How does One Cook a Turkey?

O. Wallace

Cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving no longer has to be done in the same old traditional way. For those cooking one for the first time, it might be interesting to take a walk on the culinary wild side and try something a little different. Recipes abound on the Internet for those who need help making a traditional bird, as well as for those who want to try deep-frying it for a change.

Giblets, like the gizzards, should be removed before cooking.
Giblets, like the gizzards, should be removed before cooking.

The first step in preparing a turkey for any recipe is thawing it ahead of time. If a fresh bird is purchased, this step can be skipped. The general rule of thumb is to allow 24 hours of defrosting in the refrigerator for every 5 pounds (2.25 kg) of meat. To defrost in cold water, allow 30 minutes for every 1 pound (0.45 kilograms). Just be sure to change the water every 30 minutes.

A roast turkey.
A roast turkey.

Remove the neck and giblets, which include the gizzard, liver and heart, from the body cavity. These can be used later to make gravy. If it will be cooked with stuffing, this is a good time to stuff the bird, just before roasting. Stuff the turkey loosely — it’s not a good idea to pack it in. The stuffing should be able to cook through easily. A general rule is to cook the bird until the center of the stuffing reaches 165° Fahrenheit (74° Celsius).

A turkey.
A turkey.

If your preferred method of cooking the turkey is roasting, choose a shallow roasting pan. Preheat a conventional oven to 325°F (163°C). Place the meat in the pan with the breast side facing up. The tips of the wings may be placed under the shoulders.

Deep frying a turkey can be a dangerous task, so caution is advised.
Deep frying a turkey can be a dangerous task, so caution is advised.

At this time, any seasonings can be used. This is where cooks get creative, and poultry can be seasoned in a variety of ways depending on the region or cultural preferences. Some southern recipes use spicy chilies for seasoning, while other areas brine their birds beforehand.

Turkey gravy can be made from the pan drippings from a roast turkey.
Turkey gravy can be made from the pan drippings from a roast turkey.

There are special roasting bags available with built in thermometers that pop up when the turkey has reached the correct temperature. The bag helps to seal in juices and saves the cook from frequent bastings. Another method is to make a tent out of tin foil and cover the bird for the first couple of hours in the oven. Regular bastings are necessary with this method, usually every 30 minutes. Use a meat thermometer to make sure that the temperature reaches 165°F (74°C) when placed into the thickest area of the thigh. The thermometer shouldn’t touch the bone, as this will affect the reading.

A smaller, unstuffed turkey, about 8 to 12 pounds (4 to 5.5 kg), requires approximately two to three and a quarter hours in the oven, and a larger bird that’s about 20 to 24 pounds (9 to 11 kg) will need closer to five hours of roasting. A stuffed turkey weighing about 8 to 12 pounds (4 to 5.5 kg) will need approximately three and a half hours, while a larger stuffed bird, about 20 to 24 pounds (9 to 11 kg), will need a little over five hours. Roasting charts are available in most general cookbooks, as well as on the Internet. Some brands have ‘round the clock hotlines for cooking questions.

Although deep-fried turkey sounds like fun, there is more equipment and danger involved than with roasting. Special fryers are available, but a 40 to 60 quart (38 to 57 liter) pot and a burner powered by a propane gas tank should do the trick. A basket is also necessary to lower and raise the bird. A fire extinguisher is also a good idea, due to deep-frying’s notorious reputation for all those pesky Thanksgiving Day oil fires.

Smaller turkeys work best and will need about 5 gallons (19 liters) of cooking oil. Marinate the bird and cover it with breading and season. The oil should be preheated to 350°F (177°C). This can be determined with a candy thermometer. The turkey should be fried for about three minutes for every pound, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 180°F (82°C).

When deep-frying, make sure that the fryer is placed outdoors, away from buildings, trees or other flammable objects. Keep children and pets away, and use appropriate safety precautions. Deep-fry aficionados swear by the unrivaled juiciness of this way of cooking.

For grilling fanatics, grilled turkey is another option. In this method, the meat is cooked over indirect heat. Put the bird in a tray or on a part of the grill that is not directly heated. Allow 12 to 15 minutes for every pound (0.45 kg) of meat. Just be sure to baste often to avoid drying it out. With any cooking method, allow the turkey to cool for approximately 20 minutes before carving.

Be sure to avoid the bone when using a meat thermometer.
Be sure to avoid the bone when using a meat thermometer.

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Discussion Comments


@waterhopper: You can always freeze your leftover turkey in a freezer storage bag and use it later. I like to make homemade turkey pot pies after the holidays.

Here’s another quick and easy way to use your leftover turkey:

Make some turkey, broccoli and cheese casserole. In a large bowl, mix a cup of turkey, 2 cans cream of mushroom soup, 2 boxes of cooked frozen broccoli, 1 egg, ½ onion (chopped), 1 Tbsp. mayo, and spices to your liking. Pour into a casserole dish and top with cracker crumbs and shredded cheese. Bake at 350 until brown and bubbly.


@waterhopper: Here are a few ideas for your leftover turkey:

Turkey Soup – Take your turkey bones and the bits of meat clinging to it and slow cook it for a few hours with some carrots, onions and celery (or veggies of your choice). After a few hours, remove the bones and add any more veggies that you want. Tastes great!

Turkey salads are great! Shed the turkey and add a chopped hardboiled egg, chopped celery, and a little onion. Mix it with some mayo and seasonings. You can also use lettuce and make a regular salad with tomatoes and anything else you like.


We always have so much turkey leftover after holiday dinners. Does anyone have any ideas on how to use the leftovers?


The problem with stuffing, per se, is that it often comes out gummy. Dressing in a separate pan is a tasty choice, and usually a safer one, since the cook doesn't face the issue of wondering whether the dressing cooks properly inside the bird.

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