Although there are hundreds of thousands of recipes out there for roasting a turkey, it’s the sort of thing that’s rarely done more than two or three times a year. And if you’re not the one making it from year to year (and even if you are), it’s tough to recall exactly what to do without calling your mom for advice. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Here’s a quick refresher – everything you need to know, from thawing the bird to cooking times.
Thawing: while thawing, keep the turkey in its original wrapper – on a tray if it’s in the fridge, to catch any juices that may leak. Allow approximately 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds in the refrigerator, and approximately 30 minutes per pound in cold water. Once thawed, your turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days.
Brining: If you plan to brine your turkey, essentially marinating the bird, infusing it with flavor and moisture, plan ahead – ensure the turkey is thawed and aim for about an hour of time in the brine per pound, or up to 24 hours. When you remove your turkey from its brine, toss the brine and pat the skin of the turkey dry with a paper towel to ensure it crisps up in the oven.
Prepping: before roasting, a turkey can be rubbed with herbs and spices, painted with a glaze or stuffed with any number of ingredients, or you can use absolutely nothing but a little oil, salt and pepper and it will still be delicious. If you’re not stuffing your bird, throwing half a lemon, handful of fresh herbs and a few garlic cloves inside the cavity is easy and will add flavor. Trussing is optional – it’s generally only done for aesthetic reasons, and if you don’t bother, you’ll have nicely browned legs all around.
Stuffing: if you stuff your turkey, fill the cavities loosely and cook the turkey immediately. (Make sure you first remove the giblets!)
Roasting: Some people cook their turkey upside down (breast-down in the roasting pan) – this won’t produce a picture-perfect turkey, but means the juices will run down into the breast during cooking, ensuring it stays moist. Some people start it this way and then flip it halfway through to brown the breast skin, but it’s sometimes awkward to flip a half-cooked turkey, as you can imagine.
Cooking times: Many recipes start with a higher initial temperature to crisp and brown the skin, and then drop to a lower temperature to cook the meat through. If you keep it constant, it seems fairly unanimous that a turkey should be roasted at 325 °F. If the meat is cooked properly before the stuffing is (insert a meat thermometer into the meatiest part of the thigh and thickest part of the breast, without touching the bone), remove the stuffing, transfer it to a baking dish and put it back in the oven while the turkey rests and you make gravy. That way, the meat won’t dry out as you wait for the stuffing to come up to temperature.
Turkey Roasting Chart (at 325 °F)
8 to 12 pounds – 2 3/4 to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds – 3 to 3 3/4 hours
14 to 18 pounds – 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds – 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
20 to 24 pounds – 4 1/2 to 5 hours
8 to 12 pounds – 3 to 3 1/2 hours
12 to 14 pounds – 3 1/2 to 4 hours
14 to 18 pounds – 4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds – 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours
20 to 24 pounds – 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours
For stuffed turkeys – the stuffing should reach an internal temperature of 165 °F.
According to the USDA, a whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F – measure it with a food thermometer poked into the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.
For information about safely buying, handling, thawing, cooking, storing and reheating your turkey, check out the USDA’s Let’s Talk Turkey—A Consumer Guide to Safely Roasting a Turkey.
Still have questions? The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline can personally answer your food safety questions on weekdays year-round. Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at: 1-888-MPHotline or 1-888-674-6854.