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 a timeline with all the steps you need to learn how to cook a turkey—and provided expert tips along the way.
Psst! Not Thanksgiving yet? This basic timeline works for any turkey-roasting day.
The Week Before Thanksgiving
Selecting 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. The earlier you shop, the better your choices will be.
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.
Test Kitchen tip: This is a smart time to start gathering ingredients for stuffing, cranberry sauce and green bean casserole. Check out our best traditional Thanksgiving recipes, here.
Thawing the Turkey
Don’t forget to thaw! 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 five days before the big feast. Move it to the fridge for safe thawing.
Test Kitchen tip: Set a calendar alert on your phone immediately after buying the turkey to remind you when you need to thaw.
Craft Your Secret Weapon
Set yourself up for success with this brilliant 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.
The Day Before Thanksgiving
A Bit of Dirty Work
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 area.
Test Kitchen tip: Save the neck. It’s the key to making some seriously good gravy.
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.
At last, the big day has arrived! Plan on starting the turkey recipe at least four hours before you sit down for dinner, or earlier depending on the size of your bird. Follow this guide to learn how to cook a basic turkey. (Want to kick it up a notch? We’ve got plenty of flavorful turkey recipes, here.)
How to Cook a Turkey
Turkey neck and roughly chopped onion, celery and carrots (optional)
Broiler and roasting pan
Step 1: Bring Out the Bird
Remove the turkey from the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes. The turkey will cook more evenly by warming up a bit.
Test Kitchen tip: This is the perfect time to preheat the oven to 425°.
Step 2: Set Up the Pan
Instead of the standard roasting pan, we’ve found it best to set the turkey atop a broiler pan. This way, the turkey’s sides and thighs will be better exposed to the heat.
Optional: 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. The veggies will help flavor the drippings as well as help protect them from evaporating away in the oven.
Step 3: Dry and Add Seasoning
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.
Step 4: Pin the Skin
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 allover golden brown glow.
Step 5: Get Roasting
At last! Grab your oven mitts, because it’s time to cook that turkey. Check out our roasting chart, below, for approximate cooking times.
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.
We’ve found it best to start by roasting the 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, we’ll reduce the oven temperature to 325-350° for the remainder of the roasting time.
Test Kitchen tip: 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.
Turkey Roasting Temps & Times
The roasting times provided in this chart are for defrosted poultry that is refrigerator cold.
|Type of Turkey
(Minutes per Pound)
|Oven Temp||Doneness Temp|
|Turkey, Whole||8 to 12 lbs.||15 to 20||325°||170° to 175°|
|12 to 14 lbs.||15 to 17||325°||170° to 175°|
|14 to 18 lbs.||14 to 16||325°||170° to 175°|
|18 to 20 lbs.||13 to 14||325°||170° to 175°|
|20 to 24 lbs.||12 to 13-1/2||325°||170° to 175°|
|Turkey Breast, Whole||4 to 6 lbs.||22 to 30||325°||165°|
|Turkey Breast, Half||1-3/4 to 3-1/2 lbs.||35 to 40||325°||165°|
|Turkey Breast, Roast||1-1/4 to 1-3/4 lbs.||45 to 60||325°||165°|
*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°.
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, you’re cooling the oven as well as the outside of the turkey. 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 6: Check It
During the last 30 minutes of the roasting time, take a peek at the bird (without opening the door, if possible). If the bird is starting to darken, pop on that aluminum shield you made the week before. This will prevent the breast from overbrowning. Score!
Step 7: Check the Temperature and Remove
When you feel confident that the bird is close to finished, check its temperature using an instant-read thermometer. 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. Learn more about it, here. By removing the bird early, you’re actually ensuring that it doesn’t overcook or dry out.
Step 8: Let It Rest
After you take the turkey out of the oven, let it stand for 20 to 30 minutes before carving. Need help? Follow our best turkey carving tips.
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: 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.