Tell Us How Big Your Turkey Is, We'll Tell You How Long to Cook It

According to Nigella Lawson and me.

September 16, 2021
Photo by James Ransom

How long should you cook a turkey? 45 minutes? An hour? Two? All day?

The question is straightforward, but there are so many variables that make answering this a moot point (or, in the words of Joey Tribbiani, a “moo” point). Not only is every turkey a different size (duh), but ovens vary drastically—heck, even the cook times of turkeys that weigh the same can vastly differ due to breed, fat content, breast size, etc. Did you brine it? Truss it? Are you cooking a stuffed turkey? OK, then add a few more minutes to that!

The truth is, no matter how fancy-shmancy a turkey cooking time chart looks, you'll only really know when your bird is cooked through if you check its internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer.

"For turkey that is moist and juicy," writes J. Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats, "aim for breasts that register 150°F in their deepest section and legs that register at least 165°F." Ahead, we’re sharing even more tips about how to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving and offer our pro advice on carving a turkey, too.

How Long to Cook a Turkey

I like to roast my unstuffed, room-temperature turkey at 350°F—and if you must know for how long, it's about 13 minutes to 15 minutes per pound. That means, say, a 12-pound turkey should take about 2 1/2 hours to cook. Keep in mind that these times work best for, as mentioned, a thawed turkey that has been brought to room temperature. Trying to cook a partially frozen turkey for Thanksgiving is an entirely different ballgame (though if you find yourself in that unsavory pickle, we do have some tips to get you out of it).

Guess who agrees? Nigella Lawson. Her turkey cook times in the seminal classic, Nigella Christmas, line up with my numbers above (and no one's cooked as many turkeys as she has).

"The cook times here always seem shockingly short to other people," Lawson writes, "but the truth is we've all been overcooking turkeys for years, and then complaining about how dull and sawdusty they are. If your turkey starts at room temperature, and is untrussed and without stuffing, and your oven thermostat is working correctly, these cooking times hold."

I've read horrifying accounts on other sites advising 20 minutes per pound of turkey (!). I can just taste the sawdust of what surely will be a memorable Thanksgiving turkey (but not in a good way).

Again, go by the internal temperature at the thickest part of the bird if you can (150°F at the breast and 165°F at the leg). I personally like to remove the turkey from the oven about 5°F earlier because it will continue to cook as it rests. Before you carve a turkey for Thanksgiving, you should let it rest for at least 15 minutes (and upwards of one hour). This will let it cool ever so slightly so it’s a little bit easier to handle when you go to carve it but more importantly, it will lock in all of the moisture and flavor, lest all the juices come rushing out onto the cutting board.

Should You Cover a Turkey?

And while you may be inclined to use it, ditch the aluminum foil. “But Eric, however will my turkey stay warm if it isn’t covered in aluminum foil?” Fortunately dear reader, after a bird has been roasting in the oven for upwards of two to three hours, it will continue to stay hot even after it’s been resting for half an hour. Plus, wrapping a Thanksgiving turkey in foil will cause it to continue to cook—ahem, overcook—as aluminum is a natural heat conductor. So while yes, it will keep your turkey meat warm, it will also turn it from a moist, juicy masterpiece into sawdust...and thus, all of your hard work will be ruined.

What is your favorite way to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving? Share your secrets in the comments below!
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Eric Kim was the Table for One columnist at Food52. He is currently working on his first cookbook, KOREAN AMERICAN, to be published by Clarkson Potter in 2022. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can find his bylines at The New York Times, where he works now as a writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @ericjoonho.


Kimi4702 October 25, 2021
I did a spatchcock dry brine turkey last year and found it cooked faster and more crispy all around , added bonus you get the whole backbone to roast separate and simmer quick for gravy after.
Reed K. August 15, 2019
The first time I cooked a turkey I was actually shocked at how quickly it was done - and all of my friends were amazed that it wasn't dry! But I trusted my thermometer and pulled it when the temps read done, and it was delicious! (I got roped into thanksgiving dinner for the next 3 years after that...)