How To Cook A Turkey

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Today I want to share how to cook a turkey because the holidays are right around the corner. Here’s the deal, I realize some people go out to a restaurant for holidays. It sounds wonderful, right? No prep, no cleanup, no mess, but also no leftovers! Or as Deborah mentions, no “encore meals,” I love that term.

My goal is, and always has been, to teach others to cook from scratch. Today is no different. I have fond memories of my mom baking a turkey at this time every year when the family could get together. We had tablecloths, china, and her goblets she loved to use just for special meals.

We all pitched in and brought our specialty dishes and set the tables, set up chairs, and squished in together to enjoy a turkey feast. It’s all about memories in the kitchen with one another. Then we all cleaned up, so many dishes, but it didn’t matter we worked as a team. We laughed and shared memories of years past.

This year it was truly a sticker shock moment for purchasing turkeys for this post. Luckily I have grandchildren nearby who will use the leftovers for meals the next few days. I will show you the difference between cooking a turkey in a roaster pan in the oven as well as in an electric roaster. Yes, I purchased two turkeys, luckily I have 17 grandchildren, although not all of them live nearby.

How To Cook A Turkey

How To Cook A Turkey

Step One

We placed the two turkeys on a cookie sheet in case we had any liquid from the turkey in the refrigerator as they thawed. It took almost 5 days to thaw, crazy, huh?

Two turkeys thawing

Step Two

Here is one of the turkeys, thank goodness my daughter has a deep sink so we can cut the wrapping off of the raw turkeys.

Turkey in Package

Step Three

I always wash my raw chickens and turkeys. According to the USDA, we should not wash the turkey before we bake it. Here is the reasoning, I quote the USDA, “According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, washing raw poultry, beef, pork, lamb, or veal before cooking is not recommended. Bacteria in raw meat and poultry juices can be spread to other foods, utensils, and surfaces.

Well, I am extremely careful using bleach to wash down all the areas around the kitchen sink after I’ve washed the turkeys. I pay particular attention to the immediate area where I washed my turkey. But, this is totally up to you. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Rinsing the turkey

Step Four

The picture is the back of the turkey where you will find a bag full of gizzards and the heart. Remove the bag and decide if you want to cook them. My mother always saved the gizzards, and Mark always saved the heart to cook it and eat it later. This year, we discarded all of it. No one in my family will eat them, not even in dressing or stuffing.

Cleaning out the turkey

Step Five

This is the front of the turkey where you will find the neck of the turkey, deep in the cavity. Remove the neck and discard it, unless you want to boil it for soup later. We never keep it since it has so little meat on it. It’s totally a personal preference. If you have ever watched the movie, “Christmas Vacation,” you will remember someone on the show always ate the neck. I can’t remember who it was. LOL!

The neck of the turkey

Step Six

And here you see the neck from the turkey below.

Remove the neck

Step Seven

This is the first turkey that’s ready to put in the oven in a roaster pan uncovered. If it starts to brown too quickly I will place a tent of aluminum foil over the turkey. We set the oven temperature at 325°F. 165°C.

How to Cook The Turkey

Step Eight

This second turkey is going in the electric roaster which will be covered with the roaster lid. We set the electric roaster temperature at 325°F. 165°C.

Second Turkey in Electric Roaster

Step Nine

This is the turkey we baked in the electric roaster pan. The flavor is great, but I love having a “browned” turkey. I could have put it in the conventional oven to brown it, but it’s fine as is. It sure cooked faster in my electric roaster.

Electric Roaster Pan

Step Ten

This one was cooked in the conventional oven, and you can see it must have caught the top of the beautiful turkey as I pulled it out of the oven. It still tastes fabulous!

The perfect turkey

How To Cook A Turkey

How do I thaw a frozen turkey?

I know we don’t always agree, or possibly trust, information from a government agency. Things have become so political these days. I will say that I have found most everything relating to food preparation to be pretty reliable when issued by the USDA.

That being said, here is a quote from the USDA regarding the proper process when thawing a frozen turkey: “The USDA recommends thawing your turkey in the refrigerator.

This is the safest method because the turkey will thaw at a consistent, safe temperature. This method takes some time, so allow one day for each 4 – 5 pounds of weight. If your turkey weighs 16 pounds, it will take about four days to thaw.” How to Safely Thaw Turkey.

On their website, the USDA does give some other options to try if you don’t want to thaw your turkey in the fridge for the days suggested. The first approach they mention is using the cold water method.

Cold Water Method

The instructions are to leave the turkey in the original wrapping and then submerge it in either your sink or a large container full of cold water. They suggest the use of cold water since you want the turkey to stay “cold” and not get to a temperature that is unsafe if using hot water.

You need to change the water every 30 minutes by emptying out the water and replacing it with fresh cold water. They indicate that you should plan on about 30 minutes defrost time for each pound of weight, so a 10-pound turkey would take approximately 5 hours to thaw. You would then need to cook the turkey immediately.

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The problem I see with this method is having to hang around all day (or night) changing out the water as indicated. Yes, it thaws faster, but it sure becomes a “hands-on” method.

Another approach is to use your microwave. Mark and I actually did this one year when we purchased our first Amana microwave and wanted to try it out. Our unit didn’t have a rotating table, so the bird just sat there while being cooked. Yes, we didn’t just thaw it, we cooked it. Big messy mistake.

Most microwaves these days have a “defrost” function and they automatically run for a preset time and power level based on the weight of the item to be defrosted.

From the USDA

The USDA says to be sure and check your owner’s manual on the proper process, but they suggest removing the wrapping and placing the turkey on a tray to catch the drippings as the bird cooks. They indicate it should take about 6 minutes per pound.

Note that most microwaves don’t have a revolving table big enough to handle the average Thanksgiving turkey, so you’ll need to rotate the turkey several times during the cooking process, and include some rotations where the bird is flipped.

This process is designed to thaw the bird not cook it, so be aware of any spots where the bird is actually being heated past the thawing phase and either cover that area or stop the process and consider starting to cook the turkey in your oven at that point.

I did want to mention, the USDA did say you CAN cook a frozen turkey, you just need to plan on the cooking time to be at least 50% longer than one that’s been defrosted. As for me, I use the refrigerator approach and have done so for years.

There are some old wive’s tales about how to thaw a turkey, and the USDA says to be sure NOT to use one of these methods:

  • thawing the bird on your kitchen counter, in the garage, or back porch
  • using a brown paper bag or plastic garbage bag
  • using your dishwasher, either with or without the water
  • any other method that isn’t listed above

Can I buy a fresh turkey?

Right now turkeys are becoming a commodity in short supply. Depending on where you live, finding one could be a challenge. I haven’t noticed any particular benefit to a fresh turkey based on flavor, tenderness, moist texture, or other attributes you may feel are important. If you thaw it out and cook it as recommended, you should be fine and you’ll like the results.

How long do I cook a turkey?

Most cooks seem to have their favorite approach to Thanksgiving turkey preparation and cooking time. I’ve tried the “cook all night” method on a slightly lower temp, and the “morning of” method where you cook at higher temperatures but for a shorter time period.

The key is to try and get the turkey fully cooked and ready to serve when it reaches and maintains a temperature of 165 degrees.

I’ve listed below some times based on weight and whether you are also cooking your stuffing “in the bird,” which the USDA frowns upon, by the way:

All cooking times are based on a minimum temperature of 325 *F (162.8 *C).

UNSTUFFED STUFFED

4 to 8 lbs 1.5 to 3.25 hours 6 to 8 lbs. 2.5 to 3.5 hours

8 to 12 lbs. 2.75 to 3 hours 8 to 12 lbs. 3 to 3.5 hours

12 to 14 lbs. 3 to 3.75 hours 12 to 14 lbs. 3.5 to 4 hours

14 to 18 lbs. 3.75 to 4.25 hours 14 to 18 lbs. 4 to 4.25 hours

18 to 20 lbs. 4.25 to 4.5 hours 18 to 20 lbs. 4.25 to 4.75 hours

20 to 24 lbs. 4.5 to 5 hours 20 to 24 lbs. 4.75 to 5.25 hours

Remember that not all ovens cook at exactly the same temperature and that altitude MAY make a difference too.

How to brine a turkey?

I’ll have to admit that I seldom brine my turkey before cooking it. I haven’t found that the flavor and moisture of the meat are enhanced enough for me to take the extra time. For those of you who want to give this extra step a try, here are some pointers:

There are two choices to brining, wet and dry. Both use salt, sugar, and some aromatics such as herbs, citrus peel, and spices, but the wet method also uses water to totally immerse the turkey. In both cases, you let the bird “brine” for about 24 hours so the mixture has a chance to do its magic on the meat.

The challenge with the wet approach is having the space and container to cover the bird with liquid. Some cooks just use a cooler. With the dry method, you just rub the brine mixture all over the bird, wait 24 hours and then rinse it off and dry the bird

I’ve talked with some cooks who swear by this process of meal prep to get the unique flavor and texture they want when they serve the turkey. Give it a try, who knows, you may be converted.

What temperature should I cook the turkey?

As shown above, the USDA suggests at least 325 *F (162.8 *C). It is generally suggested you cook your turkey uncovered at this temp. You can try higher temps, but you’ll need to monitor the turkey as it cooks so it doesn’t get overcooked. The key is the temperature of the meat, which they have always suggested to be at 165 *F (73.9 *C)

When taking the turkey’s temperature to assure yourself it is fully done, hold the thermometer perpendicular to the turkey and insert it into the area where the bird’s leg and breast come together. Push it deep into the center of the thickest part of the turkey’s thigh. Be sure to not touch the bone since that could cause a misread of the temperature.

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Do I need a meat thermometer?

The most accurate and safe method to provide the desired temperature reading is with a good quality meat thermometer. If properly cared for it should last for years. The safety of family and diner guests is certainly worth the investment. I really like my digital instant-read thermometer, but there are other less expensive types.

I’ve been asked about the accuracy of the “pop-up” style of thermometers/timers that are often found inserted in the turkey at the processing plant. I haven’t tried to determine their accuracy, but I’ve heard that they are often set to pop up at 180-185 *F, so if you used them your turkey would very likely be overdone and viewed by guests as a “crispy critter.”

Here’s the thermometer I have used for years, but any meat thermometer will work. Thermapen Website

How To Cook A Turkey

What temperature should the turkey register when it’s done?

This is answered above.

How long will the cooked turkey stay safe in the refrigerator after cooking?

After you cook the turkey and place the sliced turkey meat in the refrigerator you have a short period of time before there is a safety risk. The turkey is only good for 3-4 days in the refrigerator.

Can dogs eat turkey?

I checked the American Kennel Club website to see what they had to say. Basically, dogs can eat almost any meat that is properly cooked for human consumption. Just make sure the meat you give them is free of any bone or gristle that might get caught in their throat.

The AKC did indicate that most veterinarian visits this time of the year are due to the “trimmings” served to the dogs. That’s mainly due to the spices, butter, and other ingredients often put on the skin or added to the stuffing. Particularly be careful of onions and garlic that can upset their stomach

It is usually ok to serve the turkey, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and veggies like peas. Steer clear of pumpkin pie since it has Xylitol which is toxic to animals.

How do I make turkey gravy?

I’d like to suggest the following simple recipe for turkey gravy. Anyone should be able to put this one together.

Ingredients:

1/4 cup of the turkey drippings, which includes the fat and any juices generated during the cooking process

1/4 cup of all-purpose flour

2 cups of liquid, can be from the cooked turkey, some turkey broth, and water

1/2 teaspoon of salt (you can adjust based on personal preference)

1/2 teaspoon of pepper

Cooking Steps:

Take the drippings from your roasting pan and put them in a bowl while leaving any brown particles in the pan. Take 1/4 cup of the drippings and put them back in the pan. Stir in your flour.

Cook this mixture over medium heat, stir continually until the mixture is smooth and has bubbles. Stir in the liquid ingredients while heating to a boil, again stirring continually. You’ll stir this boiling mixture for at least a minute. Add and stir in the salt and pepper. Serve while hot.

Turkey Gravy

How to season a turkey?

Some turkeys can come seasoned, but a safe bet is to brine the turkey as discussed above. I just put mine in the pans without seasoning right from the package. Please tell me what you do with your raw turkey. I like simple solutions, so sometimes I use All-Seasoning Salt.

Is it safe to stuff a turkey with stuffing/dressing?

The USDA suggests you cook your stuffing in a separate pan. The stuffing CAN affect the temperature and cooking time as illustrated above. Better to be safe than sorry. If you want to cook the turkey and stuffing together, be sure to follow the times shown based on the weight of the turkey being cooked.

How many pounds of turkey per person should I plan on buying?

Generally speaking, you should plan on 1-1/2 pounds of turkey per person. So add up the turkey-eating guests and plan on this amount per person. It’s almost easier to plan on 1 pound per person (there’s a lot of bone in turkeys).

So if you have 20 quests, plan a 20-25 pound turkey. Of course, we want leftovers for sandwiches, right? Maybe a 25-30 pound turkey would be perfect. You can always freeze the leftover turkey meat.

Can I freeze the leftover turkey?

You can keep the cooked turkey in your fridge for a few days, but the safest bet is to freeze any leftovers. Mark and I love to make turkey sandwiches for days after the holidays. When he trims the turkey he tries to separate the dark meat from the white meat.

When it comes to the cleanup phase, we put the meats in smaller freezer bags and then pull them out and thaw them in the microwave so the meat is ready for a sandwich or larger meal with the leftover gravy, cranberry sauce, and other goodies. Gotta love holiday meals and all the leftovers. If properly wrapped, the cooked turkey will be good in the freezer for 3 to 4 months.

Final Word

We all enjoy the holidays as a special time of year. It means getting family and friends together for great food and conversation. Although it can be a lot of work preparing the meals at this time of year, it is sure worth it to provide lifetime memories to cherish.

I hope this post about how to cook a turkey proves helpful as you begin your holiday meal plans. Refer to it often, print out the recipe information for a quick reference, and relish the delicious meals for weeks to come. May God Bless this world. Linda

Copyright Images: Whole Roasted Turkey AdobeStock_288597690 by fahrwasser

16 thoughts on “How To Cook A Turkey

  • November 16, 2021 at 7:35 am
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    Linda, we’ve always cooked our turkey breast, in an oven cooking bag. It makes them so moist. This is an awesome post, BTW. Since there is just the two of us, there’s no sense in cooking a whole turkey for us. This is what we do for Thanksgiving. Christmas, we’re having finger foods.

    Reply
    • November 16, 2021 at 8:27 am
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      Hi Deborah, oh I love those oven cooking bags. I actually forgot about those. They really do make the turkey or turkey breast moist. I love turkey breasts because I only like white meat!! Oh, and finger foods are the best ever!! Linda

      Reply
  • November 16, 2021 at 7:42 am
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    Great article with lots of good info! I found brining the turkey overnight (up to 16 hours) to be a game changer on flavor! My favorite chef Christopher Kimball uses this method. I have a 5 gallon bucket that is used every year for this purpose. After searching to find the bucket for a couple of years, I wrote “brining bucket” on it with Sharpie so it doesn’t get used for something else. Then I keep it in a storage room with other cooking items that are not often used so I can easily find it. You need a cold place where animals can’t get to it (my garage is cold enough) to put the bucket with turkey since it won’t fit in your refrigerator. Some people put ice cubes in the brine to help keep it cold.

    Reply
    • November 16, 2021 at 8:30 am
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      Hi Kay, oh my gosh, I will look up Chef Christopher Kimball’s “brining” turkey instructions! I love learning new ideas!! Thanks for the tip!! Linda

      Reply
  • November 16, 2021 at 9:08 am
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    Hello Linda,
    Whenever our large, extended families gather for Thanksgiving, we change our turkey baking plans to accommodate both ends of the long table. Rather than bake one huge bird, we roast two smaller birds, one for each end of the table. Not only are the two decorated platters lovely, we have four wings and four legs so no one is disappointed. Plus, cooking time is much less which frees up the ovens for the rolls and pies.

    Reply
    • November 16, 2021 at 9:59 am
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      Hi Sherry (Sam), oh my gosh, what a great idea!! I never thought of doing two smaller birds! Plus, the 4 wings and 4 legs!! I love this! Linda

      Reply
    • November 16, 2021 at 10:00 am
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      Hi Kay, oh, thank you for the link! The cooler idea would work too! I love this! Linda

      Reply
  • November 16, 2021 at 9:34 am
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    One of the things my mother would do is cook the gizzards, kidneys and heart in a pot of boiling water for the cat along with the neck, she loved the neck and would eat on it, the cat got the other stuff after it was cooked and cooled. According to our vet at the time, it was okay to feed the COOKED things for the cat. Yes he was a VERY spoiled and VERY much loved pet . Never give them raw or let the cat chew on the bones or neck. All I know is our cat lived to the ripe old age of almost 19. He unfortunately got tangled up in our neighbors car and we had to pass him over the rainbow bridge otherwise the vet said he might have lived even longer. The hubs and I cook our turkey and boil the potatoes the day before. He slices the turkey up, we add the “juices”to the pan, we put it in the fridge and heat the meat up to proper temp the next morning. That way we get the roaster and the big pots out of the way. Never had the turkey get dry and I’ve been doing it that way for over 30+ years

    Reply
    • November 16, 2021 at 10:03 am
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      Hi Kathy, oh, your cat story is the one ever. It’s so fun to spoil them, I can almost picture the cat “eating on the neck”! I’m so sorry your cat has passed on, that’s so hard!! It’s awesome to cook the day before and just enjoy the holiday with family and friends. Great tip! Linda

      Reply
  • November 16, 2021 at 10:39 am
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    Yep, actually it was the hubs that started us on doing the bird and potatoes the day before. Makes it easier to get the rest of the meal done before everyone gets here. Actually it was my Mom that would eat the neck. She and the cat would sit in the kitchen enjoying their “treat”. She spoiled him rotten, would even make him a soft boiled egg once in awhile.

    Reply
    • November 16, 2021 at 12:17 pm
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      Hi Kathy, oh my gosh, I just reread that!! Oh the soft-boiled egg, I love it! Great story, Linda

      Reply
  • November 16, 2021 at 11:12 am
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    We began to brine our turkey about 10 years ago. I boil 50% sugar with 50 % salt [we use about 1 cup each] in a saucepan with about 4 cups of water, and heat it until it boils. I add about 1/2 cup of variety WHOLE peppercorns, a cup up orange and a lemon and I throw in several herbs, like basil, mint, thyme, anything in your spice cabinet.
    I pour the saucepan over ice in a cooler, then fill the cooler with water,adding the unwrapped turkey [still frozen] and set it outside. If it is hot where you live, put it in the garage but be sure to add ice daily. We brine for about 2 days, packed in ice the whole time. I dump out the cooler in my garden and rinse off the turkey with the hose or into the garbage disposal. I place the turkey in a cooking bag [BREAST DOWN] then stuff in an onion cut in half and an orange and lemon cut in half and 1 stick of cold butter. Then bake…………YUM!!!!!!!!

    Reply
    • November 16, 2021 at 12:20 pm
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      Hi Daun, oh my gosh, I want to try this!! I use to put a stick of butter with an onion and some celery sticks. All those spices sound so good!! I bet your turkey dinners are fabulous! Thank you for sharing what you do! I LOVE it! Linda

      Reply
  • November 16, 2021 at 6:49 pm
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    My Mother-in-law would lay 4 to 6 thick cut bacon on the turkey she said as the bacon cooked it basted for her. the last 1/2 hour she took the bacon (VERY crispy at this point) off so the turkey would brown. She crumbled the bacon into the stuffing before it was served…it was sooo good! I miss my m-i-l she is the one who taught me some of the best cooking cheats ever! My Husband is the oldest of 6 kids you bet she knew quite a few tricks.

    Reply
    • November 17, 2021 at 9:54 am
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      Hi Hazel, oh my gosh, now that would be delicious!! BACON!!! Then add it to the stuffing, yummy!! Your MIL knew a lot of tricks!! Cooking from scratch is the best! Linda

      Reply

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