The Ultimate Thanksgiving Turkey Timeline: When to Thaw, Brine & Cook Your Bird

updated Nov 14, 2023
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Overhead view of whole roasted turkey on a beige and brown ceramic platter with roasted blood orange slices, onions and herbs.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

People feel a lot of pressure when it comes to making Thanksgiving turkey. While some make it the same way year after year, others are tackling the big bird for the first time and even doing a practice run. How long does it take to defrost? How do you brine or dry-brine it? When do you put it in the oven?

Here’s a step-by-step guide that’ll help you figure out what to do with the turkey from the minute it gets home from the grocery store to the proud moment when you present it at Thanksgiving dinner.


  • Inventory your equipment. Do you have a roasting pan and/or roasting rack? A working meat thermometer, and more importantly, a working oven? Don’t forget the little things like a baster or brush and trussing string. Check now so you can make a last-minute equipment run if needed. Dig up the carving set if you’re planning to use that too.
  • Thaw the turkey! This is the other real task you should do today (if it’s not already in progress). If your turkey is frozen or still partially frozen, start thawing it in the refrigerator. A completely frozen turkey needs a day to thaw for every four pounds in weight. Remember that if you plan to brine the turkey, it’ll need to be defrosted even earlier. Don’t cut this one close — there’s no harm in a thawed turkey sitting around for an extra day or two.
  • Dry-brine the turkey. If you plan to dry-brine your turkey, do it today so that the salt has time to penetrate the meat. If your turkey is still frozen, keep it submerged in cold water that you change every 30 minutes until the turkey is defrosted.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot


  • Wet-brine the turkey. If instead of dry-brining you’re wet-brining the turkey, give it at least a day or two to brine. Make sure you’ve cleared out enough refrigerator space to hold the turkey in brine, or use our favorite method of brining in a refrigerator drawer!


  • Calculate your turkey cooking time. With our method of roasting a turkey, cooking time averages 13 minutes per pound, which comes out to about 3 1/2 hours for a 16-pound turkey. After you do the math, add in some prep time (10 to 15 minutes), at least 3o to 60 minutes resting time, and another 15 minutes for carving if you plan to do that before dinner. Take a look at this total turkey time and work backward from the time you plan to sit down for dinner. This is the time the turkey needs to go in the oven.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

Thursday (Thanksgiving Day)

  1. Preheat your oven and take the turkey out of the fridge. Thirty minutes to an hour before the turkey needs to start roasting, turn on your oven and let the turkey sit out at room temperature while it’s heating up. Remember to remove extra oven racks and adjust the rack you are using so that turkey has plenty of space to roast.
  2. Prep your turkey. If you wet-brined your turkey, rinse it and pat it dry. Don’t forget to season the turkey if you haven’t already, and if you’re stuffing it, do so now. Truss your turkey if you’d like, or just simply tie the legs together. Throw it into the roasting pan.
  3. Roast and baste! Remember to baste the turkey occasionally with some of the delicious juices that are gathering at the bottom of the roasting pan. If the turkey starts to look too brown, tent it with aluminum foil.
  4. Take the turkey’s temperature. The best way to check your turkey’s doneness is by using a meat thermometer, so give it a check a little bit before the time you think it should be done, just in case it’s cooking quickly. Temp it in the thickest part of the thigh that’s not touching bone. You’re looking for 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  5. Rest, rest, rest. A fresh-out-of-the oven turkey is way too hot to carve and needs some resting time so the juices can redistribute themselves back into the meat. Don’t worry, this large piece of meat will not get cold. In fact, letting it rest at least 30 minutes (and up to an hour) will let it reach a safer temperature that will make it much easier to carve. No burnt fingers!
  6. Make the gravy. If you plan on using the drippings, transfer the turkey to a platter or carving board to rest instead. Make the gravy and use the now-empty oven to heat up your side dishes.
  7. Carve and serve. Time to carve the bird! Remember that a turkey is really just a large chicken and carve the legs and breasts off that way. Once the breast meat is cut off the bones, cut into slices. Cut the thigh meat off of the bones, but keep the drumsticks intact for presentation and for hearty dark-meat eaters.