How to Cook a Turkey

Cranberry Yogurt Parfait
Marcus Nilsson
Whether you're hosting Thanksgiving for the first time or you just want a turkey refresher, this poultry primer covers everything you need to know to make the perfect bird this holiday season. Think of it as your ultimate guide to Thanksgiving turkey. 
Linda Pugliese
Linda Pugliese

What Size Turkey Should I Buy?

One easy equation will help you determine what size bird to purchase. Plan on about 1½ pounds per person to allow for a hearty holiday meal with plenty of leftovers. If you're worried about family members fighting over the coveted drumsticks, consider buying two smaller turkeys instead of one large one. 

Shutterstock
Shutterstock

Turkey Types

There are seemingly endless options when it comes to buying a bird, and understanding the labels is half the battle. We've broken down the most common options, so you can pick the right type of turkey for your family.

Fresh: A fresh turkey has never been chilled below 26°F. One of the largest benefits of buying a fresh turkey is that it requires no thawing. But keep in mind that it only lasts one to three days in the refrigerator.

Frozen: A frozen turkey has been chilled below 0°F. Some stores sell frozen birds that have already been defrosted; these are labeled "previously frozen." Frozen turkeys are generally much more affordable than fresh.

Kosher:  Kosher turkeys are slaughtered and processed under rabbinical supervision. These birds are already salted when you buy them. If you go with kosher, you'll want to skip any brining and be careful when seasoning to avoid over-salting.

Self-Basting: A turkey that is labeled "self-basting" has been injected with a mixture of salt, flavorings, and water that help keep it moist throughout cooking. There is little prep involved when using a self-basting bird (it is essentially pre-seasoned), but much of what has been injected is plain water, which can dilute the flavor. Plus, you have little control over how much your turkey is seasoned.

Organic: You can be certain that turkeys with an organic label will have consumed only 100% organic feed. The label also indicates that the bird has been given access to the outdoors, but that regulation isn't closely monitored.

Heritage: Most turkeys purchased in supermarkets are of the same breed: the Broad Breasted White. As its name implies, this type of bird has more breast meat than other breeds do. Small farmers are raising alternative "heritage" breeds that have a higher percentage of dark meat, and they are typically considered more flavorful. Though there are no set regulations for processing heritage turkeys, they are frequently free-range and humanely raised.

Shutterstock
Shutterstock

Storage and Defrosting

A cold refrigerator is always important for keeping food fresh and safe to eat, but even more so when you're the one responsible for feeding a crowd. Make sure your fridge is set at or below 40°F. Keep your frozen turkey in its original wrapper and set on a rimmed baking sheet (to catch any drips) toward the back of your fridge. Plan for 24 hours of defrosting for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey.

To defrost faster, submerge the turkey in cold tap water in the original wrapping. Be sure to change the water every 30 minutes to avoid harmful bacteria growth. Allow for approximately 30 minutes of defrosting for every pound of turkey. Once your bird is thoroughly defrosted, don't forget to check both the body and the neck cavity for the bags of giblets!

Shutterstock
Shutterstock

To Brine or Not to Brine?

Lean meat like turkey tends to dry out during cooking. The simple method of brining helps keep your turkey moist and at the same time seasons the bird. Traditional brining involves submerging your turkey in a saltwater solution for 12 to 18 hours. Use approximately 1¼ cups kosher salt per gallon of water.

An even easier method for brining (one that doesn't involve finding a vessel large enough to fully submerge your turkey!) is known as dry brining. To dry brine, generously coat your turkey with salt and let it sit uncovered in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours.  (Use approximately 1 tablespoon of kosher salt for every 5 pounds of turkey.)

Whether you are wet-brining or dry-brining, remember that the turkey needs to be refrigerated during the brining process.

Not into brining? No worries. Your turkey can still be delicious.

Gemma Comas
Gemma Comas

To Stuff or Not to Stuff?

Cooking stuffing inside of your turkey makes for a flavorful and moist dish, but it has risks and limitations. A major concern is bacteria from the raw turkey transferring to the stuffing. To reduce this risk, stuff your bird right before cooking, not ahead of time. Be careful not to overstuff the turkey, as stuffing will expand as it bakes. Most important, check the temperature of your stuffing to make sure it is done. Thoroughly cooked stuffing should register 165°F on an instant-read thermometer.

To avoid any bacteria risk, you may choose to cook your stuffing separately. Besides safety, an advantage to cooking stuffing in a casserole dish is that you can prepare more of the crowd-pleasing side since you're not limited by the size of the turkey's cavity. To add extra flavor, baste your stuffing with the cooked turkey juices.

A third option is to bake some of the stuffing in the turkey and the rest on the side.

Whether you stuff or not, try our fruit-and-nut-studded recipe.

Kate Sears
Kate Sears

Simple Seasoning

For a simple but classic holiday turkey, your bird needs little more than a nice sprinkling of salt and pepper all over before cooking. (If you've brined your bird, you won't need to salt the turkey again.)  If you want to up the flavor ante with fresh herbs such as chopped rosemary, sage, or thyme, try mixing them into softened butter, then rubbing them under the skin of the turkey. This adds loads of flavor to the meat and keeps the herbs from burning. 

Gemma Comas
Gemma Comas

Roasting Right

While you could grill or deep-fry, roasting is by far the most popular way to cook a turkey on Thanksgiving.

Set your defrosted and prepped turkey on a V-rack fitted inside a roasting pan and preheat your oven to 450°F.

Pour about 2 cups of liquid such as broth, apple cider, or water into the bottom of your roasting pan.

Place the turkey in the oven and reduce the heat to 350°F. Plan for about 12 minutes of cooking per pound of turkey, but start testing your bird with an instant-read thermometer about halfway through cooking to gauge how long it is taking. After the bird has been in the oven for an hour, baste it every 30 minutes or so with the pan drippings. If the breast starts to burn, tent with foil.

Want your turkey to cook even faster? Try butterflying it! Get step-by-step instructions.

Watch as Parents contributor Jenna Helwig shares her tips and tricks for roasting.

Tips for Better Roasting

Whether it's a turkey, another cut of meat, or a pan of vegetables, these are our best tips and tricks for roasting foods your family will love.

Gemma Comas
Gemma Comas

Is It Done Yet?

Turkey meat is done when it registers 165°F on an instant-read thermometer. Be sure to stick the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, avoiding the bone. Transfer the turkey to a cutting board (reserve the drippings in the pan for gravy), tent with foil, and let it rest at least 30 minutes before you carve it. This allows the juices to reabsorb into the meat. 

Gemma Comas
Gemma Comas

Gravy Train

For some folks, the Thanksgiving meal isn't complete without a drizzle of homemade gravy over the top of their plate. Use the reserved turkey drippings for the best flavor. Our foolproof recipe comes together quickly while your turkey rests. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt or pepper if necessary. 

Gemma Comas
Gemma Comas

3 Common Mistakes to Avoid This Thanksgiving

Rinsing Your Turkey:

For many years, recipes instructed us to wash our turkey inside and out before prepping and cooking. Today, the USDA advises us not to rinse our poultry at all, claiming that rinsing does little more than spread bacteria around our kitchen.

Cooking a Wet Bird:

If your turkey is wet when it goes in the oven, it is nearly impossible to get the skin to crisp. For a showstopping turkey, let it sit uncovered at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes before roasting. If you still see moisture on the skin, pat dry with paper towels before cooking.

Using a Bad Thermometer:

Many turkeys come with a plastic pop-up thermometer already inserted. Our advice to you: Ignore it completely. These thermometers are unreliable at best, and worst of all, they're set to pop between 180°F and 185°F, thereby ensuring that your bird will be overcooked. So while it may seem convenient to just wait for the button to pop, you're much better off buying an inexpensive instant-read thermometer and testing the temperature yourself. Remember, your turkey is fully cooked at 165°F.

Marcus Nilsson
Marcus Nilsson

Love Your Leftovers

The only thing better than the Thanksgiving meal itself is the leftovers! Enjoy each dish as is, or try a creative new preparation, such as this Cranberry Yogurt Parfait, with our ideas for using up holiday leftovers.

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