How to Cook a Turkey {Step-by-Step} – WellPlated.com


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THIS IS IT! How to Cook a Turkey. I’ve been roasting turkey for more than 15 years, and this post combines the best of my learnings so you can roast the perfect, juicy turkey of your dreams.

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I’ve come a long way since cooking my first turkey for Friendsgiving at the age of 22.

From wet brines to dry brines, to roasting at different temperatures, to basting/not basting, turkey bag/no turkey bag, covered/uncovered, I HAVE TRIED IT.

This post tells you exactly what you need to know!

Follow this post and you’ll cook a perfect turkey that is moist, not dry every single time.

Let’s talk turkey!

a roasting pan with perfect Thanksgiving turkey

Roast Turkey Timeline

Start at least 24 hours ahead for a thawed turkey and up to 5 days ahead for a frozen turkey.

  • 4 to 5 days before roasting. Thaw the turkey.
  • 1 to 3 days before roasting. Brine the turkey using a wet turkey brine (1 to 2 days before) or a dry brine (2 to 3 days before).
  • 1 day before or the morning of roasting. Refrigerate the turkey uncovered to dry the skin.
  • 1 hour before roasting: Preheat the oven; let your turkey come to room temperature; stuff and tie the turkey, then place it on your roasting pan.
  • Roast the turkey (2 to 3 hours). The timing will vary depending on its size. See How Long to Cook a Turkey for details. Plan on between 2 and 2 ½ hours total for a 14- to 16-pound bird. Start at a high temperature (450 degrees F for 45 minutes), then reduce to 325 degrees F.
  • Let the turkey rest (30 minutes). Cover the turkey with aluminum foil to help it retain heat.
  • Make the gravy. Or heat up pre-made gravy. This Turkey Gravy recipe uses the drippings; this Mushroom Gravy can be made entirely in advance, no drippings required.
  • Carve the turkey. See our turkey carving tutorial for step-by-step photos.

Now, let’s look at each step in detail.

perfect moist cooked turkey

Buy Your Turkey

Whenever possible, I prefer to purchase a fresh turkey from a local butcher for two great reasons.

  1. The quality is usually much better than standard frozen turkey (not to mention your purchase supports local farmers and businesses).
  2. You don’t have to deal with finding space and time to thaw the turkey.

As far as the size of turkey to buy, you can plan on 1 1/2 pounds per person, or 2 pounds per person if you have big eaters and/or want leftovers. See How Much Turkey Per Person for more.

stuffed thanksgiving turkey

Thaw Your Turkey

If you purchase a frozen turkey, you must thaw it first.

  • Plan on 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey.
  • You also can try a quick thaw method: see FAQs below.

You cannot roast frozen turkey.

  • The outside meat, especially the breast meat, will be very dry by the time the inside is cooked to a safe temperature.
making a dry turkey brine

Brine Your Turkey

The best way to keep your turkey from drying out is a) not to overcook it and b) BRINE IT.

  • Brining alters the structure of the meat, such that it can absorb and retain more moisture.
  • It also flavors the turkey, especially the skin.

I honestly think that most people find turkey dry or cannot cook turkey because they don’t bother to brine it.

moist thanksgiving turkey on a roasting platter

I’ve cooked a turkey without brining, and while it was edible, you simply cannot create turkey that is moist throughout (including moist white meat) unless you brine it first.

You can choose either a wet brine (turkey is soaked in a seasoned saltwater solution for 12 to 24 hours) or a dry brine (a mixture of salt and seasonings, such as herbs and lemon zest, is rubbed on the turkey and allowed to sit for 24 to 36 hours).

  • I prefer a dry brine because it is much less messy than a wet brine and still has great results.
  • If you are in a hurry, wet brine works more quickly and arguably produces a *slightly* juicier, more plump turkey than a dry brine.
a turkey with dry brine

Dry Out the Skin

While not 100% necessary, uncovering the turkey and allowing it to sit uncovered in the refrigerator the day before or even several hours before roasting helps the skin dry out, resulting in crispier skin.

  • If you are using a wet brine, you will need to rinse off the brine first or the turkey will be too salty.
  • If using a dry brine, you do not need to rinse it off.
photos for how to stuff a turkey cavity before cooking

Stuff the Cavity

To flavor and perfume your bird, fill the cavity with a variety of herbs and aromatics.

  • Onion and/or Garlic. Split the garlic in half and cut the onion into wedges. No need to peel either, as they will be discarded.
  • Apple Slices. They give the turkey fall fruitiness (no need to peel or core).
  • Carrots. For an extra dimension of natural sweetness.
  • Herbs. Add several springs of fresh thyme, sage, and/or rosemary.

Tip!

At the holidays, fresh sage, rosemary, and thyme are often sold together in an herb pack called “poultry mix.”

how to tuck turkey wings

Tuck the Wings

Start by pulling out the wings, then bending and tucking them underneath the neck end of the turkey will prevent them from burning. See photos above.

tying turkey legs for cooking

Tie the Legs

To help the turkey roast evenly, use kitchen twine (or if you don’t have any, a rope of aluminum foil) to snugly tie its legs together.

aromatics in roasting pan

Fill the Roasting Pan

To flavor your turkey even more, scatter any extra aromatics that don’t fit in the cavity in the bottom of a large roasting pan. They’ll mix with the drippings to create fabulous pan juices.

  • The best roasting pan for turkey is at least 16 inches long and 4 inches deep, with big sturdy handles so it’s easy to lift (this is a good option).
  • If you will be roasting a turkey that is 20 pounds or more, purchase a roasting pan that is at least 18 inches.
  • If you don’t own a big roasting pan, purchase a disposable aluminum roasting pan from the grocery store.
placing a turkey on a roasting rack

Place a Rack in the Pan, then the Turkey on the Rack

Using a rack elevates the turkey off of the surface of the pan so the air can more evenly circulate.

Roasting Turkey without a Rack

If you don’t own a roasting rack, you can make a rack out of aluminum foil:

  • Tear off two similarly-sized, large pieces of aluminum foil.
  • Tightly roll each piece into a cylinder, then form the cylinders into rings.
  • Lay the rings a few of inches apart in the roasting pan.
  • Place the turkey on top of the rings so that it’s elevated and its weight is evenly distributed.
brushing the outside of a turkey with butter for roasting

Butter It Up

Brush the outsides of the turkey liberally with melted butter and season with pepper.

Butter helps the skin become beautifully golden and adds fantastic flavor.

pour wine into a turkey roasting pan

Add Liquid to the Pan

Pouring liquid into the roasting pan helps keep the turkey moist and gives you more juices to use for gravy or for serving at the end.

Turkey Secret: White Wine

I learned this trick of roasting turkey with wine from my stepdad, Larry, who cooks the best turkey I’ve ever eaten.

  • To add wine, set the roasting pan with the turkey on the oven rack, THEN pour in an entire bottle of dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio (if you pour the wine in the pan before setting it on the oven rack, it’s harder to transfer without sloshing).
  • If you prefer not to use wine, add 4 cups of chicken or turkey stock to the pan instead.

Cook the Turkey

The best way to cook turkey in the oven is to start it at a high temperature to crisp the skin, then reduce the temperature until the turkey is succulently juicy.

First: Cook the Turkey at 450 Degrees F for 45 Minutes

Starting the turkey at a high temperature results in better, crispier skin.

Then: Reduce the Oven Temperature to 325 Degrees F and Keep Roasting

325 degrees F is the best temperature for roasting turkey.

  • Any higher for a prolonged period and the delicate white meat will cook too quickly.
  • Any lower, and some of the juices can slowly dry out (and it will take much longer).

325 degrees F is the sweet spot for cooking turkey!

turkey temperature being tested for doneness

Check Your Turkey for Doneness

Per the FDA, turkey is considered cooked at 165 degrees F.

The turkey’s temperature will continue rising as it rests.

  • I recommend cooking turkey until the internal temperature of the breast registers between 150 and 160 degrees F on an instant read thermometer.
  • At this point, the thigh temperature may be higher, which is OK since turkey thigh meat is more forgiving. Ideally, the thigh won’t be hotter than 170 degrees F, but don’t stress if it is.
a roasting pan with moist whole turkey

TIPS FOR TESTING MEAT FOR DONENESS

The proper way to test your turkey for doneness is to insert an instant read thermometer into the thickest part of the breast and the inside part of the thigh. When checking the thigh, stay as close to the bone as possible without actually touching it.

  • I do not recommend the pop-out thermometers that come with some turkeys, as they tend to be inaccurate.
  • A digital read thermometer like this one is inexpensive and well worth not ruining your turkey!
perfect cooked turkey on a platter

Turkey Cooking Times (DON’T OVERCOOK THE TURKEY!)

The rule of thumb for cooking a 14- to 16-pound turkey at 325 degrees F is 10 to 12 minutes per pound of turkey.

  • A 14- to 16-pound turkey takes 2 to 2 ½ hours to roast. Add or subtract time if your turkey is larger or smaller.
  • Check early! You can always keep roasting, but if you overcook a turkey, it will be dry.
  • Anticipate a range. Turkey cooking times vary by oven and by bird no matter how many times you’ve done it. Expect a range (AND CHECK EARLY!)

For a complete overview, see How Long to Cook a Turkey.

Thanksgiving roast turkey on a platter

Let the Turkey Rest

Resting turkey meat for a minimum of 20 minutes is MANDATORY.

  • When you rest turkey, the juices reincorporate into the meat.
  • If you cut right away, all of those beautiful juices will run away onto your cutting board.

I prefer to cover my whole turkey with foil while it rests (the skin still stays crispy, even covered), but if your turkey is overcooked, you may want to leave it uncovered. It will still stay plenty hot.

Make the Gravy

While the turkey rests is the perfect time to make gravy.

plate with roast turkey

Carve the Turkey

For a complete step-by-step, see How to Carve a Turkey.

  • If possible, use a great big cutting board with grooves like this.
  • Even after the turkey rests, it will still be super juicy, so the grooves help.
  • Eventually, I invested in an electric knife because it makes carving speedier, but a sharp knife (like a chef’s knife) will do the job.
platter of carved turkey

DIVE IN!

Bask in the glory.

You cooked a MOIST Thanksgiving turkey that your friends and family will rave about for years to come!

roast turkey on a platter

Turkey Cooking Tips & Tricks

  • Any Brining is Better Than No Brining. Even a few hours is better than skipping brining altogether.
  • If You are Short on Time, Use a Wet Brine. Wet brining works faster than dry brining, so if you are short on time (have 12 hours or less), do a wet brine.
  • If You Forgot to Brine. Salt and pepper the outside of the turkey GENEROUSLY (including inside the cavity). Mash a stick of softened butter together with chopped fresh herbs, lemon zest, and salt and rub it under the turkey skin. Brush the turkey with melted butter prior to roasting.
  • Cook the Stuffing Outside of the Bird. I know some like cooking stuffing inside the cavity, but it can be a hazard because the stuffing also has to reach 160 degrees F, and if it’s not there yet, you’ll overcook the turkey (plus there is never enough to go around!). Make a pan of Cornbread Stuffing instead (technically if the stuffing is cooked outside of the bird it is called dressing, but by any name, it’s delish!).
  • Don’t Bother Basting. Pouring wine or stock in the roasting pan prior to cooking will keep it plenty moist (in a total pinch, you can pour water in the roasting pan).
  • Shield the Turkey Breast. About 1 hour into roasting, shield the breast only with aluminum foil. This will help protect the white meat and keep it moist.
  • Don’t Cover the Turkey Completely. You want that skin to crisp, so it needs to be exposed to heat.
  • DO NOT OVERCOOK THE TURKEY. The magic number is 155 degrees F for the breast (and up to 165) and 160 degrees F for the thigh.
  • Use an Instant Read Digital Thermometer. Do not use the pop-up kind (these are inaccurate). This one is inexpensive and does the job; this one is my absolute favorite and well worth the investment.
  • Skip the Gravy. If it stresses you out, don’t make it! Follow this recipe and your turkey will be so moist, you won’t need it. You can spoon the juices from the roasting pan onto your meat instead.
carved turkey on a platter

Turkey Tools

  • Roasting Pan. It’s essential that you have something large enough and (ideally) sturdy enough to support your turkey.
  • Electric Knife. Makes carving the turkey so much easier.
  • Cutting/Carving Board. This cutting board holds your turkey in place and keeps the juices from running all over your counter.
  • Apron. Keep your clothes stain-free for Thanksgiving dinner with a cute and washable apron.
a plate with turkey and side dishes

Thanksgiving Sides

Complete your Thanksgiving spread with a collection of fabulous side dishes.

For even more options, check out our complete collection of Thanksgiving Side Dishes.

turkey resting on a platter ready for carving

Wine Pairing

Roast turkey will pair well with Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Riesling, or Champagne. If possible, provide your guests with a couple of options.

Storage Tips

  • To Store. Refrigerate turkey in an airtight storage container or ziptop bag for up to 4 days. To keep the meat moist, drizzle a little of the turkey pan drippings or broth over the top before refrigerating it.
  • To Reheat. Wrap the turkey in an aluminum foil pouch, sealing it at the edges. Drizzle turkey drippings or broth over the meat before sealing. Warm the pouch in a baking dish in a 300 degrees F oven.
  • To Freeze. Freeze turkey in an airtight freezer-safe storage container for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.

Meal Prep Tip

Up to 1 day in advance, chop the aromatics (minus the apples). Refrigerate them in an airtight storage container until you’re ready to stuff the turkey.

Leftover Ideas

For leftover turkey recipes everyone will actually WANT to eat, check out my extensive list of Leftover Turkey Recipes.

a perfect cooked turkey on a platter

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Let me know what you thought!

Leave a rating below in the comments and let me know how you liked the recipe.

a platter with juicy turkey

Frequently Asked Questions

HELP! What Do You Do If Your Turkey Is Still Frozen?

If your turkey hasn’t thawed completely, you can do a flash thaw to thaw it safely: Submerge your packaged turkey in an ice water bath (your sink, a large bucket, or even a cooler will work), ensuring the water stays between 33 degrees F and 38 degrees F. Check it constantly to ensure it stays ice cold. This method will still take a while (about 8 hours for a 15-pound turkey), but it will be much faster than the times listed above and result in tender meat. 

Can You Brine a Frozen Turkey?

If your turkey is just a little bit frozen and you are doing a wet brine, you can place it in the brine while it is still partially frozen; the brine will help it thaw. You also can dry brine turkey if it’s slightly frozen (it won’t thaw as quickly as wet brine turkey). In either case, be sure your turkey is completely thawed when it’s time to roast.

Is It Better to Wet Brine or Dry Brine a Turkey?

Both have their pros and cons. A dry brine produces crispier skin, but it doesn’t work as quickly or add *as* much moisture. A wet brine helps make the meat ultra moist and works quickly, but it can be quite messy.

Does Turkey Need to Be Rinsed?

No, you do not need to rinse your turkey, unless you are rinsing off a wet brine. Rinsing the turkey has no benefits and can actually cause bacteria to spread to your sink and countertops.

Is It Better to Cook Turkey Covered or Uncovered?

I recommend cooking a turkey uncovered to start. This allows the skin to crisp up. I do like to tent my turkey breast with aluminum foil after about 1 hour to deter overcooking to protect the delicate white meat.

Should I Use a Turkey Bag?

There is no need to use a turkey bag for your roasted turkey. Using a bag won’t allow the skin to get as crispy, so I prefer making my turkey without one.

Is it Better to Rub a Turkey with Butter or Oil?

I am team butter, because it has the best flavor and turns a beautiful golden color. Some argue that because the butter’s milk solids can burn, it is better to use oil, but I have not had any issues with an off taste in my turkey, even when I start it at a high temperature. If you’d like to be 100% safe (and go above and beyond), you can brush your turkey with clarified butter, which is butter with the milk solids removed.

What Size Turkey Should I Buy?

Plan on 1 1/2 to 2 pounds per person, depending upon whether or not you want leftovers. See How Much Turkey Per Person for more.

Now you have it: Everything you need to know to cook moist turkey in the oven that will have your guests gushing, without the stress.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS! If you try this roast turkey recipe, I’d love to hear how it goes!

Don’t miss a minute of Well Plated Turkey Week! Sign up HERE to receive a FREE Thanksgiving survival guide, including cooking countdown so you know exactly what to cook when.

  • 1 14- to 16-pound turkey THAWED (see notes for other bird sizes, thawing, and be sure to plan ahead!!)
  • 1 brine Dry Brine Turkey or wet Turkey Brine recipe, I use dry 99% of the time
  • 3 medium carrots scrubbed
  • 2 red apples
  • 1 large yellow onion
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 head garlic
  • 8 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter melted
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 bottle of dry white wine such as Sauvingon Blanc or Pinot Girgio

  • 1 to 3 days Before Roasting: Remove the neck and giblets from the turkey and discard or save for gravy (recipe coming soon!). Brine the turkey, using either a wet brine or a dry brine (wet brine goal is 12 to 24 hours; dry brine goal is 24 to 48 hours; ANY brining is better than none).**

  • 1 Day Before or the Morning of Roasting – Let the Skin Dry Out: For a wet brine – Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse thoroughly. Pat very dry with paper towels, then place on a rimmed baking sheet or shallow pan to catch any drips. Place in the refrigerator, uncovered. For a dry brine – Uncover the turkey (it will already be on a baking sheet) and return to the refrigerator. For both methods – Let the turkey sit uncovered in the fridge until you are ready to roast—a few hours if you uncovered it that morning, or for up to 24 hours. This step dries the skin, which is important in order for it to crisp. The skin will turn somewhat translucent as it sits.

  • 1 Hour Before Roasting – Let Come to Room Temperature – Remove the turkey from the refrigerator and let stand at room temperature. Now is a good time to make sure you removed the plastic attachment from the legs.

  • 30 Minutes Before Roasting – Preheat the Oven to 450 degrees F – Place the rack in the lowest position and move or remove any other racks that are going to get in the turkey’s way. Preheat to 450 degrees F. Let it preheat for a good 20 to 30 minutes to make sure it’s screamin’ hot.

  • Chop the Aromatics – If the carrots are large, cut them in half lengthwise, then chop into 1-inch pieces. Cut the apples, onion, and lemon into eights (no need to peel anything or to core the apple). Cut the head of garlic in half crosswise (that’s horizontally through the cloves), then break each half into 4 big pieces (no need to peel).

  • Stuff the Cavity – Stuff the turkey cavity with all of the thyme and about half each of the carrots, apples, onion, lemon, and garlic. Scatter the remaining carrots, apple, onion, lemon, and garlic in the bottom of a very large roasting pan.

  • Tie, Butter, and Pepper – Tuck the turkey’s wings underneath its body by stretching them up and tucking them under the turkey’s body (as if the turkey were stretching its wings up and behind its neck). With kitchen twine or (in a pinch) a rope of aluminum foil, tie the legs snugly together. Place a rack in the roasting pan (see blog post above to make your own rack using foil), then lift the turkey onto the rack. Brush the turkey all over with the melted butter. Sprinkle with black pepper.

  • Add the Wine + Roast at a High Temperature for 45 minutes – Place the turkey on the lowest oven rack. Carefully pour the wine into the roasting pan, leaving at least 2 inches of open space at the top of the pan (if you’re using a large pan, the whole bottle should fit). Roast the turkey at 450 degrees F for 45 minutes.

  • Reduce the Oven Temperature to 325 degrees F – If you have one that is oven safe, insert a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh without it touching bone (a digital one with an alarm set to 160 degrees is ideal; if you don’t have one, no worries a regular meat thermometer is great). Roast the turkey for 1 to 1 ½ hours more (a 14- to 16-pound turkey will need 2 to 2 ½ hours total roasting time), until the thigh registers at least 160 degrees F and up to 180 degrees F and the breast is at least 155 degrees F (and no more than 165 degrees F) on an instant read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the meat without the thermometer touching bone – per the FDA turkey is considered cooked at 165 degrees F, but its temperature will rise as it rests. DO NOT OVERCOOK THE TURKEY. I remove mine at 155 F for the breast and 160 F to 170 F for the thigh. At the 1-hour mark, tent the breast with aluminum foil to help deter overcooking (I like to fold one end into a triangle with the triangle pointing towards the legs). Check early to be safe, and see How Long to Cook a Turkey for more information.

  • Let Rest – Transfer the turkey to a cutting board. Cover and let rest for at least 20 to 30 minutes. If you are making Turkey Gravy (recipe coming soon), do it now—the turkey will be so juicy, it’s not strictly necessary for the meat.

  • Carve, Serve, Bask in the Glory – Carve the turkey (tutorial coming soon) and serve with the pan juices and/or gravy. Listen to your friends oohhh and ahhhh. YOU DID IT!

  • TURKEY THAW TIMES: For every 5 pounds of turkey, plan on 24 hours thawing in the refrigerator (that’s 3 days thawing for a 15-pound bird). For faster thawing, place the turkey in a cold water bath and change the water every 30 minutes. This will still take about 8 hours for a 15-pound turkey. Because it’s hard to have a turkey hogging the refrigerator for such an extended period, I prefer to purchase turkey fresh from a local butcher or the farmer’s market (check with your grocery’s meat department too; they may be able to order or thaw one ahead for you). You also can thaw turkey in a cooler, provided it is kept below 40 degrees F.
  • IF YOUR TURKEY IS LARGER OR SMALLER THAN 14 to 16 POUNDS: Plan on 10 to 12 minutes per pound when roasting at 325 degrees F. Since this turkey starts at a higher temperature, I recommend subtracting 15 minutes for every pound less than 14 pounds (so if your turkey is 13 pounds, check 15 minutes early; if it’s 12 pounds check 30 minutes early, etc). and adding 10 minutes for every pound (if your turkey is 17 pounds, plan on 2 hours, 10 minutes to 2 hours 40 minutes, if it’s 18 pounds, 2 hours 20 minutes to 2 hours 50 minutes, etc.). Turkey times are not 100% predictable no matter how many times you’ve made them, so have some snacks and drinks on hand, hang with guests, and enjoy the process.
  • SHOULD I DO A WET OR DRY BRINE? **I have done both brining methods and am partial to the dry brine for the ease. The wet brine produces a turkey that is a *little* juicier and plumper but both methods make excellent, juicy turkey.
  • TO STORE: Refrigerate turkey in an airtight storage container or ziptop bag for up to 4 days. To keep the meat moist, drizzle a little of the turkey drippings or broth over the top before refrigerating it.
  • TO REHEAT: Wrap the turkey in an aluminum foil pouch, sealing it at the edges. Drizzle turkey drippings or broth over the meat before sealing. Warm the pouch in a baking dish in a 300 degrees F oven.
  • TO FREEZE: Freeze turkey in an airtight freezer-safe storage container for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.
  • The nutrition information is based on the turkey meat and butter. 

Serving: 1(of 10)Calories: 676kcalCarbohydrates: 0.003gProtein: 98gFat: 30gSaturated Fat: 9gPolyunsaturated Fat: 7gMonounsaturated Fat: 9gTrans Fat: 0.5gCholesterol: 337mgPotassium: 1011mgSugar: 0.3gVitamin A: 392IUCalcium: 51mgIron: 4mg

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