Turkey 101: How to cook a Thanksgiving turkey

Thanksgiving turkey
Cooking a Thanksgiving turkey doesn’t have to be hard.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Are you cooking the Thanksgiving turkey this year? Even those of us who cook for a living can feel the pressure when it comes to this holiday meal. You’ve got the bird — and it’s big — and one shot to get it right. This is performance anxiety, of the Norman Rockwell kind.

But don’t stress. Take a deep breath, and remember that cooking a Thanksgiving turkey involves nothing really more than a few basic steps: You need a turkey, some seasoning, a roasting pan fitted with a rack, and a thermometer. Oh, and a working oven. (Once I went to cook a meal at a friend’s house only to learn that she stored her winter clothes in the oven and didn’t actually know if it worked.)

Here’s how you do it:

Buy your turkey. Figure on buying about 1 pound per person, more if you want plenty of leftovers. If you’re buying the turkey frozen, thaw it before cooking; you don’t want to roast a frozen bird. The best way is to let it thaw in the refrigerator a few days before cooking. On game day, if it’s still frozen, run the turkey under cool running water until it is completely thawed.


On Thanksgiving, put the bird in the pan. Remove the neck and giblets bag from the turkey. You do not have to wash the bird — the USDA actually recommends against this as the water splashing can spread bacteria — but please DO wash your hands and any tool or surface that comes into contact with the raw turkey. Salmonella is real, friends, and you don’t want your guests remembering the holiday for anything other than your fabulous meal.

Season and truss bird. Rub salt and pepper both inside and out; you can add a touch of spice or chopped herbs if you want to get fancy. Truss the turkey — or at least tie the legs together, which will make it look prettier — and place it on a rack inside the roasting pan. (Be sure to place the bird breast-side up in the pan — the first year I cooked a bird, I didn’t know which side was up, and then couldn’t tell why there was no meat. Funny now, but I was mortified at the time.)

A note on stuffing: Most sources recommend cooking the stuffing separately from the bird. If you choose to cook the stuffing in the bird, you will need to cook the turkey until the bird — and the center of the stuffing — reaches a safe temperature of 165 degrees, which will increase roasting time. By the time the stuffing is safe to eat, your bird will be overdone and dry. It’s way easier to cook it separately in a pan.

Heat your oven to 425 degrees. Meanwhile, baste the bird all over with melted butter. (If you want, you can flavor the butter with a touch of maple syrup, mustard, or juice; this will add extra flavor as the turkey cooks.) Place the turkey in the oven.

Roast the turkey. First, cook the bird for 15 to 20 minutes to give it some color, then reduce the temperature to 325 degrees. Continue roasting the turkey, basting it every half hour or so with butter or pan juices, until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh meat reaches 165 degrees.

Cook it until it’s done. While there are several ways to check for doneness, temperature is the only safe way to tell if the turkey is actually done. The total roasting time will vary depending on the size of the bird but can range from 2½ to 3 hours for an 8- to 12-pound bird to 4 to 5 hours for an 18- to 20-pound bird. I prefer using a digital thermometer with a probe so I can keep track of the turkey’s progress in real time.


Rest the bird and pat yourself on the back. Give your turkey a chance to rest after it comes out of the oven, at least 15 to 20 minutes before carving. If you’re a little nervous about your carving skills, parade the bird out to your guests in the dining room before it’s carved, then carve/slice/hack the bird in the privacy of your kitchen where no one can see. Take your sliced masterpiece out to your guests, grab a seat and enjoy yourself. Congratulations, and well done!



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