Cooking a Turkey for Beginners

A Step-By-Step Guide to Roasting Your First Bird

turkey for beginners

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  • 01 of 13

    Cook a Perfect Turkey

    Oven-roasted Thanksgiving turkey on a platter with apples
    mphillips007 / Getty Images

    Cooking a whole turkey is a daunting task for both novice and skilled chefs alike. The size of the bird is intimidating, of course, but there are also the family expectations, holiday traditions, and a whole host of other factors (such as having to cook several other dishes at the same time) that can overcomplicate matters. Ease some of this kitchen stress by learning how to cook a roasted whole turkey with confidence.

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  • 02 of 13

    Choose the Right Turkey

    Young couple grocery shopping for frozen turkey
    kupicoo / Getty Images

    Knowing how big a bird to buy may be one of the more unnerving steps when it comes to cooking a turkey. The general rule of thumb is one pound per person, but if you would like leftovers or have a few big eaters in the group, you'll want to increase that to 1 1/2 to 2 pounds per person.

    You also may come across a few different choices when it comes to whole turkeys: fresh or frozen; organic, free range, or kosher; brined or seasoned. If you buy frozen, just remember to put the turkey in the refrigerator for a few days before you plan to cook it—it will take many hours to defrost. Whether you choose organic, free range, or kosher is a personal preference as it will not affect how you cook the bird. Since you are a novice, stick to a plain turkey this time around, avoiding any that are brined or seasoned.

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  • 03 of 13

    Collect the Supplies

    Whole roasted turkey on a platter with fruits and sprigs of rosemary

    Grace Clementine / Getty Images

    You don't need a lot of ingredients or equipment to roast the perfect turkey besides the bird, seasoning, and a roasting pan. The most important thing to note is that you need a large enough roasting pan to hold your turkey. If yours isn't big enough or you don't own one, purchase a disposable aluminum roaster at the grocery store. There should be enough room around the bird that it doesn't touch the sides of the pan. 

    When roasting a turkey, many recipes call for tying the turkey's legs together. This is optional, so if you choose to do this, you will need some kitchen twine, which can be found at the grocery store. Also, most turkeys come with a pop-up timer, but it is always best to have your own meat thermometer to determine if the turkey is done. 

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  • 04 of 13

    Gather the Ingredients

    Chopped carrots, celery, leeks, and onions on wooden chopping board

    Annick Vanderschelden Photography / Getty Images

    These ingredients are for a 12- to 15-pound turkey. If your turkey is larger, increase the vegetables and herbs, and the butter if you think you need more. Gather and prepare all of the ingredients to have at the ready.

    • 12- to 15-pound fresh or thawed turkey
    • 1 medium onion
    • 2 ribs celery
    • 2 medium carrots
    • 1 stick of butter or seasoned butter
    • 3 fresh rosemary sprigs
    • 1/2 bunch fresh sage
    • Kosher salt
    • Freshly ground black pepper
    • Chicken stock or water, for roasting pan
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  • 05 of 13

    Prep the Ingredients

    Finely chopped carrot, onion, and celery for making soffritto

    The Spruce / Danette St. Onge

    The most important preparation is making sure your turkey is completely thawed, inside and out. Then you should cut the onion, celery, and carrots into large chunks. 

    Let the butter soften to room temperature or make a flavored compound butter, which is butter mixed with herbs and spices. 

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  • 06 of 13

    Prep the Turkey and Season the Inside

    Turkey stuffed with vegetables

    The Spruce / Leah Maroney

    The first step to making the turkey is to clean out the cavity. Discard the bag that contains the neck, heart, gizzard, etc. from inside the turkey, and rinse the turkey both inside and out with cold water. Dry thoroughly with paper towels (this is very important if you want a crispy skin).

    Place the turkey on a large cutting board. 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.

    Now you can begin seasoning. Hold the turkey by the legs and season the entire cavity liberally with kosher salt and black pepper. Add the rosemary, sage, and a large handful of the chopped aromatic vegetables to the cavity. Sprinkle the rest of the turkey with the salt and pepper. If you are using plain butter, you can be somewhat generous with the salt (but don't go overboard), but if you are using a compound butter with salt in it, just give the bird a little dusting of seasoning.

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  • 07 of 13

    Tie the Turkey's Legs Together

    Turkey trussed with twine

    The Spruce / Leah Maroney

    Tying the turkey with twine is called trussing, and it has been done for generations. It was believed to help the bird cook evenly, but some chefs believe the opposite, saying the trussing stops the hot air from circulating around the legs. What chefs do agree on is that tying the legs makes for a prettier bird, so if that is important to you, then secure the legs to each other using kitchen twine or plain dental floss.

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  • 08 of 13

    Loosen the Turkey's Skin Over the Breastbone

    Loosening a turkey skin

    The Spruce / Leah Maroney

    The way to get a flavorful turkey is to season the meat as well as the skin. The only way to do that is to get between the breast skin and meat with your hands to add the flavoring. Start with your fingers, and then, if you like, switch to a thin silicone spatula to push under the skin to separate it from the breast meat. Be careful not to tear the skin, although it's fairly tough; if you push slowly and firmly you should be able to separate the skin about 2/3 of the way down on either side of the breastbone.

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  • 09 of 13

    Push Butter Under the Turkey Skin

    Pushing butter under a turkey

    The Spruce / Leah Maroney

    Whether you are using plain butter or a compound butter, spreading it between the skin and meat will make for a juicy and tasty bird. Place about 2 tablespoons of softened butter under the skin of each breast. Use your fingers on top of the skin to push down and spread it evenly toward the front of the turkey.

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  • 10 of 13

    Season the Outside of the Turkey

    Ingredients and tools for a butter-based turkey injection marinade

    The Spruce / Claire Cohen

    Now it's time to treat the skin by rubbing the rest of the butter all over the outside of the turkey, being sure to get the sides as well. (If the skin wasn't dried well with paper towels earlier, the butter won't stick properly.)

    Add the remaining chopped aromatic vegetables to your roasting pan and set the turkey on top. The vegetables will act as a sort of edible rack.

    Add about a half an inch of liquid (stock or water) to the roasting pan around the turkey. This will keep the oven moist and add flavor to the pan drippings, which is helpful if you're planning to make gravy.

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  • 11 of 13

    Cover the Turkey Breast With Foil

    loosely cover turkey breast with foil
    Leah Maroney

    With all that butter on the bird, there is a high risk of the skin burning, so covering the turkey with aluminum foil for a portion of the cooking time is necessary. Fold a piece of foil large enough to just cover the breast of the turkey. The foil should sit loosely—there is no need to press the foil down onto the butter.

    About an hour before the cooking is done, remove the foil to brown the skin.

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  • 12 of 13

    Roast the Turkey

    Turkey in Oven
    Lisa Pines / Getty Images

    Now it's time to get that bird in the oven. Roast in a preheated 325 F oven for approximately 15 to 20 minutes per pound, or until a meat thermometer reads 165 F when placed in the thickest part of the thigh meat.

    These are approximate turkey cooking times for roasting at 325 F:

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

    While roasting, the liquid in the pan can be used to baste the turkey. There is debate on whether basting does anything to the bird, but it is part of the turkey roasting tradition, so you decide.

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  • 13 of 13

    Let the Turkey Rest Before Serving

    The roasted turkey is allowed to rest before carving

    The Spruce / Diana Rattray

    Letting the turkey rest not only gives you time to finish the gravy and the remainder of the meal, but it also allows the juices in the turkey to redistribute, which is the secret to moist, tender meat.

    When you remove the turkey from the oven, cover it very loosely with foil and let it rest for at least 20 minutes. Don't worry, it won't get cold—a covered 20-pound turkey will stay hot for more than 40 minutes, so don't rush it. Once the turkey has rested, it's time to ​carve