How To Bake A Thanksgiving Turkey

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Cooking a turkey is easier than you think. Use this simple step-by-step guide to cooking turkeys from 10 to 29 pounds, and check out an alternative slow cooking method perfect for sealing in delicious juices. Just pick up these basic ingredients and tools and you're ready to cook!

Tools & Ingredients Needed For Baking A Turkey

  • Large Roasting Pan
  • Meat Thermometer
  • Injector
  • Basting Brush
  • Baster
  • Metal Turkey Leg Pins
  • Aluminum Foil
  • One to four sticks of butter
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Paprika

How To Bake A Turkey For Thanksgiving  

 

Traditional Turkey Cooking Times, Per Pound

Traditional cooking times are generally reliable, and are a great way to estimate time and temperature for anyone new to cooking turkeys. Always check the label on your turkey for specific recommendations.

  • For turkeys between 10 and 18 pounds: Cook for 3 to 3.5 hours at 350 degrees F
  • For turkeys between 18 and 22 pounds: Cook for 3.5 to 4 hours at 350 degrees F
  • For turkeys between 12 and 24 pounds: Cook for 4 to 4.5 hours at 350 degrees F
  • For turkeys between 24 and 29 pounds: Cook for 4.5 to 5 hours at 350 degrees F

Some cooks prefer a lower temperature for a longer time to help retain moisture within the turkey. Do not set the oven below 250 degrees F, and always cook the turkey until it has reached an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees F. For slow roasting instructions, see the bottom of this article. 

Preparation

Preparing your turkey for Thanksgiving dinner will vary based on the type of turkey you are using.

Defrosting The Turkey

  • Frozen: For frozen turkeys, place the turkey in the refrigerator at least one day before thanksgiving. The larger the bird, the longer it will take to defrost. If the turkey has not defrosted by the morning of thanksgiving, set it in the sink, and run warm water over it until thawed. Do not use extremely hot water, as this can cause dramatic temperature changes across different parts of the turkey, and if hot enough, even begin to cook it.
  • Not Previously Frozen: Follow the same defrosting instructions as frozen turkeys, though expect the bird to thaw several hours to one day sooner.
  • What's the difference between these types of turkeys? See The Different Types Of Turkey.

How To Clean A Turkey

Always have a freshly cleaned work area in the kitchen for your turkey. Cover countertops with paper towels, tin foil or large, flat pans to keep surfaces from coming in contact with the turkey.

  • Always remember to remove the head and internal organs from inside the turkey! Many turkeys are sold with small plastic bags inside them, containing the bird's head and organs. Do not cook the turkey with these plastic bags inside. Be sure to check both ends of the turkey, as two separate bags may be included.
  • Cover the bottom of your sink with a large plate or pan, and set the turkey down. Quickly run warm water over the turkey to remove any residue from packaging or bags.
  • Place the turkey in the large roasting pan you will be using, and set on the counter.

Dressing & Basting A Turkey

Maintaining moisture in your turkey can be heavily influenced by the amount of fluids you use during baking. Basting (using a baster and/or brush to pour/paint juices over the turkey) and injection are a simple way to ensure your turkey comes out juicy.

  • Depending on your personal preferences, use one to four sticks of butter to prepare the turkey for baking. While the calories do increase with more butter, so does the flavor and juiciness.
  1. Cut each stick of butter into pats (thin slices).
  2. Carefully lifting up the skin on the back of the turkey, slide two to eight pats of butter under the skin, on top of the meat. Separate the pats by at least one inch to ensure the body of the turkey is equally covered.
  3. Melt several pats of butter in the microwave, and pour into the meat injector.
  4. Using the injector like a syringe, inject the turkey with the melted butter. Push down slowly so butter does not shoot back out the hole created by the injector.
  5. Sprinkle any herbs or seasonings you prefer on the turkey, including salt and pepper.
  6. Pin the wings to the side of the turkey to prevent from cooking faster than the rest of the body.
  7. Despite the well known tradition, do not place stuffing inside the turkey. The inner cavity of the turkey can easily harbor bacteria that may not be killed by the oven's heat if trapped inside stuffing, inside the turkey. Cooking your stuffing separately is always the safer way to prepare it.
  8. Now your turkey is ready to cook! Select the time and temperature based on your turkey's weight. 

How To Bake A Turkey For Thanksgiving

Turkey Cooking Tips

Cooking your turkey requires patience and keeping an eye on temperature and moisture. While you will be busy with other Thanksgiving food preparation, always check your turkey at least once an hour. Do not leave the oven door open while you examine the turkey, as heat can easily escape and affect cooking time.

  • Baste the turkey at least once per hour to maintain moisture.
  • Keep the turkey covered until the last 30 minutes with a sheet of aluminum foil to retain moisture.
  • Always check the internal temperature of the turkey before serving. It should be at least 165 degrees F, and up to 180 degrees F.
  • Do not allow the meat thermometer to touch bone when measuring temperatures. Bones will be much hotter than meat, giving an inaccurate measurement.
  • When the turkey is nearly done, rub a small amount of paprika on the skin for a dark golden brown color.
  • Once the turkey is thoroughly cooked, remove from the oven and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes. This will help the meat retain moisture when it is sliced.

Alternative Methods: Slow Cooking A Turkey

As suggested, slower cooking times at lower temperatures may help retain moisture. For a crispy skin with juicy meat, try this alternative cooking method from howtocookathanksgivingturkey.com:

  • Prepare the turkey normally.
  • Set the oven to 475 degrees F.
  • Cook the turkey at 475 degrees for 20 minutes. The quick, extreme heat will brown and crisp the skin without overcooking the meat.
  • Lower the oven temperature to 250 degrees F and continue to bake for another 20 minutes for every pound. Example: a 10-pound turkey will bake at 250 degrees for approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes.
  • Note that fresh turkeys may cook faster than frozen, store bought turkeys. Monitor the temperature at least once per hour to prevent overcooking.

How To Bake A Turkey For Thanksgiving

Last Updated: October 18, 2012
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About Alexandra Kerr Through Ideal Home Garden, Alexandra covers topics ranging from interior design to home improvement, gardening and cuisine. Having a passion for cooking and entertaining in her own life, she hopes to communicate her love of home design and decorating with her readers. 

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