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The Essential Numbers: A Guide to Times and Temps for Cooking Your Bird

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Choosing whether you want to deep fry, roast, or braise your turkey is the easy part. Once you're actually cooking it though, you can suddenly feel like you're back in school, about to take a math quiz you didn't study for: If one turkey is running across the farm at 10 mph and another turkey who escaped the pen 5 minutes later is running at 15 mph, when will the second turkey pass the first turkey? 

Okay, maybe not that exact type of number problem. But every year we do see questions come up on the Hotline along the lines of: "If my turkey weighs X pounds, how long do I need to cook at at Y° F?" Trying to figure out that kind of puzzle on your own is likely to put you in a fowl mood—luckily our community is here to help:

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You're golden.
You're golden. Photo by James Ransom

The Magic Numbers

  • SeaJambon goes with the formula of cooking the bird at 325° F and planning on 20 minutes per pound.
  • Monita advises starting the turkey at 400° F for 30 minutes, and then lowering the temperature to 325° F for the remainder of the cooking time.
  • ChefOno reminds us that roasting times depend on a number of factors, so timing based on minutes per pound are just guidelines. The turkey's internal temperature is what really matters: "The targets after resting are 165° F for breast and 175° F for the thigh. If you're using a calibrated instant-read thermometer, you can pull the bird at 160° F. If you're using a 'meat' thermometer, pull it at 165° F."
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For more advice, here's how some people we trust go about it:

The Pros Propose

  • Steven Raichlen always smoke-roasts his bird on the grill. He plans on a 12-pound bird taking 2 1/2 to 3 hours to cook at 350° F.
  • Michael Ruhlman uses a roast/braise method to cook his turkey. He heats the oven to 425 to 450° F, puts the turkey in a roasting pan with aromatics and stock, and then lowers the heat to 350° F when putting the turkey in the oven. He says: "Roast until a thermometer in the fattest part of the breast, just above the wing joint, reads 155 to 160° F." At that point, he takes the turkey out of the oven, cuts off the legs (and wings, if desired) and returns them to the roasting pan, then simmers them on the stovetop until tender, while the rest of the bird rests.
  • There are, of course, other essential numbers to know beyond turkey temps. If you're using your sous vide machine this Thanksgiving, The Modernist Cuisine Team shares the temperatures to pay attention to when cooling and reheating sous vide: "Leftovers should be quickly cooled to inhibit bacterial growth and to preserve flavor and juiciness. The best, and safest, way to cool food is to dunk vacuum-sealed sous vide bags in a sink or bowl of ice water, then store (still sealed) in your freezer or the enclosed drawers at the bottom of your fridge. Ready to reheat? Simply put your bags of leftovers into a water bath and let them gently reheat. Most food should be reheated to 140° F (60° C), though red meat should be reheated to its original cooking temperature. Avoid reheating food at temperatures above 140° F (65° C)."
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No Thermometer?

We're fans of using Barbara Kafka's high heat-roasting technique—you'll want to plan on about 10 minutes per pound of turkey when you're cooking it at 500° F. Of course, cooking time will vary on a number of factors, like the temperature of your bird when it goes in the oven, so pull out your meat thermometer if you have one to be sure it's done. If, by chance, you don't have one, the leg should feel a bit loose when you wiggle it, just slice into the thigh joint to peek—if the juices run clear and the flesh looks pale and firm, not suspiciously pink, you’re good!

This story originally ran in 2014—we're running an updated version today, because (turkey) essentials never go out of style.

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Tell us: What are the numbers you depend on when roasting your turkey?


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Tags: turkey, thanksgiving, holiday, hotline