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Turkey Cooking Times and Temperatures

how long to cook a turkey, cook a turkey, how to cook a turkeyFor many of us, it’s turkey time again. Although there are plenty of ways you can roast a turkey – plain, stuffed, rubbed down with spices, brined or grilled – it all boils down to cooking time – it seems to be the time and temperature that always requires a refresher. Here’s a quick rundown on everything turkey, from thawing the bird to cooking times.

Thawing: while thawing your turkey in the fridge, set it on a rimmed tray to catch any juices that may leak. Allow approximately 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds in the refrigerator, or approximately 30 minutes per pound in cold water. Don’t do it too far in advance – once thawed, your turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days.

Brining: If you plan to brine your turkey, a process very similar to marinating, infusing the meat with flavor and moisture, plan ahead. Ensure the turkey is completely thawed and aim for about an hour of time in the brine per pound, 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 the skin gets nice and crispy in the oven.

Prepping: before roasting, the simplest thing to do is pat the skin dry with paper towels, then rub the skin with oil or soft butter and sprinkle it with salt and pepper and if you like, some dried herbs. Some people like stuffing fresh herbs or softened butter under the skin – loosen the skin with your fingers and tuck in extra ingredients to add flavor directly to the meat. If you’re not stuffing your bird, throw half a lemon, handful of fresh herbs and a few garlic cloves inside the cavity – an easy way to add flavor. Trussing a bird isn’t necessary – 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 cavity loosely and cook the turkey immediately. (Make sure you first remove the giblets!) If you’re worried about it being properly cooked through, give it some extra time in the oven or microwave once you remove it from the turkey into the serving dish, as the turkey itself rests.

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)

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.

Unstuffed Turkey:
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

Stuffed Turkey:
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

Photo credit: istockphoto.com/LauriPatterson

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