Cooking a turkey for the holidays can be stressful. Most of us only cook turkey once a year, and it takes much longer than the smaller chickens we’re used to working with. Not to mention the pressure of cooking it perfectly —you only have one chance to get it right, and you’re serving it to a crowd! Luckily, we have developed an easy, nearly foolproof guide for how to cook the perfect turkey. It works with any turkey —large, small, brined, unbrined, organic, free-range, etc. —and results in a bird with gorgeous looking crispy skin and tender, juicy meat. All you need to do is pay attention to a few details to pull it off.
How to Thaw a Thanksgiving Turkey
Before you learn how to cook the perfect turkey, you have to know how to thaw one. In general, we recommend buying a frozen turkey. We can barely tell the difference between fresh and frozen when it comes to flavor, and the latter is significantly cheaper, too. Plus, the term “fresh” just means the bird has never been frozen. It could be several days old by the time you see it at the grocery store.
In the refrigerator, a frozen turkey needs about 24 hours for every four pounds. So, a 16-pound turkey will take about four days to thaw. The process goes a bit quicker in cold water: 30 minutes per pound, so that 16-pound turkey now only takes eight hours to thaw. The drawback is the USDA recommends changing the water every 30 minutes to ensure the turkey stays in safe temperatures.
There’s a third option here. In a video on Facebook, Alton Brown shared that you can brine and thaw a turkey at the same time. Start with a completely frozen turkey and remove it from the bag. Drop it into a container with your wet brine (more on how to do that in a moment). Combined with the salt, the frozen turkey will keep the water temperature low enough to thaw the bird safely outside the refrigerator, so simply put a lid on the container and let it sit for two days.
It’s best to use a probe thermometer anytime you’re thawing outside the refrigerator. You want to ensure the water temperature never exceeds 40°F, adding ice as needed to keep it at safe temperatures.
How to Brine a Thanksgiving Turkey
First thing’s first: You don’t have to brine your Thanksgiving turkey. Our method for how to cook the perfect turkey works with brined and unbrined turkey. That said, brining the turkey is an easy way to infuse it with flavor and extra moisture. That not only makes it taste better, but it can also protect the lean white meat from drying out as it cooks.
A wet brine is the classic brine made with water and salt. You can add other ingredients, like sugar, apple cider, seasonings, and aromatic vegetables, but these additions only season the outside of the turkey. That’s why we keep things simple with a salt-and-water brine only. You can always add additional ingredients if you wish, or you can add flavor with a dry rub after the turkey brines.
If your bird is still frozen, or you have space in the refrigerator, try this super simple wet brine recipe:
- Dissolve 1-1/2 cups of kosher salt (or 1 cup of table salt) into 6 quarts of water. You shouldn’t need any heat. Just keep stirring until it’s all incorporated.
- Remove the turkey from the packaging. Save the neck and giblets for making stock or gravy.
- Place the turkey in a large oven bag placed inside a stockpot. Pour the salted water over the turkey.
- Add additional cold water as needed until the turkey is completely submerged. Weigh the turkey down with a bowl, if needed.
- Let the turkey brine in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours.
- Remove the turkey from the brine (no need to rinse if you didn’t exceed 24 hours) and pat it dry with paper towels.
- For crispier skin, let the turkey sit, uncovered, in the refrigerator for an additional 24 hours.
A dry brine doesn’t involve any water, so it doesn’t take up as much space in the refrigerator. Rubbing salt over the turkey pulls out the natural juices from the meat, creating a more flavorful turkey-flavored brine.
If your bird is completely thawed and you don’t have space in the fridge for a stockpot, try our easy dry brine recipe:
- Remove the turkey from the packaging. Save the neck and giblets for making stock or gravy.
- Place the turkey on a large baking sheet lined with a rack to keep it elevated.
- You’ll need one tablespoon of kosher salt for every two pounds of turkey. For a 16-pound bird, that’s 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) salt. Feel free to mix the salt with other seasonings, like thyme, rosemary, black pepper, or ground chilies, if you like.
- Sprinkle the salt over the meat, rubbing it inside and out. You may not need all the salt —it should be well covered but not caked on.
- Let the turkey brine in the refrigerator, uncovered, for 12 to 24 hours.
- Pat the turkey dry with paper towels. It’s not necessary to wash off the dry brine.
How to Season a Thanksgiving Turkey
There are so many different ways to season a Thanksgiving turkey. If you used a brine, you won’t need to add any extra salt, so take care not to use a store-bought rub that contains salt. Try combining 2 teaspoons dried thyme with 2 teaspoons dried rosemary, 1 teaspoon dried sage, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper for a good all-purpose rub. You can also add chili powder or smoky ground paprika to the mix for a little spice.
Thanksgiving Turkey FAQs
Before we move on to how to cook the perfect turkey, let’s answer some common questions. Reach out in the comments if we missed anything important in this section.
Should you cook stuffing inside a turkey?
We recommend cooking your turkey unstuffed. The stuffing can be unsafe to eat if it doesn’t reach safe temperatures of 165°F, and the turkey may overcook and become dry by the time it does. Instead, cook your stuffing on the side, and use homemade turkey stock to make it taste like the original.
How much turkey do I need?
In general, aim for about one pound of uncooked turkey per person when serving a smaller bird. Larger turkeys also have larger bones, so you’ll need closer to 1-1/2 pounds per person. If you want to make sure to end up with leftovers, aim high.
Do you have to cook a turkey right after brining?
Brining usually takes 12 to 24 hours, but you don’t have to cook the turkey right away. Thawed turkey is good in the refrigerator up to four days after it thaws. You can leave the brined turkey uncovered in the fridge for up to 24 hours. After that, you’ll want to cover it lightly in plastic wrap to keep it from drying out too much.
If you bought a fresh turkey, pay attention to the date on the label, and make sure to cook it before that date passes.
How long do I cook turkey?
In a 325°F oven, a whole turkey generally takes 14 to 16 minutes per pound, depending on its weight. A 16-pound turkey will take between 3-1/2 and 4-1/2 hours at these times. You can speed things up by starting the turkey in a hotter oven to crisp up the skin. We’ll detail how to do this in the recipe below.
If you’re cooking a turkey breast, plan on one to two hours total. Turkey legs and wings take about the same amount of time (1-1/2 to 2-1/2 hours), depending on their size.
How do I know when the turkey is finished cooking?
The very best way to know when the turkey is finished is to use a probe thermometer. It allows you to monitor the temperature without opening the oven door, so you will know —not guess —when the turkey is done. Probe it into the thickest part of the thigh or breast, wiggling it lightly to ensure it’s not touching the bone.
When the thigh reaches 170°F (or the breast reaches 160°F), the bird is finished. The temperature will continue to rise an additional 5°F as the turkey rests.
Do I really need to rest turkey?
Yes, you really do. You see, meat releases a ton of juices as it cooks. If you cut into the bird straight away, those juices release onto the cutting board, making the turkey taste a little drier than it should. Instead, give it at least 30 minutes to let those juices redistribute within the meat. You can rest the bird for up to an hour, and it will still be warm enough to serve for dinner. Feel free to tent the turkey with a piece of aluminum foil if you’re resting for more than 30 minutes.
How to Cook the Perfect Turkey
The most important thing to remember when roasting a turkey is it’s not all that different from cooking chickens. It’s much larger, so it takes longer to cook, but the same general principles apply. So try not to stress it too much!
You always have the option of cooking the turkey a day in advance, too. Cook the turkey following the instructions below, and let it cool for about 30 minutes. Then, carve the turkey and store it, covered, in the fridge overnight. The next day, let the turkey come to room temperature for about 30 minutes while the oven preheats. Spoon the turkey drippings or some broth over the turkey to keep it moist as it reheats. Heat the turkey in the roasting pan, covered with aluminum foil, in a 350°F oven until it reaches 165°F.
Here's How to Cook the Perfect Turkey with Gravy
- 1 whole turkey thawed if frozen
- olive oil or melted coconut oil, for rubbing the turkey
- dry rub see recipe above
- chopped onion, celery, carrots, garlic cloves, lemon or orange wedges (optional)
- 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- neck, giblets, gizzards
- 3 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 1 teaspoon dry rub use the recipe above or your own mix
- 1/4 cup flour
- Preheat the oven to 450°F.
- Take the turkey out of the fridge while the oven is preheating. If you didn’t brine the turkey, remove it from the packaging and save the neck, giblets, and gizzards for making gravy and stock.
- Set the turkey breast-side up on a roasting rack set inside a roasting pan. Tuck the wings behind the turkey and tie the legs together to help the turkey cook more evenly.
- Rub the turkey skin all over with olive oil or melted coconut oil. Season the turkey with a dry rub (save 1 teaspoon for the gravy recipe) as desired (don’t add any extra salt if you used a brine). Stuff the turkey cavity with lemon or orange wedges, a few cloves of garlic, or a quartered onion, if desired.
- Probe the deepest part of the turkey thigh or breast with a probe thermometer, wiggling it lightly to ensure it didn’t hit bone.
- Place the onion, carrots, and celery below the turkey along the bottom of the roasting pan, along with the broth.
- Slide the turkey into the oven with the legs positioned towards the back of the oven. The oven is generally warmer in the back, giving the dark meat the heat it needs to reach their higher temperatures.
- Turn down the heat to 325°F. Roast for 3 to 4 hours,depending on the turkey’s weight, until the probe thermometer reads 170°F in the thigh or 160°F in the breast meat.
- Resist the urge to open the oven while the turkey is roasting. It doesn’t need to be basted, and opening the oven will let out the heat, adding extra cooking time.
- Save the turkey drippings for making gravy and let the turkey rest for at least 30 minutes before carving.
- While turkey is cooking, add ingredients to a pot and simmer for 1 hour.
- Remove neck, giblets, gizzards and discard.
- When turkey is done, add enough drippings to the stock to make 4 cups. Add more broth if needed.
- Add flour and whisk until smooth and no lumps remain.
- Place pot back on burner and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until desired thickness.
What to Serve with Turkey
Don’t forget about the side dishes and gravy! Here are some of our favorites.
- Cauliflower Holiday Stuffing
- Low-Carb Cheesy Scalloped Zucchini
- Garlic Mashed Potatoes with Herb Gravy