How Long to Cook a Turkey Depends on More Than Just Size and Oven Temperature

It's one of the most asked Thanksgiving cooking questions.

Lemon-herb turkey with bay butter and gravy recipe
Photo: Paola + Murray

When you've got potatoes to mash and green beans to cook, the last thing you want to stress about is when the Thanksgiving turkey will be ready. After all, whether you're cooking an entire bird or just a breast, you need to plan ahead to ensure it's done in time. You'll need to know how to estimate turkey cooking times based on size, cooking method, and whether or not you're stuffing it.

How Long Does It Take for Turkey to Cook in the Oven?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), whole turkeys should be roasted at a minimum temperature of 325 F. But when it comes to cooking time, there are variables. In general, unstuffed turkey takes about 12 to 13 minutes per pound to cook, says Shawn Matijevich, lead chef of online culinary arts and food operations at the Institute of Culinary Education. This means an 8-pound turkey can take about two hours, while a 24-pound turkey can take five hours or more. However, there are other factors that can affect cooking time, so you shouldn't go by the turkey's weight alone. According to Matijevich, this includes your oven, the bird's meat-to-bone ratio, and the starting temperature of the turkey when it first enters the oven.

If you are cooking a previously frozen turkey, it's important to thaw it safely and thoroughly first. This will ensure your bird cooks evenly and within its estimated time range. In the refrigerator, turkey can take 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds to thaw, according to the USDA. Leave the bird in the wrapping it came in and put it in a tray to catch any drippings or juices. Alternatively, when submerged in cold water, frozen turkey can take 30 minutes per pound to thaw, but you'll need to change the water every 30 minutes or so.

Regardless of how long the USDA or your recipe suggests for cooking, the best way to know your bird is done is to use a meat thermometer. The turkey is safe to eat when it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F in the thickest area of the breast and the innermost part of the thigh. "If you don't want to be surprised by a dry or raw inside when you carve the turkey, [use] a thermometer," says Matijevich.

How Long to Cook a Turkey With Stuffing

Generally, it's not recommended to stuff a turkey before cooking it. Compared to turkey, stuffing needs more time to reach the safe minimum internal temperature of 165 F, which is essential for killing harmful germs. This can lead to a perfect turkey and undercooked stuffing, presenting a potential food safety risk. For this reason, we agree with the USDA and recommend cooking your stuffing outside of the bird in its own casserole dish.

If you still want to stuff your turkey, there are a few things to consider. A stuffed turkey takes longer to cook, so you'll need to extend your cooking time. It's also imperative to use a thermometer and check that the center of the stuffing is 165 F to ensure it's safe to eat. According to the USDA, this can be more difficult to do with larger birds, which is worth keeping in mind.

Cooking Time for Turkey Breast

If you're cooking for a smaller crowd, turkey breast is an excellent option. A 2- to 3-pound half-breast takes just 50 to 60 minutes to roast, while a 4- to 5-pound whole breast can take about two hours. For larger 8-pound breasts, you'll need two to three hours or longer, depending on whether or not it is stuffed.

Turkey Roasting Times

This table will give you an idea of how long different sizes of turkey take to roast at 325 F, but rely on your recipe and your meat thermometer to guide you.

Type Size Unstuffed Time Stuffed Time
Turkey breast, half 2-3 pounds 50-60 minutes --
Turkey breast, whole 4-5 pounds 1.5-2.25 hours --
Turkey breast, whole 6-8 pounds 2.25-3.25 hours --
Whole turkey 8-12 pounds 2.25-3 hours 3-3.5 hours
Whole turkey 12-14 pounds 3-3.25 hours 3.5-4 hours
Whole turkey 14-18 pounds 3.75-4.25 hours 4-4.25 hours
Whole turkey 18-20 pounds 4.25-4.5 hours 4.25-4.75 hours
Whole turkey 20-24 pounds 4.25-5 hours 4.75-5.25 hours

Source: USDA

Turkey Cooking Times for Smoking and Deep Frying

If you'd like to smoke a turkey, the bird will take about 15 minutes per pound to cook, says Matijevich. There are several factors that can affect this time frame, including the outdoor temperature, size of your smoker, and meat-to-bone ratio of your bird, he adds. As for deep frying? An unstuffed turkey takes about three to four minutes per pound when using this method, according to Matijevich. "The biggest factor here is [whether or not] the bird is properly thawed," he says.

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