How to cook a turkey perfectly

The best way to roast the big bird may also be the simplest

Published July 14, 2021 12:42PM (EDT)

 (Ty Mecham / Food52)
(Ty Mecham / Food52)

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There are a thousand and one ways to cook a turkey. Just google "how to cook a turkey"; you'll find that some swear by a wet brine while others insist on a good dry brine. Here at Food52, 500°F is a favorite oven temperature for roast turkey (hi, Judy), though others vouch for a lower, steadier heat, closer to 350°F or 375°F. Regardless of how you choose to roast a turkey this Thanksgiving, Eric Kim is here to show you his favorite way to do it — from a home cook's perspective — and it's a lot simpler than you'd think.

Growing up in Georgia, Thanksgiving for me meant driving a couple hours south to my Aunt Joy's house, in Augusta. We'd arrive Wednesday night and stay up late playing video games with the cousins. First thing the next morning, at around 4 or 5 a.m., my mom and aunt would put the bird in the oven and roast it low and slow for 8 hours, basting it every 30 minutes and watching it like hawks. It was such an ordeal.

Because of this ritual, for years I thought turkey was the absolute hardest thing to cook in the world because anything that takes 8 hours to become edible must be an impossible feat of black magic, right?

I also thought that turkey was, on principle, meant to be dry.

The thing is, roasting a great, juicy turkey isn't as complicated as people make it out to be. I imagine there's a lot of hullaballoo over it because many of us have been raised on dry Thanksgiving turkeys, mostly as a result of our overcooking them. We're terrified of undercooked poultry (and rightfully so!), but with this fear comes an overcompensation in roasting time.

So how do you cook a turkey in the oven?

That's like asking someone how they tie their shoes or take their coffee or boil their eggs. You may be a wet-briner or a dry-briner, and both certainly have their merits. A turkey brine is like insurance; the former produces meat that's wetter and a touch squishy — kind of like what you'd get from a deli counter (which isn't necessarily bad; many prefer it). The latter means the entirety of the bird is salted through and through (no huge bucket of salmonella water to deal with).

Our most popular turkey recipe is, after all, the "Judy Bird," a Genius recipe that lets you dry-brine (that is, apply kosher salt all over) a frozen bird while it's thawing. Excavated from the greatest culinary depths by Kristen Miglore, this very smart recipe won a turkey taste test over at the L.A. Times back in 2006. And who's to argue with its four-star rating and hundreds of reviews?

For me, after much soul searching (and many tests in my tiny N.Y.C. kitchenette), I've found that the best method is to just roast the darn thing. Like a chicken. No brining, no hair dryer, no black magic. Just a bird and a boy and an oven.

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How to cook a turkey in the oven

Easy Roast Turkey Recipe

  • One turkey (frozen is fine; just account for about 1 pound per person, unless you want leftovers, in which case you should account for about 1 1/2 pounds per person)
  • Unsalted butter, room temperature or melted
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Kitchen twine
  • Instant-read meat thermometer

1. Defrost your turkey (if it's frozen)

Ideally, you'd let this happen gradually, over the course of a few days before Thanksgiving (or whenever you're serving the turkey), in a 40°F refrigerator. The golden rule is about 24 hours of thawing for every 4 to 5 pounds.

But sometimes that doesn't happen! And sometimes it's Thanksgiving morning and your bird is still hard as a rock. In that case, the water thawing method can save lives...or, at the very least, a lot of stress. To thaw a turkey quickly, place your frozen turkey (still in its packaging) in a bucket and cover with cold tap water, weighing it down with a can or something to ensure that it's fully submerged. The golden rule here is 30 minutes per pound of turkey. Don't forget to replace the water every 30 minutes.

2. Bring your turkey to room temperature

Leave the turkey out on the counter for an hour or so before roasting. A fridge-cold bird will not cook as evenly as a room-temperature bird. Once the turkey has come to room temperature, dry with paper towels. Patting the skin thoroughly with towels will absorb any excess moisture on the exterior of the bird, which will ensure that the skin gets extra crispy and golden brown as it cooks in the oven.

3. Truss your turkey

This isn't as complicated as it sounds. Just take a few inches of kitchen twine, wrap it around the body of the bird, and tie the legs together, which will ensure even cooking. After the turkey has cooked fully, simply cut the twine with kitchen shears and discard it.

4. Season your turkey in the sink

"In the sink?" you ask. This is a weird "me" thing. Most people season their turkeys straight in its roasting pan, but I find that this leads to excess salt at the bottom, and since I like to use the drippings to make a gravy later — often straight in the pan itself — this can also lead to an oversalted gravy. Another issue is that if you're applying melted butter and some of that drips off into the pan, the milk fats can burn, and the one thing we don't want on Thanksgiving Day is for the smoke alarm to go off.

Which is why I like to place my bird on a cutting board and place that cutting board in a very clean, very empty sink. That way you can:

  • Butter the turkey. (I think melted butter is easier to massage over the skin, but you could use softened room-temperature butter here if you'd like.)
  • Salt to your heart's content. And since we're not brining here, it is essential that you go absolutely heavy with your salting hand. First, salt the inside of the turkey (all sides of the cavity, but especially where the breast is). Then, cover the entire surface area of the bird with salt. This is the point at which you should also grind over some fresh black pepper.

I don't stuff my bird for good reason: It will cook much faster, not to mention that I just really don't think it makes much of a difference in the turkey's overall flavor.

5. Roast the turkey (Yup, that's it!)

Many recipes call for a high start and a low finish (i.e., 450°F for the first few minutes, then 350°F until it's done). But I like to roast a turkey in the oven from start to finish at a moderate 350°F. No need to cover the bird in aluminum foil either — just cook it in a deep aluminum or stainless-steel pan lined with a roasting rack. If you don't have a roasting pan to cook a turkey in, use a deep sheet tray or baking dish lined with a wire baking rack, so the heat is distributed evenly and the turkey cooks properly. This is the best way to cook a turkey so that it stays juicy.

6. How long to cook a turkey

You should account for about 13 to 15 minutes per pound. This means that the ideal cooking time for a 12-pound turkey is about 2 1/2 to 3 hours. But since all ovens differ vastly, I highly recommend that you don't go by time, but rather by internal temperature. The golden rule is 165°F in the innermost part of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast. I like to pull the turkey out of the oven once it has reached 160°F because it will continue to cook as it rests, which you should absolutely let it do.

6. Let the turkey rest

Let the turkey rest for at least 30 minutes before carving, but an hour is best in my book. Even after all of this time, the turkey will still be plenty hot all of the way through. Better yet, the juices will have redistributed and you'll be looking at the tenderest, moistest turkey of your life.

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10 ways to roast a turkey

If you're looking for more ways to roast a turkey, here are some of our top recipes through the years:

1. Slow-Roasted Turkey

"It requires a lot of time and a very low oven temperature, so it's a good method for those with kitchens with two ovens (lucky!) or for when you're cooking the turkey ahead of time and reheating gently before the big meal," says recipe developer Erin Jeanne McDowell. But hey, if you've got the oven space and the time, then there's no reason not to try this method for cooking turkey.

2. Torrisi's Turkey

This roast turkey recipe is adapted from Torrisi Italian Specialties, an Italian restaurant in the heart of Manhattan's Little Italy, which sadly closed for good in 2014.

3. Butter and Herb Roast Turkey

If you're in search of a classic, crowd-pleasing roast turkey recipe, this is it.

4. Bacon Bird with Turkey Neck Gravy

Okay, now we're talking. For the most savory, succulent, fatty, flavorful, irresistible, and incredible turkey ever, layer the bird with individual strips of bacon while it roasts in the oven. Frankly, we can't imagine why we haven't been cooking a turkey in the oven like this all along.

5. ​​Herbed Turkey Roasted in Parchment

This foolproof method for cooking roast turkey for Thanksgiving may just become your new favorite method.

6. Very Lemony Brined Turkey

Three types of lemony products — the zest and juice of fresh lemons, lemongrass stalks, and lemon thyme — perk up this otherwise traditional roast turkey recipe, which cooks in the oven on a roasting rack.

7. Gin Brined Turkey

When you think of Thanksgiving, your mind probably doesn't immediately go to the bottle of gin on your bar cart (or hey, maybe it does and that's okay, too). But you're going to view this aromatic liquor in a whole new way when you brine a 12- to 14-pound turkey in an entire liter of it.

8. Honey and Sage Brined Roast Turkey

Instead of a spicy dry brine made with tons of salt and cracked pepper, try this sweeter, more aromatic turkey brine using fresh sage leaves, thyme, honey, and garlic.

9. Spatchcocked, Braise-Roasted Turkey with Herb Butter

Learn how to spatchcock a turkey with this quick-cooking method. A combination of apple cider and turkey stock help to create the most flavorful pan sauce, which also keeps the turkey extra-moist.

10. Paul Virant's Make-Ahead Roasted Turkey with Smothered Gravy

Short on time, or simply want to save yourself some prep work on Thanksgiving morning? Prepare this make-ahead roast turkey recipe, so that all you need to do is reheat the meat and gravy day-of. We promise it's just as good as if you made it fresh.

By Eric Kim


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