Turkey

How to Cook a Turkey Perfectly

The best way to roast the big bird may also be the simplest.

by:
October  2, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham

There are a thousand and one ways to cook a turkey. Just Google it: how to cook a turkey. You'll find that some swear by a wet brine; many, especially these days, love a good dry brine. 500°F is a favorite oven temperature for roast turkey here at Food52 (hi, Judy), while others vouch for a lower, steadier heat, closer to 350°F or 375°F. Regardless of how you choose to roast a turkey this Thanksgiving, Senior Editor Eric Kim is here to show you his favorite way to do it—from a home cook's perspective—and it's a lot simpler than you'd think.


Growing up in Georgia, Thanksgiving for me meant driving a couple hours south to my Aunt Joy's house in Augusta. We'd arrive Wednesday night and stay up late playing video games with the cousins. First thing the next morning, at around 4 or 5 a.m., my mom and aunt would put the bird in the oven and roast it low and slow for eight hours, basting it every 30 minutes and watching it like hawks. It was such an ordeal.

Because of this ritual, for years I thought turkey was the absolute hardest thing to cook in the world because anything that takes eight hours to become edible must be an impossible feat of black magic, right?

I also thought that turkey was, on principle, meant to be dry.

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Top Comment:
“Bird was gorgeously golden brown, tender, and juicy. Made me a T-day all-Star! Simple and perfect. Hugs to you. My house is very thankful for Eric K!!! p.s. I read your most entertaining bits aloud to my other half. He thinks you’re great too. ”
— Shannon M.
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The thing is, roasting a great, juicy turkey isn't as complicated as people make it out to be. I imagine there's a lot of hullaballoo over it because many of us have been raised on dry Thanksgiving turkeys, mostly as a result of our overcooking them. We're terrified of undercooked poultry (and rightfully so!), but with this fear comes an overcompensation in roasting time.

So how should we cook a turkey?

That's like asking someone how they tie their shoes or take their coffee or boil their eggs. You may be a wet-briner or a dry-briner, and both certainly have their merits. A brine is like insurance; the former produces meat that's wetter and a touch squishy—kind of like what you'd get from a deli counter (which isn't necessarily bad; many prefer it). The latter means the entirety of the bird is salted through and through (no huge bucket of salmonella water to deal with).

Our most popular turkey recipe is, after all, the "Judy Bird," a Genius Recipe that lets you dry-brine (that is, apply kosher salt all over) a frozen bird while it's thawing. Excavated from the greatest culinary depths by our columnist Kristen Miglore, this very smart recipe won a turkey taste test over at the L.A. Times back in 2006. And who's to argue with its four-star rating and over 600 reviews?

For me, after much soul searching (and many tests in my tiny N.Y.C. kitchenette), I've found that the best method is to just roast the darn thing. Like a chicken. No brining, no hair dryer, no black magic. Just a bird and a boy and an oven.


How to Cook a Turkey

Simple Turkey Recipe

  • 1 turkey (frozen is fine; just account for about 1 pound per person, unless you want leftovers, in which case you should account for about 1 1/2 pounds per person)
  • Unsalted butter, room temperature or melted
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Kitchen twine
  • Instant-read meat thermometer

1. Defrost your turkey (if it's frozen).

Ideally you'd let this happen gradually, a few days before, in a 40°F refrigerator. The golden rule is about 24 hours of thawing for every 4 to 5 pounds.

But sometimes that doesn't happen! And sometimes it's Thanksgiving morning and your bird is still hard as a rock. In that case, the water thawing method can save lives. For this, place your frozen turkey (still in its packaging) in a bucket and cover with cold tap water, weighing it down with a can or something to ensure that it's fully submerged. The golden rule here is 30 minutes per 1 pound of turkey. Don't forget to replace the water every 30 minutes.

2. Bring your turkey to room temperature.

Leave the turkey out on the counter for an hour or so before roasting. A fridge-cold bird will not cook as evenly as a room-temperature bird.

3. Truss your turkey.

This isn't as complicated as it sounds. Just take a few inches of kitchen twine and tie the legs together, which will ensure even cooking.

Photo by James Ransom

4. Season your turkey in the sink.

"In the sink?" you ask. This is a weird "me" thing. Most people season their turkeys straight in its roasting pan, but I find that this leads to excess salt at the bottom, and since I like to use the drippings to make a gravy later—often straight in the pan itself—this can also lead to an oversalted gravy. Another issue is that if you're applying melted butter and some of that drips off into the pan, the milk fats can burn, and the one thing we don't want on Thanksgiving Day is for the smoke alarm to go off.

Which is why I like to place my bird on a cutting board, and place that cutting board in a very clean, very empty sink. That way you can:

  • Butter the turkey. (I think melted butter is easier to massage over the skin, but you could use softened room-temperature butter here if you'd like.)
  • Salt to your heart's content. And since we're not brining here, it is essential that you go absolutely heavy with your salting hand. First, salt the inside of the turkey (all sides of the cavity, but especially where the breast is). Then, cover the entire surface area of the bird with salt. This is the point at which you should also grind over some fresh black pepper.

I don't stuff my bird for good reason: It will cook much faster, not to mention that I just really don't think it makes much of a difference in the turkey's overall flavor.

My baby. Photo by Me

5. Roast your turkey (yup, that's it!).

Many recipes call for a high start and a low finish (i.e., 450°F for the first few minutes, then 350°F until it's done). But I like to roast my turkey from start to finish at a moderate 350°F. No need to cover the bird in aluminum foil either—just cook it! You should account for about 13 minutes per pound.

But since all ovens differ vastly, I highly recommend that you don't go by time, but rather by internal temperature. The golden rule is 165°F in the innermost part of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast. I like to pull my bird at 160°F because it will continue to cook as it rests, which you should absolutely let it do.

6. Rest your turkey.

Do not carve the bird until it's rested for at least 30 minutes, but 1 hour is a very good number in my book. Don't worry, it'll still be hot—better yet, all of the juices will have redistributed and you'll be looking at the tenderest, moistest turkey of your life.


More Turkey Recipes

In case you're looking for more roast turkey ideas, here are some of our top recipes through the years:

How do you cook your turkey? Let us know in the comments below.
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Eric Kim is a Senior Editor at Food52, where his solo dining column, Table for One, runs Friday mornings. Formerly the Digital Manager at Food Network, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

74 Comments

Pumpkiness December 5, 2019
Over the years I have made a ton of turkeys in a variey of ways, including basting, brining, tenting, cheese cloth, and so on. I decided to try this approach this year since I was at a friend's house who had limited kitchen resources. It was absolutely the best turkey ever! So flavorful and moist! I took him at his word about using the salt liberally and was worried about it, but it worked beautifully. We didn't have any twine and we didn't plan to stuff, so I quartered some apples and onions to fill the cavity to prevent moisture loss. Halfway way through, I turned the turkey around and poured some broth on it. That was it!!!! Sooooo simple and no mess, no stress. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Also for the first time this year I threw the carcass in a crockpot, instead of simmering on the stove, so we could head out shopping. Worked wonderfully and the broth was also some of the best ever.
 
Rosalind P. December 5, 2019
A silly little hint, and maybe so obvious: since tying the legs is part of the success for this approach, and you don't have kitchen twine, dental floss works beautifully. It's clean, and wrapped around three or four times, very strong.
 
Sivahn B. December 2, 2019
Never written a comment/review before, but this recipe was SO helpful and effective that I just wanted to say thank you! Loved the explanation (take down) of other methods as well.
One question - while I was buttering the turkey (with a combo of softened and melted butter), the butter started to congeal and take on an almost soft-breadcrumb consistency, is that normal? The turkey turned out great either way!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 3, 2019
I'm so glad. Thank you.

And yes, I think what you're describing is just the soft butter hardening again from the cold turkey skin? Normal.
 
Shannon M. November 29, 2019
Eric K, you come through for me once again!!! Tempted I was, by the dark side...whispers of “Dry brine me” and “Cook me breast side down” echoed in my mind.
And then I read your timely and brilliantly simple article. And I thank you a million times over. I followed your directions to the letter, except for the butter and the Basting to make me feel like I was doing something 🤣🤣🤣. And I only skipped those because of sloth.
Washed in well-cleaned sink, coated with salt and pepper in same sink, tied the legs, tucked the wings and roasted at 350° for 13 mins per lb, then rested for an hour under foil.
Bird was gorgeously golden brown, tender, and juicy. Made me a T-day all-Star!
Simple and perfect. Hugs to you.
My house is very thankful for Eric K!!!
p.s. I read your most entertaining bits aloud to my other half. He thinks you’re great too.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 3, 2019
Ugh, Shannon, this comment made my night. Thank you so much, and I'm thrilled that it worked for you. Let's you and I continue to preach the power of deliberate idleness.
 
Marcylawrence November 29, 2019
Made my 16.5 lb turkey at 325 degrees using convection setting. Took 2 1/2 hours. Came out fabulous!!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 29, 2019
Delicious!
 
Deborah S. November 29, 2019
Came out great! Perfectly browned. No need to baste. Moist!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 29, 2019
Yay! So glad. I didn't baste either and it turned out perfect. Let's remember that for next year.
 
Linda S. November 28, 2019
Forgot to buy kosher salt. Can regular table salt work?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 28, 2019
Yes, table salt would be fine; I'd just use it a little more sparingly. Happy Thanksgiving!
 
Jean M. November 28, 2019
I’m confused. Everything I read says 20 mins per lb to cook turkey (21.5 appears to be about 7 hrs) but all the grids show approx 4 3/4 - 5 hrs for that weight
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 28, 2019
Trust the grids! 20 minutes/pound may be overcooking it, in my opinion. Try 13 minutes/pound and check the turkey's temp with an instant-read thermometer. Good luck, Jean!
 
txgreyhound November 27, 2019
Dare I ask, what about cooking a fresh turkey breast in the crock pot?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 28, 2019
That's a great idea! I have to tackle a turkey breast today, myself...
 
Marcylawrence November 27, 2019
I have a switch to convert my oven to a convection oven, the reading I did said the turkey not only cooks faster, but is juicer because of the air flow. True? Thought? I also use a kosher turkey and have never been disappointed.
 
Tracey M. November 25, 2019
This made me laugh--my mom and dad always did the low and slow, frequent basting method of turkey cooking, and I always thought it was some crazy process that I could never do. But in the 10 years that I've been hosting Thanksgiving, I cook the turkey exactly as you suggest, and I always get compliments! And it's so darn easy! I happily accept the compliments, but I feel a little guilty because it's almost no effort. Happy Thanksgiving!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 26, 2019
Why won't anyone listen to us??
 
Tracey M. December 2, 2019
I don't know, but they should! I even forgot the turkey in the oven this year until someone reminded me...it cooked maybe 45 minutes too long and it was still moist and wonderful. Any other method is just unnecessary work in my mind.
 
Becky November 25, 2019
Do I need to use a rack in the roasting pan?
 
Stefani November 25, 2019
My roasting pan with rack went the way of the birds.... (lol) years ago - I did a 12 lb. turkey tonight in my roasting pan (like the one that comes with your oven).....I put long pieces of carrot and celery down under (acted like a rack - from suggestions I heard here on Food52).....it worked perfectly.. But then again it was only a 12 lb. bird......had it been larger I would have gotten an inexpensive roasting pan. Roasting pans are always good for something else.
 
Deborah S. November 25, 2019
Question: When the turkey comes out to rest for 30 - 60 minutes, do you cover it with foil?
 
smcintyre November 25, 2019
Yes, loosely cover it with foil.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 26, 2019
Yes, I think that's a nice idea. Definitely let it rest for a full hour.
 
Linda S. November 28, 2019
Alex g. (Can't spell her name) from the food network turns her turkey breast down when it rests and says it redistributes juices back into the white meat. Sounded like a good idea that we will try today.
Looking forward to trying another one of your awesome recipes, Eric.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 3, 2019
Thanks Linda. xo
 
Alexis S. November 24, 2019
Eric- with this method do you still baste their turkey?
 
smcintyre November 25, 2019
No. You need to keep the lid on for the entire time.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 26, 2019
Maybe once or twice? Not imperative; I like to baste it just to feel like I'm doing something...
 
Rosalind P. November 24, 2019
I would like to add one piece of advice that I think is really helpful if...a big IF for many....you can get a kosher turkey. Not because you follow the dietary regime of kosher, but because the required process for preparing meat to be kosher includes several steps of soaking, salting and rinsing that removes all blood and makes for an extremely tender and tasty bird. And of course, the salting performs what a conventional brining does, only moreseo. Granted kosher turkeys aren't universally available, but if you can get one, try it. But if you use the drippings for gravy, adjust the salt in your grave recipe to accommodate any saltiness in the drippings. Use a thermometer to check for done-ness, and you will get raves for the delicious tender breast meat.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 24, 2019
Delicious. And very good points; I don’t know why I never thought to buy a kosher bird!
 
Holary November 24, 2019
I still love stuffing my bird (and also not brining). Wouldn't the stuffing slow down the breast cooking making it a little moister? Thoughts anyone? Or is that just a dream...
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 26, 2019
Hm, curious to know this myself. I do think people like to stuff the cavity with crap like lemons and garlic and onions and citrus b/c it means the bird will "cook more evenly."
 
susan November 24, 2019
I always cook my turkey breast-side down. The juices flow into the white meat keeping it moist. It doesn't make for a picture perfect bird to carve at the table but we carve it in the kitchen and serve it at the table.
 
Lee A. November 24, 2019
I start mine breast-side down, then flip it about an hour or so later so the breast skin can brown.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 26, 2019
I love this idea and really want to try it myself. Chef John did it this year and I'm intrigued: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTvdmgLEXpk
 
Steven W. November 24, 2019
I posted below about gravy, so here goes my advice (if you can manage it) for turkey. Remove the bones. There are tutorials on line, some better than others, but its a brilliant way to go if you have any kind of knife skills and a good knife. You can then use the bones for the stock for the gravy! The key is not to tear the skin if you can avoid it. Flatten it out add the stuffing (you won't get as much on there as if you stuff the bird) and roll it up and tie it like a big roast. It cooks in a few hours (yes, let it rest) and everyone gets light, dark, stuffing and skin.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 26, 2019
Delicious. Thanks, Steven!
 
MKfoodquest November 24, 2019
Love the idea of simple but... I suspect the rules are quite different going from 12-14lbs to the 24-26lb bird I make every year. I’ve used Alice Waters wet brind for over a decade now and would love to know if others who deal with this size birds have thoughts on whether simplifying really works on bigger turkeys?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 26, 2019
Good point. I wonder this myself... I tested only with a normal-sized bird. I just can't imagine buying a 24-pound bird; sounds terrifying. Maybe it's just me, but I'd rather have two delicious 12/13-pound birds. I'm convinced that smaller birds just taste better...
 
smcintyre November 24, 2019
Here's a much easier approach, and the bird comes out beautifully every time. For a 12-lb turkey, season with salt and pepper, or dry brine first. You'll need a heavy roaster with a tight-fitting lid. This is key. Pre-heat the oven to 500 degrees. Place the turkey into the roaster with a rack. If no rack, make one with celery, carrots, onions and place the turkey on top. Add two cups of boiling water to the bottom, and cover the roaster. The most important part: Leave the turkey in the 500 degree oven for one hour, then turn off the oven and let it sit inside for 4 to 6 hours. DO NOT open the door. Yes, it works, and yes, the bird comes out looking great. It is the most tender, moist bird you'll ever have. Be sure to let it rest around 30 minutes before cutting. Add 5 minutes per pound for a bird over 12 lbs, but it's not recommended to go over 16 lbs. Don't be scared. This turns out great and it couldn't be easier.
 
Ron November 24, 2019
This technique of leaving it in without opening the door reminds me of the hay box they used to use in World War II they would take a box fill it full of hay or towels or whatever and start cooking your turkey and then turn it off once you got a good heat on it and put it in the box In the cooking container of course with the lid on and it would continue to cook and it was away on saving fuel during the war Google it
 
June B. November 25, 2019
Curious,, For a 16 lb Turkey, add an extra 20 minutes WHEN?? To the 500 degree roasting time OR 20 more minutes in turned off oven????
 
smcintyre November 25, 2019
The general rule for this method is to add 5 minutes per pound for every pound over 12, during the 500 degree cooking period. Then the usual 4 to 6 hours in the oven after it's been turned off.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 26, 2019
Thanks for your tips!
 
CMH November 24, 2019
Could these instructions be followed for a turkey breast?
 
smcintyre November 25, 2019
I don't know but I'm guessing that since a turkey breast is generally less than 12 lbs you'd have to adjust the cooking time at 500 degrees down from an hour.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 3, 2019
Hi! I made a turkey breast on Thanksgiving and am happy to report that yes, this all works the same. I did 13 minutes per pound at 350°F and it came out amazing. What about you? How was your Thanksgiving?