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Cook a Perfect Turkey
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 holiday stress by learning how to cook a roasted whole turkey with confidence.Continue to 2 of 13 below.
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Choose the Right Turkey
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 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 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 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.Continue to 3 of 13 below.
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Collect the Supplies
You don't need a lot to roast the perfect turkey besides the bird, seasoning, and a roasting pan. The most important thing to note is that you have to have 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.Continue to 4 of 13 below.
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Gather the Ingredients
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.
Continue to 5 of 13 below.
- 12- to 15-pound fresh or thawed turkey
- 1 medium onion
- 2 ribs celery
- 2 medium carrots
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 stick of butter or seasoned butter
- 3 fresh rosemary sprigs
- 1/2 bunch fresh sage
- Chicken stock or water for roasting pan
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Prep the Ingredients
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.Continue to 6 of 13 below.
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Prep the Turkey and Season the Inside
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.Continue to 7 of 13 below.
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Tie the Turkey's Legs Together
Tying the turkey with twine is called "trussing" and has been done for generations. It was believed that it helped the bird cook evenly, but, in fact, 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.Continue to 8 of 13 below.
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Loosen the Turkey's Skin Over the Breastbone
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 so 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.Continue to 9 of 13 below.
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Push Butter Under the Turkey Skin
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.Continue to 10 of 13 below.
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Season the Outside of the Turkey
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-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.Continue to 11 of 13 below.
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Cover the Turkey Breast With Foil
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.Continue to 12 of 13 below.
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Roast the Turkey
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.Continue to 13 of 13 below.
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Let the Turkey Rest Before Serving
Letting the turkey rest not only gives you time to finish the gravy and the remainder of the meal but 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 over 40 minutes, so don't rush it. Once the turkey has rested, it's time to carve.