Most people have one or more questions when it comes to preparing and roasting a whole turkey. We've answered many commonly asked questions here, but if you have other questions, check the Ask the Chef forum. Students can ask questions directly, and all cooking school users can read the dialog.
1. What size turkey should I buy?
Allow about 1 pound of turkey per person for generous servings. I usually add a couple of pounds for leftovers as well, so if I'm serving 10 people I'd buy a 12 to 14 pound turkey. If you want a lot of leftovers, increase the number to 1 1/2 pounds per person.
2. How long will my frozen turkey take to thaw?
The best way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator. Plan ahead! You need to allow 24 hours for each 5 pounds, so a 12 pound turkey will take up to 3 days.
Quick thaw method: Place the turkey in a leak-proof plastic bag. Submerge the turkey in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes to ensure it is always cold, and allow about 30 minutes per pound to thaw completely.
3. What should my oven temperature be?
A turkey will cook at any temperature between 325F and 450F. It makes sense that the higher the oven temperature the quicker it will cook. Some say that ‘low and slow’ makes for a more flavorful turkey while others believe that higher temperatures make for a more moist bird. I have had success both ways and recommend a hybrid cooking method.
Start by preheating the oven to 500F. Roast the turkey, uncovered, for 30 minutes and then reduce the oven temperature to 350F and cook until done. Once the breast of the turkey is golden brown, loosely cover it with foil so it doesn’t overcook.
4. How long will it take to roast?
The best answer (and one that is not intended to be cheeky) is:
Long enough so the meat at the thickest part of the thigh reaches 160F to 165F.
The factors that affect the actual time required include:
~ Oven temperature
~ The size of the bird
~ Whether it is stuffed or unstuffed
~ Whether it is cold or at room temperature when it goes in the oven
Altitude, humidity, how often you open the oven door, and the accuracy of your oven will also affect roasting times.
Because of all of these variables, the roasting times given below are approximate. They are most likely on the high side.
Roasting time guidelines are given to help you decide when the turkey needs to go in the oven, but know that a thermometer is a much better indicator of doneness than a timetable.
In addition to the cooking time, be sure to leave time for the turkey to rest after you take it out of the oven; it needs to rest at least 15 minutes (preferably 30) before you carve it.
With no further ado, approximate roasting times for an unstuffed turkey cooked at 350F are as follows:
8 to 12 pounds – 2 3/4 to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds – 3 to 3 3/4 hours
14 to 18 pounds - 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds – 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
20 to 24 pounds – 4 1/2 to 5 hours
Adjust the above times for the following factors:
~ Add 15 to 30 minutes to these times if the turkey is stuffed.
~ Reduce the time by 15 to 30 minutes if the turkey is at room temperature before it goes in the oven.
~ Reduce the time by 15 to 30 minutes if you start with the oven at a very high temperature (500F) for the first 1/2-hour of cooking.
So if you have a 12-pound turkey that is unstuffed and has been sitting on the counter for an hour (to bring it to room temperature), and you start the roasting at 500F, it will take about 2 1/4 hours to cook.
If your turkey is finished early – great! It can sit on the counter (very loosely covered with aluminum foil) for 30 to 45 minutes. If you don’t plan to eat for an hour or more, go ahead and carve the turkey and place the meat on a platter. Just before serving, cover the platter with foil and reheat the meat for just a few minutes in a 325F oven. Just take the chill off; it doesn’t need to be piping hot, especially if you have hot gravy to serve with it.
5. How do I know when my turkey is done?
A turkey is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh (without touching bone) reads 160F. The temperature will continue to rise (up to 10F) after it is removed from the oven while it rests. Allow at least 15 minutes, preferably 30, of resting time before the bird is carved.
6. What does it mean to brine a turkey?
A brine is a solution of salt and water. Soaking a turkey in a brine solution for several hours adds moisture to the meat and keeps the meat moist while roasting.
There are 3 disadvantages to brining. One is simply the logistics of finding a container that is large enough to hold the turkey and the brine solution, another is finding room in the refrigerator for the turkey while it soaks, and the third is the potential for very salty turkey juices that you can’t add to your gravy.
Being diligent with your instant-read thermometer and removing the turkey from the oven at the right time is a good way to keep the meat moist without the hassle of brining.
7. Is it safe to stuff my turkey?
It is possible to stuff a turkey and avoid food poisoning (!). It is, however, important to remember a few tips:
~ You can make all of the stuffing components up to 2 days ahead, but don’t mix everything together until just before you’re ready to stuff the turkey.
~ Don’t stuff the turkey until just before it goes in the oven.
~ Remove the stuffing from the cavity as soon as the turkey comes out of the oven and place it in a baking dish. Test the temperature of the stuffing; it must reach 165F to be at a temperature that is high enough to kill bacteria. If it is lower than that when the turkey is done, put the stuffing back in the oven or microwave it until it reaches a safe temperature.