How to Cook a Turkey : The Basic Steps

Few dishes are as beloved as a golden roast turkey. It’s hard to go wrong with the basic method, but there are some recipes that rise above the rest, yielding a delicious bird that is crisp-skinned and tender-fleshed without any more work. Here’s our guide to get you there.

So you’ve decided to be in charge of the turkey this year? You’ve come to the right place for advice. Next, let’s talk about how to cook that bird.

How to Cook a Turkey

You’ll be glad to know that cooking a turkey is surprisingly easy. Even with just a little bit of prep, you’ll get great results you can be proud of. Here’s how to prepare a thawed turkey for roasting in the oven:

  1. Remove the packet of giblets from the cavity of the bird and save them for gravy or stuffing. Next, use paper towels to pat dry the bird inside and out.
  2. If you are stuffing the turkey, stuff it loosely, allowing about ½ to ¾ cup stuffing per pound of turkey.
  3. Tie drumsticks together with string, and brush the skin with melted butter or oil.
  4. What oven temperature to cook a turkey: Place the bird on a rack in a roasting pan, and into a preheated 350 degree F (175 degrees C) oven (or follow recipe instructions).
  5. Roast until the skin is a light golden color, then cover the breast loosely with a foil tent to prevent further browning. During the last 45 minutes of baking, remove the foil tent to brown the skin. Basting is not necessary, but helps promote even browning.

How to Tell When the Turkey is Done

The only reliable test for doneness is to check the internal temperature of the turkey meat, not the color of the skin. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh. The thermometer should point towards the body, and should not touch the bone.

The turkey is done when the meat reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F (75 degrees C) at the thigh. If your turkey has been stuffed, it is important to check the temperature of the stuffing as well. The stuffing should also be 165 degrees F.

Optional First Steps

If you have 8 to 24 hours to spare before you put the turkey in the oven, consider using that time to brine the turkey either in a liquid saltwater brine or with a dry rub. This optional step ensures the turkey meat will be juicy and flavorful.

Spatchcocking (aka butterflying)
Removing the backbone of the turkey and flattening it out before roasting cooks the turkey faster and more evenly.

After The Oven

Be sure to allow at least 30 minutes between the time you take the turkey out of the oven and when you serve it. The turkey needs to “rest” for 20 to 30 minutes, and then you can carve your turkey. You can use that resting time to warm up your Thanksgiving side dishes and make the gravy.

Smart serving tip
warm your serving platter in the oven for about five minutes before you put the sliced turkey on it. You’ve put in too much work to serve cold turkey!

Other Cooking Methods

Roasting a turkey is the easiest cooking method; the oven remains a constant temperature, and it’s easy to baste the turkey and check the internal temperature periodically. But there are other methods that provide a different experience:

  • Grilling a turkey
  • Smoking a turkey
  • Deep-frying a turkey

Frequently Asked Questions

Turkey Roasting Chart by Weight
Turkey Roasting Chart by Weight

Q: Can I roast my turkey the day before Thanksgiving then reheat it?

A: Never partially roast a turkey the day before to save on cooking time the next day. This creates the perfect environment for bacterial growth. However, you can fully roast a turkey the day before and heat it for Thanksgiving dinner:

  • Carve the roasted bird and layer the meat in a baking dish.
  • Seal the baking dish with foil to reduce moisture loss, and heat in a 350 degree F oven for 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Breast meat has a greater likelihood of drying out, so place it under the dark meat, and consider covering it with gravy or spritzing with a small amount of turkey stock.

Q: Can I stuff the turkey the night before baking?

A: You should never stuff a bird hours before roasting, as the cavity can provide an environment for bacteria to grow. When cooking stuffing in a turkey, it is always best to prepare it just before filling and roasting the bird. You can also opt to bake the stuffing in a separate baking dish. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake at 400 degrees F for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake the stuffing until the top is golden-brown, about 15–20 minutes more. Whether you bake it in the turkey or on the side, the internal temperature of the dressing should be 165 degrees F to ensure it’s fully and safely cooked.

Q: How long can cooked turkey stay out at room temperature?

A: Turkey, or any cooked food, should not be left out for more than 2 hours. Any longer than that, and bacteria will start to develop, leading to food-borne illness. No one wants that.

Photo of author

About Lindsey Bell

I like cooking and baking but often loose my recipes or they get covered in stuff meaning they are unreadable. This way I can keep track of them without constantly loosing them and can be quick and easy to find when I am at work too. Feel free to pinch and share any recipes you wish.

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