Don’t panic if you’re in charge of this year’s Thanksgiving turkey. The internet may have you believe otherwise, but cooking a turkey in the oven isn’t hard. Read on for a straightforward walk-through of how to cook a turkey in the oven without losing your mind.
Step by step: How to cook a turkey in the oven
The simplest method is to cook your turkey in the oven, in a roasting pan. Here’s what you need to know.
1. Check your supplies
You need a roasting pan with a rack, a reliable meat thermometer, a large cutting board, a carving knife, and a platter for serving. Optionally, if you plan on wet brining your turkey, you also need a brining bag or food-safe bucket liner.
As for food ingredients, you need the turkey, plus some potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, butter, and your seasonings.
2. Thaw the bird
Thaw your turkey in the refrigerator for several days before cooking. The rule of thumb is to allow one day for every four pounds of turkey.
Jump to the FAQs below if today is Thanksgiving and your bird is still frozen.
3. Preheat oven
Set your oven to your desired temperature. I like to cook turkey at 325F, but you can go as high as 400F if you need to shorten the cook time.
4. Prep your roasting pan
Cut up some potatoes, carrots, and celery into bite-sized chunks. Toss those in the bottom of your roasting pan. Set the roasting rack in the pan so it will suspend the turkey over your vegetables.
5. Season your turkey
You don’t need to get fancy with your turkey seasoning — butter, salt, and pepper will do the trick. You can optionally add in some sage, rosemary, and garlic powder to suit your taste.
Pat your turkey dry first and then apply softened butter mixed with your seasonings all over the bird. If you can gently separate the breast skin from the meat, smush some of your butter mixture underneath the skin, too.
6. Cook the turkey
Place your seasoned turkey on the rack, breast side up. (Some argue for cooking the turkey breast side down for moister meat. I don’t recommend this method, because it leaves the skin on the breast too soggy.)
You can optionally tent the turkey with foil. Remove the foil in the second half of cooking to get a nice, crispy skin.
Your roasting time depends on:
- How big the turkey is
- Whether the turkey is fully thawed
- What temperature you set the oven to
- Whether you use an oven bag
As a general rule of thumb, a defrosted turkey cooked in the oven and in a roasting pan at 325F will take about 15 minutes per pound to cook. For details on how to oven-roast a turkey at other temperatures, please see our guide on how long to cook turkey.
7. Check your turkey’s temperature
Check the temperature of your turkey with a meat thermometer about 30 minutes before you think it will be done. Do this even if the bird has a pop-up timer, since those can be inaccurate.
The turkey is done when the innermost breast meat registers a temperature of 165F. To reach that part of the meat, insert the thermometer horizontally starting from the neck cavity. Check both sides of the breast as an extra precaution.
8. Rest and make your gravy
Once the turkey is done, remove it from the oven and let it rest for 30 to 45 minutes. Don’t tent or wrap the turkey, as the skin will get soggy. Just let it sit there, undisturbed.
During the resting time, the meat reabsorbs the juices release during cooking. If you skip this step, the juices will escape as soon as you carve the turkey. Those juices carry lots of flavor and moisture, which you won’t enjoy if they’re running all over your cutting board.
While the turkey rests, complete any last-minute meal prep and make your gravy. Try this for a quick gravy recipe:
- Mix a few tablespoons of turkey drippings from the pan with 2 cups of broth in a saucepan.
- Separately mix 2 tablespoons of cornstarch with 1/4 cup of water until smooth.
- Pour the water and cornstarch mixture into your broth.
- Heat the gravy to a boil, whisking constantly. Let it boil for a minute or two.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
9. Carve and serve
To carve a turkey, cut straight through wing and leg joints with a carving knife. Set those pieces aside. Next, gently remove the breast skin. Then, slice the breast meat close to the bone, so that it comes off in one big chunk. After removing the breast meat, you can carve it into thick slices for serving.
This video explains the turkey carving process nicely.
FAQs on cooking a turkey in the oven
The actual cooking part of preparing a turkey is easy. It’s all the other stuff — thawing, seasoning, and the like — that can stress you out. Here are answers to the questions that plague many Thanksgiving-Day chefs.
1. Should you brine the turkey?
Brining involves seasoning or soaking your turkey overnight prior to cooking. This is an easy step that adds flavor, but it also extends your preparation by a day. As well, brining can require more equipment. If you’re doing a liquid brine, you will need a food-safe brining bag or bucket liner. You can get bucket liners on Amazon here.
I’ve made fabulous turkeys with and without brining them ahead of time. So consider this an optional step.
If you want to try brining, see the video from Mesha’s Corner below. She does use lots of seasoning and fruit to season the brine. This is for flavor only. You can tone down the seasoning if you prefer — just don’t leave out the sugar or the salt.
2. What if your turkey is still frozen on Thanksgiving morning?
Turkeys take days to defrost, so there is a chance your turkey will still be frozen on Thanksgiving morning. If this happens to you, you have three options.
- Defrost the turkey in the microwave. Use the defrost setting and cook according to the weight of the turkey. This is the fastest method but has the highest chance of unevenly cooking your bird.
- Defrost the turkey in cold water. Dunk the whole bird, still packaged, into cold water. Swap out the water every 30 minutes. This can take several hours — the USDA estimates 30 minutes per pound.
- Cook your frozen turkey in the oven as planned. Your the frozen bird may take 50% longer than normal to cook.
3. What temperature should turkey be when it’s done?
Your turkey should reach 165F deep in the breast meat. The wing and thigh meat will be hotter, closer to 175F.
4. Should I roast my turkey in an oven bag?
You can cook a fabulous turkey in an oven bag. Here are the pros and cons:
- Con: The oven bag is an extra thing to buy. Related pro: Oven bags are readily available on Amazon and they’re not expensive.
- Pro: Your turkey cooks faster in an oven bag.
- Pro: If you use an oven bag, you don’t need to brine or baste the turkey.
- Con: There’s an extra step required to get crispy turkey skin. You have to pull the turkey out of the bag 15 or 20 minutes before it’s done and place it on the rack. Save the drippings in the bag to make gravy.
- Pro: Unless you spill drippings when you’re pulling the turkey out, the oven bag is a no-mess process. Simply toss the bag when you’re done.
5. Should you baste the turkey?
I’m a purist and I like to leave the turkey alone while it’s cooking. This keeps the oven temperature more consistent, which helps you get a more evenly cooked bird. So, no, I don’t like to baste.
Some people swear by basting, however. So, here’s a video that shows you what to do:
6. Should you stuff the turkey?
Don’t stuff your turkey. Stuffing the turkey raises the chances you’ll inadvertently serve under-cooked food. To manage that risk, you’d have to remove the stuffing from the turkey and cook it in the oven while the turkey rests. The extra work isn’t worth it.
Instead, put aromatics, citrus fruit and/or herbs inside the turkey cavity. Onions, garlic, quartered lemons, and sprigs of thyme should add some nice flavor.
7. What’s trussing? Do you need to do it?
Trussing is the process of tying up your turkey so the legs are held firmly against the breast. The argument for trussing is that the turkey tends to cook more evenly. Having the legs close to the breast reduces the hot air around the breast, which keeps the meat from drying out. The added benefit is that a trussed turkey is way more photogenic than an unbundled bird.
The argument against trussing is that you get less crispy skin around the legs, because they’re bound up close to the breast.
It comes down to this: Truss if you like the breast meat as moist as possible. Or if you plan on posting your turkey pics to the socials. Don’t truss if you love crispy roasted turkey skin.
Here’s a video from Alton Brown that shows you how to truss that turkey.
- 1 16-lb turkey
- 2-3 medium-sized onions
- 3 celery ribs
- 4 carrots, peeled
- 2 potatoes
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 2 Tbsp of sea salt
- 2 Tbsp of black pepper
- 3 tsp of sage, rosemary, and/or garlic powder
- Thaw your turkey for 4 days in the refrigerator.
- Heat your oven to 325F.
- Cut your onions, celery, carrots, and potatoes into bite-sized chunks.
- Unwrap your thawed turkey, remove giblets, and pat it dry.
- Soften the butter in the microwave, 10 seconds at a time.
- Mix the butter with the salt, pepper, and optional seasonings.
- Cover the turkey inside and out with the butter mixture.
- If you can, gently slide your fingers under the skin on top of the breast. Slide some of your butter mixture under the skin.
- Place your onions in the turkey cavity.
- Optionally, truss the turkey.
- Place all other vegetables in the bottom of your roasting pan.
- Set a rack on your pan and place the turkey on top, breast side up.
- Gently tent the turkey with foil.
- Place the turkey on the roasting pan in the oven.
- After 2 hours, remove the foil.
- Check the turkey's temperature after it's been in the oven for 3.5 hours.
- Once the breast meat registers a temperature of 165F, remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest.
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Amount Per Serving: Calories: 1260Total Fat: 53gSaturated Fat: 18gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 31gCholesterol: 680mgSodium: 1808mgCarbohydrates: 12gFiber: 2gSugar: 2gProtein: 174g