The turkey is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal, and there are plenty of techniques for cooking one, from frying to spatchcocking to roasting upside down and turning halfway. But sometimes the classic way is the best. We will talk you through brining, stuffing, trussing and roasting, along with extra turkey tips to help you through the holiday. And visit our How to Plan and Cook Thanksgiving guide for more ideas and advice.
Before You Start
Order your turkey three to four weeks before the holiday if you want something other than a supermarket bird. (Our buying guide is below.)
It’s worth buying a decent roasting pan, one heavy enough that it won’t buckle under the weight of the bird. You will also need a rack; usually one comes with the pan, but if you buy it separately, make sure it fits inside your pan.
An instant-read thermometer is the most accurate way to determine when your turkey is done. It’s worth buying one if you don’t have it.
Be sure to leave enough time to defrost your turkey. Do this in the fridge, allowing 1 day for every 4 pounds of turkey. Put it a bowl or on a baking pan or platter.
Buying Your Turkey
The array of turkey choices can be confusing, and below, we’ve broken it down to help you navigate your options. Some cooks swear by a fresh turkey, claiming that frozen varieties are not as flavorful. But when it comes to supermarket turkey, the difference between fresh and frozen is negligible.
Free-range: This is a bird that is not raised in a cage and is free to graze on any grasses or grains it can find in its pen, which is generally considered a more humane and healthy poultry farming process.
Organic: The U.S.D.A. requires that all turkeys sold as organic must be raised free-range, without the use of antibiotics, and fed an organic and vegetarian diet that has not been treated with pesticides.
Natural: Natural turkeys are generally less expensive than organic, and are often of a comparable quality. But there is no government guarantee to back up the word “natural” on a label. You must read on to find out if the bird is antibiotic-free, free-range and/or raised on a vegetarian diet.
Kosher: Turkeys with the “kosher” label have been farmed and slaughtered according to Jewish dietary customs, with rabbinical supervision. They also undergo a salting process after slaughter that gives the meat a juicy texture. (Don’t brine a kosher bird.)
Conventional: This is the standard supermarket turkey. The variety is the Broad Breasted White, which was bred to have a plumper, broader breast. A conventional turkey should be brined; it will noticeably improve the texture. And use an open hand when it comes to seasonings, since the turkey won’t offer much flavor of its own.
Heritage: Heritage turkeys are old-fashioned varieties of birds that were common in America until the 1920s. They have a richer, more distinct flavor, more like a game bird, and have a greater proportion of dark meat. Breeds include Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red and White Holland.
Wild Turkey: It is illegal in the United States to sell a truly wild turkey that’s been shot by a hunter, thus most “wild” turkeys on the market are pasture-raised — often free-range heritage birds. To procure a truly wild turkey you will need to either shoot one yourself or befriend a hunter.
Self-basting: These turkeys have been injected with a solution generally consisting of butter or oil and salt, and sometimes herbs, spices and preservatives. Self-basted turkeys are sometimes not labeled as such, so make sure to check the ingredients list. If you see anything other than “turkey,” chances are it is a self-basting bird. Do not brine it.
Preparing the Turkey for Roasting
Roasting a turkey can be confusing — there are so many options for how to prepare the bird. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Below we walk you through your choices, step by step.
You’ve bought your turkey, and it’s a few days before Thanksgiving. Do not wash your turkey after you remove it from its plastic bag to season it; just pat it dry with paper towels. Any potential bacteria will cook off during roasting. At this point, depending on its size, your turkey may be well on the way to being fully thawed; you should allow one day of thawing in the refrigerator for every four pounds of bird.
Be sure to remove the sack containing the neck and innards from the cavity. Reserve them for stock if you like. If the bird is frozen, defrost for one day, and then you should be able to pry them out. (Beware: sometimes the giblets are under the neck flap, not in the cavity. Check the turkey thoroughly.)
To brine or not to brine? For me, the answer is no — at least, not a wet brine. Wet brining — the process of submerging a turkey in a salt-and-aromatic solution — is the messiest and least convenient way to ensure moist and evenly seasoned meat, which is the whole point.
Instead I prefer seasoning the bird all over with a salt rub — technically, a dry brine — and letting it sit for a few days, or even hours, before roasting. It’s much easier to keep a salted turkey in the fridge rather than having to figure out where to store a bird covered in liquid.
But it’s for you to decide. (And either way, you can brine or season a frozen bird as it defrosts.) Here’s what you need to know.
Combine 1/2 teaspoon salt per pound of turkey (use coarse kosher or sea salt) with whatever aromatics you want to mix into it. Rub this mixture all over the bird and refrigerate for up to 3 days. In a pinch, you can season the bird just before cooking, though the skin will be saltier than the flesh. The simple roast turkey recipe below uses a dry brine.
It’s important to find a recipe for brine and stick to it, without making substitutions. For instance, different varieties of salt have different volumes; if your recipe calls for 2 cups kosher salt, don’t substitute table salt or else you’ll have an inedible bird. (Never brine kosher or self-basting turkeys, both of which have already been salted.)
The safest way to brine is to submerge the turkey in the salt solution, cover it, and leave it in the refrigerator. If you don’t have room, you can also try brining in a cooler (as long as the turkey can fit, completely covered by the solution, with the lid on). You’ll have to be vigilant about maintaining the temperature of the solution. Check it with a kitchen thermometer at regular intervals to be sure it stays between 26 and 40 degrees. To keep it cool without diluting the salt, place ice cubes sealed in plastic bags into the brining bath, replacing the cubes once they melt. Or, if you live in a cold climate, place your cooler outside.
Whether you call it stuffing or dressing, the savory bread mixture that you may or may not cook inside your turkey is an integral part of the Thanksgiving meal. Generally speaking, stuffings are cooked inside the bird, while dressings are baked in a casserole dish on the side, but the words are often used interchangeably. Both methods have their merits. (And for everything you need to know about both, visit our stuffing guide.)
Melina Hammer for The New York Times
Baking the dressing separately allows the top to brown and crisp. Bonus: an unstuffed turkey cooks faster and more evenly than a stuffed one. This is the biggest reason why, at our house, we bake the stuffing outside the bird, which leaves space in the cavity for aromatics to season the bird. Try placing onion and lemon quarters, bay leaves, peeled garlic, celery leaves, parsley and thyme in the turkey before roasting.
Then, for that turkey flavor you sacrifice by not stuffing the bird, you can add stock and bits of crispy fried turkey skin to your dressing. (Take scraps of skin from the bird. If they are fatty, throw them into a dry pan, or else add a slick of oil, and fry over medium heat until well-browned. Salt immediately after frying.) You can also add any diced cooked turkey gizzards and shredded neck meat that you used for stock, along with the turkey liver, sautéed in butter and diced. Just don’t forget to make a vegetarian version if necessary.
Cooking the stuffing inside the bird allows the poultry juices and rendering fat to flavor the stuffing. You can make the stuffing up to 4 days ahead and keep it refrigerated until the last minute, but only stuff right before the bird goes into the oven. Stuffing expands as it cooks, so fill the turkey loosely.
One important caveat on timing: if your stuffing recipe calls for shellfish or turkey giblets, they need to be fully cooked and kept hot for maximum food safety before stuffing, says the U.S.D.A. So add those at the last minute just before the stuffing goes into the bird.
Stuffing slows down the roasting, so if your recipe calls for an unstuffed bird, add at least 30 minutes onto the cooking time (more if it’s a bigger bird). Take the temperature of the stuffing before pulling your turkey out of the oven. Both turkey and stuffing must reach 165 degrees. If the turkey is done but the stuffing isn’t — a likely scenario — take the turkey out of the oven to rest, transfer the stuffing to a casserole dish and put it back in the oven until it reaches the proper temperature. Do not leave the turkey in the oven while the stuffing catches up, temperature-wise; the bird could easily overcook in those extra minutes.
If you don’t stuff your turkey, you really don’t need to truss it. Allowing untrussed wings and legs to have hot air circulating around them helps them cook faster, so the white and dark meat will all be done at the same time. I stopped trussing my unstuffed birds years ago and my turkeys are the better for it.
If you do stuff your bird, trussing, or at least tying up the drumsticks, helps keep the stuffing in its proper place, especially when you are moving the bird from the roasting pan to the cutting board. Here’s the simplest way to do it.
Place the turkey breast side up on the rack in the roasting pan.
Criss-cross the legs and use a piece of butcher’s twine to tie them together at the ends, just above the joint. Wrap the twine twice around the legs to make sure they are secure.
Take a long piece to twine and loop it around the body of the bird, so that the wings are pressed against the breast. Tightly tie the twine in a knot or bow at the top of the breast. The trussed turkey is now ready to roast.
- Yield10 to 12 servings
- Time3 1/2 hours, plus brining
- 1 turkey (10 to 12 pounds)
- Coarse kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 lemon, zested and quartered
- 1 bunch fresh thyme or rosemary
- 1 bunch fresh sage
- 12 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
- 1 bottle hard apple cider (12 ounces)
- Dry white wine, as needed
- 2 onions, peeled and quartered
- 3 bay leaves
- Olive oil or melted butter, as needed
- Remove any giblets from the cavity and reserve for stock or gravy. Pat turkey and turkey neck dry with paper towel; rub turkey all over with 1/2 teaspoon salt per pound of turkey, the pepper and the lemon zest, including the neck. Transfer to a 2-gallon (or larger) resealable plastic bag. Tuck herbs and 6 garlic cloves inside bag. Seal and refrigerate on a small rimmed baking sheet (or wrapped in another bag) for at least 1 day and up to 3 days, turning the bird over every day (or after 12 hours if brining for only 1 day).
- Remove turkey from bag and pat dry with paper towels. Place turkey, uncovered, back on the baking sheet. Return to the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and up to 12 hours to dry out the skin (this helps crisp it).
- When you are ready to cook the turkey, remove it from the refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature for one hour.
- Heat oven to 450 degrees. In the bottom of a large roasting pan, add the cider and enough wine to fill the pan to a 1/4-inch depth. Add half the onions, the remaining 6 garlic cloves and the bay leaves. Stuff the remaining onion quarters and the lemon quarters into the turkey cavity. Brush the turkey skin generously with oil or melted butter.
- Place turkey, breast side up, on a roasting rack set inside the roasting pan. Transfer pan to the oven and roast 30 minutes. Cover breast with aluminum foil. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue roasting until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of a thigh reaches a temperature of 165 degrees, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours more. Transfer turkey to a cutting board to rest for 30 minutes before carving.
Cooking Time and Tips
You’ve purchased, defrosted and seasoned your turkey, which means you’re more than halfway to a golden, glorious centerpiece for the feast. Here are answers to the most frequently asked turkey-roasting questions, so you can put the bird in the oven with confidence.
Here Are Cooking Times for Your Turkey
Size of turkey Approximate cook time at 350 degrees 9 to 11 pounds 2½ hours 12 to 14 pounds 3 hours 15 to 17 pounds 3½ hours 18 to 20 pounds 4 hours 21 to 23 pounds 4½ hours 24+ pounds 5+ hours
Add Flavor to the Pan
To add flavor to both the turkey (and the gravy, if you’re using pan drippings), you’ll want to add aromatics to the turkey cavity and to the bottom of the pan. Some combination of herbs, peeled garlic cloves, quartered onions and lemons, apples, mushrooms, celery, carrots and bay leaves can be used in both places. Then cover the bottom of the pan with a ¼ inch of liquid (wine, cider, beer, broth, water) so the drippings don’t burn.
But Do Not Baste (Unless You Want To)
Some people swear by basting, but I never baste anymore. Every time you open the oven door to baste, you let the heat out. Basting also gives you a less crisp skin. Instead of basting, rub fat (butter, olive oil or coconut oil, for example) all over the bird just before you tuck it into the oven. Then leave it alone until it’s time to check for doneness.
How to Tell When the Turkey Is Done
Start taking the turkey’s temperature at least 15 minutes before you think it might be done. To check its temperature, insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh and under the wing, making sure you don’t touch any bones.
Your bird is done when its internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Don’t be alarmed if the thigh meat near the bone still looks pink. Some turkeys are naturally pinker than others and a fully cooked bird will often have that color.
Let It Rest
Once your turkey is cooked, let it rest out of the oven, covered loosely with foil, for 20 to 30 minutes before carving.
Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times
You’ve almost done. There’s just one more, very important step to go: carving. This video will show you the easiest and most efficient route to take.