11 Urgent Questions about Roasting a Turkey

There are some questions about roasting your Thanksgiving turkey that seem to come every year. You have questions? We have answers.

Best Turkey Brine Recipe Roasted Turkey in a roasting pan, resting

Emma Christensen

Most of us only roast a turkey once a year, so we don't get a lot of practice doing it. Invariably, every year some urgent questions come up about the process -- whether it’s your first or fiftieth time doing it.

You’ve got this. Never fear! Here are some answers to questions you may have:

1 How Long Does It Take to Thaw a Frozen Turkey?

The rule of thumb is to thaw in the fridge and allow 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. That means it will take about 1 to 3 days if it’s a 4- to 12-pound turkey or up to 5 days for an 18-pound turkey or larger.

See the USDA’s Food Safety site for more information, including info on how to thaw it in cold water, which is a much faster process.

Easy Turkey Brine Recipe

Emma Christensen

2 Should I Brine My Turkey? Wet Brine or Dry Brine?

Brining a turkey is not necessary, but brining or some kind of pre-salting a day or two in advance of cooking may help to ensure a moist, flavorful turkey.

As to wet or dry brine, it depends. Some prefer wet brining, in which the turkey sits in a salty solution overnight or up to a couple days (depending on your recipe). However, some chefs swear by dry brining, which just means rubbing salt, spices and herbs all over the bird a few days before roasting — no liquid at all.

People will disagree and say that one is better than the other, but really it comes down to personal preference. Both brines are effective at producing a moist, fully seasoned turkey.

Beware! If you have bought a supermarket turkey, many of them are injected with a saline solution, which is the equivalent to pre-brining. Further brining would result in an overly salty bird. Read the label carefully.

3 I Bought a Local or Heritage Turkey. What Do I Need to Know About Roasting It?

First of all, you may notice that it fits a little differently into your roasting pan. It will still fit in the roasting pan—never fear—but it just may not look like your stereotypical magazine-cover turkey.

The biggest difference? Most turkeys for commercial breeding are grown with more white breast meat, while your local turkey has been probably running around a lot more and will likely have more developed leg muscles.

Your heritage turkey might also taste a little differently than turkey you're used to. It will have more dark meat, and the flavor, in general, is more complex -- less homogenous than a mass-produced bird.

This turkey is also less likely to dry out because the balance of white and dark meat is more akin to nature’s intentions. It may also, because of that, roast more quickly, so keep an eye on it.

4 What Do I Do With the Neck Meat and Giblets?

Use them to make giblet gravy, or chop them finely and add them to regular gravy. You can also simmer them in a few cups of water to make a turkey stock that you can use to flavor stuffing, or save them to add to your turkey carcass for making turkey soup.

Cornbread, Sausage & Sage Stuffing

Elizabeth Stark

5 Do I Need to Stuff My Turkey?

Popular opinion might disagree here, but no, you don’t really need to cook the stuffing inside the bird. If you do, understand that it has to reach an internal temperature of 165°F, just like the turkey around it.

This means that your turkey may become dry and overcooked while you wait for the stuffing to reach the proper temperature. On the plus side, the stuffing will be moist and take on the aromas and flavors of the turkey.

On the other hand, if you cook the stuffing separately, you may lose some of the flavor, but gain a turkey that hasn't overcooked. You can also make multiple batches of stuffing when you cook it by itself – much more than what you might otherwise fit into the cavity of the turkey.

6 Do I Need to Baste My Turkey?

It’s a good idea to protect the bird in some way from the blast of the oven for hours on end, which is what basting does. So typically, the answer is yes.

However, this doesn't necessarily mean your only option is using a turkey baster to bath the bird in its juices. I’ve done a turkey whereby I dump several pieces of cheesecloth in melted butter and drape this over the turkey. This keeps the turkey fairly moist, as long as it’s not being roasted at a super high temperature. It works well, and I don’t have to keep opening the oven to baste, which disrupts the cooking process and the oven’s temperature.

7 What’s That Rack That Goes Inside My Roasting Pan and Do I Need It?

That’s your roasting rack, and yes, you want to make sure the turkey is resting on top of it. That way, the air circulates around the turkey and the juices drip into the roasting pan, which you'll want later for making gravy.

If you don’t have a roasting rack, you can rest the bird on a couple of bricks wrapped in aluminum foil or twist some foil into a thick, coiled spiral.

8 What's the Best Temperature to Roast My Turkey?

Follow your recipe! This sounds like a cop-out, but it’s not. As long as your oven is hot enough, the turkey will roast. Most recipes range from 325°F to 375°F.

Lower temperatures will mean your bird cooks more slowly, but retain more moisture. Turkeys that are subjected to higher heat will cook more quickly, but also have a tendency to dry out.

I’ve heard stories from friends who’ve roasted a turkey over night in a very low oven, typically around 200°F, only to jack up the heat for a short period of time at the end, to brown the exterior. They claim it’s the best and most moist turkey they’ve ever cooked.

roast turkey

Emma Christensen

9 How Long Does It Take to Cook a Turkey? What if My Turkey Doesn’t Defrost in Time?

A good rule of thumb is to estimate it taking about 15 minutes per pound to fully roast the turkey, assuming you’re roasting at 325°F.

Yes, you can cook the turkey if it’s still partially or even completely frozen—just anticipate that it will take about 50 percent longer to cook when frozen. You won’t be able to do anything fun with a frozen turkey, like brining, but you can brush it with butter as it cooks. More questions? Check out the USDA’s word on it.

Don’t forget to add on 15 to 20 minutes of resting time after you remove the turkey from the oven. You don’t want to cut into the turkey while it’s still piping hot—the juices will run all over the place and the bird will dry out. The juices will get reabsorbed into the meat as it rests. If you’re concerned about the turkey getting too cold, tent it with foil as it rests.

10 How Do I Get Really Crispy Skin?

It's important for the skin to be as dry as possible, especially if you've brined it. If you put a soggy skinned turkey into the oven, it’s not going to get an opportunity to really crisp up.

Make sure you pat the turkey completely dry with paper towels before roasting. Some people will even intentionally leave the turkey uncovered in the fridge for a couple of hours before it goes into the oven, just to make sure the skin is really dry.

After it’s completely dry, rub it with pats of butter or oil. The latter will yield a crispier skin. And whatever you do, don’t cover it up when it roasts.

11 How Do I Know When My Turkey Is Done?

Don’t rely on your old meat thermometer with the dial face. Invest in a good digital instant-read thermometer instead—it will tell you the temperature much faster and be way more accurate.

Different parts of the turkey cook at different rates, so you'll need to check the temperature in a few places. First, check the temperature in the meatiest part of the breast, a few inches above the wings. Then check the thigh by inserting the thermometer underneath the drumstick, parallel to the main cavity, and away from the bone.

The temperature needs to be at least 165°F in both the breast and the thigh meat. If it's not, return the turkey to the oven and continue roasting. Check the temperature every 10 to 15 minutes until the turkey is cooked.

Your turn! What questions do you have? Any advice to give people roasting a turkey for the first time?