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A Guide to Cooking a Thanksgiving Turkey + Recipe!

Learning how to make a thanksgiving turkey is a skill! This recipe packs all the flavor and juiciness you’d imagine from a deliciously roasted turkey. This guide will walk you through all the important details, complete with a list of tools, tips, and the perfect recipe!

Hosting is easy when you know how to roast the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey, but perfecting the art of timing, seasoning, and cook time can be intimidating to most cooks. For most of us, a Clark Griswold moment is never far from our minds.

Need a playlist for that? Subscribe to my Thanksgiving Playlist on Spotify.

But, I’d go so far to say that most of our fears are from long, complicated recipes with too many ingredients. And doing weird things like cooking it upside down. None of that here!

The Best Oven-Roasted Turkey Recipe

This method is easy! No brining – because how would you fit that in the fridge? And no basting. Just rub down and roast for a deliciously moist bird that will have your guests singing your praises and putting dibs on thanksgiving leftovers!

By providing a few things I’ve learned along the way, I hope to squash any Turkey Day tragedies and leave you ready to conquer that bird!

Handy tools for a delicious Thanksgiving turkey

  • In-oven Meat Thermometer
  • Extra Large Copper Roaster with Rack *highly recommended!
  • Electric Carving Knife
  • Thawed turkey
  • Garnishes – onions, apples, and lemons
  • Herbs – rosemary, thyme, and sage.
  • Seasoning – salt, pepper, and garlic
  • Butter

If you are interested in other handy tools, check out this article from Taste of Home about Thanksgiving Day tools.

How to Bake a Turkey in the Oven

Safely thaw the turkey

First things first, you want to make sure your turkey is completely thawed.

There are two different ways to thaw a turkey: in the refrigerator or in cold water.

  • If you are defrosting in the fridge, estimate for about 1 day for every 5 pounds of turkey. I like to give myself an extra day to be safe.
  • If you are thawing with cold water, be prepared to babysit that turkey in the sink for quite some time.

Regardless of the method you choose, I recommend thawing well in advance and add one day for good measure. Typically, 1 week is the sweet spot.

For a complete tutorial, refer to this guide for thawing a turkey safely.

Here’s a chart with the turkey size and thawing times for both methods:

Turkey SizeThaw in Refrigerator
(set to 40F or below)
Thaw in Cold Water
(change water every 30 min.)
4 to 12 lbs.1 to 3 days2 to 6 hours
12 to 16 lbs.3 to 4 days6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 lbs.4 to 5 days8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 lbs.5 to 6 days10 to 12 hours

Season the turkey

There are a lot of recipes out there for the perfect, juicy Thanksgiving turkey. I prefer to use my basic recipe of butter and herbs. It’s almost exactly like my oven-roasted chicken recipe.

There are really 3 steps to season a thanksgiving turkey:

  • Make the herb butter.
  • Smear butter on the outside and underneath the skin of the bird.
  • Place on a large roasting pan, Insert the thermometer, and roast!

Smearing butter on the outside and underneath the skin of the bird will produce a nice, crispy and browned skin on the turkey.

I love to use a combination of rosemary and sage leaves to place underneath the skin as well. The herbs smell heavenly while cooking!

Some recipes call for white wine or champagne poured in the bottom of the roasting pan. That would also add a nice flavor and added moisture to the bird.

Why I don’t use a brine

There are a lot of recipes that use a brine and it does produce a beautifully juicy bird; however, I do know there’s not a whole lot of room in my fridge the night before thanksgiving, so adding another container full of sloshing liquid and raw meat is just asking for disaster.

Plus, you really can’t go wrong with a simple butter and herb rub-down. This recipe gives the bird such a great flavor with plenty of juices to spare!

Roast turkey cooking times per pound

The time allotment for cooking a turkey varies by size and oven temperature.

While these are great estimates for conventional and convection ovens, the key for a perfectly-cooked bird is to go by the thermometer reading.

Roasting times and temperature in a convection oven

Cooking in a convection oven requires a little adjustment in time and temperature. Because a convection oven circulates the hot air, dishes cook about 25% faster using a convection oven.

Continue to follow the recipe, but adjust your cooking times according to the chart below.

See the chart below for cooking times:

Turkey SizeUnstuffedStuffed
4 to 6 lbs. (breast) 1 ½ to 2 hours1 ¾ to 2 ½ hours
6 to 8 lbs. (breast) 2 to 2 ½ hours2 ½ to 3 ¼ hours
8 to 12 lbs. 1 ½ to 2 hours1 ¾ to 2 ½ hours
12 to 14 lbs. 2 to 2 ½ hours2 ½ to 3 ¼ hours
14 to 18 lbs. 2 ½ to 3 hours 3 ¼ to 3 ¾ hours
18 to 20 lbs. 3 to 3 ½ hours3 ¾ to 4 ¼ hours

Roasting times and temperature in a conventional oven

A conventional oven is a traditional oven. If this pertains to you, follow the cooking times below.

Turkey SizeUnstuffedStuffed
4 to 6 lbs. (breast)1 ½ to 2 ¼ hoursn/a
6 to 8 lbs. (breast)2 ¼ to 3 ¼ hours3 to 3 ½ hours
8 to 12 lbs.2 ¾ to 3 hours3 to 3 ½ hours
12 to 14 lbs.3 to 3 ¾ hours3 ½ to 4 hours
14 to 18 lbs.3 ¾ to 4 ¼ hours4 to 4 ¼ hours
18 to 20 lbs.4 ¼ to 4 ½ hours4 ¼ to 4 ¾ hours

Tips for Prepping and Carving the turkey

  • I use an electric knife to carve the turkey. I believe I paid $20 for it, so you don’t have to spring for an expensive knife.
  • Leave the bird whole until you are ready to serve. This locks in moisture and maintains the temperature.
  • Don’t forget to remove the neck and giblets from the turkey cavity before cooking. Use these turkey pieces to add flavor to your gravy or save for turkey stock later.
  • If you need to finish other food in the oven, and you do not have another warming option, just leave the bird in the roasting pan with the hot juices and wrap tightly with layers of foil.
  • Keep the bird warm in the roasting pan by wrapping tightly in foil and placing on the grill at 200F degrees for no more than an hour.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cooking a Turkey

How to estimate the amount of turkey per person

Account for about 1.5 pounds of turkey per guest. When you are estimating how much meat to purchase, you have to account for the entire weight of the bird, which also includes the bones, neck, gizzards, etc.

Estimating for 1.5 pounds per person will assure that you will have enough meat, and quite possibly plenty of leftovers. Always to have too much than not enough!

How do you thaw a whole turkey?

This is where I definitely recommend planning ahead. Let’s avoid defrosting a turkey during Thanksgiving day with a hairdryer, shall we?

Allow for about 24 hours for thawing in the fridge per every 5 pounds. I always give myself an extra 24 hours to be on the safe side. If you have an outdoor fridge, this will be an excellent time to clear it out for the bird.

If you need to thaw in a hurry, you might be outta luck. Aside from the refrigerator, a cold water bath is your next best bet, but be prepared to be busy for a while.

Thawing a turkey in cold water usually takes about 30 minutes for every pound of turkey:

  • Place the turkey in the sink and fill with cold water.
  • Drain water and repeat every 30 minutes.

How do you keep the turkey warm?

If your turkey is done before the rest of the Thanksgiving dinner, place the whole thing (roasting pan included) on a grill at 200F to keep warm. I wouldn’t recommend doing this for more than an hour or so.

Should You Cover Turkey When Cooking?

Some recipes suggest covering the top of the bird with aluminum foil until the last hour to prevent over-browning on the breast.

In order to get the crispy skin that everyone loves so much, leave your bird uncovered. If you notice the legs and wings are getting too brown, cover those areas with foil.

How do I know when the turkey is done?

Turkey is safe to eat when a meat thermometer reads 165F in the thickest part of the bird.

How long do I cook a turkey in a convection oven?

Here are the cooking times for turkey in a 325F degree convection oven:

  • 12-15 pounds, 1.5-2 hours
  • 15-20 pounds, 2-2.5 hours
  • 20-25 pounds, 2.5-3 hours

Other Thanksgiving Recipes

If you are looking to complete your entire menu, check these Thanksgiving recipes out. Each of these can be made ahead of time for a stress-free Thanksgiving day.

I hope you enjoy the wonderful holiday season! Remember, the sole reason for gathering on Thanksgiving is to show gratitude for all we have and those we love!

Yield: 16 servings

How to Make the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

How to Make the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

Learning how to make a thanksgiving turkey is a skill! This recipe packs all the flavor and juiciness you'd imagine from a deliciously roasted turkey. This guide will walk you through all the important details, complete with a list of tools, tips, and the perfect recipe!

Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 3 hours 30 minutes
Total Time 3 hours 50 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 12-20 lb. Turkey
  • 1 Yellow Onion, peeled and quartered
  • 1 Lemon, quartered
  • 1 Apple (your favorite kind), quartered
  • .75 oz. Container Fresh Rosemary* (see note 1)
  • .75 oz. Container Fresh Thyme* (see note 1)
  • .75 oz. Container Fresh Sage* (see note 1)
  • 1 cup Unsalted Butter, softened
  • 1 tsp. Salt
  • 1/2 tsp. Freshly Ground Black Pepper
  • 6-8 Cloves Garlic, minced

Instructions

  1. Remove the thawed turkey from the fridge 1 hour before roasting, to let it come to room temperature.
  2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Adjust the oven rack so the turkey will sit in the center of the oven.
  3. To make the herb butter, combine the softened butter, minced garlic, salt, pepper, and one tablespoon each of the chopped rosemary, sage, and thyme.
  4.  Remove the turkey from the packaging and place directly on the rack inside of the roasting pan. Be sure to remove the neck and giblets. Reserve for gravy or discard.
  5. Gently use your fingers to lift the skin on the turkey breasts and smooth a few tablespoons of the herb butter underneath the skin. You may need to use hands on the top and underside of the skin to smear the butter evenly.
  6. Melt any remaining herb butter and baste over the breasts of the turkey.
  7. Squeeze half of the lemon over the top of the bird. Then, place inside the cavity.
  8. Stuff the cavity with a quartered onion, apple, and any leftover herb sprigs.
  9. Insert an oven-safe meat thermometer into the middle of the thigh or breast.
  10. Place the roasting pan in the oven and roast the turkey at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes per pound, or until the meat thermometer reads 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  11. For the juiciest bird, allow the turkey to rest for 20 minutes before carving to allow the juices to redistribute.
  12. Reserve drippings and juices for turkey gravy.

Notes

*Please read the entire post for details, tips, and more!*

  • Note 1: Poultry herb blend may be used in place of individual containers of fresh herbs.
  • Note 2: I remove the turkey once the internal temperature has reached 155 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, I cover with foil and allow it to rest until it reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Note 3: If the meat is turning too brown, loosely tent with foil to prevent burning.

Recommended Products

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Nutrition Information:

Yield:

16

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 12977Total Fat: 514gSaturated Fat: 154gTrans Fat: 7gUnsaturated Fat: 328gCholesterol: 7447mgSodium: 7156mgCarbohydrates: 8gFiber: 1gSugar: 2gProtein: 1943g

The nutritional information is provided as a courtesy and is an estimate generated by a calculator.

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