How to Cook a Thanksgiving Turkey

Cooking a Thanksgiving turkey is tricky at best, so take heed: If you want to bring a bronzed beauty of a bird to the table, arm yourself with this essential intel.
By Food & Wine Editors
October 14, 2020

Notoriously easy to overcook (and undercook), famously bland, and intimidating to handle, turkey can make even the most seasoned cook lose their cool. But as a wise man once said, a path is formed by laying one stone at a time. Scroll down and learn how to make the best Thanksgiving turkey of your life, step by step.

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Where to Buy a Turkey Before Thanksgiving (and What Kind to Get)

You might be hosting Thanksgiving for the first time. You might be doing a scaled-down version this year. Either way, you'll need to know where to score your Thanksgiving turkey, and of course, which size and variety to shop for. To find the exact bird you're looking for, think ahead—you'll want to put in an order at a farm or butcher shop, scope out options at the supermarket, and/or check out birds online a few weeks before Turkey Day to have your pick. And remember, for a scaled-down turkey feast, you can always the turkey-breast route instead of buying a whole bird.

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How Long to Thaw Your Turkey (If You Bought a Frozen One)

If you're thawing your turkey in the refrigerator—by far the most hands-off and least-messy method—count on 24 hours for every five pounds of turkey (some people like to add another day of thawing just to be safe). Simply refrigerate the bird in its original packaging and nestle it into a roasting pan to catch any drips as it thaws. If the breast feels tender, the drumsticks wiggle in their sockets, and the cavity is no longer frosty, it's thawed.

Note: If you want to brine your thawed turkey (see below), you'll need to start thawing your turkey at least two to three days further in advance to account for brining time. So if you want to brine a 12-pound frozen bird, start thawing it in the refrigerator a week ahead of time.

If you don't have the time for the refrigerator route, or if your refrigerated turkey still feels a bit frosty on Thanksgiving morning, go for the cold-water method. Fill a stockpot or other large container—or even your sink!—with cold water (using warm or hot water could lead to food-safety issues). Immerse the bird, still in its original packaging, in the water and let thaw, changing the cold water every 30 minutes. The turkey will need about 30 minutes per pound to thaw, which means an average 12-pound turkey will take six hours.

And remember, be sure to remove the turkey from the fridge about an hour before you're ready to roast to help it cook more evenly.

How to Brine a Turkey (and Add a Ton of Flavor to Your Bird)

If you want to ensure that your roast turkey turns out juicy and flavorful (and who wouldn't?), you most definitely want to brine your bird. Set aside two to three days for the task, make sure you've have the gear for the job (hint: a dry brine is way easier to set up than a wet brine), and make sure that you know how much salt to use—and what kind!

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How to Stuff a Turkey (and Why You Probably Don't Want To)

If you're not already baking your stuffing (ahem, OK, your dressing) in a separate casserole dish outside your turkey, we encourage you to give it a try. It's tough enough to nail the internal temperature of a turkey without having to worry about ensuring that the stuffing is cooked through, too. Adding aromatics to the cavity makes your turkey taste better. Adding stuffing just makes that stuffing mushy—when it's baked separately, your stuffing can develop those crispy browned edges that everyone fights for.

But if you insist on stuffing your turkey, we're not going to stand in your way. Just a few words of advice: Don't try to pack in too much. Stuff both cavities (the larger one and the smaller neck cavity) loosely to avoid undercooked stuffing. You'll need about 1 1/2 cups for every pound of turkey. And take the internal temperature of the stuffing before pulling the bird from the oven—it should read 165F just like the actual turkey should.

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What Temperature to Cook the Turkey (and How to Roast It)

There are countless ways to roast a turkey—probably because home cooks have always struggled with how to avoid overcooking the breasts while ensuring that the dark meat is cooked through. The general game plan is to roast your seasoned (and possibly brined) turkey on a rack set inside a roasting pan. No need to truss it; that will only make it take longer to cook. To help make a great gravy from the pan drippings, you can scatter plenty of cut-up aromatic vegetables and herbs in the pan, along with a couple cupfuls of water to prevent the veg from scorching, too.

But no matter what method or oven temperature you go with (and we've got plenty to choose from), one thing remains consistent. You'll want to cook your turkey until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh (avoiding bone) reads 165F to 170F. Be sure to use a good-quality instant-read thermometer and take several readings of both thighs—you don't ever want to start carving your turkey for your hungry guests only to find that it needs another 20 minutes in the oven.

Marcus Nilsson

How to Carve Your Thanksgiving Turkey (Without Making a Hash of It)

Once you've nailed the temperature on your turkey, there's just one final hurdle—carving it like a pro. First, be sure to let the turkey rest on your biggest cutting board for about 45 minutes (in the meantime, make the gravy) to allow for carryover cooking and to help the juices redistribute. Then sharpen a thin, long slicing blade and follow this simple strategy for clean cuts that will look great on everyone's plate.

Victor Protasio

How to Make Homemade Turkey Gravy (and How to Fix Lumpy Gravy, Too)

Those golden-brown vegetables and savory drippings left in the roasting pan? Money in the bank. Set the roasting pan across two burners over medium-low heat, and scrape up all those flavorful browned bits. Next, strain them into a tall, narrow container and skim off the fat, which you can use as part of the roux to thicken your gravy. Either way, save those pan juices—you'll use them, along with some broth, to make a gravy tasty enough to convert the sulkiest turkey-hater.

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen

Everything You Can Make with Leftover Turkey

We won't argue with the pristine beauty of the next-day turkey sandwich. But you don't need us to tell you how to make one of those. If you're looking to do something a little different with your Thanksgiving turkey leftovers, check out this wide-ranging array of ideas, from Leftover Turkey and Chinese Egg Noodle Soup to Turkey Reuben Hash.