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Picture this: It's Thanksgiving morning. You've spent hours—maybe even days—preparing. You've laid out your Thanksgiving table settings and set out tasteful Thanksgiving decorations. Family and friends will be pulling into the driveway soon. You're mixing up a couple fall cocktail recipes. You've even got a fire in the fireplace.
This year, you're doing Thanksgiving potluck-style. You've encouraged folks to bring their favorite Thanksgiving side dishes and Thanksgiving desserts. All you have to do is roll out the bar cart when guests arrive, plus bring the main attraction at dinnertime: That golden brown, perfectly cooked turkey everyone looks forward to!
But wait! When does the turkey need to go into the oven? And at what temperature? How long does it to take to cook a turkey? Should you have gotten up early to start cooking it? And— oh shoot — does it need to be defrosted first?
You wouldn't win too many awards for hostess of the year if the turkey turns out completely inedible. Luckily, we're here to help ensure your bird is cooked perfectly — not dry as Uncle Bob's boots. Follow these helpful tips and your turkey will be the star of the Thanksgiving table, guaranteed.
What You Need for a Perfectly Cooked Turkey
1 20-lb turkey
Aromatics: 1 quartered white or yellow onion, 3 carrots, 3 celery stalks, fresh herbs (such as sage, and thyme)
A large, heavy-duty roasting pan with a rack
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fully Defrosting the Turkey
Ideally, you want start defrosting upwards of a week in advance. A frozen turkey will take approximately one (1) day for every 4 pounds to defrost in the fridge — which is the best way to do it, though there are faster methods. So to properly defrost a 20-pound turkey, plan for between 5 and 6 days for the bird to be fully thawed. To thaw, simply set the turkey on a large rimmed baking sheet and slide it in the fridge (cover with plastic wrap if it's not already wrapped). It really is as simple as that!
Preheat the Oven
Low and slow is the best way to cook a turkey so when you're ready to start, preheat the oven to 325ºF. Remove the turkey from the refrigerator. Unwrap it (if applicable) and remove the neck and giblets. (Save the neck for roasting and the giblets for gravy.) Let the turkey sit at room temperature for an hour while the oven heats up.
What's the Best Temperature for Cooking a Turkey?
You can find recipes that suggest cooking a turkey at temperatures ranging from 325°F to 375°F or even higher. While higher temperatures will cook the bird faster, we find that they also increase the risk of an overcooked, dry, or even a burnt turkey. That's why we recommend 325°F.
Don't Wash That Bird!
Recipes at late as the 1980s and 1990s often included instructions for washing your turkey ahead of time to remove salmonella. However, research found this isn't necessary. Not only will the cooking process completely kill any bacteria, but washing just splashes raw-turkey juices and bacteria all over your sink and counter. Yuck!
Season That Bird!
When cooking anything, always start seasoning at the beginning of the cooking process so that you can build the flavors as you go. The same goes here. Place the neck and half of the aromatics in the roasting pan; top with the roasting rack. Place the turkey on the rack, breast side up, and fold the wings under; this makes for a nicer presentation. Loosen the skin over the breast meat and rub the butter between the skin and meat. Season the large cavity with plenty of salt and pepper; stuff with the remaining aromatics. Tie the legs together with baker's twine. Season the outside of the turkey with salt and pepper. Pour 1/2 cup water in the pan to prevent the vegetables from scorching.
Do I Need to Brine or Baste My Turkey?
Grandma might have done either (or both) but in fact most of the time brining isn't necessary, and basting isn't helpful. If you've bought a heritage turkey or are cooking a wild turkey, you may want to brine it, but most store-bought turkeys are more than moist enough when you get them, so brining does little (you can dry brine the bird to help impart the seasoning throughout the meat but it isn't 100% necessary). As for basting, buttering the turkey ahead of time will help keep the meat moist and will do much more to achieve a golden-brown crispy exterior - bonus, you won't have to constantly be opening the oven, which reduces the heat and lengthens the cooking time.
How to Cook the Turkey
Make sure the oven rack is in the lowest position—this will help the bottom of the turkey cook while protecting the more delicate breast meat on top. Slide the roasting pan into the oven, close the door, and wait! After about 3 hours, take a peek. If the skin is starting to get too brown, gently lay a piece of buttered foil over the turkey. If not, keep roasting. The surest way to tell when the turkey is done is to test the internal temperature with an instant read thermometer. It's done when the thermometer reads 165ºF. It should take between 4 to 4 1/2 hours to come to temperature, but you'll want to start testing it at about the 3 1/2 hour mark to be sure that it doesn't get overcooked.
To do this, remove the roasting pan from the oven (close the oven door, you don't want to lose all the heat!) and slide the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh (the easiest way to find this is to insert the thermometer into the crease between the leg and the breast), making sure you don’t touch any bones. If the thermometer reads 165ºF, it's done. If not, slide it back into the oven. Check it again every 15 minutes until it reaches 165ºF. Because the bird will continue to cook after it's removed from the oven, it's better to err on a few degrees under rather than over.
Let That Turkey Rest!
When the turkey is cooked, transfer it to a large cutting board and lay a large piece of aluminum foil over the top. Let it rest between 45 minutes to 1 hour while you make the gravy. After that, carve and enjoy!
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