How to Cook a Thanksgiving Turkey

"Perfect Turkey Every Time"

How to Cook a Turkey

How to Cook a Perfect Turkey

How to Cook A Turkey CartoonIt took me 56 years to find out the secret of how to cook turkey! What if cooking turkey could be totally carefree? Why deep fry a turkey and have to worry about the safety hazards and all the mess and cleanup? Because cooking the perfect, juiciest, mouth watering Thanksgiving turkey is as easy as popping it in the oven and knowing with absolute certainty that at the exact time you plan your meal your turkey will be done. And your turkey will be the most tender, moist and succulent turkey you and your family and guests have ever tasted!
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Thanksgiving turkey is now the big hit at our house where before it was always the other great recipes on the table. Why? Because turkey is usually dry. Why? Because they're usually overcooked. Now you'll learn how to cook turkey using a slow cook method that will keep it moist and delicious.
Four Prerequisites for successfully cooking a turkey using the method I'm suggesting:

Number One: The temperature in your oven has to be accurate.
You might want to test your oven before the big day by simply preheating it to 250° and testing it with a cooking thermometer.

Number Two: Your turkey has been safely and totally thawed and cleaned. The only safe way to thaw a frozen turkey is to place it in the refrigerator. Other methods such as running cold water over it or placing it in a microwave oven are not safe because of the chance of bacterial growth and contamination. So, because of that risk I will only give you guidelines using the refrigerator method.
Time Required to Thaw a Turkey
8 to 12 lbs. 2 to 3 Days
13 to 16 lbs. 3 to 4 Days
17 to 20 lbs. 4 to 5 Days
21 to 24 lbs. 5 to 6 Days
Number Three: And this one is for the newest aspiring chefs in the audience... Be sure to remove the neck and giblets from the inside of the turkey! Don't laugh! People have done this.
Number Four: Know the actual weight of the turkey excluding the giblets and the ice many fresh turkeys have stuffed inside to keep them cold. Yes... sometimes you pay for a couple pounds of ice.
I now recommend limiting using this method for cooking turkey to turkeys of 20 lbs. or less. Click here to find out why. If you need more turkey, cook two.
Picture of Cooked Turkey
Small 11 lb. turkey cooked using this method using the Pyrex roasting dish. It was cooked uncovered, but I recommend covering the turkey. You can see the sprigs of fresh Rosemary and Thyme under the breast.
Picture of Sliced Turkey
You can see how the skin is crisp but tender and how "sealing" the turkey keeps the white meat unbelievably moist and tender.
How to cook a turkey. This is how you'll be cooking turkey from this day forward! No more fighting for the dark meat because the white meat is just as moist!

Note: I suggest not waiting until just before Thanksgiving to return to print the recipe. The volume of traffic on the web site makes it run extremely slow and usually crashes the website.

Remove the thawed turkey from the refigerator approximately 1 hour before your plan to begin cooking.
This gives the turkey time to reach room temperature. I always have a few reports each year that the turkey was not getting done on time. This may be the reason.
Oven Rack Position* Adjust the rack before heating the oven. The rack position is crucial. If the rack is too low, the bird will take longer to cook, place the rack too high and the bird will overcook. Use the middle rack for medium sized birds, one level lower for anything over 20 pounds. And test that your turkey... with the roasting pan... fits in the oven with the rack position.
* This tip was provided by Lucinda J. on 10/9/13. Thank you Lucinda for contributing to the success of everyone's turkey!
Select Bake and Preheat the oven to 475°F. This is not a typo! I will explain later.
Melt some butter. It doesn't take much. You just want enough to put a light coating on the breast.
Picture of Turkey with Skin Loosened from Breast
Now comes the part that some people find a bit gross. But it's essential! Gently separate the skin from the breast but don't remove it. You just want to be able to get your hand between the skin and the breast meat. Your goal is to rub that melted butter on the turkey breast between the breast skin and the meat. I up end the turkey slightly and pour the melted butter in and then rub it around. You might want to use a rubber glove. Don't butter the outside of the skin.
Picture showing spices between turkey breast and skin.
This part is optional. But I recommend putting some Rosemary and Thyme again between the breast skin and the meat. I've used fresh and dried and I can't really notice the difference. I wouldn't go overboard. Just use a little bit. If you think it needs a little more you can always add more the next time you cook a turkey.
Note: A professional cook suggested finely chopping the spices and whipping them in the butter that is spread between the skin and breast in the previous step above. It sounds like a great idea to me. Update 11/24/11... this works great!
Lightly Salt and Pepper all the skin on the outside. This will help make the skin crisp!
Don't place stuffing in the turkey! Stuffing plays havoc with cooking times and is a recognized health hazard. Cook your stuffing separately in a casserole dish and be safe.
Place the turkey in a roasting pan and put it in the oven preheated to 475°F for 20 minutes uncovered. I place the turkey breast up because it makes it easier for me to insert the thermometer. Many people argue that the breast meat is even more juicy by placing the turkey breast down. The choice is yours and it will come out great either way. Just be sure you get that thermometer into the thickest part of the breast when you test it (you'll find out more about testing to see if the turkey is done further down this page). You don't have to add any water. Our goal here is to "seal the bird" to help keep it juicy.
Reduce the heat to 250°F. This again is not a typo! Don't let anybody tell you that the temperature has to be higher for it to get done. The reason that turkey is so often very dry is that it's overcooked. We want to slow cook the turkey. You do not have to remove the turkey from the oven. Just reduce the heat. Don't open the oven door to reduce the heat. Let the heat come down on it's own. Click here to find out about concerns when slow-cooking a turkey.
Cook the turkey at 250°F for 20 additional minutes for each pound. No basting is necessary. You start counting the 20 minutes per pound immediately when you turn the oven down to 250°. You don't wait until the oven has cooled down to start the timing for the second phase.
You can either let the turkey uncovered or covered for the second slow cooking phase. The skin will get crispier if you uncover it. If you want to cover it wait about 15 minutes after reducing the heat and then put the lid on the roasting pan.

Note: Avoid opening the oven to "check the turkey" frequently.
Every time you open the oven you lose heat. This can drastically affect the cooking time. The best way to monitor the progress is with an electronic meat thermometer you'll read about below.
Click here if you have a Convection Oven.
Can I use aluminum foil to cover my turkey if I don't have a covered roasting pan?

Yes. But make absolutely sure the shiney side faces inward and the dull side faces outward.
Update: Matt, a professional chef, tells me it doesn't make any difference. Here's a link to Renolds Wrap Foil verifying what Matt says. You might want to just play it safe and have the dull side face out.
Note: Some people including myself have found that at least some fresh turkeys cook much faster than store bought turkeys because they are lean and contain no additives. If you have a fresh turkey, be sure to monitor the temperature about 2/3 of the way through the calculated 250°F cooking time using a meat thermometer.
If it does get done a lot faster you can always keep it warm. But you don't want to overcook the turkey.
Many variables come into play when cooking a turkey. The only way to be absolutely sure that your turkey is fully cooked is to use a quality meat thermometer. Interior breast meat should be 170°F and 180°F for thigh meat. Using a meat thermometer is particularly important if you are roasting the turkey at high elevations since it will take longer but there is no rule of thumb to predict how much longer.

***I RECOMMEND USING AN ELECTRONIC MEAT THERMOMETER you would insert in the breast or thigh after the oven has cooled to 250°. You just leave it in the turkey because it's designed to withstand the heat in the oven. The actual thermometer just sits on your counter next to the stove. Check it regularly after half way through the cooking time just to make sure the turkey doesn't get done sooner than expected and, conversely, to make sure the bird is fully cooked. My thermometer actually has an alarm that sounds when the predetermined cooking temperature is reashed. It also has anb alarm when the pre entered cooking time has elapsed. Investing in an electronic meat thermometer is money well spent.
Remove the turkey from the oven and allow it to rest uncovered for at least 20 minutes before carving it. This allows the juices to redistribute themselves inside the turkey making the turkey even more juicy, delicious, and easier to carve.

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Here's my own turkey I cooked using this method for Thanksgiving, 2012.
It's actually a 28 lb. turkey which is much bigger than I recommend. I've never had a problem cooking large turkeys, but I want to keep everyone safe. I also know the exact history of how fresh my turkeys are and how they have been refrigerated.
Thanksgiving Turkey, 2012
Our Thanksgiving Turkey