How to Cook a Turkey: Your Step-by-Step Guide
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Want to learn how to cook a turkey? We've nailed down the perfect method. Our Test Kitchen pros walk you step-by-step through buying, prepping and roasting a turkey.
This is it! Your step-by-step guide to the juiciest, crispiest, most golden bird Thanksgiving’s ever seen. Our Taste of Home Test Kitchen has tested, retested and tested this technique again to ensure your bird is nothing but holiday perfection. We’ve laid out all the steps you need to learn how to cook a turkey in the oven—and provided expert turkey tips along the way.
Buy a Turkey
For the sake of convenience, we recommend starting with a frozen turkey. Plan to head to the store at least five days before you roast—or earlier, due to turkey shortages. Or, you could also choose to order a turkey for Thanksgiving. In either case, the earlier you shop, the better your choices will be. This guide will walk you through the different types of turkey you can buy.
When choosing a frozen turkey, size matters. A typical 14-pound bird serves 16 people. Want to assure yourself of those valuable leftovers? Add an extra pound or two. Here are more turkey buying tips that’ll help you choose the right bird for you. We’ve also got a guide on how much turkey to make per person.
Test Kitchen Tip: Five days ahead is a smart time to start gathering ingredients for stuffing, cranberry sauce and green bean casserole too. Keep our best traditional Thanksgiving recipes in mind as you plan.
Thaw the Turkey
Don’t forget to budget time for thawing! Every 4 pounds of frozen turkey will need 24 hours of thawing time. For a 14-pound bird, plan on pulling the turkey from the freezer 5 days before the big feast. Move it to the fridge for safe thawing. Take a look at our step-by-step instructions for how to defrost a turkey the right way.
Test Kitchen Tip: Set a calendar alert on your phone immediately after buying the turkey to remind you when you need to thaw.
Make an Oven Shield
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Set yourself up for success with this tip: While the turkey is still in its packaging, devise an oven shield out of aluminum foil. (This will help protect the bird from overbrowning when it comes time to roast!) Mold a few sheets of foil around the breast area, then set aside in a safe place until roasting day.
Prepare the Turkey
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The day before Thanksgiving, peel the bird from its packaging and remove all of the giblets (those meaty pieces) from inside the turkey. They tend to hide out deep inside the bird. Next, remove and toss any large pockets of fat along the neck. And by the way, here’s why you should not wash your turkey before cooking it.
Now the fun starts: Give your bird the rubdown with an ample amount of salt (preferably kosher). Massage it all over the outside of the turkey. This is the secret to getting that extra-crispy skin we all crave on the holidays. Return the bird to the fridge when you’ve finished.
Test Kitchen Tip: Save the neck when removing the giblets. It’s the key to making some seriously good gravy. Speaking of, these are the best gravy boats for you Thanksgiving table.
How do I make my turkey moist?
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There are many tips for roasting a moist turkey, but one of our favorite methods is brining. This process involves soaking the turkey in a water, salt and herb solution overnight to infuse the bird with moisture and flavor. Here’s more on how to brine a turkey, if you want to try it out. Another method used to lock in the juice and flavor is to use a turkey roasting oven bag.
Another way to add moisture to a turkey is by stuffing it with aromatics like apples, citrus, vegetables and herbs, rather than stuffing. As the turkey roasts, the aromatics will break down and boost the bird’s moisture. Here are more things you can put in your turkey that aren’t stuffing.
Allowing the turkey to rest after it has been roasted is also a good tip. This allows the juices to redistribute in the turkey and prevent them from running out when carved.
Cook the Turkey
Once Thanksgiving has finally arrived, plan on starting the turkey in the oven at least four hours before you sit down for dinner, or earlier depending on the size of your bird. Follow our guide below to learn the best way to cook a turkey. We used this herb-brined turkey recipe, but you can apply this technique other flavorful turkey recipes, too.
How to Cook a Turkey in the Oven
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- Whole turkey
- Turkey neck
- Roughly chopped onion, celery and carrots (optional)
Tools You’ll Need
- Roasting pan: This sturdy roasting pan is Test Kitchen approved—and dishwasher safe! Check out our other picks for the best roasting pans.
- Meat thermometer: This probe thermometer will alert you exactly when your turkey comes up to temperature. It’s much more reliable than the pop-up timers that come with turkeys.
- Toothpicks: Your basic toothpick will help keep the turkey’s skin from shrinking and exposing the meat.
Here are some more turkey tools you might find handy this Thanksgiving.
Step 1: Bring out the turkey
Remove the turkey from the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes. The turkey will cook more evenly by letting it warm up a bit before popping it in the oven.
Test Kitchen Tip: This is the perfect time to preheat the oven to 425°F.
Step 2: Set up the pan
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The best homemade gravy comes from tasty pan drippings. For this to happen, you’ll want to add veggies like roughly chopped onion, celery and carrots to the bottom of the pan along with the turkey neck and gizzards. Cover with the perforated rack or grill grate. The veggies will help flavor the drippings, as well as help protect them from evaporating away in the oven.
Test Kitchen Tip: If you don’t have a standard roasting pan, feel free to use a broiler pan. The cooking turkey will be exposed to the heat just as well as a proper roasting pan.
Step 3: Season the turkey
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Pat the turkey dry with paper towels, and then rub with a little more salt and your favorite seasonings. (We love the mix listed in this roasted sage turkey recipe.) If you have fresh herbs, add a handful to the cavity, along with some wine or water. It helps keep the turkey moist and also flavors the drippings, making great-tasting gravy later. Here are some more ideas for how to season a turkey.
Test Kitchen Tip: Instead of using paper towels, try this surprising trick for crispy turkey skin.
Can I season my turkey the night before?
Yes, you can season a turkey the night before you roast it. In fact, adding the seasonings the night before can actually help the flavors infuse more deeply into the bird.
Step 4: Secure the skin
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Our food stylists’ best-kept secret: Use toothpicks to secure the skin to the inside of the bird near the legs. This step helps make the bird look extra-glamorous when it has finished cooking.
Step 5: Oil it up
For the last touches, rub the skin with oil. (Yep, we prefer to use oil instead of butter!) Canola, vegetable or olive oil all work well. This helps give the bird crispier skin and an all-over golden brown glow.
Step 6: Get roasting
At last! Grab your oven mitts, because it’s time to cook the turkey. Check out our roasting chart below for approximate cooking times.
We’ve found it best to start by roasting turkey at a high temperature (425°) to help speed up the cooking time. (This also helps to make the legs and thighs extra crispy!) About 40 minutes in, reduce the oven temperature to 325-350° for the remainder of the roasting time.
Test Kitchen Tip: Slide the turkey into the oven legs first. The reason? Oven temps are often warmer near the back. This way, the thighs will get the higher heat they need, while the breast cooks in the lower heat by the door. Also, try to resist the urge to peek inside the oven while the turkey’s roasting. Opening the door cools the oven, adding extra cooking time.
How long do you cook a turkey for?
Not sure how long to bake a turkey? The roasting times provided in this chart are for defrosted poultry that is refrigerator cold.
We don’t recommend stuffing the turkey, but if you insist on doing so, add 15 to 45 minutes to the roasting time. The temperature of the stuffing must read at least 165°.
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But what about basting?
We know Grandma lovingly basted her turkeys over and over, saying it would keep the meat juicy. However, the opposite is true. Each time you open the door while baking a turkey, you’re cooling the oven as well as the outside of the bird. This means the turkey will take longer to cook. More time in the oven causes the meat to dry out and the skin to become soggy instead of crispy.
Step 7: Check the temperature and remove
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When you feel confident that the bird is close to finished, check its temperature using an instant-read thermometer (we use this thermometer and timer combo from ThermoWorks). Insert the pin of the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, being careful not to come into contact with the bone (this will throw off the reading!).
Remove the turkey from the oven when the internal temperature is 5 degrees below the desired doneness. Don’t worry, it’ll still be safe to eat. Turkeys continue to cook even after being removed from the oven in a process known as carryover cooking. By removing the bird early, you’re actually ensuring that it doesn’t overcook or dry out.
Step 8: Let It Rest
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After you take the turkey out of the oven, let it stand for 20 to 30 minutes before carving.
Test Kitchen Tip: We’ve found that you don’t need to cover it with foil during standing as many recipes tell you to do. This traps steam between the foil and the skin, causing it to get soggy. We promise it will stay warm.
Step 9: Make the turkey gravy
While the turkey is resting, turn those turkey drippings into a flavorful homemade gravy. To do so, pour the drippings into a 2-cup measuring glass and skim off the fat. Add enough broth to the remaining drippings to fill the measuring glass to the 2 cup mark. Transfer the dripping and broth to a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
In a small bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of milk together until smooth and then slowly whisk the slurry into the drippings. Season the gravy with 1 teaspoon of chicken bouillon granules, 1/4 teaspoon of poultry seasoning and a dash of white pepper. Bring the gravy back to a boil and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes or until thickened.
Step 10: Carve the turkey
One of the most important parts of cooking a turkey is knowing how to carve a turkey the right way. Not only does proper carving make your turkey pieces look the best they can, it helps prevent the turkey from getting tough and chewy. Watch the video above or look at this guide to learn how to carve a turkey.
Step 11: Enjoy!
There’s only one thing left to do—dig in! This crispy, golden brown wonder will steal the show and delight friends and family. Give yourself a pat on the back and enjoy the spoils.
In the days after Thanksgiving, repurpose any leftovers into these delicious leftover turkey recipes, including soups, sandwiches, casseroles and much more. Need a break from Thanksgiving flavors? No worries, just make sure you know how long leftovers are good for.
Best Turkey Cooking Methods
Roast turkey is delicious, but that’s not your only option. Here are our favorite alternative ways to cook a turkey.
- Deep-fried turkey: Probably the most popular cooking method next to roasting, deep-fried turkey is crisp, juicy and so much fun to make. A deep-fried turkey means tender, juicy meat that’s ready in a fraction of the time.
- Smoked turkey: Rich, tender and slightly sweet, a smoked turkey is one of the most delicious ways to cook a turkey. Smoking is largely hands-off, too, so you can focus on your other dinner dishes while it cooks.
- Grilled turkey: If you’re not ready to give up the chargrilled flavor of summer barbecue, try grilling your Thanksgiving turkey. Hello, grill marks!
- Slow-cooked turkey: Best for those hosting Thanksgiving for the first time, a slow-cooked turkey is so easy to make. Plus, you can use the drippings to make homemade gravy.
- Instant Pot turkey: Need turkey ASAP? Cooking turkey breast, legs and/or thighs in the Instant Pot can get your main dish on the table in an hour or less.
- Air-fryer turkey: For those who don’t have the space or equipment to deep fry a turkey but still want that crispy skin, air-frying turkey breast, legs and/or thighs is a great solution.
Not Thanksgiving yet? These steps work for any turkey-roasting day!