Thanksgiving is just about here, and though it might look and feel a wee bit different this year, nailing the turkey is still integral — although not necessarily easy. Less than a week out would be a good time to talk it through if you need a little assistance before the ritual roasting and feasting begins. If you’re a turkey newbie, or just need a refresher, we have everything you need to know about how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey — with tips on what size turkey you should buy (particularly relevant this year), how long it’ll take to cook and when you should defrost your bird (plus what to do if you forget).
We also cover what tools you need to pull the whole thing off and what to do if you mess it up — because, hey, it happens. Of course, there are countless methods for roasting a Thanksgiving turkey (and that’s before you even get into smoked turkey and deep-fried turkey), but we’re going with one of the most basic because it always works.
What size turkey do you need?
A fairly standard 12- to 15-pound turkey will feed between six and eight people as part of a meal, so scale up or down as needed. Generally, you should budget one pound per person, or up to two pounds per person if you want to have leftover turkey.
How and when to thaw a turkey
Don’t forget this step! Unless you buy a fresh heritage bird, your turkey will come frozen solid. Thawing a turkey will take anywhere from one to six days, so plan accordingly, and see our full guide on how to thaw turkey (with times, methods and what to do if you forget — you can cook it from frozen, but it will take even longer and is not ideal).
You can keep the turkey in the fridge for another two days once it’s thawed, so feel free to start a day earlier than you think you need to, and plan for another day of resting before you actually plan to cook (you’ll see why below).
How long to cook a turkey
Total cooking time depends, of course, on the size of your bird, and a meat thermometer will always be your best friend when it comes to being certain it’s cooked to the proper temperature (165-170 degrees F). That said, here are some general guidelines based on an oven temperature of 350 degrees, our preferred temperature to roast turkey. (We recommend you start checking a bit sooner than the full time listed, to ensure it doesn’t dry out.)
How long to cook a 12-14 pound turkey: About 3 hours at 350 degrees
How long to cook a 15-18 pound turkey: About 3.5 to 4 hours at 350 degrees
How long to cook an 18-20 pound turkey: About 4 to 4.5 hours at 350 degrees
How long to cook a 21-24 pound turkey: About 4.5 to 5 hours at 350 degrees.
If you prefer a higher-heat method, it will obviously take less time, but you run the risk of burning the skin; that holds true with the “start high, then lower the heat” method too. We do that sometimes (see our herbed roast turkey recipe), but generally prefer to keep the oven at the same temperature throughout because it’s the least fussy method, and reliable too.
We do start it upside down in an effort to get a totally moist turkey, but you don’t necessarily have to do that; see more below.
Should you brine your turkey?
This is another optional step, but we always prefer to brine a turkey the day before roasting it. It needs to be fully defrosted first, and then you can either wet-brine or dry-brine the bird. The recipe below goes with the dry method because it’s easier than dealing with gallons of liquid, but the salt rub achieves the same thing: juicy meat that’s well seasoned. A word of caution: Brining too long can have the very opposite effect and dry out your turkey. And if you’re cooking a Butterball you don’t need to brine it; most supermarket birds have been preinjected with a salt solution.
What you need to cook a turkey
For a basic roast turkey recipe, you don’t need much in the way of special ingredients or equipment, but a roasting pan with a roasting rack is incredibly helpful, and a turkey baster or brush and meat thermometer will also come in handy. A roasting pan with rackCuisinart 16-inch rectangular roaster with rack
A roasting pan with a rack is ideal for cooking a turkey (not to mention other poultry and pork and beef roasts). It’s far sturdier than a disposable pan, deep enough to catch lots of drippings and the handles make maneuvering it in and out of the oven much easier.
How to season a turkey
As for the raw ingredients, besides the turkey itself, you need some herbs, spices and aromatics. The below list is a great starting place, but you can improvise as you like. Poultry seasoning is fine as long as it’s fresh (do not use the bottle left over from last year), but we prefer fresh herbs. Here’s a basic shopping list for turkey seasonings:
- kosher salt
- freshly cracked black pepper
- vegetable oil (or olive oil)
- a half a stick of butter, softened at room temperature
- half a lemon
- half an onion, cut into four pieces
- one celery stick, cut into three pieces
- fresh sage
- fresh thyme leaves
- bay leaves (fresh or dried)
How to cook a Thanksgiving turkey
1. The day before you want to roast your turkey, make sure it’s defrosted, then remove the contents from the cavity. Discard the giblets (heart, liver and gizzard) unless you like them for gravy or stuffing (or want to cook them for your pets). Reserve the neck!
2. Rub the thawed turkey all over with several generous pinches of salt, including a few under the skin covering the breast.
3. Place the turkey on a platter or baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the next day. This improves the flavor of the bird and helps it stay juicy. You can skip the plastic wrap if you like (the drier the skin, the better it will brown and crisp), but be sure nothing else in the fridge touches the raw turkey.
4. The next day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place a rack in the lower third. It will take about 20 minutes for the oven to come to temperature. Meanwhile, remove the turkey from the fridge and prepare it for roasting per the next steps.
5. Pat the turkey dry inside and out with paper towels and tuck the wing tips back and underneath. Rub a generous amount of vegetable oil inside the cavity, all over the outside and under the skin, then season well with salt and pepper, including inside the cavity.
6. Mix the fresh herbs (sage and thyme) into the softened butter, break into small chunks and place them under the skin covering the breast. Put the lemon, onion, bay leaf and celery inside the cavity. (That’s it, no stuffing; food safety police strongly advise against cooking stuffing inside the turkey, and when you cook it separately, you get more crusty surface area anyway.)
7. Place the turkey breast side down on the roasting rack, and put the reserved neck in the bottom of the pan for extra flavor. Roast in the oven for 45 minutes, basting the turkey every 20 minutes once the pan juices start to accumulate.
8. After 45 minutes, flip the turkey onto its back and continue to baste and roast for about two to two and a half hours.
9. When a meat thermometer inserted into the inner thigh registers 170 degrees and the juices run clear, remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest 20 to 30 minutes before carving. If you’re planning on making your own turkey gravy, be sure to set aside the roasting pan and reserve both the vegetables from inside the bird’s cavity and the neck.
An easier method
If you don’t want to deal with flipping the turkey, you can simply roast it in the normal position for the entire cook time; just baste the breast often to ensure it doesn’t dry out, and tent the pan with foil if the skin starts to brown too soon before the meat is done (but remove the foil to get a nice crisp skin in the final few minutes of cooking). Or try the butter-soaked cheesecloth trick; this is preferred by many since when you’re basting, you lower the oven temperature every time you open the door.