How to Cook a Thanksgiving Turkey
This year we are all craving a traditional Thanksgiving holiday. And for many of us that comes in the form of food – traditional Thanksgiving fare.
Before we get to the turkey, let’s talk about the holiday itself. As for many families, Thanksgiving is the most important holiday of the year for us. My father used to sing his annual rendition of “We Gather Together” in his terrible voice while my mother, sister and I would be chopping and stirring away in the kitchen, rolling our eyes. Some years our group of friends and families got up to 40-plus people. Other years it was a streamlined 16 or so. No matter the size of the gathering, the house felt warm and we all felt lucky to be sharing this meal with the people we loved.
This year the “main” Thanksgiving will be smaller – my sister and her family, me and my family, and my mom: 9 in all, each family quarantining ahead of time. We will be having a slightly smaller menu (but not by much!), and reducing the amounts of what we’re making accordingly. But we absolutely have to have a turkey (non-negotiable!) and we all want leftovers for sure.
But my immediate family is also trying to swing two other even smaller Thanksgivings with each of two families who usually join our larger gathering. Same rules, will apply, quarantining, testing, masks except when eating, but if I can help it, I’m not giving up celebrating with those folks either! So, silver lining (because we need to find those where we can): I’m looking at three Thanksgivings this year! Now where is my gravy fat separator…..
Thanksgiving Turkey Basics
Whether you are cooking your very first traditional Thanksgiving turkey, or your 50th, it’s always good to have a refresher (or a primer) on turkey roasting best practices. And if you are looking for an easy recipe for a whole turkey, you’ve landed in a good place! More recipes are listed here for turkey breasts, should you want to head in that direction.
What Size Turkey?
Most birds sold for Thanksgiving dinners in U.S. supermarkets are in the 16-pound range, with some being much larger. That sized turkey will serve 12 to 16 people. As a general rule, when buying turkey aim for about 1 pound per person when purchasing a whole bird, but when cooking a smaller bird, especially if you want leftovers, go for a bird that equates to about 1 ½ pounds per person.
All things considered a 12-pound turkey is not too large for a group of 8, feeding your gang generously, and allowing for leftovers which are the perfect springboard for all kind of dishes.
Should I Rinse a Turkey?
The USDA doesn’t recommend rinsing the turkey because it can spread bacteria in your sink and in your kitchen. By the time the turkey is cooked to a safe temperature, any bacteria should be killed.
Leftover Roast Turkey
First, know that anything you can make with cooked chicken, you can make with cooked turkey. This means soups, stews, casseroles, quesadillas, burritos, enchiladas, pot pies, and so on. Click here for a full list of possibilities for leftover turkey.
And let’s not underestimate the blissful pleasure of a day-after-Thanksgiving turkey sandwich, maybe with lettuce, tomatoes, Swiss cheese and mustard, maybe with some of the leftover cranberry sauced spread over the slices of turkey, maybe grilled up with some cheddar in a skillet on a panini press.
Brining Turkey: Optional!
Brining the turkey results in meat that is moist and flavorful – all of those complaints about dry breast meat will be but a distant memory once you master this simple technique. Dry brining is great because it doesn’t require more space in the fridge than the turkey itself, and doesn’t require constantly changing ice in a big ice bath.
If you do not have the time or space to dry brine the turkey, do not worry. Brining ensures the meat will be extra moist and tender, but you can absolutely get to a delicious Thanksgiving turkey without brining; just pay close attention to the cooking time and the internal temperature, and you’ll be good to go.
To dry brine a turkey you must use kosher salt – regular table salt will result in a bird that is way too salty and also create a bird that is mushy in texture.
Thanksgiving Turkey Cooking Times
The following times are for a turkey roasted at a continuous 325°F temperature. The USDA does not recommend cooking a turkey at a lower temperature than 325°F to prevent food-borne illness. These are the times recommended by the USDA.
You should find the lowest cooking time for your size bird, and start checking the internal temperature about 45 minutes ahead of that suggested time. Don’t rely completely on the pop-up timer; they turkey may have reached the desired temperature before it pops up.
|Turkey Weight||Cook Time (Unstuffed)||Cook Time (Stuffed)|
|8 to 12 pounds||2 ¾ to 3 hours||3 to 3 ½ hours|
|12 to 14 pounds||3 to ¾ hours||3 ½ to 4 hours stuffed|
|14 to 18 pounds||3 ¾ to 4 ¼ hours||4 to 4 ¼ hours|
|20 to 24 pounds||4 ½ to 5 hours||4 ¾ to 5 ¼ hours|
The basic rule of thumb is 20 minutes per pound, but a larger bird may take slightly less time per pound to cook, where a smaller bird might take more.
Tips for Safely Cooking a Turkey
- If your turkey is still partially frozen turkey it will take longer to cook.
- A stuffed turkey takes longer to cook. It is possible to cook a stuffed turkey safely, but more difficult, as by the time the stuffing is cooked to a safe temperature, the meat of the bird might be overcooked. It is also more likely that you might have bacteria that is not killed when cooking a stuffed turkey.
- Your oven may have hot spots, and the bird may cook unevenly.
- Your oven temperature might run hotter or cooler than what it is set for.
- If you use a dark roasting pan your turkey may cook a bit faster.
- The depth and size of the pan can affect the heat circulation to all parts of the turkey.
- If you cover the bird with foil or a roasting pan lid it can affect the cooking time.
- An oven cooking bag can speed up the cooking time.
- The position of the rack in the oven can affect the cooking time.
- A turkey or a roasting pan that is proportionately too large for the oven may slow the cooking time.
Safe Internal Turkey Temperature
The safe internal temperature for a roasted turkey is 165°F. Insert your meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, but make sure it doesn’t touch the bone, which can result in a false temperature reading, and also the thickest part of the breast, not touching the bone.
The internal temperature of the turkey will rise once it is taken from the oven, as it rests (which is needs to do to reincorporate the juices as well). So, if you take your turkey from the oven when the temperature reads 160°F when the meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh and breast meat, you will see the temperature continue to climb until it reaches 165°F.
What to Serve with Thanksgiving Turkey:
- Fresh Green Bean Casserole
- Perfect Mashed Potatoes
- Sweet Potato Casserole with Marshmallows
- Sweet Potato Casserole
- Maple Roasted Butternut Squash
- Classic Traditional Thanksgiving Stuffing
- Roasted Butternut Squash
- Air Fryer Brussels Sprouts
- Wild Rice and Sweet Potato Salad
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Easy Roasted Thanksgiving Turkey
- 1 12-pound turkey , preferably fresh, defrosted if frozen, giblets and neck reserved if available)
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter , softened, divided
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 orange halved
- 2 medium yellow onions , peeled and halved
- 4 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 8 sprigs fresh thyme
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup white wine (optional)
- 1 cup chicken broth
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
- Pat the turkey dry with paper towels. Rub 3 tablespoons of the butter all over the bird, legs, thighs, breasts, everywhere. Rub the salt over the bird evenly. Place the turkey into a large plastic bag, preferably a sealable one, press out the air, and seal it tight. Place the turkey in a roasting pan, breast side up in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days. Turn the turkey at least once a day, and rub the salt into the bird through the plastic bag
- After 2 to 3 days, and 1 day before Thanksgiving, remove the bird from the fridge and take it out of the plastic bag. Do not rinse the bird, but pat it dry with paper towels. Place the turkey in a rack in the roasting pan, and refrigerate uncovered, for another 24 hours.
- Remove the turkey from the fridge 1 hour before cooking to allow it to come to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Place a rack in the lower third of the oven, and make sure you raise or remove the upper racks so the turkey can fit with room to spare on top.
- Place the orange sections, onions halves, and rosemary and thyme sprigs into the cavity of the bird. Tuck the wings behind the back of the bird and place it in a rack in a roasting pan breast side up. Tie the legs closed (some birds have a little plastic gadget that holds the legs together, thus closing up the cavity).
- Rub the remaining three tablespoons softened butter all over the turkey, covering all of the skin. Season generously with the pepper. Make sure the turkey is breast side up in the rack in the roasting pan, and place the pan into the oven.
- Pour the wine and chicken broth into the pan around the turkey. Place the pan in the oven. After one hour, baste the bird with the juices from the bottom of the pan. Start checking after 2 hours with an internal thermometer, sticking it into the deepest part of the thigh, and making sure that it does not touch bone. The temperature should be 160°F. If, as the turkey is cooking the top starts to get too browned, just tent a large piece of tin foil over the top of the bird.
- When the turkey is finished cooking, remove it to a cutting board with a moat, tipping any juices that have accumulated in the turkey back into the roasting pan. Let the turkey sit, tented with foil, for at least 20 minutes.
- While the turkey is resting, pour all of the liquid from the roasting pan into a large measuring cup. Put it into the fridge and when the fat has risen to the top, use a spoon to scrape off the fat and discard. You also can use a fat separator for this purpose. Click here for how to make gravy, or just drizzle the pan juices over the turkey meat.
- Carve the turkey and serve.
The nutrition values are provided as an estimate. It is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare professional.
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