Our Step-by-Step Guide to Cooking Turkey for Thanksgiving

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turkey cover image november 2017
Louise Hagger

At the center of every Thanksgiving celebration is a showstopping roast turkey. From brining to carving, preparing turkey for Thanksgiving is a time-consuming process, and mastering each step is important if your goal is to serve the very best bird. Here's everything you need to know for turkey success, including how to choose the right size turkey based on the number of guests you're serving; how to defrost a frozen turkey; how to clean a turkey; how to brine a turkey; and how to stuff a turkey.

When handling raw turkey, the risk of bacteria growth is high so be sure to practice food safety in the kitchen. Always thoroughly wash your hands with warm water and soap after touching raw turkey (or any raw meat) and disinfect areas that may have come in contact with the raw turkey.

To cook a moist, flavorful Thanksgiving turkey, take your bird out of the refrigerator and let it sit for about an hour before roasting. This will allow the meat to begin to come to room temperature, which will help stop it from drying out when roasting. Next, blot the turkey with a paper towel to remove any excess moisture, which allows the turkey to develop a gorgeous golden brown skin. Another way to achieve that perfect color? Brush softened butter or extra-virgin olive oil on the skin of the turkey, both of which add flavor, too. Once it's done, you'll want to be prepared for the carving. To do so, use a very sharp boning knife and carving fork for precise cuts.

Whether you're wondering how to stuff a turkey (and if it's even safe to do so) or what to do with all of those turkey leftovers, we've got you covered with this essential step-by-step guide to cooking a spectacular roast. Happy Thanksgiving!

01 of 09

Choosing the Right Size Turkey

turkey with garnish of wheat and berries
Paola + Murray

When choosing a turkey to serve on Thanksgiving, figure 1 1/2 pounds per person. If you are serving 10 people on Thanksgiving, choose a bird that is 15 to 20 pounds. Smaller birds that weigh less than 12 pounds have a smaller meat-to-bone ratio, so figure two pounds per person. It's always best to have more turkey than not enough in case unexpected guests show up or if someone is particularly hungry. Best of all, you'll be able to save the rest for leftovers!

02 of 09

How to Defrost Frozen Turkey

raw turkey in pan

To prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, thaw frozen turkey in the refrigerator for three to five days, depending on the size of your bird. Allow a full day of defrosting for every four pounds of turkey (for a 15 pound turkey, plan to start defrosting it mid to late day on Sunday). Place the turkey, breast side up, in its original wrapper, on a rimmed baking sheet. Place the sheet on the bottom shelf, and thoroughly disinfect the shelf once the turkey is removed from the refrigerator.

03 of 09

Cleaning the Turkey

turkey prep stuffing tucking wings
Roland Bello

Before cooking the turkey, remove the giblets and save them for gravy stock. Next, thoroughly dry the turkey's cavity and skin with paper towels (this helps create a crispy, golden skin). Contrary to popular belief, you should never wash raw poultry—doing so could cause cross-contamination.

04 of 09

Wet Versus Dry Brined Turkey

brining a turkey in white pot

Brining a turkey before roasting it is a great way to build flavor. Dry brining is a quicker method than wet brining with less clean-up required. Rub your bird with six tablespoons of kosher salt (two tablespoons inside the turkey cavity and four tablespoons on the outside). Let the seasoned turkey sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours, uncovered, then rinse.

Wet brining is a way to add a variety of earthy, citrusy flavors to your turkey. Use a combination of buttermilk and water for the wet brine, which keeps the turkey tender and naturally flavorful, then add in aromatics such as peppercorns, citrus slices, fresh thyme, fresh rosemary, bay leaves, and mustard seeds. Place the thawed turkey in the brine to soak for 24 hours before roasting.

05 of 09

Choosing a Roasting Pan

Turkey in roasting pan on table for holiday meal
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

If you make turkey and other roasted meats frequently, consider investing in a sturdy stainless steel pan that will last a lifetime. Our favorite is the All-Clad Stainless-Steel Roasting Pan with Rack. Heavy stainless steel performs much better than lightweight aluminum, and it distributes heat more evenly. It also won't sag under the weight of a big roast, like the flimsy aluminum pans found in grocery stores. Look for a rectangular pan just big enough to fit your turkey, with medium-height sides (about three inches) and strong handles you can rely on. Avoid choosing a pan with a nonstick surface, which will prevent the turkey juices from browning and caramelizing.

06 of 09

How to Roast a Turkey

Marcus Nilsson

For a 15- to 20-pound turkey, start by roasting it in the oven at 425 degrees for 30 minutes. This initial step is crucial for developing a golden brown skin. Baste the turkey every 30 minutes with a combination of melted butter and white wine. Then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and cook for about two to two and half hours, or until the internal temperature of the turkey thigh (the thickest part of the bird) reaches 165 degrees.

  • The Golden Rules for Roasting a Turkey
07 of 09

Is Stuffing a Turkey Safe?

stuffing turkey
Roland Bello

Cooking stuffing inside a turkey makes it more flavorful and moist, but you run the risk of exposure to bacteria. Instead, cook the stuffing in a separate buttered casserole dish and baste the stuffing occasionally with turkey juices. If you do stuff the bird, make sure to do it right before the turkey goes in the oven, not ahead of time.

08 of 09

Turkey Stuffing Basics

test kitchen favorite stuff
Julia Gartland

Stuff the turkey just before roasting to prevent unwanted bacteria growth. The stuffing will expand as it bakes, so fill the turkey's cavity loosely. This also allows the stuffing to cook more evenly and keeps it from becoming too dense. A 12- to 15-pound turkey needs about 10 cups of stuffing; a 15- to 20-pound bird can hold up to 12 cups. To test doneness before serving, insert an instant-read thermometer in the center of the stuffing; it should read 165 degrees when cooked through.

09 of 09

What to Do with Thanksgiving Leftovers

leftover turkey curry
Julia Gartland

Transform Thanksgiving leftovers into flavorful, inspired dishes. Sliced turkey is the main ingredient in Turkey Breakfast Tacos or Turkey Curry. Use turkey bones as the base for a delicious turkey stock, which can be frozen for up to four months and used in place of chicken stock in most recipes.

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