How to Cook a Turkey: A Step by Step Guide

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A full guide to everything you need to know for how to cook a turkey! We’re covering all of the basics and answering all of your questions like how long to cook a turkey and more! Keep reading for everything you need to know when roasting a turkey for Thanksgiving this year!

Halloween festivities are over, and that can mean only one thing. We’re about to replace those mounds of candy with platters of stuffingcranberry sauce, gravy, and of course, a lot of juicy, decadent turkey! 

A golden brown turkey on a platter with orange slices, sage, thyme and apples.

Want to really impress your guests this Thanksgiving? You’ll shine brighter than the television parade floats when you pull a gorgeously browned, picture-perfect turkey out of the oven this year.

If you’re haunted by the turkey fails of November’s past, don’t be! This step-by-step guide will teach you the easiest way to make the perfect Thanksgiving turkey. It’s our foolproof method that works every time!

We’re sharing how to cook a turkey in a simple and best way. No more second-guessing or stressing. Instead, follow these step-by-step instructions and leave everyone full of awe (and plenty of tryptophan) at the end of the meal.

A golden brown, cooked turkey plated with sage, thyme, orange slices, rosemary.

Steps for Cooking a Turkey

Cooking the perfect turkey starts with picking out the best one. 

For best results, estimate around one pound of meat per person at the table, or more if you want leftovers!

How to Thaw A Turkey

If you buy a frozen turkey, remember to thaw it out by sticking it in the refrigerator a few days beforehand. You can only roast a thawed turkey and you’ll need to allow enough time for it to thaw. The safest way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator.

Plan on allowing about 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of turkey. For example, a 16-pound turkey will take about 4 days to thaw in the fridge.

Gather Your Tools

When you’re ready to cook the turkey, you don’t need a bunch of fancy gadgets or a long list of ingredients. 

Resting Rack 

Digital Instant Read Thermometer

Cooking Twine 

Turkey Platter 

The most important factor is the size of your roasting pan. Make sure it’s wide and deep enough to comfortably nestle your turkey inside of it without touching the edges. If you have a roasting rack, we recommend using that inside the roasting pan. 

In addition to the pan, you’ll also need your simple 

  • Stuffing ingredients
  • Along with kitchen twine 
  • Meat thermometer

Next, you will dry brine the turkey. This can be done two days before you cook it! 

Drying an uncooked turkey with paper towels.

Clean Your Turkey

Before you can brine your turkey, you’ll need to clean it. First, discard the bag of innards with the bird. 

  • Remove the giblets in the bottom of the turkey as well as the neck of the turkey. Don’t forget to take the bag out of the neck area. This can be easily forgotten! 
  • Then, rinse the turkey inside and out using cold water. 
  • Dry the meat thoroughly with paper towels for extra-crispy skin.
  • Then, pull the wing tips forward and tuck them under the breasts to keep them from burning.

What is Dry Brine?

Want to give your turkey tons of flavor without the messiness of a wet brine? A dry brine consisting of salt and brown sugar is ideal. Here are the steps to follow:

How to dry brine a turkey. Hand rubbing salt and brown sugar all over an uncooked turkey.

How to Dry Brine

Mix 1/2 cup salt and 2 tablespoons of brown sugar in a bowl. 

Rub the dry brine all over the cleaned and dried turkey. 

Make sure to get the wings, inside the turkey and under the skin.

To get under the skin, you’ll have to use your fingers to separate the skin from the bird.

Cover the turkey and place it in the refrigerator for up to 2 nights! You can also do this the night before, but 2 days is best. 

Before you cook, take the turkey out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature. 

To get an extra-juicy turkey, season the meat as well as the skin. Use your fingers or a thin silicone spatula to separate the breast meat from the skin. Stop once you reach about 2/3 of the way down the breastbone. 

Apples, onions, rosemary and thyme to fill the inside of a turkey before cooking.

Fill the Bird with Vegetables

If you’re making a 12-pound to 15-pound turkey, gather these ingredients for your filling:

  • 1 large onion, cut into 4
  • 1 large apple, cut into 4 (you can use 1 1/2 apples if you have room)
  • Tablespoon black pepper 
  • 4 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 4 sprigs of fresh rosemary 

Fill the middle of the bird with all of the above ingredients. Lots of fresh pepper!

A turkey stuffed with rosemary, apples, onions on a roasting rack.

Butter the Bird 

In our house, the more butter the better! Use 1 1/4 sticks of unsalted butter to rub all over the turkey. Make sure it’s room temperature so you can easily spread the butter all around. 

Place the butter under the skin, the wings, and even some inside the turkey.

Don’t worry if there are chunks of butter all over the turkey. This will all melt and be delicious when it’s cooked. 

Truss Your Turkey

This sounds like a fancy step, but it isn’t. Trussing a turkey just means tying its legs together. Use kitchen twine to perform this step. 

An uncooked turkey rubbed with butter and stuffed with onions, apples, rosemary and tied with twine.

Roasting

Now you’re ready to roast! The turkey should be on a roasting rack, breast side up, with the roasting pan under it. Most racks sit nicely in the roasting pan.

Add Liquid

Pour 3-4 cups of chicken stock into the bottom of the roasting rack. This will keep the meat moist while it’s cooking. We also add white wine later.

When cooking a turkey in the oven, one of the most important things you can do is to keep the turkey moist. This is especially important if you’re cooking a large turkey. A good way to do this is to pour some liquid (like water, broth, or wine) into the bottom of the roasting pan before adding the turkey.

The liquid will help to keep the turkey moist as it cooks and will also prevent the drippings from burning. Just be sure to add enough liquid so that it comes up about 1/2 way up the sides of the turkey.

Pouring chicken broth into the bottom of a roasting rack.

Cook

Place the turkey in a preheated 450-degree oven for 30 minutes. The skin will get nice and brown, which is what you want. 

Next, cover the top of the whole turkey in aluminum foil.

During the cooking process, check the bottom of the rack and see if it needs more liquid. You can add more chicken broth if needed.

Turn the oven to 350 degrees to cook the turkey for 2 hours.

Cooking times vary depending on the size of the turkey. See more below for how long to cook a turkey. 

Covering a turkey in the oven with tin foil. A guide to how to cook a turkey.

How to Tell When It’s Done Cooking

The best way to know when a turkey is done cooking is to use a meat thermometer. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the turkey (without touching the bone) and cook until the internal temperature reaches 165 to 175 degrees F it’s done.

Rest

Once the turkey is done cooking, let it rest for 20-30 minutes before carving. This will allow the juices to redistribute, making for a juicier, more flavorful turkey.

A beautifully browned turkey on a roasting rack.

Plate the Turkey 

When the turkey is done, save all of the juice from the bottom of the pan. This is perfect for making gravy and for pouring a little over the top of the turkey! 

Plate the turkey on a large platter.  Garnish the platter with fresh herbs, orange slices, apples, and whatever else you have around that looks pretty!

A perfectly golden brown cooked turkey right out of the oven.

Spatchcock Turkey

Spatchcocking is a great way to ensure even cooking in less time. It’s also a great way to get crispy skin!

To spatchcock a turkey, start by removing the backbone. Use a sharp knife or kitchen shears to cut along both sides of the backbone. Once the backbone is removed, flip the turkey over and press down to flatten it.

A 12-pound spatchcock turkey will take about 2 hours to cook at 350 degrees F.

Dark Meat vs White Meat

There are two types of meat on a turkey- dark and white. Dark meat is located on the legs and thighs and is darker in color due to the higher concentration of myoglobin.

White meat is located on the breast and is lighter in color due to the lower concentration of myoglobin.

Dark meat is more flavorful and juicier than white meat. It’s also higher in fat and calories. White meat is leaner and has a more delicate flavor.

Dressing from turkey to use to make gravy.

Turkey Drippings

The drippings from a roasted turkey are packed with flavor and can be used to make a delicious gravy. To collect the drippings, place a bowl or roasting pan underneath the turkey while it’s cooking.

Once the turkey is done, remove it from the roasting pan and let it rest. Then, strain the drippings and use them to make gravy or save them for another use.

A guide for how to cook a turkey and a turkey on a white platter.

Leftover Turkey

There are so many delicious things you can do with leftover turkey! Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Turkey pot pie
  • Turkey soup
  • Turkey sandwiches
  • Turkey casserole

How to Store Roasted Turkey

  • Once your turkey is cooked, it’s important to store it properly. Here are a few tips:
  • If you’re not going to eat the turkey right away, allow it to cool completely before storing it in the fridge.
  • Place the turkey in a covered container or wrap it tightly with plastic wrap.
  • Stored properly, the roasted turkey will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days or in the freezer for 2-3 months.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you cover a turkey when it’s roasting?

We recommend you do both. Cook the turkey uncovered for about 30 minutes so you get a crispier skin, then cover it halfway through cooking so the skin doesn’t burn. Roasting the turkey uncovered will result in a juicier, more flavorful bird.

How Long Do You Cook a Turkey For?

You should cook your turkey for 15 to 20 minutes per pound. Be sure to check your meat throughout, as times may vary depending on the size and thickness of the bird.

How Long Should a 15lb Turkey Cook?

Following the logic above, a 15-pound turkey should cook for a minimum of 3 and 3/4 hours or 225 minutes. It can take up to five hours (20 minutes per pound), so make sure to use your thermometer.

How to Cook a Turkey Guide. A Golden brown turkey plated with orange slices, thyme, rosemary.

Is Turkey Done at 165 or 180?

There has been debate over the temperature at which your turkey is truly “done.” Until 2006, the FDA recommended making sure your turkey reached 165 degrees Fahrenheit at the breast part and 180 degrees at the thighs.

Then, it revised those recommendations and said the entire turkey is safe at 165 degrees. Following these guidelines, make sure your turkey’s juices run clear and don’t rely on the pop-up indicators that come with it. Instead, use a meat thermometer and insert it at the thickest part of the thigh.

Furthermore, I like when the turkey is cooked to 165 degrees. I feel like it’s still moist and cooked through. 

What Do You Put in a Turkey Cavity?

To complete the dry brine, hold the turkey by its back legs and season the cavity with as much salt and pepper as you like. For a delicious and aromatic touch, stick in rosemary, along with half a bunch of sage. Finally, add a handful of your chopped vegetables and apples to the cavity.

Then, sprinkle more pepper on the outside of the turkey. Place it breast-side up in your roasting pan and refrigerate it uncovered for up to three days.

Do I Need to Rinse a Dry Brined Turkey?

Nope! You do not need to rinse or even pat your turkey dry before cooking. Doing so will make it more difficult to brown. Once you remove it from the refrigerator, let it sit out a bit to room temp, and then it’s ready to cook! 

Tip – if you’re in a hurry just cook it right out of the refrigerator. 

Sliced turkey breast with gravy.

Should I Baste My Turkey?

There isn’t a need to baste your turkey as it cooks. The butter you spread on the skin before putting it in the oven is enough to keep it moist. Any extra moisture will prevent your turkey from browning and crisping up the way you want it to!

So sit back, relax and catch the big game once you reach this point!

How Long Should Turkey Rest after Cooking?

Resist the urge to gobble it down immediately! Instead, give your turkey about 20 minutes to rest before carving, covering it loosely with foil to keep the heat and moisture in.

How Do I Keep My Turkey Moist?

For turkey that’s crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, stick with these tips:

  • Choose a turkey that’s fresh, not frozen
  • Rub soft butter under the skin before cooking
  • Stick to a loose truss, or skip the trussing stage altogether
  • Remember to let the turkey rest

Combined, these steps can help your turkey retain as much moisture as possible. You can also try a wet brine instead of a dry one, preparing a saltwater mixture and rubbing it all over the turkey instead of dry seasonings, letting it soak for a few hours before proceeding as normal with the other steps.

A slice of turkey breast cut from a cooked turkey.

What to Serve with Turkey

There are so many delicious things you can serve on Thanksgiving day! The most popular dish for Thanksgiving dinner is turkey. Some of our favorites side dishes that go well with turkey include:

Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes

The Best Oyster Stuffing

Thanksgiving Cheese Platter

Creamy Garlic Brussels

Pumpkin Pie or Sweet Potato Pie

Wild Turkey Cocktail

A roasted turkey on a platter on a Thanksgiving table setting.

Ace Your Turkey and Wow Your Table Guests

No more canceling your plans for home-cooked turkey and ordering takeout instead.

Why not start a new tradition this year and invite everyone over for a meal they’ll still be talking about when the new year rolls around? If you’ve always wondered how to cook a turkey, this quick guide should improve your confidence in the kitchen!

Looking for more Thanksgiving inspiration? Check out our holiday guide today and happy celebrating! And don’t forget to set your Thanksgiving table!

Let us know if you try this recipe and leave a comment and review below!

You can also FOLLOW US on FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM, and PINTEREST to see more delicious recipes, cocktails, desserts, and parties!

A roasted turkey on a platter.

How to Cook a Turkey

A guide for cooking a turkey and how to dry brine!
5 from 13 votes
Print Pin Rate
Course: dinner
Cuisine: American
Prep Time: 2 days 30 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
20 minutes
Total Time: 2 days 3 hours 20 minutes
Servings: 10 people
Calories: 848kcal
Author: Eden

Ingredients

  • 12 pound turkey , we buy an organic, free-range turkey.

Dry Brine

  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar

Ingredients to Stuff in the Middle of Turkey

  • 1 large onion, cut into 4
  • 1 large apple, cut into 4
  • 1 tbsp black pepper
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • 4 sprigs rosemary

To Rub on the Outside of Turkey

  • 1 1/4 cup unsalted butter

Bottom of the Roasting Rack

  • 3 cups chicken broth, more if needed while cooking
  • 3 cups dry white wine, nothing too expenise

Garnishes

  • 1 large orange, sliced for garnishing
  • herbs

Instructions

  • Remove the giblets in the bottom of the turkey as well as the neck of the turkey. Don’t forget to take the bag out of the neck area. This can be easily forgotten! 
  • Then, rinse the turkey inside and out using cold water. 
  • Dry the meat thoroughly with paper towels for extra-crispy skin.
  • Then, pull the wing tips forward and tuck them under the breasts to keep them from burning.
  • Mix 1/2 cup salt and 2 tablespoons brown sugar in a bowl.
  • Rub the dry brine all over the cleaned and dried turkey. 
  • Make sure to get the wings, inside the turkey and under the skin.
  • Cover the turkey and place it in the refrigerator for up to 2 nights! You can also do this the night before, but 2 days is best. 
  • Before you cook, take the turkey out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature. 
  • Fill the middle of the bird with the apple, onion, pepper, thyme, and rosemary.
  • Rub the butter all over the bird and under the skin.
  • Place the bird on a roasting rack.
  • Pour 3-4 cups chicken broth into the bottom of the roasting rack.
  • Place the turkey in a preheated 450-degree oven for 30 minutes. The skin will get nice and brown, which is what you want. 
  • Next, cover the turkey in tin foil, and pour 3 cups of white wine into the bottom of the roasting rack. 
  • Turn the oven to 350 degrees to cook the turkey for 2 to 3 hours. Or when a Digital Meat Thermometer reads 165 degrees to 180 degrees.
  • When the turkey is done, save all of the juice from the bottom of the pan. This is perfect for making gravy and for pouring a little over the top of the turkey! 
  • Plate the turkey on a platter with the garnishes and serve!

Notes

Cooking times will vary depending on the size and the oven it’s cooked in. 
The turkey is done when a meat thermometer reaches 165 degrees to 180 degrees.
Don’t forget to take the giblets out of the middle and the neck of the turkey. 
Dry brine for up to 2 days or over night. 
 

Nutrition

Calories: 848kcal | Carbohydrates: 12g | Protein: 85g | Fat: 45g | Saturated Fat: 20g | Cholesterol: 339mg | Sodium: 6358mg | Potassium: 1067mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 8g | Vitamin A: 998IU | Vitamin C: 18mg | Calcium: 82mg | Iron: 4mg
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how to cook a turkey pin.

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12 thoughts on “How to Cook a Turkey: A Step by Step Guide”

  1. 5 stars
    My first time cooking a turkey and it was THE BEST I’ve ever had thanks to this recipe!! Incredibly simple to put together, moist and delicious. Who would even bother with a liquid brine when you can do a dry rub?! Thank you!

    Reply
  2. 5 stars
    This is SUCH a fantastic tutorial. My 23 year old son is hosting Thanksgiving this year for the first time and asked for some pointers for roasting a turkey. I just sent this link to him. Thank you so much for creating such a useful resource!

    Reply
  3. 5 stars
    I love all the tips and information about the turkey, such as not having to rinse the dry brine and why you should stuff the cavity. I can’t wait to try this recipe this year – it looks amazing!!

    Reply
  4. 5 stars
    Such a lovely step by step guide! Thanks for breaking it down! I also did not know that rinse the turkey would not be ideal for it to brown well.

    Reply
  5. 5 stars
    Lots of really great flavors going on here! I love that you cover your turkey with aluminum foil for a bit. I really does help to keep the bird from drying out. I’ve added white wine to my bird before, too. Love this recipe. Lots of flavor.

    Reply

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