How to Cook the Most Tender, Juiciest, and Delicious Thanksgiving Turkey

How to Cook A Turkey CartoonIt took me 56 years to find the secret to cooking 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?

That's because cooking the perfect, juiciest, mouth-watering Thanksgiving turkey is as easy as popping it in the oven and knowing with absolute certainty that your turkey will be the most tender, moist, and delicious turkey you, your family, and guests have ever tasted!

My Thanksgiving TurkeyThe turkey is now the big hit at our house on Thanksgiving. Before, it was always the other great recipes on the table. Why? Because turkey is usually dry. And why was it dry? Because I, like most people, overcooked it! Now you'll learn how to cook a turkey using a slow cook method that will keep it super moist and incredibly delicious.
Picture of Cooked Turkey
Small 11 lb. turkey cooked using this method using the Pyrex roasting dish. It was cooked uncovered. You can see the sprigs of fresh Rosemary and Thyme under the breast.
Picture of Sliced Turkey
If you think this turkey breast looks moist and delicious, you're absolutely right!

Seven Crucial First Steps for Success Slow-Cooking Turkey

Number One: Come to terms with the fact that once you close the oven door, you won't open it again until the cooking time is complete. There's no basting, and no peeking to see how it's going. Just let it alone.
Number Two: See Step One. That's how important it is. A lot of people just can't do it.
Number Three: It's critical that the temperature in your oven is accurate.
Here's a link that will explain how you can test your oven's accuracy.
Number Four: 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
These are rough guidelines to give you an idea of how long it will take the turkey to thaw.
A lot depends on how cold your refrigerator is set and on what rack you put the turkey. A lower the rack will take more time to thaw.

It's absolutely critical that the turkey is completely thawed to be successful using a low-temperature, slow-bake recipe. Here's a helpful link that will show you how to be certain that your turkey is totally thawed. This website also has ways to cook a partially frozen turkey. It's good to have a backup plan.
DO NOT USE MY SLOW COOK RECIPE IF YOUR TURKEY IS STILL FROZEN!

Suggestion: Get a fresh, never-frozen turkey and this potential complication is eliminated.
Number Five: 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 Six: 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.
Number Seven: Make sure the turkey fits in your roasting pan including the lid if you plan to cook it covered. Decide which oven rack position you're going to use.
I now recommend limiting using this method for cooking turkey to turkeys of 20 lbs. or less.

Let's Get Started Cooking Your Perfect Thanksgiving 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 refrigerator approximately 1 hour before your plan to begin cooking.
Removing your turkey from the refrigerator gives it time to reach, or at least come closer to, room temperature. I always have a few reports each year that the turkey was not getting done on time. Not being at room temperature before placing the turkey in the oven 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, in the roasting pan with the lid on if you intend to cook it covered, fits in the oven with the rack position you chose.
* 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'll explain later.

Melt some butter. It doesn't take much. You just want enough to put a light coating on the breast meat.

Turkey with Skin Loosened from Breast
Peek-A-Boo!
Disgusted Turkey

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.


Showing spices between turkey breast and skin.
Turkey Spices
This part is optional. However, 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 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 you 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.

"To cover, or not to cover, that is the question!"

Sounds like something William Shakespeare would have said cooking his turkey. If the turkey is

  • uncovered, the skin will be darker and more crisp; and
  • covered, will less dark and not as crisp.

Here's my advice. Pick one and stick with it. The meat will be moist and delicious either way.

Put the turkey in the oven, close the oven door, and don't open it up again until the cooking time is completed. That's because one the main reasons people have problems with under cooked turkey using this slow cook recipe is because they open the oven door during the cooking process.

Place the turkey in a roasting pan and put it in the oven preheated to 475°F for 20 minutes. I place the turkey breast up because it makes it easier for me to insert the thermometer later on. 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. 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.

Don't 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.

Critical Note: Avoid opening the oven to "check on the turkey"! This is a tough one for most people because you're worried. However, every time you open the oven you lose heat. And it can take a long time to reheat when it's set to a low temperature. This can drastically affect the slow-cook cooking time.

The best way to monitor the progress is with an electronic meat thermometer you'll read about below. However, I no longer recommend that you use a thermometer during the cooking process. That's because most electronic thermometers can't withstand the initial 475° temperature. So, when you open the oven to insert the thermometer probe, which can take some time until you think you have it placed correctly, you interrupt the slow cooking process.

For most people, and I know this is extremely hard to do, just follow the cooking instructions and let it alone keeping the oven door shut the entire time. You would rather sacrifice the presentation and have the meat falling off the bones than having a turkey that's not done with family and guests waiting to eat.

Test the temperature of the breast and thighs when the cooking time is complete. Your turkey will be perfect if

  • the turkey was completely thawed;
  • brought to (or close to) room temperature before being placed in the oven;
  • your oven temperature is accurate; and
  • you're not cooking at high altitudes.
Some people lessen their worries by planning the finish time 1 hour before you plan to sit down to eat to give yourself some wiggle room just in case it's not done.

Find out about cooking turkey with a convection oven.

Important!
Can I use aluminum foil to cover my turkey if I don't have a covered roasting pan?

Yes. But make absolutely sure the shiny side faces inward and the dull side faces outward.
Update: Matt, a professional chef, tells me it doesn't make any difference.

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.

Remove the turkey from the oven and allow it to rest uncovered for at least 20 minutes before carving it. The resting time allows the juices to redistribute themselves inside the turkey making the turkey, even more, juicy, delicious, and easier to carve.

Helpful Question About Slow-Roasting a Turkey

I have read where slow-cooking a turkey can be dangerous. Is this true?
I researched it on the Internet and saw that some slow-roasting methods use temperatures as low as 190° to 200°. The method I've been using slow cooks the turkey at 250°. I did some further research and found that the USDA recommends that poultry not be cooked below 325°. So the method is somewhere in the middle. The concern is that, if the turkey cooks too slowly, toxins might develop in the turkey before it has had a chance to heat to the proper temperature. It follows then that the larger the turkey, the greater the risk.

I found another website that recommended not slow-cooking a turkey even if you have done so successfully many times before. Again they were talking about slow-cooking at the very low temperatures, not at 250°. I suppose that's possible because you don't know the history of your turkey. If processors mishandled the turkey there could be a pre existing problem that I suppose could become a big problem in the slow-cooking process.

None of these websites address the method I recommend using a higher temperature. No one has reported a problem cooking any size turkey using my method. Never-the-less I now recommend that you use this method for smaller birds 20 lbs or less just in case. It doesn't matter how great the turkey gets if there's even the slightest chance of a problem. It also follows that the smaller the turkey, the safer this method is if the problem exists at all.
Didn't you used to recommend continuously monitoring the temperature using an electronic thermometer?

I did. However, I don't anymore because most electronic oven thermometers can't withstand the initial 475° temperature. Therefore, you have to open up the oven to insert it. It's always a problem when you open the oven door using the slow cook recipe. It's an even bigger problem when people open up the door when the temperature is falling from 475° to 250°.

That's because that period of time while the temperature is dropping is critical, and interrupting that process can have a huge impact on the turkey getting done on time. I think opening up the oven door during the cooking process and starting out with a turkey that's not entirely thawed are the two biggest causes for the Epic Turkey Disasters using this, or any, slow cook method for cooking a turkey.

You mention cooking the turkey in a covered roasting pan but show pictures roasting the turkey uncovered. Which way is correct?
I recommend keeping the turkey covered because I prefer when the skin does not become too crisp. As the prior statement implies, cooking the turkey uncovered will make the skin more crisp.
The turkey is too large to fit in my roasting pan to allow me to cover it with the lid. Can I use aluminum foil to cover the turkey? Will this affect the cooking time?

You can cover it with aluminum foil. However, I do think it would affect the cooking time. It's not necessary when you use a slow cook method for cooking a turkey. So I don't recommend it because there are enough variables that I worry about when I recommend a method for cooking the turkey.

  • Has the person fully thawed the turkey.
  • Is the temperature accurate in the oven used to cook the turkey.
The fewer the variables, the better I sleep. I  want everyone's Thanksgiving to be perfect.
What about stuffing? You don't mention it. Does this affect cooking time?
I do not recommend that you stuff the turkey. There are huge health considerations when you cook a stuffed turkey. I stopped stuffing my turkeys years ago when the problems came to light. The cooking times on the website are for turkeys that you do not stuff.
I don't have a big roasting pan. Will this method work if I use a disposable aluminum pan?
I have never used a disposable aluminum pan. But some of my website visitors have reported that they used them and everything was fine.
Does a roasting bag affect the cooking time?
I never used a bag. But the following feedback was received from a person who did, and it significantly reduced the cooking time. I don't have any precise times to offer you. Here is the person's comment...
 
"I used your method last night, which is GREAT BTW, however, after the first 20 minutes, I put the turkey in a bag. I set the timer, and I have a digital meat thermometer, and I was surprised to hear it go off nearly an hour before the timer was supposed to go off. I also have an oven thermometer and made sure it stayed at the correct temperature the whole time. So, I would imagine using aluminum foil as some people have asked would reduce cooking time since the bag GREATLY reduced it. We were able to cook a 13 lb turkey on a weeknight and still get some sleep! It was done through and through and juicy as can be. I'm eating some of the breast meat right now, and the rosemary improved the flavor. Thanks again!" Dylan H., 12/9/08
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