How to Cook Turkey

Roast Turkey with Stuffing

Turkey brined with apple cider brine & roasted on my 
	  gas grill.

Turkey brined with apple cider brine & roasted on my gas grill.



What is the biggest complaint that you hear about turkey? The biggest complaint about turkey is that it is too dry, not moist, juicy, tender, and tasty. This is because the traditional way to cook a turkey is breast up, at a temperature of 325°F, until the dark meat is done at about 185°F. At this point, the breast meat is overcooked and dry. The breast is done at 165°F and overcooked at temperatures above 165°F.

For your efforts to culminate with a beautiful turkey with moist juicy tender white meat and dark meat that is fully cooked and tender is nearly impossible, because the white meat is fully cooked at a temperature 20°F to 25°F lower than when the dark meat is done. Since the breast is done at 165°F, if you stop cooking the breast at that temperature the skin on the breast may look anemic, not nicely browned. So you can have a bird that has moist tender white meat with pale skin, or a pretty turkey that is evenly browned, with dried out white meat, but it is very difficult to cook a turkey so it is both beautiful and both the white and dark meat are properly cooked. The cooking method described here, using higher temperatures, cooking breast down, and turning the turkey while roasting, will help solve these conundrums.


1 turkey -- thawed (or fresh never frozen)
Ingredients for cooking Giblets
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 small whole onion
1 bay leaf or one Tablespoon Old Bay seasoning
    (whatever you have handy)
½ teaspoon salt
Dash pepper
Ingredients for Stuffing
9 cups bread cubes -- toasted
¾ cup chopped onion
1½ cups chopped celery -- with leaves
1 stick butter
2 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons ground sage
2 teaspoons ground thyme
½ teaspoon black pepper
No more than 1½ cups strained giblet broth or chicken broth for 9 cups of bread cubes

How Large a Turkey do I need?

For turkeys less than 12 pounds, allow at least ¾ pound per serving. For heavier turkeys, 12 pounds and over, allow at least ½ pound per serving. If you are serving a bunch of big guys like me, then allow a pound per person. If you do not use it all, then you have some great leftovers for sandwiches or turkey pot pie!

Thawing the Turkey

If you can get a fresh, never-frozen turkey, then do that. The meat will lose less of its natural moisture if it has never been frozen. For Thanksgiving day, we get our turkey fresh from a nearby farm.

I like to have my turkey thawed three or four days before I cook it, so I can start preparing the giblets and stuffing ahead of time, and brine the turkey if I am doing that. So plan an extra few days into your thawing time for those activities.

The best way to thaw your turkey is to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator. Don't unwrap the turkey, but still place it in a container to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods. Different sized turkeys will take differing times to thaw in the fridge, about 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds (about 6 hours per pound).

Thawing Times according to the USDA Approximate Weight

Thawing Time in Refrigerator

Whole Turkey
4 to 12
12 to 16
16 to 20
20 to 24
1 to 3 days
3 to 4 days
4 to 5 days
5 to 6 days

To thaw a turkey and cook it the next day, leave it out at room temperature overnight, about one hour for each pound. Note that the USDA says that this is unsafe...

The fastest way to thaw a turkey is by submerging it in water. The turkey needs to be in a leak-proof plastic bag, to prevent cross-contamination, and to keep it from absorbing water. Submerge the wrapped turkey in cool water. If your kitchen sink is large enough then use that, otherwise, a large cooler or bucket will work. Change the water every 30 minutes. It will take at least 30 minutes per pound to thaw the turkey completely.

Then there is microwave oven thawing. I strongly recommend against this for a variety of reasons, the main one being that you will end up partially cooking the edges of the bird before the thickest innermost parts are thawed. So just don't do it. Plan ahead.

Three Days Before

Brining the Turkey

If you wish to brine your turkey, then this is the time to start. The brine needs to be boiled, then brought back to "refrigerator temperature" before you put your turkey in it. Start making the brine three days before the day you plan to cook your turkey, that gives you enough time to leave the brine in the refrigerator overnight, then put the turkey in the brine the next day, and then, the day before cooking, allow your turkey to dry in your refrigerator overnight before you cook it. Here is a recipe and instructions for how to brine a turkey.

Two Days Before

Three sets of giblets in the pot.

Three sets of giblets in the pot.


Two days before you are serving your turkey: Remove turkey from bag. Remove neck and giblets from body cavities. Just reach in and pull them out. The neck and giblets are usually in a bag or bags, plastic or paper, in one or both cavities. The turkey has one cavity at the front and one at the back. If there is a gravy packet, remove that too, and save it to make gravy. If you are brining your turkey, put it in the brine now, otherwise, put the turkey back in the bag, or re-wrap the turkey in plastic wrap and put it back in the refrigerator.

Cooking the Giblets

In a medium-sized pot, cover the gizzard, heart, and neck with water; sprinkle with ½-teaspoon salt, a dash of ground black pepper, a pinch of ground cloves, a small bay leaf, and a small whole onion. I like to add about a Tablespoon of Old Bay Seasoning instead of the bay leaf. Heat to boiling; reduce heat to slow simmer. Simmer covered for at least three hours, adding water if necessary to keep everything covered, until gizzard is fork-tender and neck is tender. I cook my giblets longer, until the neck is falling apart. When done add the liver and simmer for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat. Leave covered, and let set 15 minutes to finish cooking the liver, then refrigerate until you are ready to make the stuffing. Don't discard the giblet broth; it will be used to moisten the stuffing. Instead of cooking on a stove top, you can simmer the giblets in a crock pot or slow cooker on high, but you will need to cook them longer, at least 4 hours, on high if your slow cooker has a high setting. Other than that, if cooking them in a crock pot, you just follow the same directions except in a crock pot rather than on stove top.

The Day Before

Preparing the Stuffing


My stuffing before going into the crock pot.

Prepare the stuffing the day or night before you are serving the turkey. Allow 3/4 cup stuffing for each pound of turkey. This recipe makes enough for about a 12-pound turkey. You need toasted bread cubes. The reason you toast the bread for the stuffing is two-fold. First is to dry it out so it absorbs more turkey and herb goodness and flavor. Second is that the bread, when toasted, holds together better, it will not disintegrate into a mushy goo, but will stay in more of a bread cube shape. I generally save the heals (crusts) from loaves of bread in the freezer and use those, but you can just lightly toast a loaf of bread, and then cut the toasted slices into cubes. OR -- cut the bread into cubes and put on a cookie sheet and bake at 375°F for 10 minutes, or 300°F for 30 minutes, to lightly toast. Cutting toasted bread into cubes leaves lots of crumbs, it is not as messy if you cut the untoasted bread and then toast it. Use white bread.

In a large pot melt the butter, then cook and stir the onion and celery in it over medium-low heat until the onion is tender. Stir in the bread cubes a bit at a time until all bread is in the pot. Reserving the giblet broth, remove the giblets and chop them into small pieces, discard the neck skin and remove as much meat as possible from the neck, discarding the bones. Chop the neck meat and add it and the chopped giblets to the mix. (Or if you do not want giblets in your stuffing, then just leave them out and make the stuffing without them.) Chop up the onion from the giblet mixture and add it too. Sprinkle on each of the remaining spices individually: salt, ground sage, ground thyme, and black pepper, stirring and turning the stuffing after each addition. Slowly add a bit of the giblet broth to moisten the bread, turn and mix the mixture a bit and continue to add the broth until the stuffing mixture is quite moist, but not mushy. If you want to make a sausage stuffing, then brown some sage flavored breakfast sausage, breaking it up, and mix it into the stuffing.

I recommend that you cook the stuffing separately from the turkey, that is, don't stuff the turkey. If you stuff the turkey, then it has to cook much longer to reach the proper safe temperatures and the turkey meat will dry out during this longer cooking period.

If you still plan to stuff the turkey, do not stuff it until just before you are ready to cook it. The stuffing should be refrigerated until you are ready to cook the turkey.

Turkey Day

Warming the Stuffing

I recommend cooking the stuffing all day in a slow‑cooker on the lowest setting. I just use the keep-warm setting. Slow‑cookers differ on what this temperature is, so watch your pot to make sure your stuffing does not dry out or burn on the bottom and edges. You can stir your stuffing gently about once an hour to help prevent this over‑cooking. I put my stuffing into the slow-cooker the first thing in the morning, and just leave it until it is time to serve. I guess, since I'm not stuffing the bird, it should be called "dressing" rather than "stuffing", and around here, some people call it "filling". Whatever you call it, I put it together the day before, putting it in the removable crock for my crock-pot, and then refrigerate it, crock and all. I cook it in the slow-cooker for about six or more hours the next day. Using a slow-cooker for this, instead of stuffing the turkey, makes the turkey cooking time much shorter, and helps keep your turkey from drying out. Since all the ingredients in the stuffing are already fully cooked, there is no chance of contaminating the stuffing with bacteria from the uncooked turkey. The stuffing also stays very moist in the crock-pot, and you can fit more stuffing in a crock-pot than in a turkey, so I can make more for my hungry guests and family. I like to get some extra giblets to go in the stuffing, so consider that when you purchase your turkey.

Preparing the Turkey

Remove the neck and any giblet packets and gravy packets. These can be packed in both ends of the turkey, so check both! Many people forget to remove the giblets and end up with plastic or paper bags cooked into their turkey, along with undercooked giblets. The neck is generally in the body cavity and the giblets in the wishbone area.

If you have not yet, unwrap the turkey. Remove the neck and any giblet packets and gravy packets. Clean the turkey out quite thoroughly, removing any gunk from the interior that you would not want to eat. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels.

If you are stuffing the turkey (not recommended) do so just before you start cooking it. Do not stuff the turkey and then store it. Wait until just before cooking to stuff it. Stuff the turkey filling the wishbone area first (the end that holds less stuffing). After filling that area, secure the neck skin with a skewer to hold the stuffing in place. Then stuff the body cavity.

Foil triangle folding.

How the foil triangle goes on the turkey.

Some turkeys come with a wire or plastic mechanism to hold the drumstick ends, if so, then remove it. A problem encountered when cooking turkey is that the white meat is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F, but the dark meat is not done until it reaches an internal temperature of about 170°F to 185°F, so If you cook your turkey until the dark meat is done, the white meat is over-cooked. When you hold the ends of the drumsticks together with some mechanism, the dark meat, the thighs, and drumsticks are squeezed tighter together and do not get as much exposure to the heat as when the turkey is not held together, so remove any mechanism that squeezes the turkey together. If the tips of the drumsticks are under a band of skin, slip them out of that too.

Wrap the wings with foil, to keep them from over cooking. I recommend Reynolds Wrap® Non-Stick Foil folded so that a non-stick surface is toward the wings, and a non-stick surface is on the outside too, or the foil will stick to the side of the bird by the wing.

Foil triangle formed to the breast of the turkey.

Foil triangle formed to the breast of the turkey.

Use a V-shaped rack in a shallow roasting pan. Cover the rack with non-stick foil. Brush the breast with melted butter, then place the turkey, breast side down, on the rack. Brush the rest of the turkey with melted butter. Add one to four cups of water to the roasting pan. The pan will go on the bottom rack in the oven.

One of the main difficulties when cooking turkey is that the breast is done well before the dark meat. You end up with dried out white meat or undercooked dark meat. To alleviate this, make a triangle out of a double layer of foil, Reynolds Wrap® Non-Stick is good, and mold it to the breast of the turkey, then remove and save it. After browning the breast of the turkey, you put the foil triangle on the breast.

Foil triangle removed until the breast browns.

Foil triangle removed until the breast browns.

The reason that you added the water to the roasting pan, is that it prevents the meat drippings from burning on to the pan. The drippings and broth are used to make gravy later. If, during cooking, the pan dries out, add more water so the drippings do not burn on. (If you are using a glass pan, make sure the water never boils away, or you will break the pan when you add more water). Cover the wings with non-stick foil from the start, and remove the foil when the turkey is done.

Roasting the Turkey

I usually roast my turkey in the oven, but you can also roast it on your grill if you can control the temperature closely enough.

  1. Roast, breast down, at 500°F for about 30 minutes, just until the back skin is nicely browned. Note that if you have brined the turkey with apple cider, or another sugary brine, the skin will brown much more quickly, so you will need to start at 400°F not 500°F, and keep an eye on it so it doesn't turn black. If the turkey seems to be getting too brown, then turn the heat down (first to 400°F, then to 350°F) and move to the next step. If, at any time during cooking, the pan is drying out, add more water.
  2. Turn the turkey so one wing is up. Cook 20 minutes.
  3. Turn the other wing up, and cook another 20 minutes.
  4. Then turn breast up, and cook until the breast is browned, usually about 15 minutes, but not more than 30 minutes.
  5. Reduce your oven (or grill) temperature to 350°F. Apply your foil triangle to the breast then turn the bird breast side down again. Place a meat thermometer in the center of the breast meat where you think the meat will be coldest, cook last. Be sure the thermometer or probe does not touch the bone. Roast until the breast reaches 160°F. For a 14 to 16 pound turkey, this will take about another hour and a half. Longer for larger birds.
  6. The breast is done.

    The breast is done.
  7. Take the turkey out when the breast reaches 160°F. Allow the turkey to rest. Note that as the turkey rests, the internal temperature will continue to rise about another 5 to 10 degrees.
  8. Now use an instant thermometer, or a probe, in the thigh, to measure the temperature of the dark meat. If the dark meat has reached an internal temperature of 170°F to 185°F (and it usually has) then you are done cooking the turkey. BUT... if the dark meat has not reached at least 170°F, then it has to go back in. First, carve the breast off the turkey in one large chunk from each side of the breast bone. Carve the wings off if they are done. Put your turkey back in, back side up, breast side down, to roast until the dark meat reaches an internal temperature of 185°F.
    Note that you will use temperature to decide when the turkey is done, not time!
  9. DO NOT OVERCOOK THE TURKEY! If the turkey has a pop-up gizmo to indicate when it is done, leave it in, or remove it, but definitely ignore it. The pop-up gizmo (How Pop-Up Turkey Timers Work[]) is set to go off when the dark meat is done and the white meat is overcooked.

    Removing breast half.

    Removing breast half.

    When the breast thermometer gets to 160°F, the breast is done, but if the dark meat is not at least 170°F, then the dark meat needs to cook longer. I like my dark meat to get to 185 degrees. If you have turned the turkey as this recipe directs, then you may have the dark and white meat done at the same time, and that is ideal.

    However, if the dark meat is not done, you carve off the breast in halves, carve off each side of the breast as a whole piece, and if the wings are done, cut them off. You can serve and start with the breast and wings. The breast can be further carved cross-wise into nice serving sized portions.

    If the turkey is stuffed, then you should definitely remove the breast and get started because the white meat will surely over-cook before the stuffing has reached a safe temperature.

    Breast ready to be carved.

    Breast ready to be carved.

    If you wish, you can present the turkey before cutting off the breast meat, and serve only the breast meat, no dark meat at this time. If everyone likes white meat, and you have enough white meat for everyone, then this works just fine.

    If you have stuffed the turkey, then put a thermometer into the center of the stuffing, and you still need a thermometer in the thigh. Reduce the heat to 250 degrees. Make sure your drippings are not dried out and add water to the pan if necessary. Now turn the breast-less turkey breast bone down, and return it to the oven and cook until the thigh thermometer registers 185, and the stuffing thermometer registers at least 150, whichever is later.

    Take your turkey out of the oven and put it on your serving platter, breast side up. If you carved the breast off earlier and didn't already eat it, replace the breast halves and wings. Before serving, remove any pop-up gizmo.


    The drippings can be used to make gravy. Some turkeys come with a "gravy pack" -- use it with the drippings, just follow the directions on the gravy pack. I usually combine the drippings with gravy that I have made using a packet of instant chicken and a packet of instant turkey gravy mixes, adding enough water so the total liquid is as much each packet recommends added together.

    A great trick for gravy: roast a chicken the weekend before you make turkey, and use the chicken drippings along with the instant gravy mixes, and turkey drippings to make a terrific gravy. Be careful not to get too much of the chicken or turkey fat in your gravy or it will be greasy.

    Here are more detailed instructions for How to Make Gravy.


    Remember that it doesn't really matter how well you carve the turkey, just as long as it tastes good. However, if you want to brush up on your carving method, here is How to Carve a Turkey.

    Oh... also, if you are making this turkey for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, then you may also like my pumpkin pie recipe!

    Left overs

    If you have left over turkey, then you might try Turkey Tetrazzini (pasta with turkey), a yummy Turkey Pot Pie, or White Chili.

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