Here are my guidelines for cooking a roast turkey. These guidelines apply equally well to a turkey of any
size, or a large roasting chicken of over 5 pounds or so. As with all my traditional recipes, I learned all this
from my mother. Like Mom, I don’t marinate, grill or deep fry my turkey, although those methods are getting
more popular every year. I always stuff my turkey because the stuffing I think that is half the fun of having a
roast turkey dinner.
First, the question of: Fresh or frozen? For
me this comes down to whether I have time to
thaw a frozen turkey or not. If I have time I always
choose frozen since they are cheaper and I cannot
taste the difference. Frozen turkeys often have
broth injected into them so that they might come
out juicier, at the price of paying turkey prices for
the extra weight of the broth.
Portions: There are lots of complicated
formulas to help you calculate how large a turkey
to buy, depending on how many people you need to serve. They usually calculate at 1 to 1 ½ pounds of turkey
per person. But I don’t pay any attention to these formulas. I just get the biggest turkey I can buy because I
always want a lot of leftovers that I can either freeze or else just serve in a day or two.
Thawing: A frozen turkey needs several days to thaw in the refrigerator. Be sure to put it in the fridge on a
large platter to catch any leaks. You can allow about 1 day of thawing for every 4 pound of turkey that you
have. Do not thaw the turkey outside of the fridge because that is an invitation for nasty bacteria to grow. A
fresh turkey needs to be cooked by the time of its expiration date. You have about 3-4 days to cook a thawed
Preparation: I do all of this just before cooking, in a clean sink because of the liquids that will spill out.
Remove all of the covering from the turkey. You may want to cut around the label that has the cooking times
on it and set it aside. Look inside the turkey and remove the neck and giblets. Look carefully in both ends of
the turkey for all of the giblets, some of which will be contained in a small paper bag. Many novice cooks
forget this step and end up cooking the turkey with the bag left inside the neck cavity. Set the neck and giblets
aside if you want to use them for the gravy LINK, otherwise discard them. Also remove the truss in the rear of
the turkey which is holding the legs together. This can be difficult, especially with the more inexpensive turkey
brands which may use an inexpensive truss. The truss can be made of metal or plastic and needs to be
removed. Usually it needs to be pinched together so that it can be pulled out. I have been known to use a pair
of pliers to get this done.
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees after you remove (while they are cool) any extra oven racks that will be
in the way if you have a big bird. Wash the turkey inside and out with salt water. I just pour salt over and
inside the turkey and rinse. Then stuff the turkey using stuffing LINK that you have prepared. Resist the
temptation to stuff the turkey the night before because that is another invitation for nasty bacteria to grow. I fill
the turkey cavity completely with stuffing, allowing some room because the stuffing will expand. Don’t forget to
stuff the neck cavity. Both front and rear cavities need to be secured by sticking poultry pins (get these at a
grocery store) through flaps of turkey skin and closing off the cavities. Otherwise some stuffing will come
spilling out as the turkey cooks and the stuffing expands. I also use a couple of poultry pins to pin up the wings
to the body for appearance’s sake. Otherwise when they cook the wings can fall away or fall off and look kind
of silly when you remove the turkey from the pan.
Wash your hands and utensils frequently during this whole process, basically any time you or your utensils
have had contact with raw turkey. This is for food safety reasons, to avoid bacterial contamination.
I use my mother’s big dark enameled roasting pan for my turkey, uncovered. A dark pan shortens cooking
time slightly and has a tendency to brown the turkey faster. For a big turkey, I lay a turkey lifter into the pan
and then spray the whole inside of the pan and the lifter with cooking spray. You can get a turkey lifter at most
grocery stores to make it easy to lift out the heavy turkey when it is done. They are like little metal chains,
sometimes with a small metal platform to be placed in the middle of the pan. Don’t use the free lifters that may
come with the turkey and are made of string. They are too flimsy for me. When the oven is ready – set the
turkey in to cook.
Within the first hour of cooking, there will be enough juices collected in the pan to baste using a turkey
baster. Take the turkey out of the oven and set it on the stove briefly. Tilt the pan to one end so the juices roll
to one end and suck them into the baster then release them over the turkey to keep the all of the skin moist.
Then get the turkey back in the oven. After the first hour you can do this every half hour or so while the turkey
Cooking Times – I use the little chart that comes with the turkey. Cooking times are a little longer with a
stuffed turkey. Here is a copy of one chart that I have:
7 to 9
2 – 2 ½
2 ¼ - 2 ¾
9 to 18
2 ½ - 3
2 ¾ - 3 ½
18 to 22
3 ½ - 4
4 ½ - 5
22 to 24
4 – 4 ½
5 – 5 ½
24 to 30
4 ½ - 5
5 ½ - 6 ¼
White meat cooks faster than dark meat so it is nearly impossible to cook the perfect turkey. If you cook it
too long, the white meat will be tough and stringy. If you undercook it, the white meat will be tender and juicy
but the dark meat will be red and somewhat raw, especially near the highest thigh joint.
The solution is to try to cook it just right, not too tough for the white meat and just enough to not have any
raw dark meat. If you use a meat thermometer that means you will shoot for 180 degrees deep in the thigh,
and 165 degrees in the middle of the stuffing.
If you do not use a thermometer (I don’t), here is what you can do. First, when you hold the end of one of
the drumsticks, you can move the leg almost freely. Try moving it before you put the turkey in the oven so you
will have an idea of how it starts out in comparison. Second, when you prick the breast deeply, the juices
should run out clear and not pink. When you prick the thigh, the juices there should also run clear and not
Keep an eye on the color of the turkey skin. It will probably begin to turn brown too much in the last hour
and a half or so of cooking. If this happens to you, take a large sheet of aluminum foil and crease it lightly
down the middle and float it over the turkey like a small tent. This will keep the oven heat from turning the skin
excessively brown during the last hour and a half or so of cooking.
Ok once it is done, now it is time to take the turkey out of the oven for good. Place the turkey pan on the
stove and make sure that the turkey is not sticking to the pan. I use a large serving fork and a large wok
spatula to release the turkey from the pan. If you are using a metal turkey lifter, be careful as the metal chain
of the lifter will be very hot. Transfer the turkey from the pan to a serving platter and let it cool for 15 minutes or
so while you make final preparations for the gravy (LINK) and the other side dishes.
After 15 minutes of cooling, the turkey is ready to carve. Find all of the poultry pins and remove them (be
careful, they are metal and may still be hot). Soak them in a cup of water so that they are easy to clean later
on. Spoon out the stuffing into a serving bowl and then carve the turkey. Start the carving by separating the
leg and thigh from one side, then separate the leg from the thigh at the joint. To carve the breast meat, start
with a horizontal cut along the bottom of either the right or left breast and then make slices of breast meat that
finish along that horizontal cut. This is really hard to describe so check out the web for instructional photos and
videos that show you how to carve.
Now, for the leftovers. After your dinner, try to take all of the meat off of the bones before a couple of
hours go by, to prevent the growth of nasty bacteria. Store and/or freeze meat, gravy and stuffing in separate
containers because they can still contaminate each other even after they have been cooked. I don’t freeze
cranberry sauce or pies, but both leftover turkey and stuffing freeze well. Believe it or not, gravy freezes ok
too. You can enjoy your big turkey dinner over and over again!
How to Roast a Turkey or Chicken