Thanksgiving is nigh, which means it’s time to talk turkey. If you’re a newbie, or just need a refresher, we have everything you need to know about how to cook a turkey—with tips on what size turkey you should buy, how long it’ll take to cook, when you should defrost it, and what tools you need to pull the whole thing off. Plus, what to do if you mess it up (because, hey, it happens).
Caveat: There are countless methods for roasting a Thanksgiving turkey (and that’s before you even get into smoked turkey and deep fried turkey), but we’re going with one of the most basic because it always works.
What Size Turkey Do You Need?
A fairly standard 12-15 pound turkey will feed between 6-8 people as part of a meal, so scale up or down as needed. Generally, you should budget 1 pound per person, or up to 2 pounds per person if you want to have leftover turkey.
How and When to Thaw a Turkey
Don’t forget this step! Unless you buy a fresh heritage bird, your turkey will come frozen solid. Thawing a turkey will take anywhere from 1 to 6 days, so plan accordingly, and see our full guide on how to thaw turkey (with times, methods, and what to do if you forget—you can cook it from frozen, but it will take longer and isn’t ideal).
You can keep the turkey in the fridge for another 2 days once it’s thawed, so feel free to start a day earlier than you think you need to, and plan for another day of resting before you actually plan to cook (you’ll see why below).
How Long to Cook a Turkey
Total cooking time depends, of course, on the size of your bird, and a meat thermometer will always be your best friend when it comes to being certain it’s cooked to the proper temperature (165-170°F). That said, here are some general guidelines based on an oven temperature of 350°F, our preferred temperature to roast turkey.
How long to cook a 12 pound turkey – 14 pound turkey: About 3 hours at 350°F (start checking a bit sooner to ensure it doesn’t dry out)
How long to cook a 15 pound turkey – 18 pound turkey: About 3.5 to 4 hours at 350°F (start checking a bit sooner to ensure it doesn’t dry out)
How long to cook an 18 pound turkey – 20 pound turkey: About 4 to 4.5 hours at 350°F (start checking a bit sooner to ensure it doesn’t dry out)
How long to cook a 21 pound turkey – 24 pound turkey: About 4.5 to 5 hours at 350°F (start checking a bit sooner to ensure it doesn’t dry out)
If you prefer a higher heat method, it will obviously take less time, but you run the risk of burning the skin; that holds true with the “start high, then lower the heat” method too. We do that sometimes (see our Herbed Roast Turkey recipe), but generally prefer to keep the oven at the same temperature throughout because it’s the least fussy method, and reliable too.
We do start it upside down in an effort to get a totally moist turkey, but you don’t necessarily have to do that.
How & Why to Brine a Turkey
This is another optional step, but we always prefer to brine a turkey the day before roasting it. It needs to be fully defrosted first, and then you can either wet brine or dry brine the bird. The recipe below goes with the dry method because it’s easier than dealing with gallons of liquid, but the salt rub achieves the same thing: juicy meat that’s well seasoned.
A word of caution: Brining too long can have the very opposite effect and dry out your turkey. And if you’re cooking a Butterball you don’t need to brine it; most supermarket birds have been pre-injected with a salt solution.
What You Need to Cook a Turkey
For a basic roast turkey recipe, you don’t need much in the way of special ingredients or equipment, but a roasting pan with a roasting rack is a must*, and a turkey baster or brush and meat thermometer also come in handy.
Cuisinart Chef's Classic Stainless Steel 16-Inch Roasting Pan with Rack, $42 on Amazon
Large enough to roast a 20 pound turkey.
Tovolo Dripless Baster, $8.95 on Amazon
An angled tip makes drawing up juices easier.
Thermapen Mk4, $99 at ThermoWorks
Take your turkey's temperature to be sure it's done.
*If you don’t have a proper roasting pan with a rack, you’re better off not buying one of those disposable aluminum pans (they can be a fire hazard). Iinstead, you can hack it with a baking sheet and roughly cut veggies (or some less-tasty but still functional aluminum foil). See how to cook turkey without a roasting pan.
How to Season a Turkey
As for the raw ingredients, besides the turkey itself, you need some herbs, spices, and aromatics. The below list is a great starting place, but you can improvise as you like. Poultry seasoning is fine as long as it’s fresh (do not use the bottle left over from last year), but we prefer fresh herbs. Here’s a basic shopping list for turkey seasonings:
- a 12- to 15-pound turkey
- kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper
- vegetable oil (or olive oil)
- a half stick of butter, softened to room temperature
- fresh sage
- fresh thyme leaves
- bay leaf (several leaves if fresh, just one or two if dried)
- half a lemon
- half an onion, cut into four pieces
- one celery stick, cut into three pieces
How to Cook a Turkey
1. The day before you want to roast your turkey, make sure it’s defrosted, then remove the contents from the cavity. Discard the giblets (heart, liver, and gizzard) unless you like them for gravy or stuffing (or want to cook them for your pets). Reserve the neck!
2. Rub the thawed turkey all over with several generous pinches of salt, including a few under the skin covering the breast.
3. Place turkey on a platter or baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until the next day. This improves the flavor of the bird and helps it stay juicy. You can skip the plastic wrap if you like (the drier the skin, the better it will brown and crisp), but be sure nothing else in the fridge touches the raw turkey.
4. The next day, preheat the oven to 350°F and place a rack in the lower third. It will take about 20 minutes for the oven to come to temperature. Meanwhile, remove the turkey from the fridge and prepare it for roasting per the next steps.
5. Pat the turkey dry inside and out with paper towels and tuck the wing tips back and underneath. Rub a generous amount of vegetable oil inside the cavity, all over the outside, and under the skin, then season well with salt and pepper, including inside the cavity.
6. Mix the fresh herbs into the softened butter, break it into small chunks, and place them under the skin covering the breast. Put the lemon, onion, celery, and bay leaf inside the cavity. (That’s it, no stuffing; food safety police strongly advise against cooking stuffing inside the turkey, and when you cook it separately, you get more crusty surface area, anyway.)
7. Place the turkey breast side down on the roasting rack, and put the reserved neck in the bottom of the pan for extra flavor. Roast in the oven for 45 minutes, basting the turkey every 20 minutes once the pan juices start to accumulate.
8. After 45 minutes, flip the turkey onto its back and continue to baste and roast for about 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
9. When a meat thermometer inserted into the inner thigh registers 170°F and the juices run clear, remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest 20 to 30 minutes before carving. If you’re planning on making your own turkey gravy, be sure to set aside the roasting pan and reserve both the vegetables from inside the bird’s cavity and the neck.
Even easier: If you don’t want to deal with flipping the turkey, you can simply roast it in the normal position for the entire cook time; just baste the breast often to ensure it doesn’t dry out, and tent the pan with foil if the skin starts to brown too soon before the meat is done (but remove the foil to get a nice crisp skin in the final few minutes of cooking). Or try the butter-soaked cheesecloth trick; this is preferred by many since when you’re basting, you lower the oven temperature every time you open the door.
But what happens if you forget to thaw your turkey? You can go right ahead and cook that frozen turkey. It will take a longer time than usual, though, so plan accordingly (and be sure to have snacks on hand to stave off hangry mutiny among your guests).
If you’re afraid of getting raw turkey juice or butter smears on your phone or tablet screen, print out our original step-by-step turkey roasting PDF (illustrated by Bill Russell) and put it on your fridge.
If you want to try a bit of butchery, spatchcock the turkey before you roast it—this helps it cook faster and more evenly, and results in juicy white meat and lots of crisp skin. Plus, it’s fun to say. If you go this route, no need to start the turkey breast-side down, and check it earlier than you normally would, since it will be done sooner.
How to Fix Overcooked Turkey
How to Fix Undercooked Turkey
If your deceptively golden-brown turkey turns out to be raw inside, here’s how to quickly fix undercooked turkey. Hint: Don’t just shove it back in the oven and hope for the best.
For more tips, tricks, and recipes, see our Ultimate Guide to Thanksgiving.
Header image by Chowhound