Are you roasting a whole turkey for the first time this year? Or perhaps you've done this many times before, but you want a quick refresher to brush up on the basics? We'll help you make your mama proud with these step-by-step instructions for roasting a delicious turkey. Here's our super basic, super simple, super easy tutorial for roasting a super beautiful turkey this Thanksgiving.
Now, we know that many people have strong opinions on the best way to cook a turkey. You may fry it, roast it overnight, or do it in a slow cooker. You may brine religiously, or have a secret family spice rub.
But just to keep things simple and straightforward we are taking a completely no-frills approach in this tutorial. There are lots of places along the way where you can add some spice, flavor, or personal touches. Consider this a recipe template and feel free to play with it as much or as little as you like; our goal is simply to give you a foolproof way to get that turkey roasted and onto plates with as little stress as possible.
This method will work with any turkey: big or small, brined or not, free-range or otherwise. Cooking times will vary, but the basic technique will be the same. For reference, the turkey in the photos was a pre-brined 16-pound turkey from Williams-Sonoma.
Thawing the Turkey
Be sure to let your turkey completely thaw before cooking. If it was frozen through when you bought it, the turkey will thaw within a few days in the fridge, approximately 24 hours for every five pounds of turkey. For quicker thawing, place the turkey in a cold water bath and change the water every 30 minutes until it's thawed.
For more information on safe turkey thawing, check out the USDA website Turkey Basics: Safe Thawing.
Brining a Turkey
One thing we're not talking about here is brining the turkey. This method has become popular over the last few years and involves immersing the turkey in a salt water solution for a day or so before cooking. The end result of this process is moist, perfectly seasoned turkey meat. We've had great results with brining and heartily endorse it. For a full explanation, check out this post.
Ready? Let's cook some turkey.
(Photo: Rachel Joy Baransi for The Kitchn)
1. Prepare the Turkey for Roasting - About an hour before roasting, take the turkey out of the fridge. Remove any packaging and the bag of giblets (check in the body cavity and in the neck cavity). Set the turkey breast-side up on the roasting rack and let it sit. This takes the chill off the meat, which helps the meat cook faster and more evenly, and it dries out the skin, which promotes browning and crisping.
2. Heat the Oven to 450°F - Position an oven rack in the bottom third of your oven. If you brined your turkey, as we did, no need to do anything now. If your turkey is straight out of the package, rub it with some salt and pepper before putting it in the oven. We recommend leaving your turkey un-stuffed and un-trussed, both because it's easier and because the turkey will cook more evenly.
Optional Extras - Rub your turkey with butter or oil for a richer flavor and browner skin, rub minced herbs or ground spices into (or beneath) the skin for more flavor, place a few halved lemons or garlic cloves inside the cavity of the turkey.
3. Roast the Turkey - Pour two cups of broth or water into the roasting pan. Place the turkey in the oven and turn down the heat to 350°F. We're going for a breast-side up approach here. Some recipes advocate starting the turkey breast-side down to shield the breast meat, but the idea of flipping a hot, sputtering turkey is not our idea of a good time. Instead, we like to shield the breast meat with foil toward the end of cooking if it starts getting too browned.
4. Cooking Time - The rule of thumb for cooking a turkey is 13 minutes per pound. So our 16-pound turkey should have taken about 3 1/2 hours to cook. However, some factors like brining the bird, cooking with an empty (un-stuffed) cavity, and leaving the legs un-trussed will contribute to much faster cooking. Plan on the 13-minute-per-pound rule, but start checking the temperature of your turkey about halfway through the scheduled cooking time to gauge how fast it's cooking.
5. Baste the Turkey - Every 45 minutes, remove the turkey from the oven, close the oven door (don't let that heat out!), and baste the turkey all over. To baste, tilt the pan and use a turkey baster or spoon to scoop up the liquids and drizzle them on top of the turkey. Basting with pan juices cools the surface of the turkey and slows down cooking, which in turn keeps the breast meat cooking at close to the same rate as the legs and thighs.
Optional Extra - In the last 45 minutes or so of cooking, baste the turkey with melted butter or oil. This helps crisp up the skin and turn it a beautiful deep golden brown.
6. Check the Temperature - To make sure that turkey is fully cooked through and through, we like to check its temperature in three places: the breast, the outer thigh, and the inside thigh (see photos above). In every case, the meat should be at least 165°F. If any place is under that temperature, put the turkey back in the oven for another 20 minutes. Shield the breast meat with foil if needed to keep it from overcooking.
7. Rest the Turkey - Grab one side of the roasting rack with an oven mitt and tilt the turkey so liquids inside the cavity run out into the pan. (These juices are used to make the gravy.)
Then, lift the whole turkey (still on the rack) and transfer it to a cutting board. Tent the turkey with aluminum foil and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. This gives time for the meat to firm up and the juices to be re-absorbed into the muscle tissue, making the turkey easier to slice and taste juicier.
8. Carve the Turkey - Carve the turkey the same way you would carve a chicken (click that link to see a video of the entire process of carving a chicken): Remove the wings first, then the thighs, then the breast meat. Once you have the meat off, you can separate the thighs into thighs and drumsticks and carve the breast meat into individual slices.
That's all there is to it! Roasting a turkey is really just like roasting a large chicken. The same methods and ideas apply. Even if you don't get fancy with spices or special basting liquids, your turkey will still turn out browned, moist, and flavorful.
One final note! Once you've sat down at the table, don't forget about the turkey back on the counter. The leftover meat needs to be refrigerated within two hours of cooking, after which the risk of something nasty taking up residence starts to increase exponentially. Be safe, kids!
It is part of The Kitchn's A Small & Swanky Thanksgiving Dinner menu, which also includes the following ...
- Shrimp with Sriracha sauce
- To drink: Bubbly wine
- Roast Turkey and Quick Turkey Gravy
- Classic Sage Dressing
- Golden Mashed Potatoes
- Spiced Cranberry Sauce
- Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad with Apples, Hazelnuts and Brown Butter Dressing
- No-Knead Sweet Potato Dinner Rolls
- To drink: American Pinot Noir
Richard Wrangham, a professor at Harvard University and author of Catching Fire, studies the role of cooking in human evolution. "Once you start thinking about the importance of cooking -- its supply of energy, its strange distribution compared to natural foods -- it's bound to have affected our evolution hugely, our behavior, our society, our cognition, all sorts of features about us," he says.