pulling off a Norman Rockwell-style Thanksgiving is no small feat, but if you break it all down into parts, it's definitely doable! So let's start with the big guy: how to get a nice juicy turkey with crispy brown skin.
The most important step in cooking a perfect turkey happens before you ever turn on the oven. Some initial planning — including taking stock of your supplies, choosing your Thanksgiving recipes, and gathering your ingredients — goes a long way toward avoiding surprises that can leave you scrambling. While no one can plan ahead for Uncle Larry's political ramblings (maybe this year he'll stay safely at home?), there are a few things you can do to ensure a foolproof turkey-cooking experience.
Here's everything you need to know to cook a memorable turkey, including answers to your most burning (or should I say golden brown?) questions — and of course some favorite turkey recipes.
Jump ahead to:
Get a meat thermometer
First on your list of supplies: a good meat thermometer. For a high-tech solution, check out the Yummly Smart Thermometer. With our leave-in, wireless thermometer, you simply place the thermometer into the turkey breast before popping it in the oven. Using the Yummly app, you'll be able to monitor the temperature of your turkey and get an estimate of how much cook time is left. We'll notify when the turkey is done and even set a rest timer for you — more on that in a moment — so you'll know when it's time to carve.
Check your other supplies
Your must-haves (and a couple of nice-to-haves) for turkey time
Take stock of your equipment and be sure to get everything you need out of storage before the big day. You may need some or all of the following:
Roasting pan and roasting rack. Note: While it may be tempting to use a disposable pan to save money and avoid extra clean-up, the hidden cost is the less sturdy aluminum from which it's made. Consider the risk of splashing hot basting liquid as the pan buckles under the weight of the turkey, or worse, envision dropping your turkey on the floor. If you plan to make turkeys every year, consider investing in a sturdy roasting pan; otherwise, be sure to stabilize your disposable pan on a baking sheet so you can transfer it in and out of the oven with ease.
Carving knife and fork.
Large cutting board with grooves to catch the juices.
Optional: kitchen twine for trussing, turkey lifters, brining bags, fat separator.
Consider your turkey recipe
A butterflied turkey cooks quickly — and takes up less space in the oven
Sure, you’ll need to know what recipe you’re using in order to make your grocery list, but there are other important reasons to decide on your turkey plans well in advance. You’re generally going to be planning your entire meal around the turkey, due to its size and long cooking time. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a double oven, the turkey roasting temperature will be a key consideration in choosing your side dish recipes. Likewise, the timing of the meal will be largely dependent on when your turkey is done.
There are some alternatives you can consider to keep your turkey from holding your oven hostage, though. A butterflied (or “spatchcocked”) turkey will cook more quickly than a whole bird, as will cooking a turkey in pieces. Both of these methods have the added advantage of freeing up space in your oven; the bird is smaller when it's broken down. Cooking for a smaller crowd? Consider a turkey breast as opposed to a whole bird. Alternatively, you can grill, smoke, or deep-fry a turkey to free up your oven altogether. We’ve put together a list of our favorite recipes using these various less-traditional approaches at the end of the article to help you out.
Pick your bird
For the best turkey, opt for an untreated, vegetarian-fed bird
To end up with the tastiest Thanksgiving turkey possible, the turkey you buy is as important as the recipe you choose. Here are the basic questions to consider:
How much turkey do you need?
The rule of thumb is 1 pound per person, or 1 1/2 pounds of turkey to make sure you have leftovers after the Thanksgiving feast.
What type of turkey is best?
Generally speaking, you do get what you pay for. The best-tasting birds are typically vegetarian-fed and untreated. Read your labels carefully. Treated birds are sometimes described as “self-basting” and have been injected with a saline solution that ostensibly makes for a juicier bird. Treated turkeys are more likely to have texture issues, may become soggy, and can become overly salty depending on how you prepare your bird. Kosher turkeys are also prepared with salt; for that reason, never brine a treated or kosher turkey.
Fresh or frozen?
While purists will tell you that fresh turkey is better, I don’t find there to be a big difference in quality nowadays. The biggest difference is that of convenience. Depending on the size of your turkey, you may need to buy a frozen turkey up to a week in advance to give it enough time to defrost. Fresh turkeys may still be partially frozen as they’re stored at cold temperatures, so don’t be afraid to squeeze your bird in the store to get a sense of how hard it is. Either way, you’ll want to make sure your bird is completely thawed the night before you cook it. Read on for defrosting tips.
How long to thaw a turkey
Before you can proceed with any turkey recipe, you need to make sure your turkey is completely thawed. A frozen turkey can take a significant amount of time to defrost — my 12-pound turkey took a full four days. If you plan on brining a turkey (or using a “dry-brine,” or salt rub), you’ll need to add another day to the process. Defrosting should always be done in your refrigerator, never at room temperature (dangerous bacteria love room temperature).
Expect thawing to take about 24 hrs for every 4-5 lbs. In a pinch, you can speed up the process by submerging the bird in cold water changed every 30 minutes. Making sure your turkey is fully defrosted is absolutely critical if you’re planning to deep fry it: Frozen turkey is a major risk factor for starting fires with your fryer. Just Google "Frozen Turkey in Deep Fryer" and watch some of the YouTube videos that pop up, if you're wondering exactly how major a risk.
Prep the turkey: neck and giblets
Save your giblets, minus the liver, for your gravy
Once it's defrosted, your first prep step is to remove the packaging and the giblets/neck from the turkey. Note that the neck is often in the main body cavity, and the bag of giblets in the neck cavity — so be sure to check both ends to make sure you've gotten everything! Do save these for your turkey gravy and/or stock (with the exception of the liver, which has an overpoweringly strong flavor); they can also be frozen for use at a later date if you don't need them right away.
Food safety experts recommend that you don’t rinse your turkey, as the splashing water is actually more likely to spread bacteria around your kitchen.
How to brine a turkey
Heavy-duty brining bags make prepping your bird a breeze
Turkey needs salt to bring out its flavor. While this can be as simple as seasoning with salt and black pepper just before cooking, a more time-consuming bath in saltwater brine — or a dry brine — also works wonders for the texture. With a wet or dry brine, the salt is absorbed into the turkey and begins to break down the protein, which makes it easier for the bird to hold onto moisture, leading to tender, juicy meat. If your turkey is kosher or has been treated, you’ll want to skip this step, as it’s already been treated with salt.
The basic brining process for a wet brine is to boil seasonings in saltwater to create a flavorful brine, bring it back to room temperature, and immerse your turkey in it for 24 hours. Special brining bags can be bought for this purpose, or you can simply use a clean bucket or large pot. You’ll need to make enough room in your refrigerator or a cooler with ice to hold the turkey and brine while it works its magic.
An alternative is what’s known as "dry brining," which involves rubbing a salt mixture over the outside and inside of a whole turkey. With this method, you leave the salted turkey uncovered in the refrigerator for 1-3 days (follow the recipe for how long). This allows the skin to dry, which helps produce crispy skin. While dry brining saves the hassle and mess of a wet brine, know that salt will initially draw out the juices from your turkey (which are then reabsorbed — yum, flavor!). Put your salt-rubbed bird in a pan while it rests, or you'll have a mess in your refrigerator.
Inside the salt shaker: What you need to know about salt
Salt is salt is salt … right? No! Most turkey recipes call for kosher salt, but there’s a big difference between the two leading American brands. Some recipes will specify which brand. Either is fine, but you’ll want to keep the following ratio in mind: 3 Tbsp. Diamond Crystal kosher salt = 1 1/2 Tbsp. Morton kosher salt. When in doubt, start with the lesser amount, and increase according to taste.
Some birds already have salt in them, either through injection or pre-salting. Read the label carefully ("self-basting” or “kosher” turkeys have added salt), and check the ingredients list. If it shows anything besides “turkey,” you’ve got a treated bird, and shouldn’t add additional salt.
The more salt in your bird, the more salt in the pan drippings. Taste as you go when making gravy, and substitute or dilute with broth if your drippings are too salty, and choose unsalted butter for more control. I learned this one the hard way!
How to prep a turkey: Get ready for the oven
Slather your turkey with plenty of butter for golden-brown skin
Thanksgiving Day often starts with an early wake-up call to preheat the oven and get the turkey inside. But before you do, there are a few final prep steps that need to be done (and a few more decisions to make!).
Remember: dry skin = crispy skin. Pat your turkey with paper towels to get it as dry as possible. Letting your turkey sit uncovered in the refrigerator for an hour or two while you start prepping other dishes can further dry out the skin. Drier skin will also help any butter and seasonings stick to the surface of your bird.
If dry skin is the key to crispness, then fat is the key to browning. Most recipes will instruct you to slather the bird with melted butter or olive oil, being sure to get under the skin as well as on the surface. You'll want to season your bird now as well. At minimum, add salt and black pepper to the cavity of the bird; better still is to add aromatics such as onion, herbs, and/or citrus.
The turkey should come to room temperature before you start cooking, so plan to have it out of the fridge at least an hour before you want it to go in the oven. Place your turkey breast side up, and put it on a roasting rack so that the bottom doesn’t get soggy. Keep about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch of liquid (wine, broth, or water are all fine) in the bottom of the pan during roasting to keep the juices from burning and to give you plenty of juice to baste the turkey with.
How to truss a turkey
How to truss a turkey in four simple steps
For a long time, I assumed that trussing poultry was both tricky and necessary — not so in either case! Take a look at the four simple steps above to see how it's done without a fuss.
Or skip the trussing altogether: Leaving a turkey untrussed can help the dark meat cook faster … which can be a boon if you’re trying not to overcook the more delicate breast meat.
So why do people truss a turkey? The two primary reasons are for presentation (it results in a neater looking bird) and to help hold in the stuffing. Whether you choose to truss your bird or not, be sure to tuck the wing tips under so the ends don't burn. Which brings us to your next big decision ...
To stuff or not to stuff?
Whether you fill your turkey with stuffing or bake it on the side in a casserole dish is often a matter of personal preference (and heated debate). Stuffing cooked inside the turkey may come out moister and more flavorful as it gets basted by the turkey drippings while it cooks. There are a lot of reasons to forego this particular tradition, however. First of all, a stuffed bird will take longer to cook, adding 30-60 minutes to your total cook time. The longer it takes to cook your turkey, the greater the chance of the breast meat drying out. No need to sacrifice the quality of your turkey when you can make a delicious stuffing on the side.
There are also important food safety concerns, as many people forget to check that the stuffing has come up to the required internal temperature of 165°F. All those flavorful juices basting the stuffing can harbor bacteria if not brought up to a high enough temperature. Food poisoning is no joke, and is not the kind of Thanksgiving memories you were hoping for! For this reason, cooking the stuffing inside the turkey cavity is not recommended by the USDA.
While it’s true that stuffing will expand while it cooks, as far as I can tell, the fear of stuffing causing your turkey to explode is little more than rural legend. But after a lifetime of hearing my grandmother fret about turkey combustion, I’m not taking any chances.
Bottom line, stuff the turkey at your own risk. If you must, be sure it’s all cooked to 165°F, don’t stuff your bird the night before, and don’t overpack the cavity.
Want to learn more about stuffing? Read our companion piece, Stuff It! Here Are All the Thanksgiving Stuffing Tips and Recipes You Need.
Where do you put the thermometer in a turkey?
On a whole turkey, the breast cooks faster than the thigh, and for that reason, many recipes direct you to put the thermometer in the thigh to ensure that both parts of the turkey are done. The problem is, it can be very difficult to find just the right part of the thigh!
For that reason, at Yummly we recommend that you put the thermometer in the thickest part of the breast not touching the bone. The Yummly app that you'll use with the Yummly Smart Thermometer includes an insertion guide that shows you the perfect location — and the thermometer accounts for all parts of the turkey to tell you when the entire bird is done.
What temp to cook a turkey
Some turkey recipes have you start at a higher oven temperature and then reduce the heat. Others start low and tell you to crank up the temp later. But most pick a single oven temperature. The general rule of thumb is to cook smaller turkeys (up to 14 pounds) at 350°F for the best browning. Cook larger turkeys (over 14 pounds) at 325°F for even cooking as well as beautiful browning.
How long does it take to cook a turkey?
The answer to how long to cook a turkey is, unfortunately, “it depends.” There are several factors that influence the total time it takes your turkey to cook fully, including:
Temperature: Are you baking it at 350°F? 325°F? How accurate is your oven? Are you maintaining a consistent temperature, or are you frequently opening the oven door and letting heat escape? Did your bird come to room temperature before going in the oven, or did it still have frost in the cavity?
Weight: A 10-pound turkey will take less time to cook than a 20-pound turkey.
Preparation: Is your turkey stuffed or unstuffed? Stuffed turkeys generally take half an hour or more longer to cook than their unstuffed counterparts. Are you using aluminum foil? A dark pan or a reflective pan? All of these will affect the total amount of time your bird takes to cook.
But don’t despair! Use these general guidelines to help gauge the timing so you can plan ahead.
How often do you baste a turkey?
Wait an hour for the skin to crisp up before you begin basting
Should you baste your turkey? The main purpose of basting is to brown the skin. If you’ve slathered your turkey with plenty of butter or olive oil, you may not need to baste it. Want to make sure the turkey has enough moisture? Again, if you’ve brined your turkey, then you won’t need to baste. In fact, all that opening and closing the oven door to baste will extend your cooking time, which can actually lead to a drier breast.
Myself, I just like basting. It’s kinda fun, to be honest. My game plan? I’ll baste when I have to open the oven door to put something else in, but otherwise let it be. If you do want to baste regularly, you’re best off waiting until the turkey has been in the oven for a full hour to finish drying out the skin so it can develop a satisfying crunch. Then you can start basting once every 30 minutes.
How do I know when my turkey is done?
You’ll hear a lot of ways to test a turkey for doneness, but the answer to this one is cut and dry (unlike your slowly roasting turkey). Take the temperature with an accurate meat thermometer. You'll know a whole turkey is done when it reaches about 175°F in the thickest part of the breast. At this temperature, the thickest part of the thigh will be about 165°F, since it cooks more slowly than the breast. Be sure not to touch the bone with your thermometer, as this can result in an inaccurate reading. If you're roasting a turkey breast only, cook it to 165°F.
How long to let a turkey rest
Once the bird is up to temperature, you'll need to let it rest so it can reabsorb its juices. Don't put a foil tent on top while it rests or the skin can become soggy. You’ll want to wait at least half an hour before carving your turkey; a quick test is that your bird shouldn’t be too hot to touch when you’re ready to carve. Larger turkeys will stay warm for quite some time — they can safely rest for up to 90 minutes. This gives you plenty of time to put together your gravy and finish off your side dishes.
How to carve a turkey
Carving isn’t hard to do — check out our turkey-carving video to see how (or to refresh your memory if it's been a year!). Turkey pros all seem to agree that carving your turkey is best left for the kitchen, not the dining table, so get your platter ready.
First cut off the legs and wings at the joints and set the wings on the platter. On a carving board, separate the legs into drumsticks and thighs. Add the drumsticks to the platter. Cut out the thigh bone, slice the meat across the grain, and add it to the platter. Now make a big cut underneath the turkey breast on one side of the turkey all the way to the breast bone in the middle of the turkey. Make a second cut straight down, just inside the breast bone to free the breast half. On the carving board, slice the meat across the grain, then arrange it on your platter. Repeat on the other breast half.
Once you’re done carving, don’t throw away that carcass! Making your own turkey stock is easy, delicious, and gives you a head start on a tasty leftover turkey soup.
How to avoid a dry turkey
At the risk of sounding obvious, the most important tip is not to overcook it! See "How do I know when my turkey is done?" Another tip: Try a wet or dry-brined turkey; brining helps lock the moisture in the meat, giving you leeway in case you accidentally overcook the bird.
How do I get brown, crispy skin?
There are several ways to achieve this. Some methods include:
Get the skin of the turkey as dry as possible. Pat with towels and/or leave uncovered in the refrigerator for several hours to let the cold air dry out the skin.
Brush the skin with a mixture of baking powder and oil. Use 1 1/2 tsp. oil for each tsp. of baking powder. Here's a recipe that uses the baking powder technique.
Slather the turkey skin with butter on both sides.
Baste your turkey.
Avoid covering the breast with foil until browning is complete; do not tent bird with foil while resting.
Favorite turkey recipes
Looking for recipe ideas? You've come to the right place! We pulled together this shortlist of favorites to get you started. Here are our top picks, whether you prefer your turkey whole, spatchcocked, or broken down in parts; brined or brine-free; deep-fried, smoked, or a classic roast turkey.
Now sit back and enjoy your meal! And let someone else do the dishes.
More Thanksgiving resources for turkey and all the trimmings
In these next articles, we've got plenty more helpings of turkey for you, as well as options for the rest of the meal!