Most of us only cook a turkey once a year. And when that time arrives it's hard to remember what exactly we even did the year before, much less how it went. (Unless it went spectacularly wrong).
Don't worry. We'll walk you through the basics, and get that centerpiece bird looking Norman-Rockwell levels of delicious for you.
Hopefully by the time you get to this page, you've worked out how long it takes to thaw a frozen turkey, and you've got a pretty good roast turkey recipe you're excited about (or at least the right mix of seasonings) ready to go.
Now you just need to know how long to cook that turkey, so it turns out juicy and delicious. (If you want to save yourself the Google in a few hours, open up this page on how to carve a turkey and give it a read while the bird is in the oven).
Okay. Let's answer some frequently asked questions about roasting a Thanksgiving turkey.
How Long Do I Cook an Unstuffed Turkey? (Recommended)
The first thing you should do before you embark on cooking a turkey is invest in an instant-read thermometer. Cooking by temperature is the best and safest way to know when your turkey is ready. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the bird between the breast and thigh (being sure not to hit bone). It's done when the thermometer just reaches 165ºF.
In general, you should plan to cook a turkey for around 15-20 minutes per pound at 325ºF to get to that temp. But that's only an estimate! The time will vary based on the exact size of the bird, as well as the size of the oven and how accurate your temperature gauge works, and whether or not the bird is stuffed. Here's a quick breakdown of weights and times. At 325°F for an unstuffed turkey:
10-12 pounds: cook 2 3/4 to 3 hours
15-16 pounds: cook 3 1/2 to 4 hours
18-20 pounds: cook 4 to 4 1/2 hours
For a turkey that is 20-pounds or more, settle in for the afternoon. This could take around 4 1/2 to 5 hours.
One note: We actually don't recommend you cook the stuffing inside the turkey (and the USDA agrees). It increases the chances the turkey will cook unevenly, increases the cook time and will dry the turkey out, and most importantly: you miss out on the delicious crispy-crunchy bits that you get when the stuffing is cooked in a pan or dish. Why would you give that up? We have plenty of delicious stovetop and baked stuffing recipes that will impress.
I'm Cooking a Stuffed Turkey Though. How Long Do I Cook It?
We can't talk you out of it, huh? We get it: sometimes tradition outweighs other concerns. If you're determined to stuff the turkey, you'll want to leave it in the oven at 325°F for 20-25 minutes per pound. We'll also recommend covering the turkey (especially the wings and drumsticks) with a loose tent of aluminum foil to keep them from drying out or burning. Again, check that thermometer as well as your recipe and cooking instructions — and make sure the stuffing gets to 165°F as well, so you don't have undercooked turkey juices in there.
Should I Put Water in My Turkey Roasting Pan?
If you are adding vegetables to the bottom of the roasting pan (they will help flavor your gravy), then add 1/2 cup water to prevent them from scorching. If you are sans veggies, you can skip putting water in your roasting pan.
Do I Cook a Turkey at 325°F or 350°F?
Though "low and slow" is a good rule for cooking a bird all the way through without burning it, there's no hard-and-fast rule. All of our temperature guides assume you're cooking at 325°F, but you can cook it a little warmer for roughly the same, or just a little less time.
The best thing to do is consult your recipe. The important thing to stress is hitting that 165ºF mark with the instant-read thermometer so that you know it's safe to eat. Note: Once you remove your turkey, the temperature will continue rising another 20 degrees or so. So it's okay to, pull it out a little before it hits 165°F, as long as it hits there at some point.
Do I Cover a Turkey When Cooking It?
Start by cooking the turkey uncovered. This will ensure that the skin gets a nice golden brown color. Check in on it after an hour or so, if you notice any areas that are browning too quickly, cover them with foil.
How Do I Keep My Turkey Moist?
The best way to keep a turkey juicy is to avoid overcooking it. While in the past cooks recommended either brining or basting a turkey (and Kosher turkeys come pre-brined), modern cooking science has found that those techniques are neither necessary or helpful.
One of the best ways to prepare a flavorful turkey is to salt the skin well and then butter the turkey ahead of time. The salt will help tenderize the meat and the fat from the butter will get the skin crispy and delicious, and help keep the meat moist as well.
How Long Do I Wait Until I Carve the Turkey?
For maximum juiciness, let the turkey rest a good half-hour to 45 minutes before carving. This gives it time for the juices to redistribute, also helping to ensure moist meat. It also allows you time to make the aforementioned gravy and perhaps drink a glass of wine and memorize a few good Thanksgiving jokes before heading out to sit down with the family and eat.
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