How To Cook a Turkey: The Simplest, Easiest Method

Cooking Lessons from The Kitchn

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Are you roasting a whole turkey for the first time this year? Or perhaps you've done this many times before, but you want a quick refresher to brush up on the basics? We'll help you make your mama proud with these step-by-step instructions for roasting a whole turkey.

Here is our super basic, super simple, super easy recipe for roasting a super beautiful turkey this Thanksgiving.

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The Easiest Method for Roasting a Thanksgiving Turkey

Now, we know that many people have strong opinions on the best way to cook a turkey. You may fry it, grill it, roast it overnight, or even cook it in a slow cooker. You may brine religiously every year, or maybe have a secret family spice rub that only gets used at Thanksgiving.

But just to keep things really simple and straightforward with this tutorial, today we are taking a completely no-frills approach — though there are lots of places along the way where you can add some spice, extra flavor, or personal touches.

Consider this a recipe template and feel free to play with it as much or as little as you like; our goal is simply to give you a foolproof way to get that turkey roasted and onto plates with as little stress as possible.

This method will work with any turkey: big or small, brined or not, free-range or otherwise. Cooking times will vary, but the basic technique will be the same. For reference, the turkey in the photos was a pre-brined 16-pound turkey from Williams-Sonoma.

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Thawing the Turkey

Be sure to let your turkey completely thaw before cooking. If it was frozen through when you bought it, the turkey will thaw within a few days in the fridge, approximately 24 hours for every five pounds of turkey. For quicker thawing, place the turkey in a cold water bath and change the water every 30 minutes until it's thawed.

For more information on safe turkey thawing, check out the USDA website:

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Brining the Turkey

One thing we're not talking about here is brining the turkey. This method has become popular over the last few years and involves immersing the turkey in a salt-water solution for a day or so before cooking. The end result of this process is moist, perfectly seasoned white and dark meat. We've had great results with brining and heartily endorse it. If you want to brine, great! If you don't, our method here will still work perfectly.

For more details on how to brine your own turkey, check out these posts:

Carving the Turkey

Carving a turkey is just like carving an extra-large chicken. Make sure your chef's knife is sharp and then go for it. Remove the wings first, and then the thighs — pop out the joints that keep these pieces attached to the bird and cut straight through the joint. When carving the beast meat, slice close to the rib cage with the flat of your knife right up against the rib bones. Once you have the meat off, you can separate the thighs into thighs and drumsticks, and carve the breast meat into individual slices.

Carving the Turkey: A Video

Cooking a Thanksgiving Turkey

Are you ready? Let's cook some turkey! If you get anxious during roasting, just remember that roasting a turkey is just like roasting a large chicken. The same methods and ideas apply. Even if you don't get fancy with spices or brining or special basting liquids, your turkey will still turn out browned, moist, and flavorful.

Please share your own stories, advice, and recipe suggestions in the comments below!

How To Cook a Turkey for Thanksgiving

Makes 1 turkey

What You Need

Ingredients
1 turkey, any size
2 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth, water, or other liquid
1 cup unsalted butter, melted, for basting (optional)

Equipment
Roasting pan (or an alternative roasting dish)
Roasting rack (or something to lift the turkey off the pan)
Turkey baster, brush, or ladle (optional, if basting)

Instructions

  1. Prepare the turkey for roasting: Thirty minutes to an hour before roasting, take the turkey out of the fridge. Remove any packaging and the bag of giblets (check in the body cavity and in the neck cavity). Set the turkey breast-side up on the roasting rack and let it sit while the oven preheats. This takes the chill off the meat, which helps the meat cook faster and more evenly. It also gives the skin time to dry out, which promotes browning and crisping. (Note: Your turkey will likely still feel cool to the touch after sitting at room temperature — that's fine and you can continue on with roasting.)
  2. Preheat the oven to 450°F: Position an oven rack in the bottom third of your oven and preheat the oven to 450°F. If you brined your turkey, as we did, no need to do anything now. If your turkey is straight out of the package, rub it with some salt and pepper before putting it in the oven. We recommend leaving your turkey un-stuffed and un-trussed, both because it's easier and because the turkey will cook more evenly.
  3. Add liquid to the roasting pan: When ready to roast, pour two cups of broth or water into the roasting pan.
  4. Place the turkey in the oven and turn down the heat: Place the turkey in the oven and turn down the heat to 350°F. We recommend roasting turkeys breast-side up. Some people like starting the turkey breast-side down to shield the breast meat, but the idea of flipping a hot, sputtering turkey is not our idea of a good time. Instead, we prefer to simply shield the breast meat with foil toward the end of cooking if it starts getting too browned.
  5. Roast the turkey: The rule of thumb for cooking a turkey is 13 minutes per pound. So our 16-pound turkey was estimated to cook in about 3 1/2 hours. However, some factors like brining the bird, cooking with an empty (un-stuffed) cavity, and leaving the legs un-trussed will contribute to much faster cooking. Plan on the 13-minute-per-pound rule, but start checking the temperature of your turkey about halfway through the scheduled cooking time to gauge how fast it's cooking.
  6. Baste the turkey every 45 minutes: Every 45 minutes, remove the turkey from the oven, close the oven door (don't let that heat out!), and baste the turkey all over. To baste, tilt the pan and use a turkey baster or spoon to scoop up the pan liquids and drizzle them on top of the turkey. Basting with pan juices cools the surface of the turkey and slows down cooking, which in turn keeps the breast meat cooking at close to the same rate as the legs and thighs. In the last 45 minutes or so of cooking, you can also baste the turkey with melted butter or oil. This helps crisp up the skin and turn it a beautiful deep golden brown.
  7. Check the turkey's temperature: Begin checking the turkey's temperature about halfway through the estimated cooking time. Check the temperature in three places: the breast, outer thigh, and inside thigh (see photos above). In every case, the meat should be at least 165°F when the turkey has finished cooking. If any place is under that temperature, put the turkey back in the oven for another 20 minutes. Shield the breast meat with foil if needed to keep it from overcooking.
  8. Rest the turkey before carving: Grab one side of the roasting rack with an oven mitt and tilt the whole pan so the liquids inside the turkey cavity run out into the pan. (These juices are used to make the gravy.) Then, lift the whole turkey (still on the rack) and transfer it to a cutting board. Tent the turkey with aluminum foil and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. This gives time for the meat to firm up and the juices to be re-absorbed into the muscle tissue, making the turkey easier to slice and taste juicier.
  9. Carve the turkey: Carve the turkey the same way you would carve a chicken; see the video above for a walk-through of the process. Remove the wings first, then the thighs, then the breast meat. Once you have the meat off, you can separate the thighs into thighs and drumsticks and carve the breast meat into individual slices.
  10. Don't forget about the leftovers: One final note! Once you've sat down at the table, don't forget about the turkey back on the counter. The leftover meat needs to be refrigerated within two hours of cooking, after which the risk of something nasty taking up residence starts to increase exponentially. Be safe!

Recipe Notes

  • Ways to Add Flavor to Your Turkey: Rub your turkey with butter or oil for a richer flavor and browner skin, rub minced herbs or ground spices into (or beneath) the skin for more flavor, place a few halved lemons or garlic cloves inside the cavity of the turkey.

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Turkey Essentials

Per serving, based on 2 servings. (% daily value)
Calories
86
Fat
2.9 g (4.4%)
Saturated
0.8 g (3.8%)
Carbs
8.5 g (2.8%)
Sugars
3.8 g
Protein
6 g (12.1%)
Cholesterol
7.2 mg (2.4%)
Sodium
343.2 mg (14.3%)

(Image credits: Emma Christensen)