When it comes to holiday cooking, my father and I spend weeks deciding who is making what for the feast. Divide and conquer, right?
For 50 years my mother was in charge of the turkey, but now that the dinner gathering has shifted to my house, the task has fallen to me. Fortunately, my mother has taught me well!
Her turkey cooking method produces a roast turkey that is always perfectly done. The breast is never dried out, but tender and full of flavor. There’s no need to brine or baste.
how to cook a perfect turkey for thanksgiving
How does she do it? Here are her three keys to cooking a perfect turkey:
- Cook the turkey breast-side down. While the turkey roasts, the juices fall down towards the breast, resulting in the most succulent meat. The breast is also more protected from the heat, which helps keep it from getting too dried out.
- Use a meat thermometer to take out any guess work of when the turkey is done.
- Cook the turkey stuffing separately, not in the cavity, which makes it easier to cook the turkey more evenly.
Cooking a turkey breast side down
The main difference between how my mother makes her turkey and everyone else is to cook it breast side down. By cooking the turkey this way, the juices from the cooking turkey fall into the breast while the turkey cooks, resulting in them most succulent breast imaginable.
The thighs are more exposed to the heat in this method as well, which is good since dark meat takes longer to cook than white meat.
If you cook the bird breast down, the turkey skin over the breast will not brown well. If you want browning on the breast, you’ll need to turn the turkey over in the pan and to brown it in the last few minutes of cooking. We rarely bother with turning the turkey over, since we carve up the turkey in the kitchen before bringing it out, and there is plenty of crispy turkey skin on the rest of the turkey.
In the years since we first posted this recipe, we still cook our turkeys breast-side down, and they’re still wonderful. If the turkey is small enough, sometimes I’ll flip it over near the end to get the breast side browned, but usually, like my mom, I’ll just roast it the whole time breast-down.
Plan ahead to defrost the turkey
Cooking a turkey is pretty straightforward, but you do need to plan ahead, given that it can take several hours to roast, and needs time (days if you need to defrost) beforehand to lose the chill from the refrigerator.
If you are buying a frozen turkey, you’ll need to put it in the refrigerator to defrost. The turkey will need about 5 hours of defrosting time for every pound of turkey.
So if you have a 15 pound turkey, it should take about 75 hours, or 3 days, to defrost in the refrigerator. A 20 pound turkey will take about 100 hours, or 4 days, to defrost.
If your turkey is still partially frozen the day you plan to cook it, clean out the basin of your sink, fill it with cool water and place the turkey in it. Change the water every half hour until the turkey is defrosted.
Use a meat thermometer
If you don’t have a meat thermometer, please get one! Using one will make your life a lot easier, otherwise there’s just too much guesswork.
I prefer to use a remote thermometer, that way you can track the progress of the turkey as it cooks, without opening the oven door. But any instant read thermometer will do. (I use two ChefAlarm remote thermometers, one inserted into the breast, one inserted into a thigh.)
What Temperature To Cook a Turkey
165°F is the USDA recommended temperature for cooked turkey. The turkey will continue to cook for several minutes after you take it out of the oven, so take it out before the meat reaches those target temperatures.
I usually take the the turkey out when the breast reaches 155°F to 160°F, and the thighs 155°F to 165°F. While white breast meat can easily dry out if its temperature gets too high, thigh meat can handle a higher internal temperature without drying out.
How long it should take to cook the turkey
Here’s a quick way to estimate how long it takes to cook the turkey, though note that the actual cooking time will vary depending on how cold your turkey is to start, and your individual oven. So make sure to check the turkey WELL BEFORE (at least an hour) you estimate it to be done.
Multiply the weight of your turkey by 13 minutes per pound. So a
- 10 pound turkey would take about 130 minutes or 2 hours 10 minutes
- 12 pound turkey would take 156 minutes, or 2 hours 36 minutes
- 14 pound turkey would take 182 minutes, or 3 hours 2 minutes
- 16 pound turkey would take 208 minutes, or 3 hours 28 minutes
- 18 pound turkey would take 234 minutes, or 3 hours 54 minutes
- 20 pound turkey would take 260 minutes, or 4 hours 20 minutes
Again, this is just an estimate! If your turkey is not close to room temperature when it goes in the oven, it will take longer to cook. If it is at room temp, it may take less time to cook. So check the temperature early.
To brine or not to brine the turkey
If you follow these instructions for cooking the turkey breast-side down, and remove the turkey from the oven before the thighs reach 165°F and the breast 160°F, there is no need to brine the turkey! Your turkey will be perfectly succulent and delicious.
That said, if you would like to cook your turkey in a more conventional manner, breast side up, brining will help keep the breast from drying out. See our methods for both wet and dry turkey brines:
Watch our video for how to make Roast Turkey!
Mom’s Roast Turkey Recipe
Handle raw turkey the way you would raw chicken, with care. Use a separate cutting board and utensils to avoid contaminating other foods.
Wash your hands with soap and water after touching raw turkey and before you touch anything else in the kitchen. Wipe down surfaces with dampened paper towels.
- 1 turkey, approx. 15 lbs.*
- Juice of a lemon
- Salt and pepper
- Extra virgin olive oil or softened or melted butter
- 1/2 yellow onion, peeled and quartered
- Celery tops
- 1 to 2 carrots
- 1 bunch of parsley
- Several sprigs of fresh rosemary, sage, and/or thyme
* Need help figuring out how big a turkey to get? Butterball has a turkey calculator that helps you figure out just how many pounds you need. In general, plan for:
9-12 lb turkey for 6-9 people
12-15 lb turkey for 10-12 people
15-18 lb turkey for 14-16 people
18-22 lb turkey for 20-22 people
1 Defrost and De-Chill
If you are starting with a frozen turkey, you will need to allow several days to defrost the turkey. You'll want to defrost it in the refrigerator so that the turkey stays chilled during this process.
Put the wrapped frozen turkey in a pan to prevent leaks and then place it in the refrigerator. It will take about 5 hours of defrosting time for every pound of turkey. So if you have a 15 pound turkey, it should take about 75 hours, or 3 days, to defrost.
If you need to defrost it more quickly than that, you can place it in a large tub of cool water, and keep changing the water to keep it cold, until the turkey is defrosted.
Remove the turkey from the refrigerator 2 to 5 hours (depending on the size of the bird) before cooking to allow it to come closer to room temperature. The turkey will cook more quickly and more evenly that way.
2 Remove Giblets and Rinse Turkey
When you are ready to cook the turkey, remove it from its package. Usually turkeys come packaged with the neck and giblets (heart, gizzard, liver) in the main cavity or the neck opening (make sure to check both!)
Pull the giblets out; they are often wrapped in a small paper package.
If you want, you can chop up the heart and gizzard to make stock for the stuffing or dressing (put the chopped heart and gizzard into a small saucepan, cover with water, add salt, bring to simmer for an hour or so.)
You can either cook the neck alongside the turkey, or use it to make turkey stock. You can also use all of the giblets for making giblet gravy.
Rinse the turkey inside and out with water. If you see stray turkey feathers, pluck them out. Use paper towels to pat the turkey dry.
Many turkeys come with a plastic tie holding the drumsticks together. Check the instructions on the turkey package; it is likely that you will not need to remove the tie unless you are cooking the turkey at a very high temperature.
3 Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
4 Insert Aromatics and Truss Turkey
Slather the inside of the cavity with a tablespoon or so of lemon juice. Take a couple teaspoons of salt and rub all over the inside of the turkey. (Skip salt if you are using a brined turkey.)
Put half an onion cut into wedges, several sprigs of parsley, a chopped carrot or two, and some leafy celery tops into the main cavity of the turkey. These are aromatics that will flavor the turkey from the inside as it cooks.
Cover the entrance to the main cavity with aluminum foil, or close it with metal skewers or kitchen string (not nylon string!), so that the aromatics don't fall out while you are roasting the turkey.
Put a few sprigs of parsley into the neck opening, cover the opening with the surrounding turkey skin, and close the opening with skewers or string.
By the way, we don't cook stuffing (or dressing as it is known in many parts of the country) in the turkey anymore. Stuffing the turkey adds to the overall cooking time, and not packing the turkey with stuffing will allow the turkey to cook more evenly. We do make our stuffing with stock made from the turkey giblets so the stuffing has plenty of turkey flavor.
To truss or not to truss?
We truss our turkey, though some people choose not too. The point of trussing is to keep the legs and wings close to the body so they don't spread out while cooking.
To truss, make sure that the turkey's legs are tied together, held close to the body, and tie a string around the turkey body to hold the wings in close. (Here's a good video on trussing: how to truss a turkey.)
5 Rub with Olive Oil or Butter, Salt and Pepper
Rub either softened butter or extra virgin olive oil all over the outside of the turkey. Sprinkle salt generously on all sides of the outside of the turkey (do not add salt if you are using a brined turkey). Sprinkle pepper over the turkey as well.
6 Place Turkey Breast Down on Rack
Place the turkey BREAST DOWN on a rack over a sturdy roasting pan big enough to catch all the drippings. How do you know the turkey is breast side down? The wings are up and the legs are down.
Note that you can also place the turkey directly on an oven rack with a large roasting pan to catch the drippings on the rack below. That method helps create a convection-like environment, helping the heat circulate more evenly around the turkey.
Add several sprigs of fresh (if possible) thyme, sage, and/or rosemary to the outside of the turkey or tucked under the wings.
Note that if you are using a remote thermometer (or two) to gauge the temperature of the turkey while it cooks, it's easiest to find the right place to insert the probe when the turkey is breast-side UP. So eyeball where you think the thermometer probe(s) should go first, before placing the turkey breast-side down in the pan. Once the turkey is breast-side down in the pan, insert the probes into the thickest and coldest parts of the breast and/or thighs, making sure the probe(s) is not touching the metal rack or pan. If you only have one remote thermometer, put it in the breast.
7 Roast the Turkey
Before you put the turkey in the oven, do a rough calculation of how much overall time it should take to cook the turkey. Usually they say to assume 15 minutes for every pound of meat, but I have found in practice that it's usually less than that, more like 13 minutes per pound.
Cooking time will vary depending on the size of the turkey, how long it has been sitting at room temperature before cooking, and the shape and particulars of your specific oven. So come up with a rough estimate for the overall cooking time, and then make sure to check how the turkey is doing well before it is supposed to be done!
Put the turkey in the oven at 400°F, uncovered. For the 15 lb turkey, start the cooking at 400°F for the first 20 minutes to brown it. Then reduce the heat to 325°F for the next 1 to 2 hours, until the internal temperature of breast reaches about 140°F to 145°F or so. Then reduce the heat further to 225°F until done, anywhere from a half hour to an hour or more.
Note that the lower oven temperature at the end of cooking can help you time when you want the turkey to be done. If the turkey is cooking more quickly than you expect, lowering the oven temp can extend the cooking time. If the turkey isn't cooking quickly enough and you're ready to eat, don't lower the temperature to 225°F, or if you already have, increase it again to 325°F.
Browning the Breast
If you want the turkey skin of the breast to be browned, when the turkey is close to being done (about 150°F for the breast), you'll need to turn the turkey over so that the breast is on top, and put it in a 500°F oven or under the broiler for 4 to 5 minutes, just enough time to brown the breast.
Note that by browning the breast you may end up over-cooking the turkey breast a little bit. We often don't turn the turkey over. Turning the turkey over can be a hot, messy job, so if you do it, the best way is to use clean oven mitts or clean kitchen towels (just throw them in the laundry afterwards.)
Target Temperatures for Doneness
Start taking temperature readings with a meat thermometer, inserted deep into the thickest part of the turkey breast and thigh, an hour and a half before the turkey should be done.
You want a resulting temperature of 165°F for the white meat (breast) and 165°F to 170°F for the dark meat (thighs and legs). The temperature of the bird will continue to rise once you take it out of the oven, so take the turkey out of the oven when the temperature reading for the breast is 155°F to 160°F, and for the thigh is 160°F to 165°F. If you don't have a meat thermometer, spear the breast with a knife. The turkey juices should be clear, not pink.
The USDA lowered its recommended cooking temperatures for poultry to 165°F. I've often found that at that temperature the thigh meat near the bone still isn't cooked, so I aim for 170°F for the thighs.
If the thighs reach their target temperature before the breast, turn the turkey over and let the turkey finish cooking breast side up.
8 Let Turkey Rest, Then Carve
Once you remove the turkey from the oven, transfer it to a cutting board, tent it with aluminum foil to keep it warm, and let it rest for 15-30 minutes, depending on the size of the turkey. Turn the turkey breast side up to carve it. (See Serious Eats video on How to Carve a Turkey.)
Making Turkey Gravy
Make the gravy while the turkey is resting covered on the carving board. If you have used a thick metal roasting pan, you can often put it directly on the stovetop burner, if not, scrape off the drippings and put them into a skillet. If you are using the roasting pan, use a metal spatula to scrape loose any dripping that might be stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Use a metal spoon to ladle off some of the excess fat from the pan (leave about 4 Tbsp or so of fat and drippings in the pan) and reserve for another use.
You can use either flour or cornstarch to make the gravy. (We find we get better results with flour, so usually make gravy with flour unless serving a guest who must eat gluten-free.)
If using flour, heat the fat and drippings in the pan until they are bubbly. Sprinkle with 1/4 of flour all over the fat and drippings.
Stir with a wire whisk to make a roux with the flour and fat. Let the flour brown a minute or so in the hot pan.
Slowly add 3 cups of water, stock, or milk to the pan, whisking vigorously to get rid of any lumps. Let the gravy simmer and thicken.
Add salt and pepper, ground sage, thyme or other seasonings to taste.
See our gravy recipe for more detail and for instructions on making gravy using cornstarch.
Save Bones for Stock
When you are finished with your turkey, save the bones from the carcass to make a delicious turkey soup.
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