In this post: If you’re a beginner cook, the task of cooking a turkey can feel very daunting. But in this article, I’m giving you a step-by-step guide to preparing a turkey. It’s a great Thanksgiving or Christmas help for those who are trying their hand at making the family or friends’ Holiday dinner for the first time.
It can be really daunting to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any time. But it doesn’t have to be hard. Here’s how to cook a turkey, step-by-step, plus answers to all your turkey-making questions.
Can I tell you a secret? I’ve always disliked cooking whole chickens and turkeys. Or any other food that remotely resembles its original animal form.
In fact, I disliked it so much so that Dean made any whole birds we ate for the first ten years we were married. I’m not kidding. We either didn’t buy whole chickens or turkeys at all, or we only bought them to make when he was home to cook them.
Over time though I’ve managed to learn to cook whole poultry birds (as one does with many “adulting” type things) because my family loves it when I do. But give me a holiday with my extended family, and Dean and my sister can have the turkey cooking duty – whilst I go set a pretty table. 😂 😉
If you have little or no experience cooking turkey like I once did (remember even your mom and grandma had once never cooked a whole turkey!) here’s how to do it, in plain, simple steps. With a little knowledge and prep, it really is easier than it seems.
Table of Contents
The Simple Steps for Roasting a Turkey:
01 | Thaw your turkey
02 | Remove packaging and place turkey on a roasting rack
03 | Remove giblets and neck
04 | Season the turkey
05 | Tuck wings underneath
06 | Truss turkey legs together (optional)
07 | Roast the turkey
08 | Check the temperature
09 | Rest the turkey
10 | Carve the turkey
Of course, that’s good for an outline, but I’m guessing you’d like a little more detail, yes? Well, I aim to please. Read on, lovely.
What You’ll Need for Roasting a Turkey
- a whole turkey
- 2-3 onions
- 4-5 cloves of garlic
- 2-3 carrots
- 2-3 stalks of celery
- salt and pepper to taste
- sage, poultry seasoning, rosemary, and/or thyme
- roasting pan with a lid or another shallow pan and tin or aluminum foil
- sharp knife and cutting board
- oven mitts
- reliable and accurate meat or oven thermometer
How to Choose a Turkey
You should look for a turkey that is evenly shaped with no flat spots or deformities. If you choose a frozen turkey, be doubly sure it looks good as any flat spots would indicate thawing and refreezing, which you definitely don’t want! (More about fresh vs frozen turkeys in a second.)
How big of a turkey do I need?
The size of turkey you need will depend on how many people you are serving and whether you want to have leftovers or not. The general rules are:
- 1 pound of turkey per person with NO leftovers
- 1.5 pounds of turkey per person WITH leftovers
For my fellow Canadians, to find out approximately how many pounds your turkey is multiply the kg by 2.2. For example, if you have a 5 kg turkey it is approximately 11 pounds.
Some examples of approximately how much turkey you’d need are below. Keep in mind, it’s better to have too much turkey than too little, so I’ve rounded up in most cases.
- 2 people (you may have to get a turkey breast only if you can’t find a small turkey)
- No leftovers: 2 pounds or 1 kg
- With leftovers: 3 pounds or 1.5 kg
- 4 people
- No leftovers: 4 pounds or 2 kg
- With leftovers: 6 pounds or 3 kg
- 6 people
- No leftovers: 6 pounds or 3 kg
- With leftovers: 9 pounds or 4 kg
- 8 people
- No leftovers: 8 pounds or 4 kg
- With leftovers: 12 pounds or 6 kg
- 10 people
- No leftovers: 10 pounds or 5 kg
- With leftovers: 15 pounds or 7 kg
- 12 people
- No leftovers: 12 pounds or 6 kg
- With leftovers: 18 pounds or 9 kg
Fresh vs. Frozen Turkey
Whether you choose a fresh or frozen turkey is a matter of preference, budget, and timing.
Fresh turkeys can be much better quality if they’re locally raised and free-range, and seeking this type of poultry for your family dinner is, of course, a personal choice. Fresh turkeys are often more expensive due to the special handling and extra care that they require and because they don’t last as long before needing to be cooked and served.
Where we live it’s often necessary to order fresh turkey weeks or months in advance, which then needs picking up from the farm or butcher at a specific time the week of a holiday or event. So if you want fresh turkey, be sure your schedule and budget can accommodate that.
(Of course, free-range, locally sourced turkeys can always be purchased and frozen for later, too. Uncooked turkeys will keep in the freezer indefinitely, but they are best if cooked and consumed within a year.)
Frozen turkeys are usually readily available near the holidays at local grocery stores. But because you never know in these weird times with supply issues, consider this my gentle reminder that you may want to get a turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas sooner than later, momma.
How to Prepare Your Turkey Step-by-Step
Once you’ve selected a turkey, you need to prepare it before cooking. Here’s how to do that.
Thaw the Turkey
How do I thaw my turkey and how long do I need to thaw my turkey are a couple of the most common turkey-making questions.
If you’ve chosen to buy a frozen turkey, you should thaw it before you cook it. I mean, you can technically cook it from frozen, but this will take a lot longer. (See below for cooking a turkey from frozen.)
To thaw a turkey safely, you can do so in one of three ways.
1. In the fridge
How long will it take? Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator will take approximately 1 day per 5 pounds of turkey. So a 15-pound turkey will take about 3 days to thaw in the fridge.
Tips for thawing a turkey in the fridge:
- Keep the turkey in its original wrapping while thawing.
- Place the turkey in a baking dish to prevent any drippings from contaminating other food in your fridge.
- Once thawed the turkey can sit in the fridge for up to 2 days before cooking.
2. In cold water
How long will it take? Thawing a turkey in cold water will take about 30 minutes per pound of turkey. So a 15-pound turkey will take about 7.5 to 8 hours to thaw in cold water.
Tips for thawing a turkey in cold water:
- Place your turkey in a CLEAN kitchen sink and cover it with water.
- Change the water every half hour.
- Cook the turkey immediately after thawing.
- Clean and disinfect the sink thoroughly after thawing your turkey and removing it from the sink.
If possible, fit your turkey into a large Ziploc bag, and seal it to thaw it in the sink, to prevent contamination.
3. In the microwave
How long will it take? That depends on your microwave. Read the manual for your particular microwave (which you can likely find online if you’ve no longer got your paper copy) to find out defrosting times and temperatures for thawing a turkey.
How to thaw a turkey in the microwave:
- Remove the turkey from its original packaging. Also, remove any tags or ties (particularly metal ones!).
- Place the bird in a microwave-safe baking dish to catch any drippings.
- Defrost following the instructions in your microwave’s manual.
- Cook the turkey immediately after thawing.
- Thoroughly clean the microwave after thawing your turkey in it to remove any contamination. (Microwaves tender to splatter everywhere.)
You can also combine turkey thawing methods. For example, you can begin to thaw your turkey by putting it in the fridge for a day or two and then finish thawing it in a sink full of cold water on Thanksgiving or Christmas day.
Can you cook a turkey from frozen?
Yes, you can cook a turkey from frozen. It will just take much longer than a thawed turkey would take to cook. According to my sources, about 50% longer.
And you won’t be able to remove the giblets and neck from a frozen turkey. Once it’s partially cooked you can use tongs to reach in and remove them and then finish cooking your bird.
Make sure to still cook your turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.
NOTE: Do NOT deep-fry or BBQ/grill a frozen turkey. Hot oil and water (from the thawing turkey) don’t mix, and a grill will not get the inside of the turkey sufficiently cooked before the outside is burnt to a crisp.
Remove the Giblets
If your turkey is fully thawed, use a pair of metal tongs to reach into the turkey’s cavity and pull out the neck and giblets. You can place these in the bottom of your pan to add flavor to the drippings, but I actually discard them because they gross me out.
If your bird is fully thawed and you can’t remove the giblets and neck yet, that’s okay. Just do it as soon as you can part way through cooking.
Season the Turkey
There are so many options when it comes to seasoning a turkey. But I like to keep it relatively simple by seasoning the cavity with salt and pepper, garlic, and quartered onions. You can also add fresh or dried herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage.
Optionally, you can add quartered apples and/or lemons to the cavity too, but I don’t do this.
Tuck the Wings Underneath
Tuck the wings under the back of the bird to help prevent them from crisping up too much before the rest of the turkey is fully cooked.
Add Melted Butter and Herbs
Melt a decent amount of butter (1/4 to 1/2 a cup depending on the size of your bird) and add kosher salt and pepper and garlic to it. Slather this over the surface of the turkey.
Add Veggies to the Roasting Pan
Using a sharp knife and cutting board chop up some carrots, celery, onions, and garlic and add them to the bottom of the roasting pan around the turkey. This will add flavor to the turkey itself as it cooks and makes for even yummier turkey drippings.
How to Cook a Turkey Step-by-Step
After the turkey is prepped and ready, it’s time to cook it.
How Long Should I Cook My Turkey?
Ah, the million-dollar question, how long do I cook a turkey?
How long you need to cook a turkey depends on the size of your bird and whether it’s stuffed or not.
The general rule is to cook a turkey for 15-20 minutes per pound of turkey in a preheated 350 degrees F oven.
A stuffed turkey will take longer to cook than an unstuffed turkey and the stuffing should hold a temperature of 165 degrees F when the thermometer is inserted into the center of the stuffing alone.
Some examples of approximate cook times for a turkey at 350 degrees F are below. Use these as a guide, and make sure your turkey (and stuffing if stuffed) reaches 165 degrees F internally, then let it rest for an additional 30 minutes before carving.
- 6 to 8 pounds / 3 to 4 kg = 1.5 to 2.75 hours
- 10 to 12 pounds / 5 to 6 kg = 2.5 to 4 hours
- 12 to 14 pounds / 6 to 7 kg = 3 to 4.75 hours
- 15 to 18 pounds / 7 to 9 kg = 3.75 to 6 hours
- 18 to 20 pounds / 9 to 10 kg = 4.5 to 6.75 hours
- 20 to 22 pounds / 10 to 11 kg = 5 to 7.5 hours
- 23 to 24 pounds / 11 to 12 kg = 5.75 to 8 hours
THERE IS A CALCULATOR HERE THAT IS REALLY HANDY FOR SORTING OUT TURKEY SIZE (KG to LBS AND VICE VERSA), AS WELL AS THAWING AND COOKING TIMES FOR ANY SIZE BIRD.
How to Tell When Your Turkey Is Done
A turkey is fully cooked when it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. If your turkey is stuffed, the stuffing alone must also reach 165 degrees F in the middle. Make sure to check with a reliable and accurate oven or meat thermometer.
The Internal Temperature for Roast Turkey is 165 degrees F.
Carve Your Turkey
Let your cooked turkey sit for at least 30 minutes before you begin to carve it. This little rest allows the juices to sort of spread out and redistribute to the main parts of the bird.
Then use a sharp knife to slice the turkey and place it on a warm platter. Cover it with tin or aluminum foil until serving time.
How and When to Make the Turkey Gravy
Traditional gravy is made by starting with a roux.
Roux is a 1:2 ratio of a fat (usually butter, but other fats like oils, or bacon grease work too) and flour.
To make the roux, the fat is melted over low heat in a saucepan and then the flour is added to make a paste. Then small amounts of a liquid are whisked in. The liquid can be drippings from the turkey, or canned, homemade, or carton broth. The roux mixture thickens the liquid, which makes gravy. You can then add seasonings like salt and pepper if you desire.
I like to make the gravy right before dinner is served so that it doesn’t have a chance to congeal. But you can make the gravy ahead of time (especially if you’re not using drippings), and simply reheat it at dinner time. Any congealed surface can be skimmed off if it doesn’t dissolve when reheated.
Tips and Tricks for Cooking a Turkey
Let It Rest to Preserve Moisture & Make Carving Easier
As I mentioned above, letting your cooked turkey rest for 30 minutes before carving is one of those best practice tips that make for a better all-around turkey.
Use the Drippings for the Most Luscious Gravy
You can use prepared broth (chicken works best if you can’t find turkey broth) to make gravy. But using at least some pan drippings to make your gravy makes for the most delicious gravy.
Carve Your Turkey in the Kitchen—Never at the Table
This takes a lot of the pressure off of you.
First, your turkey doesn’t have to look perfect as a whole. Those picture-perfect birds are hard to come by and I’m sure Martha Stewart has to cook four or five before ending up with one that’s perfect enough to photograph. Cut yourself some slack as a beginner especially.
Second, carving at the counter is much more time-effective for your guests. You don’t want them sitting there watching you cut up all meat and tearing it all off the carcass while they wait. Do this in the kitchen, so that it’s all ready to be eaten when the platter comes to the table.
What to do with leftovers
Turkey dinner leftovers can be made into other meals like:
- turkey pot pie
- turkey and stuffing sandwich
- turkey casserole
- turkey soup
- pulled turkey
Or you can simply pack them away as is using the guidelines below.
How to store leftover turkey
Leftovers should be put away within two hours of cooking. Store small portions in air-tight containers or Ziploc baggies in the fridge or freezer.
How long do leftovers keep?
Turkey leftovers will keep in the fridge for 4-5 days, while the side dishes may keep a couple of days longer.
Cooked turkey and sides will last in the freezer for 3-4 months or so. They may last longer, but may not taste as good and they may suffer from freezer burn.
Easy Thanksgiving and Christmas Turkey Side Dishes
There are a plethora of side dishes to go with turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas. In the U.S. (especially in the south) it seems that side dishes are a little more complicated than elsewhere. Here we like to keep the side dishes simple and let the turkey, stuffing, and gravy do the heavy lifting.
Here are a few side dish ideas you may like:
- classic mashed potatoes
- baked squash
- steamed or boiled green beans
- green bean casserole
- sweet potato casserole
- mashed cauliflower (lower-carb and AIP-friendly)
- smashed Brussels sprouts
- cranberry sauce
- stuffing (the best gluten-free stuffing recipe is coming soon to the blog!)
How to Cook a Turkey FAQs
Now that you know all the steps to make a turkey dinner, let’s tackle some commonly asked turkey-making questions that you still may have.
How do you cook a turkey without a roasting pan?
If you’re a new cook, or if you’ve never cooked anything quite as large as a Holiday turkey before, you may not have a shallow roasting pan. But that’s okay! Here are some options for you:
- You could use a lasagna pan with cooling racks set inside it.
- Or you could use the funny little broiling pans that probably came with your oven (if you live in North America, these are pretty standard).
- You could also create a “rack” inside a deep lasagna pan with twisted-up pieces of tin foil.
- You can buy a disposable roasting pan made from aluminum or tin foil. (Sometimes these are called buffet or hotel pans/trays or chafing dishes too.)
With any of these options, you’d want to cover your turkey with tin foil for at least some of the cooking time. (See below for more about covering your turkey.)
NOTE: I don’t recommend using a cookies sheet or other shallow pan. You want to make sure that you have a deep enough pan – about 2-3 inches deep – holding your turkey to catch the fat and drippings from your bird. Otherwise, you’re going to have a very messy oven to contend with afterward.
Can you cook a turkey the day before and reheat it?
Yes, if you really want to you can cook a turkey the day before and then just reheat it the day of your dinner. But because turkey dries out so easily, it would be better to get your sides and desserts prepared ahead of time.
To cook a turkey the day before and reheat it:
- Follow the prep and cooking directions below and then store your carved turkey in an airtight container(s) in the fridge.
- When you’re ready to reheat it, create a bit of lift in an oven-proof dish with some tin foil or cooling racks placed in the bottom.
- Add the carved turkey to the dish, and then pour a little broth into the bottom of the dish.
- Cover with a lid or tin foil and reheat in a 300 degree F oven until the turkey reaches 165 degrees (tested with a thermometer).
Serve as usual.
Do you put water in the bottom of the roasting pan for turkey?
You can and a lot of people do.
By adding water, you’re adding moisture during cooking, but you’re steaming the turkey more than you are roasting it. Which actually makes for a less-than-perfect-looking bird. By that I mean, water in the bottom of the pan leads to the meat falling off the bones and uneven browning. (This I know a lot about as adding water is a mistake I’ve made many times with both turkey and chicken.)
NOTE: If you’re concerned about not having enough “liquids” for making gravy, you can always add wine, water, or broth to the drippings after the turkey is cooked when you’re making gravy.
How do you keep a turkey from drying out in the oven?
To keep a turkey from drying out in the oven, there are a few things you can do if you wish. None of these are mandatory though and gravy will help to cover up a dry turkey should yours dry out during cooking.
1. You can brine it
I’ve not done this personally, but it’s one method that is sometimes recommended. wikiHow says to:
“Create a flavorful solution of vegetable stock, salt, and seasonings. Submerge a thawed turkey in the brine along with lots of ice water and leave it to chill for at least 8 to 16 hours. Remove the turkey from the brine and pat it dry with paper towels. Then roast the turkey until it reaches 165 °F (74 °C) and enjoy!”
2. Buy fresh instead of frozen
A fresh turkey will naturally be more moist than one that has been frozen, much like any other meat.
3. Roast two smaller turkeys
If you’re feeding a crowd, you could always make two smaller turkeys side by side, instead of a larger one. This will reduce the time your bird(s) need to be in the oven, and thus reduce the oven’s drying effects.
4. Rub melted butter under the skin
The butter will add moisture that soaks in as the bird cooks.
5. Roast the turkey upside down first
If you roast the turkey breast side down for the first hour or so of cooking, it’s like it’s basting itself with its own juices. Simply turn it over for the rest of the cooking time to finish.
6. Don’t overcook it
Don’t fret about the bird being done. As long as you’ve cooked it to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F, it’s done.
7. Let it rest before carving
Let your cooked turkey sit for at least 30 minutes before you begin to carve it. This little rest allows the juices to sort of spread out and redistribute to the main parts of the bird.
8. Don’t cut it up too early
Wait until as close to dinner as possible to carve your turkey. Keeping it whole will keep it more moist than cutting it up hours before you eat it.
Should You Rinse Your Turkey?
It is not necessary to rinse your bird before roasting it. The only exception is if you brine your bird, you need to rinse off the brine before cooking.
Rinsing a turkey increases the risk of spreading contaminants in your kitchen. Of course, this is personal preference. But if you decide to rinse your bird, be sure to fully sanitize all surfaces and your sink afterward.
Should You Stuff Your Turkey?
This is again a personal preference thing. But if you’re a first-time turkey maker, I don’t recommend it. Here’s why.
- Bread is porous and all that bread is perfect for soaking up salmonella.
- It doesn’t help the whole dry turkey issue. It takes longer to cook a stuffed turkey and an unstuffed on, which means all that turkey that’s holding your stuffing will get much drier as you try to cook the stuffing to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.
- The stuffing may be stickier than you’d like as it absorbs all those turkey juices.
- It’s hard to guage how much stuffing is too much. And too much stuffing means you’ll have to cook that bird even longer.
- Stuffing takes up space that other good things could use. Like onions, sage or apples or any number of other seasonings you could stuff up the turkey’s wazoo to make it taste yummy. 😂
Should You Truss Your Turkey?
If you don’t know what trussing is, it’s where you tie up the turkey’s opening and legs neatly with twine. Personally, this is a big no for me. But others swear that it makes for a more evenly cooked and prettier turkey. If your plan is to carve the turkey in the kitchen and serve it carved on a platter at the table – which I recommend, especially for first-timers – there’s not need to truss your bird, my friend.
NOTE: The Pioneer Woman has a post that explains and shows photos for how to truss a turkey here.
To Baste or Not to Baste?
Basting your turkey means taking some of the juices from the bottom of your roasting pan and applying it, or pouring it over your turkey’s breasts. This can help the skin to brown and the meat to cook more evenly.
But basting your bird isn’t necessary and is really based on personal preferences.
If you choose to baste your turkey, you’ll be adding flavor mainly to the skin.
To baste your poultry carefully remove the roasting pan from the oven and close the door about every 30 minutes or so. Then use a baster or spoon to drench the breast in the liquids from the bottom of the pan. Then place the pan back in the oven. Repeat until the bird is cooked through.
By basting your bird, you’ll also be letting heat out of the oven every time you open the door though, which leads to longer cook times, which you now know leads to dryer turkey meat.
Can I cook my turkey in an oven bag?
You can, but I never have. The benefits are apparently keeping the turkey moist and easy cleanup. But I’m not a fan of cooking my food for hours in plastic!
Is it better to cook a turkey covered or uncovered?
The answer to this question is both. Cook your bird covered for most of the cooking time. Then remove the cover (or tin foil if you don’t have an actual roasting pan cover) for the last 30 minutes or so to brown and crisp up the skin.
Is it better to cook a turkey at 325 or 350 degrees?
I believe it’s better to cook a turkey at 350 degrees F to ensure that it cooks through to a safe internal temperature. You can cook it at a lower temperature, but it will take longer to reach that safe zone of 165 degrees F.
Well, that’s 4000+ words on how to make a turkey. I hope you found it helpful. Do let me know if you have any other questions you’d like me to answer. 🙂