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:
“I can't lift a turkey, and we generally get dry white meat. Our solution: the biggest crock pot I can buy! It goes in the night before on low, seasoned happily, and by the time we're ready to eat, we have a beautiful, moist, falling-off-the-bones bird. I've had no complaints these past two years, only, "Where did all the turkey go?"”
— Karen K.
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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.

12 Comments

Linda November 7, 2019
I have had my butcher butterfly the turkey for several years now. Cooks quickly and evenly on a sheetpan. Wouldn’t do it any other way.
 
Karen K. November 7, 2019
I can't lift a turkey, and we generally get dry white meat. Our solution: the biggest crock pot I can buy! It goes in the night before on low, seasoned happily, and by the time we're ready to eat, we have a beautiful, moist, falling-off-the-bones bird. I've had no complaints these past two years, only, "Where did all the turkey go?"
 
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Eric K. November 7, 2019
SO smart. Never thought to slow-cook a whole turkey. Thanks for the idea!
 
Karen K. November 8, 2019
Depending on the size of your bird, you may have yo get a little creative--like cutting off the legs and wings and tucking them at the front and back, or covering the "oops-it's-a-little-too-large-" bird and stonewear with tinfoil and using the lid to hold that down. (That was the first one--a smaller crockpot than the one I own now.) It also a) cuts down on stress; they really are put it in and forget it, and b) frees up the oven's time for things you can neither microwave nor slow-cook.
 
Karen K. November 8, 2019
I forgot to add: you can even thaw a bird in one. Put it on warm with a little water in the bottom, and proceed as normal. When you can't do normal (I can't lift more than 5 pounds, for example) you learn to Macgyver what you can.
 
CameronM5 October 3, 2019
I like to think I had something to do with this perfect turkey how-to. 😉 I’ve done it all and brining makes the worst turkey - squishy is the perfect word. I stopped basting, it ruins the skin. I do like a roasted garlic-rosemary butter from time to time and I stuff the cavity with whatever herbs and citrus rinds are lying around. I LOVE the tip about not seasoning in the roasting pan. That makes so much sense. Also, share your gravy tips eventually because you make a damn good gravy, sir. (That photo looks familiar!)
 
Susan L. November 3, 2019
Yes, gravy tips please !!
 
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Eric K. November 7, 2019
Hi!! We just published this: How to Make Gravy. It's quite comprehensive and gives you options.

The best gravy, though, is made with homemade turkey stock. So fragrant.
 
Liz D. August 9, 2019
If I'm roasting, I like to spatchcock it, use celery & carrots as a roasting rack. Cooks faster & more evenly. But we also like to fry it. Big mess but juicy turkey
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 9, 2019
I love that. Both methods are very trendy right now, for good reason!
 
Emily August 8, 2019
My best way to cook a turkey might not be the simplest, but it is practically foolproof. Yes, it is full of fat because BACON and BUTTER, but if you're only eating it once a year, who cares? Bacon-wrapped turkey - just do it. https://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-a-bacon-wrapped-turkey-237557
 
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Eric K. August 9, 2019
Sounds good to me!