How to Cook a Turkey

A Simple, Classic Thanksgiving Main

How to Cook a Turkey

The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

Prep: 30 mins
Cook: 5 hrs
Rest: 30 mins
Total: 6 hrs
Servings: 8 to 20 servings
Yield: 1 turkey
Nutrition Facts (per serving)
933 Calories
38g Fat
8g Carbs
133g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 8 to 20
Amount per serving
Calories 933
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 38g 49%
Saturated Fat 12g 59%
Cholesterol 509mg 170%
Sodium 540mg 23%
Total Carbohydrate 8g 3%
Dietary Fiber 1g 5%
Total Sugars 2g
Protein 133g
Vitamin C 22mg 110%
Calcium 79mg 6%
Iron 5mg 30%
Potassium 1205mg 26%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)

You might feel that cooking a Thanksgiving turkey is a major undertaking, but it's easier than you think. Begin planning at least a week to 10 days in advance because it takes time to thaw a frozen turkey—about 24 hours for every 4 pounds—and then bring it to room temperature. If you plan to brine your turkey, plan on another 8 to 12 hours for brining and another 8 hours in the fridge after rinsing and drying it thoroughly. Finally, it will take about 15 minutes per pound for roasting, and you'll have to rest the bird for about 20 to 30 minutes.

When choosing a turkey, count on about 1 to 1 1/2 pounds per person—you might want an even larger bird if you want tons of leftovers. Whether or not you plan to brine makes a difference as well. A fresh or frozen regular or all-natural turkey is okay to brine. But you won't want to brine a self-basting turkey or a bird labeled "kosher" because they are already salted, either by injection or the koshering process. 

If you've chosen a frozen turkey, you'll need to thaw it. The best way is to place the bird—still in its wrapping—in a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet and let it thaw in the refrigerator for about 24 hours for every 4 pounds. You can speed up the process in a pinch by submerging the turkey in cold water and changing the water every 30 minutes. The cold water method takes about 30 minutes per pound.

Plan the roasting time carefully, calculating about 15 minutes per pound, plus at least 20 minutes for a resting period. Rich homemade turkey gravy is a bonus, and you'll have plenty of time to make it while the bird rests.

Store your Thanksgiving leftovers safely. Ensure the turkey and all leftover hot dishes are transferred to shallow, airtight containers and refrigerated within 2 hours. It's best to store them in small amounts so they will cool down quickly. If you plan to make soup or broth, put the carcass in a separate zip-close bag and store it in the refrigerator or freezer.

"A very good, reliable recipe for a simple but tasty turkey. My turkey weighed 12 pounds and cooked in 2 1/2 hours, half an hour sooner than I had calculated, so I would recommend checking it a little earlier. The gravy was easy to make and delicious with the turkey." —Young Sun Huh

How to Cook a Turkey Tester Image
A Note From Our Recipe Tester

Ingredients

  • 12- to 20-pound turkey

  • Kosher salt, to taste

  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

  • Vegetable oil, as needed

  • 1 large lemon, quartered

  • 1 large onion, quartered

  • 3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme

  • 3 to 4 sprigs fresh rosemary

  • 2 cups chicken stock, or turkey stock

For the Gravy

  • Reserved turkey drippings, or broth, about 3 cups

  • 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter

  • Kosher salt, to taste

  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

Steps to Make It

Thaw and Prep the Turkey

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    turkey with roasting ingredients

    The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

  2. If the turkey is frozen, leave it in its wrapping and place it in a pan. Place it in the refrigerator and allow about 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey.

    frozen turkey on a baking sheet

    The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

  3. When the turkey is fully defrosted, remove the wrapping and place the turkey on a rimmed baking sheet or tray—don't rinse it. Remove the giblets and neck from the turkey cavity. If you plan to use the giblets and neck to make giblet gravy or stock, refrigerate or freeze them in a food storage bag or covered container. Otherwise, throw them away.

    turkey on a baking sheet with neck and giblets removed

    The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

  4. Pat the turkey with paper towels to dry. If the turkey came in contact with any other surfaces, wash them thoroughly with soap and water.

    pat turkey dry with a paper towel

    The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

  5. Place a rack in a roasting pan that is large enough for your turkey. Place the turkey on the rack and tuck the wing tips under the bird.

    turkey in a roasting pan

    The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

  6. Rub vegetable oil over the skin and season the skin and cavity with salt and pepper. Put the herbs, lemon, and onion in the turkey cavity and add the stock to the roasting pan.

    turkey in a roasting pan

    The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

Roast the Turkey

  1. Place the turkey in the oven and roast until the skin is golden brown, about 15 minutes per pound. If the turkey appears to be over-browning, tent it with a sheet of heavy-duty foil. Use a food thermometer inserted into the thigh to check the temperature—it should register 175 F in the thigh and at least 160 F in the breast. Start checking and temping the turkey about half an hour before you expect it to be done.

    roasted turkey in a roasting pan

    The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

  2. Let the turkey rest for 20 to 30 minutes while you make the gravy.

    turkey on a platter

    The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

Make the Gravy

  1. Gather the ingredients for the gravy.

    gravy ingredients

    The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

  2. Strain the pan drippings; discard the solids and reserve 3 cups. Set aside. if necessary, supplement the drippings with turkey stock or chicken stock.

    turkey drippings strained into a bowl

    The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

  3. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt 5 tablespoons of butter. Whisk in 5 tablespoons of flour and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes.

    roux cooking in a saucepan

    The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

  4. Gradually whisk in the reserved pan drippings. If you don't have 3 cups of drippings, add some chicken or turkey broth. Bring the gravy to a simmer and continue cooking, constantly whisking, until thickened, about 5 minutes—season to taste with salt and pepper.

    gravy in a saucepan

    The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

Tips

  • It's best to cook the stuffing separately, but if you do choose to stuff your turkey, make sure the center of the stuffing registers at least 165 F, even if the turkey reaches the correct temperature earlier.
  • Use a reliable food thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh to monitor the temperature.
  • If you have a spare oven, you can tent the roasted turkey with foil and keep it warm at 200 F.
  • Plan an extra 16 to 24 hours if you will be brining the turkey, and make sure you do not have a self-basting or kosher bird, both of which already contain salt. Brine the completely thawed turkey for 8 to 12 in the refrigerator using a wet or dry brine. To prevent cross-contamination when rinsing the brined bird, keep dishes, cloths, sponges, and utensils away from the sink area, have the roasting pan or other suitable pan nearby, and cover surfaces around the sink with paper towels. After rinsing and drying the brined turkey, place it in the roasting pan and refrigerate it for 8 hours or overnight to air dry thoroughly.
  • If you know you'll have a lot going on while the turkey rests, you might want to skip the gravy with drippings and make a simple, no-drippings turkey gravy up to a day in advance.

Recipe Variations

  • Add a few 3-inch sticks of celery to the turkey cavity along with the lemon, onion, and herbs.
  • For extra flavor, sprinkle a dash of onion and/or garlic powder over the turkey skin along with the salt and pepper.
  • If you plan to stuff the cavity with a bread stuffing or cornbread dressing, omit the quartered lemon, onion, and herb sprigs.
  • If you need a gluten-free option, make the turkey gravy with rice flour.
  • To make more than 3 cups of gravy, for every extra 1/2 cup of stock, use an additional 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of flour in the roux.

How to Store

  • Refrigerate sliced and cut-up leftover turkey in shallow, airtight containers for up to 4 days.
  • To freeze, transfer turkey pieces or slices to a zip-close freezer bag and freeze for up to 3 months.
  • To reheat leftover sliced turkey, arrange the slices in a baking dish. Add about 1/4-inch of turkey or chicken broth, dot with butter, and cover tightly with foil. Roast in a preheated 350 F oven for about 30 minutes, or until hot. The minimum safe temperature for leftovers is 165 F.
  • Use leftovers to make open-face turkey and gravy sandwiches, Kentucky hot browns, turkey and rice casserole, turkey divan, or add leftover turkey to pasta dishes.


How do I keep my turkey moist?

One way to ensure an evenly cooked, moist bird is by flattening—or spatchcocking—it. By flattening the turkey, the legs cook to the ideal temperature along with the breast.

Should I put butter or oil on my turkey?

Either one is fine, but oil will give you a more evenly browned skin. Since butter is typically about 18 percent water, the skin will not crisp as much as it will with oil.

Why put anything in the cavity of the turkey?

Adding aromatics to the cavity adds flavor to the turkey and the drippings. Citrus fruits, onions, apple, carrots, and celery are excellent options, along with sprigs of fresh herbs and a little salt and pepper.