Five Simple Rules to Cook the Perfect Turkey


The Spruce Eats / Victoria Heydt

That a juicy, perfectly cooked turkey is difficult for the novice cook to achieve is the biggest myth in all of American cookery. There is nothing to fear, but the fear of dry turkey itself.

By following these five basic rules, you will guarantee a moist, delicious, and beautiful turkey every time. Proceed with confidence, joy, and the knowledge that since you are cooking the turkey, you won't have to wash any dishes!


Watch Now: How to Roast a Perfect Turkey

Don't Stuff the Turkey

Cooking your dressing stuffed inside the turkey is a bad idea for several reasons. Due to the shape of the cavity, the stuffing may not cook evenly, and except for the small amount that sticks out of the end, it doesn't get all browned and crusty. What good is stuffing that's not browned and crusty on top?

Even more importantly, by the time the center of the stuffing is cooked to a safe temperature, parts of the turkey will be overcooked and dry. If you want that classic look, simply spoon the dressing (cooked separately) into the cavity when you bring the turkey to the table. Who'll know?

tips for cooking turkey
Illustration: Maritsa Patrinos. © The Spruce, 2019

Season the Turkey Inside, Outside, and Under the Skin

No matter what herbs and spices you decide to use, the best way to get tasty turkey is to generously season it everywhere possible. A 20-lb turkey is a lot of meat—a teaspoon of salt and pepper sprinkled over the top is not going to do it.

Generously rub salt and pepper inside the cavity, along with whatever other herbs and spices you're using).

You can also push seasoned butter or olive oil under the skin of the breast, and around the thighs. You can use your fingers, or push a thin silicone spatula under the skin to separate it from the meat. This not only flavors the turkey but also helps keep it moist and juicy.

Lastly, rub the outside skin of the turkey with butter or oil, and season with salt and pepper. This triple application of flavor will mean an end to bland birds.

Keep the Wings Tucked, Legs Tied, Breasts Covered

A properly prepped turkey will go a long way to ensure a successful roasting and a very attractive bird. These three steps are fast and easy but make a huge difference.

Pull the wing tips forward and tuck them under the breasts so they don't burn. This also keeps the turkey sitting nice and straight.

After seasoning, tie the legs together with kitchen string or dental floss (plain, not minty fresh). This important step will ensure even cooking and a beautifully shaped turkey.

Loosely cover the breasts with a piece of foil. This will help keep the turkey moist and prevent the breasts from getting too brown. Remove the foil for the last hour of roasting to brown the skin.

Cook Low and Slow in a Moist, Aromatic Oven

Leave the turkey out for one hour before roasting to take the chill off. Cut two carrots, two ribs of celery, and an onion into large chunks. Place on the bottom of your roasting pan. Place the turkey, breast-side up on top of the vegetables.

Add about a half-inch of liquid (water or stock) to the roasting pan. This will keep the oven moist, and the turkey juicy. This aromatic liquid can be used to baste the turkey while it cooks (there is a debate whether basting does anything, but it's part of the tradition). Also, the pan drippings will be even more flavorful if you're planning to make gravy.

Roast at 325 F, for approximately 15-20 minutes per pound. This is just an estimate; use a meat thermometer to get a perfect doneness.

Remove the turkey when it reads 165 F in the thickest part of the thigh meat.

Cooking Times to Know

Here is an approximate turkey cooking time guide for roasting at 325 F from the USDA:

  • 8 to 12 lbs: 2 3/4 to 3 hours
  • 12 to 14 lbs: 3 to 3 3/4 hours
  • 14 to 18 lbs: 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
  • 18 to 20 lbs: 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
  • 20 to 24 lbs: 4 1/2 to 5 hours

Now, if you've followed the procedures above, you are about to cut into the most delicious, juiciest turkey you've ever had, but STOP! You must let the turkey rest for AT LEAST 20 minutes.​ A rested turkey is a delicious turkey. 

When you remove it from the oven, cover it very loosely with foil, and go about getting your ​side dishes to the table (or have a glass of wine and delegate). Don't worry, it won't get cold; a covered 20-lb turkey will stay hot for over 40 minutes, so don't rush it.

Letting it rest not only gives you time to finish the gravy, and the rest of the meal but also allows the juices in the turkey to redistribute, which is the secret to moist, tender meat. Once the bird has rested, you can now start carving that turkey.

Congratulations! It's time to give thanks, and enjoy!