When you’re in charge of cooking the turkey for Thanksgiving, it can feel like the pressure is on — and for good reason. You have to know when to thaw the bird, what temperature to cook it at, and whether or not you need to brine the turkey beforehand. However, the single most important detail of the day is how long to cook the turkey. Undercook and it’s a safety issue, but overcook and you’ll be left with a dry, tough piece of meat that you spent hours on.
Luckily, we have a cheat sheet for cook times as well as other prudent turkey advice you’ll need to win the big dinner.
How Long to Cook a Turkey
How long you’ll cook your turkey for depends on whether you decide to roast it unstuffed or stuffed (meaning you’ll be putting your stuffing — or dressing if you’re from the South — directly into the turkey) and how large it is. But no matter how you’re preparing it or how large your turkey is, you’ll need to cook it until the meat reaches an internal temperature of at least 165°F so that it’s safe to eat per the USDA.
The best time to check the temperature of the turkey is about 30 minutes before the timer is set to go off (be sure to keep the oven door closed to keep the heat in while you’re checking!).
The rule of thumb for an unstuffed turkey is that it cooks at a rate of 13 minutes per pound in a 350ºF oven. At this rate, a 6-pound turkey will take 78 minutes (or 1 hour and 18 minutes). A 15-pound turkey will take 195 minutes (or 3 hours and 15 minutes).
6-8 pounds: 1 hour and 15 minutes – 1 hour and 45 minutes
9-11 pounds: 2 hours – to 2 hours and 30 minutes
12-14 pounds: 2 hours and 45 minutes – 3 hours
15-17 pounds: 3 hours and 15 minutes – 3 hours and 45 minutes
18-20 pounds: 4 hours – 4 hours and 30 minutes
We generally prefer to cook stuffing separately from the turkey, but if you decide to cook it inside, know that a stuffed turkey will take a little bit longer to cook through than an unstuffed turkey. A stuffed turkey cooks at a rate of 15 minutes per pound in a 350ºF oven. At this rate, a 6-pound turkey will take 90 minutes (or 1 1/2 hours). A 15-pound turkey will take 225 minutes (or 3 hours and 45 minutes).
6-8 pounds: 1 hour and 30 minutes – 2 hours
9-11 pounds: 2 hours 15 minutes – 2 hours and 45 minutes
12-14 pounds: 3 hours – 3 hours and 30 minutes
15-17 pounds: 3 hours and 45 minutes – 4 hours and 15 minutes
18-20 pounds: 4 hours and 30 minutes – 5 hours
Be sure to check that both the stuffing and the turkey reach an internal temperature of at least 165°F to prevent food-borne illness.
How to Thaw a Turkey
Thawing a turkey correctly is key to having it cook evenly (and more quickly!). Spoiler alert — it can take quite a bit of time. There are two ways to safely thaw a turkey:
In the refrigerator
In cold water
If you thaw a turkey in the refrigerator, it will take roughly 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey to thaw. A 20-pound turkey will take four days to thaw in the fridge. If you thaw a turkey in cold water, it will take 30 minutes for every 1 pound of turkey, so the same 20-pound turkey will take 600 minutes (or 10 hours) to thaw.
Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator is the safer method (because the refrigerator keeps the meat at a temperature too cold for bacteria to grow), but thawing in cold water can be done in a pinch when you forgot to take the turkey out of the freezer.
Can You Cook a Frozen Turkey?
Yes, you can cook a frozen turkey (procrastinators rejoice!). This is perfectly safe to do according to the USDA, but the only downside (of course) is that it will take much longer to cook. In fact, it’ll take roughly 50% longer to cook a frozen turkey than a thawed one.
Here are our recommended cook times for a frozen turkey:
6-8 pounds: 2 hours – 2 hours and 45 minutes
9-11 pounds: 3 hours – 3 hours and 45 minutes
12-14 pounds: 4 hours – 4 hours and 45 minutes
15-17 pounds: 5 hours– 5 hours and 45 minutes
18-20 pounds: 6 hours – 6 hours and 45 minutes
How Much Turkey to Buy
Another big turkey conundrum is determining how much turkey you need to feed the crowd you’re serving. Thankfully, this is a pretty easy calculation to make: You’ll need 1 1/2 pounds of turkey per person if you want to have leftovers.
Here are the number of people the turkey can feed:
6-7 pounds: 4 people
7-10 pounds: 5 to 6 people
10-13 pounds: 6 to 8 people
13-15 pounds: 8 to 10 people
15-20 pounds: 10 to 14 people
How to Know When the Turkey Is Done
So, how do you know when your turkey is done? No matter what it looks like on the outside, you need to cook your turkey until it reaches an internal temperature of at least 165°F. To check the temperature on your turkey:
Pull the turkey out of the oven 30 minutes before the timer is supposed to go off. Close the oven door.
Insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the turkey’s thigh (the thermometer should be parallel to the body of the turkey), stopping in the center of the thigh and not touching the bone.
If the thermometer registers at least 165°F, it’s ready to take out and rest.
If the thermometer registers below 165°F, put the turkey back into the oven and keep cooking until it reaches the correct temperature, checking roughly every 30 minutes.
How to Carve a Turkey
Carving a turkey isn’t as difficult as it may seem. Here’s the best way to carve a turkey to get the most meat:
Let the turkey rest for at least 30 minutes.
Set up a station to carve the turkey.
Carve the turkey one side at a time.
On the first side, cut the leg and thigh off.
Cut the drumstick from the thigh bone.
Cut off the breast and wing.
Repeat with the other side.
Slice up the breast and thigh pieces.
Recommended Tools to Cook Turkey
Though you can certainly cook a turkey without having any fancy kitchen tools, there are a few essential cooking items that make roasting a turkey easier. Here’s what we recommend you have for the big day:
Is It better to cook a turkey at 325°F or 350°F?
It’s best to cook a turkey at 350°F so that the turkey cooks efficiently and gets crispy skin on the outside (but without making it too dry).
Do you cover a turkey when cooking?
It’s not necessary to cover a turkey when cooking unless the breast meat starts to get too browned toward the end of the cook time. If this occurs, loosely press a sheet of aluminum foil over the breast and continue roasting.
Do you put water in the bottom of the roasting pan for turkey?
You can put water or chicken broth in the bottom of the roasting pan for basting purposes. This ensures that the turkey doesn’t get too dry during the cooking process and the drippings don’t burn.