“Is it like roasting a chicken?”
That is a real question an aspiring turkey-roasting newbie once asked me many Novembers ago. My answer then remains the same as it does today: Kinda sorta.
Typically, a whole chicken has a higher percentage of fat per pound, which ramps up both flavor and moisture, two plus-side factors that make it harder to screw up. Its smaller size — usually capping at five pounds — makes for easier handling, too.
In fact, turkey girth is arguably the one thing that stumps even experienced home cooks; where you store and how you season something in the ballpark of 15 pounds are understandable concerns, for starters. If you haven’t been on turkey duty in a while (or perhaps ever) and now you are because of COVID, we imagine you have a bunch of questions.
With the guide that follows, we’re getting back to basics. In a year unlike no other, we’re refraining from the debate over brining, a popular method that elicits strong feelings on either side. We won’t get into deep frying or butterflying, either. Instead, we show you the ropes of roasting, start to finish, and address frequently asked questions that inevitably surface every year at this time. Whether you’re brushing up or embarking on a maiden voyage, we wish you a safe and delicious Thanksgiving.
Note: The following steps apply to a fresh turkey. If your turkey is frozen, it must be completely thawed in the refrigerator before cooking. Estimate one day of thaw time for every five pounds.
Bringing it home
Whether you ordered directly from a local farm or purchased from the poultry section of a grocery store, the first order of business is to get the turkey into the refrigerator, stat. Try to pick it up no earlier than the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Keep in its original wrapping and place in a bowl or pan to catch any leaking juices.
- An internal meat thermometer is mission critical, as it takes turkey temperature so that you know when it is safely cooked. It need not be expensive, but it is worth testing an old one in advance. Readily available in grocery stores, hardware stores and big box stores.
- A rack: You want something that separates the turkey from the surface of the pan so that the drippings easily flow underneath. It does not need to be V-shaped as recommended in cooking magazines. A flat rack will do as long as it covers the length of the turkey.
- Roasting pan: My preference is a heavy metal pan with raised sides and handles. A disposable pan is an easy Plan B, but is less sturdy and more challenging to lift in and out of the oven.
- Extra cutting board: It is a good idea to have a cutting board on hand just for meat to minimize cross contamination. You will appreciate having a second board to prep the rest of your meal while the turkey roasts.
Give your kitchen sink a good scrub down, maybe even with a little diluted bleach. While you’re at it, wash your hands, too.
Take note of turkey weight and jot it down somewhere in plain sight. You will need this number to help calculate two things: Seasoning amounts and estimated cook time.
Place turkey in your newly sanitized sink to remove packaging. This minimizes splatter of juices. Dump any remaining juices from the packaging down the drain and promptly dispose of packaging.
For a whole turkey, place your hand inside the cavity and remove both the neck and the giblets (which are often tucked into a bag). If you plan to use for gravy, place in a bowl, cover and keep in refrigerator for later. If there is a clip holding the legs together, remove it. You do not need to re-truss legs with twine; it’s okay to let them splay.
Resist the urge to wash the turkey. As recommended by the USDA, a turkey sloshing around in a sink increases the chances of splattering and cross contamination on kitchen surfaces. Instead, pat dry the turkey with paper towels while it is still in the sink.
Turkey is a lean protein and is all too often under-seasoned even by well-intentioned cooks. But instructions to season “liberally or generously” are also vague and unhelpful. What does that actually mean?
Locate the turkey weight and use this formula to calculate how much salt you need:
- 1 teaspoon salt for every 1.5 pounds of turkey.
For a 12-pound turkey, that means 8 teaspoons, and for a 5-pound turkey breast, that means 3 teaspoons (or 1 tablespoon).
Resist the urge to measure out the salt and immediately begin to rub all over the turkey. Instead place in a prep bowl while you ponder spice rub combinations.
Turkey roasting FAQ
After many years of dispensing Thanksgiving cooking advice in print and on the radio, I have become somewhat of a mind reader. The FAQ section that follows is based on the chorus of voices in my head and in my unofficial capacity as the “Thanksgiving help desk.”
Okay, I’ve measured the salt. What else can I use to season the bird?
You definitely will want some ground black pepper, about about 2 pinches (or 1/8 teaspoon) per pound. After that, the choices are many, including fresh or dried thyme or oregano, ground cumin, ground star anise, garlic powder and — a personal favorite — ground fennel seed and ground coriander. For a 12-pound turkey, I suggest a total of 1/3 cup of spices, stirred together with the already measured salt. For fresh herbs, keep on their sprigs and stuff in the cavity or tuck underneath the skin.
You also need some fat, in the form of butter or oil, as a seasoning carrier; remember turkey is lean and needs assistance in the lubrication department. If using oil, add to the spice and salt mixture; for the 12-pound bird, start with 3 tablespoons of oil. For butter, rub all over the skin, including underneath. Three to four tablespoons is a good starting point.
So I’ve given my turkey a proper rubdown inside and out. Can I put in the oven right away?
You can, but I recommend giving it some time, up to 24 hours before roasting, for the seasonings to penetrate and do their magic. Even an hour or two is helpful.
Meanwhile, your refrigerator likely will be packed with other Thanksgiving provisions. Space-saving alternatives to a roasting pan while it marinates include: a sheet pan or a large bowl. Keep uncovered to help draw out moisture from the skin; this helps with achieving crispy results.
If the turkey has been refrigerated for several hours or overnight, remove about 1 hour before you plan to roast to help bring it closer to room temperature. This creates less of a temperature shock when it goes into a hot oven and the turkey can get right to work.
What about stuffing? Is this the right time?
It’s the right time to make stuffing and get it good and cold, but not stuff the bird. Cold bird needs cold stuffing.
I’m ready to roast. What do I need to know?
Before preheating the oven, make sure there is nothing hiding inside, including burnt-on bits stuck on the oven floor. Tidy up the oven as needed and adjust or remove the racks. You may even want to test the roasting pan in the oven to make sure it fits.
Now you can preheat the oven — a good starting point is 425 F.
While the oven preheats, you can get the bird situated in a roasting pan. I recommend a rack so that turkey is not sitting in its drippings. No rack? Consider making a raft of celery and carrots.
Can I stuff the bird at this point?
You can, as long as your stuffing is cold from the fridge. Just-made stuffing that is still warm and stuffed inside a raw turkey is an invitation for bacteria and increased risk of foodborne illness. Also, do not tightly pack the stuffing; give it some space so it can cook safely. Any remaining stuffing can be baked separately while the cooked turkey is cooling.
I don’t want to spend the money on a roasting pan. Can I use one of those disposable pans from the grocery store?
Of course, but keep in mind that they are lightweight and often cannot support larger, heavier birds and trickier to maneuver in and out of the oven.
Check, check. Oven is hot and the turkey is ready to go.
Excellent. Time for some more math: Multiply turkey weight by 12, then multiply it by 15. That is your cook-time window — in other words, 12 to 15 minutes per pound. For that 12-pound bird mentioned earlier, that means 2 hours, 20ish minutes to 3 hours.
Place the roasting pan in the oven and roast at the preheated temperature for 30 minutes. Then reduce the temperature to 350 F and roast until done.
Do I need to baste the turkey?
No, you do not. But you do need to check every hour that the drippings are not burning, and you can minimize that with water, broth or wine. Add enough to cover the bottom of the pan, no more, about 1/2 cup.
How else can I tell if my turkey is done? I’m getting close the end of my calculated cook time and it seems to need more time in the oven.
The most accurate way to determine doneness is by taking the turkey’s temperature. Place an internal meat thermometer in the turkey’s inner thigh (the part closest to the breast). The turkey is done when it reads 165 F. (Got stuffing inside? Take its temperature, too.)
Hooray! It looks beautiful. We can’t wait to dig in.
Hold your horses. A large piece of meat needs to both cool and rest. After several hours in the oven, that turkey will be too hot to cut or eat. If you are worried about it getting cold (it won’t), tent it with aluminum foil. Meanwhile, this is the perfect opportunity to reheat sides, make gravy and any other last-minute prep. You’re almost there!
I’m scared to carve. Should I be worried?
It can be daunting for a newbie, I understand. Remove drumsticks and wings first. If possible, remove the breast over the carcass and cut the breast in half. Use a fork to hold while you slice on an angle. Take your time. You got this.