Cooking a Turkey for Beginners

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

turkey for beginners

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Whole turkeys are a great way to feed a crowd and are ubiquitous on the Thanksgiving dinner table, but cooking a whole turkey can seem like a daunting task. However, it is easier than you might think—especially if you take your time and follow a few clearly laid out steps. Once you understand the ins and outs—from how to buy a turkey to when to make the gravy—you will have a beautifully cooked whole roasted turkey that you can be proud of.

Turkey Basics

  • How big of a turkey? Estimate 1 1/2 pounds per person
  • How long to cook the turkey? 15 to 20 minutes per pound
  • What temperature to cook the turkey? 325 F for a steady and slow roast
  • What temperature should the turkey be? 165 F in thickest part of thigh
  • How long should the turkey rest? About 30 minutes
Young couple grocery shopping for frozen turkey
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Size and Type of Turkey

The grocery store case will have a variety of sizes and types of turkey. When it comes to size, 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.

Turkeys are also available in different types, such as organic, free-range, or kosher, and brined or seasoned. What you choose will not affect how you cook the bird, but it is best to stick to a plain turkey the first time around, avoiding any that are brined or seasoned.

Fresh vs. Frozen Turkey

Whether you choose a fresh or frozen turkey depends on what will work for you, as there are advantages to both. Buying frozen means you can safely purchase the turkey ahead of time—months, if you so desire—but it also means you have to start preparing a few days before cooking so it thaws completely. Fresh, on the other hand, is ready to be cooked but will last only two or three days in the refrigerator. Keep in mind that fresh turkeys may be more difficult to find.

How to Safely Thaw a Frozen Turkey

There are two safe ways to defrost a frozen turkey: in the refrigerator or in a cold water bath. If refrigerating, you need to begin the thawing process several days before cooking, estimating about one day for every five pounds. (A 12-pound turkey, for example, will take up to three days to thaw.) Keep it in its original packaging and place it in a pan or on a tray to catch any liquid that may escape.

Thawing in a cold water bath is a quicker method but does require more attention and work. You need a container large enough to hold the bird and plenty of water that maintains a temperature of 40 F or colder. This means the water has to be changed every 30 minutes.

What to Do If Your Turkey Is Still Frozen

If it's Thanksgiving morning and you realize the turkey is still frozen (or forgot to defrost it), don't panic—there is a solution. The bird may not be as delicious as you had hoped, and can't be brined or stuffed, but it will be presentable and edible, which is the most important thing. Cooking a frozen turkey can take about 50 percent longer than one that is defrosted, so plan accordingly (and manage guests' expectations). Place the frozen turkey on a roasting rack in a shallow pan and cook for three hours before removing the bag of giblets. Then continue to roast as usual.

Should You Wash Your Turkey?

Although it may be tempting to rinse off the turkey once it is unwrapped, running the bird under water is actually unsafe. It can spread bacteria to other foods and contaminate cooking equipment. The only time to rinse a whole turkey is after it has been brined.

How to Brine a Turkey

Brining a turkey makes for a juicy and flavorful bird. The process requires an extra step of soaking in a salted and sometimes seasoned mixture for several hours prior to cooking. The turkey is placed in a large container, submerged in the brining liquid, and refrigerated (or put in a cold cooler). It needs to sit for one hour per pound of turkey. Before cooking, rinse off the brine; since it has been seasoned well with salt, there is no need to salt the turkey.

To Stuff or Not to Stuff

Although a stuffed turkey is the quintessential holiday centerpiece, it is best to cook the turkey without stuffing, especially if this is your first time. The stuffing can take longer than the turkey to reach a safe temperature, which means the turkey will be overdone and dry. Bake the stuffing in a casserole dish and fill the turkey cavity with aromatics instead.

How and When to Make the Turkey Gravy

A true turkey gravy uses the drippings—the liquid left in the roasting pan once the turkey is cooked—along with a few other ingredients, like flour, stock, salt, and pepper. Therefore, you cannot make the gravy until the bird is out of the oven. To make a basic turkey gravy, separate or skim off the fat from the drippings, and then use some of the fat to make a roux. Add some stock to the drippings, pour into the roux, and cook until thickened. Season with salt and pepper.

How Long Does It Take to Cook a Turkey?

The amount of time needed to cook a whole turkey is dependent on the weight of the bird and whether it will be stuffed or not. Using a 325 F oven, calculate 15 to 20 minutes per pound, adding 30 minutes to the total time if the turkey is stuffed. But more important than the time is the turkey's internal temperature; it needs to reach 165 F to be safe to eat. Using an internal meat thermometer and placing it in the thickest part of the thigh (making sure it doesn't touch bone) is the ideal way to determine when the turkey has finished cooking. If the turkey is stuffed, use a thermometer to check the temperature of the stuffing, which should also be at 165 F.

How Long Should Turkey Rest?

Once the turkey is pulled out of the oven, it needs to sit. Resting allows the juices to stay in the meat whereas slicing immediately would cause all that moisture to end up on the cutting board. Thirty to 40 minutes is enough time for the juices to redistribute and for the turkey to cool down without getting cold. (It also allows time to make the gravy.) The turkey does not need to be covered with foil, which can actually make that beautiful, crispy skin turn soggy.

How to Cook a Turkey

Once you have an overview of how to roast a turkey properly, it's time to get down to the finer details. From the ingredients and equipment needed, to how to prep, season, and roast the bird, learn everything you need to know to make a turkey you can be proud of.

Ingredients

When roasting a turkey, you can make the ingredient list as simple or complex as you choose, although it is wise to keep it basic the first few times around, and it is best to not attempt a stuffed turkey until you have mastered roasting an unstuffed bird. The most important preparation is making sure your turkey is completely thawed, inside and out, and that it is at room temperature.

These ingredients are for a 12- to 15-pound turkey and include vegetables and herbs to stuff inside the bird. (Adjust the ingredient amounts for a smaller or larger turkey.) Gather and prepare all of the ingredients to have at the ready.

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

Equipment

Whole roasted turkey on a platter with fruits and sprigs of rosemary
Grace Clementine / Getty Images

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

Although many recipes call for tying the turkey's legs together (called trussing), it is optional; if you choose to do this, you will need kitchen twine which is found at the grocery store. And although most turkeys come with a pop-up timer, it is always best to have a meat thermometer to determine if the turkey is done. 

Remove Giblets and Neck

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 heart, gizzard, etc., collectively called giblets, as well as the neck from inside the turkey. (Some people save this to make stock or gravy.) Dry the inside and outside thoroughly with paper towels. This step is very important if you want crispy skin.

Ingredients and tools for a butter-based turkey injection marinade
The Spruce / Claire Cohen

Season the Turkey

It may seem odd to season the inside cavity, but adding salt and aromatic vegetables and herbs to the center of the bird helps the flavors permeate throughout while roasting, and the salt will also make the meat nice and juicy. To season the cavity, hold the turkey by the legs and sprinkle the inside liberally with kosher salt and black pepper. Add the rosemary, sage, and a large handful of the chopped vegetables.

Sprinkle the rest of the turkey with the salt and pepper. If using plain butter, be somewhat generous with the salt (but don't go overboard); if using a compound butter with salt in it, give the bird a little dusting.

Once you become comfortable with this process, feel free to make the seasonings your own, stuffing the bird with cut lemon, orange, or apple, as well as other herbs like thyme. You can even incorporate beer into the basting liquid.

Tuck Wings Underneath

To keep the turkey sitting nice and straight and prevent burning, you want to tuck the wings underneath the bird. Place the turkey on a large cutting board, pull the wingtips forward, and tuck them under the breasts.

Turkey trussed with twine
The Spruce / Leah Maroney

Truss Turkey Legs Together

Trussing has been done for generations. It was believed to help the bird cook evenly, but some chefs claim 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, secure the legs to each other using kitchen twine.

Loosening a turkey skin
The Spruce / Leah Maroney

Loosen the Skin

The trick to getting a flavorful turkey is to season the meat as well as the skin. The only way to season the meat is to get between the breast skin and meat. Use your fingers to lift the skin surrounding the cavity, 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 two-thirds of the way down on either side of the breastbone.

Spread the Butter

Pushing butter under a turkey
The Spruce / Leah Maroney

Whether you are using plain butter or compound butter, spreading it between the skin and meat will make for a juicy and tasty bird. Using a spoon or your hands, place about 2 tablespoons of softened butter under the skin of each breast. Use your fingers to push down on top of the skin and spread the butter evenly, trying to coat all areas of the meat.

Rub the rest of the butter all over the outside of the turkey, being sure to also get the sides. (If the skin wasn't dried well earlier, the butter won't stick properly.) Alternatively, you can wait to do this until after the turkey is on the roasting rack.

Place Turkey on a Roasting Rack

Roasting involves air circulating around the meat, and the more room there is for the air to circulate, the more even the cooking and browning will be. There are racks made to fit in a roasting pan and hold a large turkey, but if you don't have one you can shape some aluminum foil into a figure eight and place in the bottom of the pan; just be sure to make it sturdy enough that the turkey doesn't simply squash it.

Once the rack is in the pan, add the remaining chopped vegetables. Set the turkey on top of the rack. (If you haven't spread the outside of the bird with butter yet, do this now.) Add about a half an inch stock or water to the roasting pan; this will keep the oven moist and add flavor to the pan drippings.

Turkey in Oven
Lisa Pines / Getty Images

Roast the Turkey

Place the turkey in a preheated 325 F oven. To calculate the cooking time, approximate 15 to 20 minutes per pound, or until a meat thermometer reads 165 F when placed in the thickest part of the thigh meat.

If the skin is browning too quickly, loosely cover the turkey with aluminum foil for a portion of the cooking time. (To check on the bird, use the oven light instead of opening the door.) About an hour before the cooking is done, remove the foil to brown the skin.

Baste the Turkey

While roasting, the liquid in the pan can be used to baste the turkey. However, there is debate on whether basting does anything to the bird, and actually proposes that it may turn the skin soggy. Opening the oven door several times also lowers the oven temperature. If you choose to baste the bird, schedule it every 30 minutes.

Check Temperature

Once you're approaching the recommended cooking time, check the temperature of the turkey using an instant-read thermometer. Place the probe in the thickest part of one of the thighs, making sure it doesn't touch any bone as that will skew the reading. A fully cooked turkey should be 165 F. You can test the temperature in one other spot just to be sure.

The roasted turkey is allowed to rest before carving
The Spruce / Diana Rattray

Rest the Turkey

Letting the turkey rest not only gives you time to make the gravy and finish the remainder of the meal, but it also allows the juices in the turkey to redistribute, which is the secret to moist, tender meat. The ideal resting time is 30 to 40 minutes. Don't worry, it won't get cold—a 20-pound turkey will stay hot for at least 30 minutes.

Carve the Turkey

Carving the bird is an involved process that is best accomplished on a cutting board, preferably one with a well to catch any liquid, using a large, sharp knife. The first step is to remove the legs by slicing through the skin between the body and the leg joint while pulling the leg away; the joint should pop out. Then cut off both pieces of breast meat by slicing close to the breast bone and pulling away each section of meat. Place on the cutting board and slice pieces against the grain. Next, separate the drumsticks from the thighs, remove the bones from the thighs, and carve the meat. Finally, remove the wings, separate the drumette from the wingette, and cut off the wingtips.

How to Store Leftovers

It's inevitable that there will be leftover turkey. When stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator, the meat will last three to four days. For longer storage, the leftover turkey can be wrapped well and kept in the freezer.