A tasty turkey is the centerpiece of most Holiday meals, which is why it’s especially important for you to learn how to properly cook one. Perfecting turkey cooking technique turns you into a Holiday Master Chef for a few days each year. This step by step guide walks you through the process of safely cooking a healthy Thanksgiving, Christmas or Holiday Turkey.

What You Need

1. fresh or thawed turkey (frozen turkeys work too; cook time is longer)
2. shallow pan
3. aluminum foil
4. meat thermometer
5. vegetable spread or olive oil
6. flavoring (herbs, spices, salt, pepper, turkey rub or anything else you wish to use)
7. stuffing (optional – improves flavor)

Step 1: Thaw the Turkey Properly. It’s extremely important to properly thaw a turkey. If done improperly, bacteria multiplies to dangerous levels and increases the risk of food bourne illness. If you are short on time, it’s possible to thaw a turkey in cold water or a microwave. You can also cook a frozen turkey though the process takes approximately 50% longer. Remember, leaving a turkey at room temperature to thaw is very dangerous. Plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time to avoid food safety risks. Read more: Thawing a Turkey

Step 2: Prepare the Stuffing. Stuffing should be prepared right before it’s placed into the turkey. Do not mix wet and dry ingredients ahead of time. Remember to use different utensils for cutting meat and vegetables.

Step 3: Preheat the Oven. Preheat the oven to a minimum of 325 degrees F.

Step 4: Prepare the Turkey. First, remove the turkey from its wrapper. Sometimes, the turkey contains metal brackets or wire to keep it together. Read the packaging instructions for information on what to do with those, though you typically leave them in place. Next, place the turkey breast side up in a shallow pan. Remove the giblets and neck from the cavities. The giblets are usually found in a bag and are typically used to make gravy or broth. Coat the turkey with vegetable spread or olive oil. Also apply any herbs, spices or rub onto the skin of the turkey. Stuff the turkey loosely; do not pack it in tightly as this causes food safety concerns.

Step 5: Cook the Turkey. Place the turkey into the oven. Some turkeys need to be basted every 30-45 minutes during cooking. You can do this with a large spoon but a turkey baster makes the process much easier. Basting keeps the turkey from getting too dry. Once the turkey is sufficiently browned (personal preference), cover it with a sheet of aluminum foil to keep it from getting darker.

Step 6: Turkey Cook Time. Know the approximate cooking time before you start. You can use the tables below or the Turkey Cook Time Calculator for guidelines, but only a calibrated meat thermometer should be used to check if the turkey is safe to eat. Some turkeys have pop out thermometers alerting you when the proper temperature is reached. These too should also only be used as guidelines.

Place the meat thermometer in the thickest part of the breast and the innermost part of the thigh (not touching the bone). Both temperatures should read 165 degrees F or higher. If you stuffed the turkey, the temperature in the middle of the stuffing also needs to read 165 degrees F before the turkey is safe to eat. Once you take the turkey out of the oven, let it sit for 20 minutes before carving.

Cooking Time – Unstuffed Turkey 12-15 minutes/pound
4-8 pounds 1 1/2 – 3 3/4 hours
8-12 pounds 2 3/4 – 3 hours
12-14 pounds 3 – 3 3/4 hours
14-18 pounds 3 3/4 – 4 1/4 hours
18-20 pounds 4 1/4 – 4 1/2 hours
20-24 pounds 4 1/2 – 5 hours
Cooking Time – Stuffed Turkey 15 minutes/pound
6-8 pounds 2 1/2 – 3 1/2
8-12 pounds 3 – 3 1/2
12-14 pounds 3 1/2 – 4
14-18 pounds 4 – 4 1/4
18-20 pounds 4 1/4 – 4 3/4
20-24 pounds 4 3/4 – 5 1/4

Frozen turkeys can be cooked without being thawed but cook time is ~50% longer. The same 165 degree F reading should be used.

Step 7: Enjoy. If you’ve followed the steps above, you’re now ready to enjoy your turkey. Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving and Holiday Season!

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