If you’ve started looking for a turkey recipe, you’ve probably already discovered how confusing it can be! There are SO many recipes for roast turkey out there, and lots of different ways to cook your Thanksgiving dinner centrepiece.
Courtney from Neighbor Food sums it up beautifully:
“People have some STRONG opinions about turkey, and they’re all different. Depending on what you read, your techniques (Brining, basting, or tenting your turkey with foil) are either THE BEST THINGS to ever happen to poultry, or will completely RUIN your turkey and your life. Many agree that deep frying is the best way to cook a turkey, but you should NEVER do it because it’s too dangerous and could explode and burn your house down. What?! Even the cooking temperature is a hotly debated topic! Pun intended.”
So to help make sense of it all, I’ve gone through the first twenty recipes for roast turkey that I found on Pinterest. My goal is to show you what’s consistent amongst them, what’s different and why. Hopefully that will help you to choose an approach, or a recipe, that suits you best.
I’ve intentionally selected those that roast their turkey in the oven. I haven’t considered those using an electric roaster, or deep fry their turkey, or smoke it, or use any other cooking method.
The recipes are all created by accomplished cooks, some of them professionally trained. And they’re all well reviewed, with glowing comments from people who have tried them out. So it’s safe to say there’s success to be found here. But it also means that there are different paths to triumph with your turkey! There are several different approaches amongst the recipes, so you can choose an approach that suits you.
The recipes did challenge a number of things I thought were immutable laws of roasting a whole turkey:
- Oven temperature, and changing it during cooking
And other things too. Read on to find out what I discovered.
There are a number of different steps involved in preparing your turkey for the oven. Most of them are critical to your success too, albeit in different ways.
To ensure your turkey is safe to eat and cooked evenly, it is best to fully defrost it before roasting. And this takes time. Like, a lot of time. Depending on the size of your bird, and how you do it, it could take days.
You have two main choices:
- Defrost your turkey in the refrigerator. This is easier, but it takes much longer. For example, a 20lb/9kg turkey will take about five days to thaw in the refrigerator. Yep, FIVE DAYS. So planning ahead is essential.
- Defrost your turkey in cold water. This involves immersing your turkey in water, ideally deep enough to fully cover it. It’s a lot faster, but more labor intensive. Ideally you should change the water every thirty minutes to ensure the meat stays safely cold. And if your water doesn’t cover the turkey, you’ll need to turn it too. But it is faster. Your 20 lb/9kg bird will take only about ten hours to defrost this way.
There are other advantages to refrigerator thawing. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), you can leave your turkey in the fridge for 1-2 days after it thaws. You can also refreeze it if you need to. With a water-defrosted turkey you can’t do either of these things. You should cook it immediately, and it can’t be refrozen.
Whichever approach you take, there are plenty of good online resources around, like this one from Butterball.
For best results, the key is a fully thawed turkey. Not just the exposed breasts, but the thighs and other deep meats too. Rachel at The Stay at Home Chef even recommends testing the temperature with a meat thermometer before you begin. This sounds like a great way to go. If the turkey tests over 32°F/0°C everywhere, you know you’re good.
Roasting a frozen turkey
It is worth noting that the USDA advise that you can in fact roast your turkey from frozen. They suggest it will take at least fifty percent longer to cook from frozen. I can only imagine it is very difficult to do this without significantly overcooking your breast meat. But where there’s a will, there’s probably a way. If you’ve tried this I’d love to hear how it went in the comments at the bottom of the page.
Rinsing your turkey can be tempting, I know. It might’ve come out of the packaging a bit slimy, or a bit bloody. But rinsing was one of the first points of contention amongst the recipes. A number of authors recommend rinsing your turkey inside and out before beginning. But others were against this for a couple of reasons:
- The USDA recommends not rinsing, because the water droplets that land all over your sink and surrounds can contain dangerous bacteria. This can then cross-contaminate foods you aren’t cooking, like your salad. Additionally, most bacteria won’t rinse off the turkey, making the step unnecessary. If you’re concerned about food safety, Popular Science have a good overview, amusingly titled How to cook and eat a turkey without dying.
- One key to a crispy skin is for it to be dry (of water, not fats) before it goes in the oven. Unless you thoroughly dry the turkey after rinsing, you risk a soggy skin. The advocates of rinsing do recommend this too, but make sure you’re thorough.
If you do prefer to rinse your turkey, make sure you clean up well afterwards. Randa at Bewitchin Kitchen makes a point of this, recommending bleaching all your surfaces down after preparing your turkey.
How to avoid dry turkey meat
The ultimate goal for your roast turkey is moist, flavoursome meat. Each recipe has a different approach to ensuring a tasty, juicy finished product, but there are several common themes.
If you’re not familiar with it, brining is the process of soaking your turkey in a strong salt solution. The goal of this process is to increase the water content of the meat. This way it can afford to lose some moisture during its time in the oven. There’s a much more detailed explanation on Serious Eats if you’re interested.
I must admit I expected brining to be widespread amongst our recipes. It’s been a traditional approach for decades, and in many homes is a festive season ritual. But I was wrong. Only three of the twenty recipes utilize wet brining (don’t worry – more on wet vs dry brining shortly).
And it turns out I’m not alone in my belief. Almost every non-brined recipe has one or more commenters asking if they can brine their turkey. Some commenters even ask if they should be brining even though the recipe doesn’t require it. Brining is obviously a popular approach for many people.
If you’re looking for a recipe that brines the turkey, the three in this group were:
- Wholesome Yum. Maya shares a lot of detail on her brining process.
- Eazy Peazy Mealz. Rachel swears by brining for a moist, flavoursome turkey. Her brine is quite complex, including garlic, herbs, sugar and lemons.
- Food Folks and Fun.
Reading through the other recipes, and more broadly, there are a few reasons why brining has become less popular. It is a bit of a messy, and certainly time-consuming process, with the three recipes above recommending 10 hours or more of brining. Serena from Serena Bakes Simply from Scratch doesn’t brine because she finds it changes the texture of the meat. The New York Times dig into the subject a lot more with The Rise and Fall of Turkey Brining.
If you do choose to brine, there are a couple of things to be aware of:
- Check that your turkey isn’t pre-brined or self-basting. These are common products and additional brining risks making them too salty, or further altering the texture.
- You are best to brine after you’ve thawed your turkey, or at least when there’s only ten or twelve hours of thawing to go. Too long in the brine again risks making your turkey too salty.
There is another technique referred to as dry brining. This involves fairly heavily salting the turkey and then letting it rest for some time. While several of the recipes apply a salted seasoning to their turkey, none rest it afterwards, so it’s more of a dry rub than a dry brine. This will give a different effect than dry brining, but will obviously add flavor to the skin in particular. I’ll touch on this technique and the authors’ chosen flavors a little further down.
Basting under the skin
The most consistent preparation was basting the turkey underneath it’s skin. This technique involves sliding some form of fat, usually butter, between the skin and the meat. This then melts while the turkey cooks, constantly basting the meat.
Three quarters of the recipes insert butter under their turkey’s skin. Eleven of those incorporate some herbs and /or spices into the butter as well. And there’re quite a few flavors you can choose from.
What herbs are popular with turkey?
There were several popular choices for the herbs used in the basting butter:
- Rosemary was the most common, included in nine of the eleven herb butters.
- Eight of the recipes included one or more of the following:
- Lemon juice or zest, with the latter preferred, appearing in seven recipes
- Parsley was close behind, in seven of the recipes.
- Basil and olive oil were less common, making only two appearances each
There were quite a variety of combinations too, but if you’re looking for popular choices, they were:
- Rosemary, sage and thyme were used together (with other flavors) six times
- Four of the recipes used parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme together. Kudos to Monica at The Yummy Life for pointing out the Simon & Garfunkel reference! And apologies in advance if you can’t get Scarborough Fair out of your head later on.
Plenty of great flavors to choose from here, so take your pick!
What if I’m dairy or lactose intolerant
What if you need (or want) to do your turkey without butter? One commenter had exactly this issue, and replaced the butter with duck fat. It’s easy to imagine this would be amazing!
The only other technique used to ensure the meat remains nice and moist was an injected marinade. Shinee at Sweet and Savory injects melted butter into the breasts and thighs of her turkey. This obviously requires special equipment, but if you’ve got the gear it’s easy to imagine this would add a unique juiciness to the meat. And it won’t steam off like water will. You’d obviously need to ensure your turkey was not already injection marinated before looking into this approach.
What about that crispy skin?
The most consistently used preparation technique on the skin was the application of some combination of fat, salt and/or flavorings to the outside of the skin. In fact only one recipe, from Sabrina at Dinner then Dessert, didn’t add anything to the skin before the turkey went into the oven.
Pre-basting with butter, with or without the addition of some herbs and spices, was easily the most popular, used in twelve recipes. Nine of these used the same butter mixture as they used under the skin, so you’re already familiar with which herbs and spices. Of the other three, one uses plain butter, one butter with garlic, and one butter with lemon zest.
Maya at Wholesome Yum makes an interesting point with her use of herbed butter on the skin. Cooking the bird too hot could burn the butter and the herbs. Given that the smoke point of butter is 350°F/175°C, this makes sense. That said, several of the recipes use butter on the skin and higher temperatures (up to 500°F/260°C), and don’t report any problems. Presumably the lower temperature of the turkey is helping manage the temperature of the butter.
Olive oil baste
The only other fat used to pre-baste the skin was olive oil. Four of the recipes took this approach, with two of these also adding a dry spice rub after the oil.
Dry Seasoning Rub
The five other authors who seasoned the outside of the skin applied a rub of various herbs and spices. This technique is very common with many other dishes like a nice slow-roasted pulled-pork.
The five dry rub recipes were:
- Julie at Yellow Bliss Road uses salt, thyme, sage, paprika, pepper and ground mustard
- Rachel at The Stay at Home Chef uses paprika, oregano, basil, onion powder, garlic powder
- Randa at Bewitchin Kitchen simply uses salt and sage
- Alisa at The Delicious Spoon uses garlic powder, ground sage and dried thyme together with salt and pepper (after a basting of olive oil)
- Karlynn at The Kitchen Magpie uses another simple mix of parsley and salt (also after a basting of olive oil)
As you can see there’s a lot of variety and some great choices here. So if you want to use a dry rub, you can take your pick.
Stuffing was another area where my expectations were very different to what I found in these twenty recipes. Like brining, stuffing the cavity of the bird with a prepared mix of breads, herbs and spices and other ingredients has traditionally been very popular. And like brining, many commenters on a number of the recipes ask about how to stuff their bird and use these recipes.
They ask in the comments because not one of these twenty recipes incorporate stuffing inside the bird. Roast turkey without stuffing??? That’s right, and in fact a number of the authors actively recommend against it. This is mainly because the time it takes the stuffing to reach a safe 165°F/75°C is likely to overcook your meat, especially the breast. The USDA also recommend not stuffing your turkey, concerned that the stuffing will not reach temperature when the meat does, and won’t be checked before being eaten.
Stuffing is obviously still enormously popular. But for these recipes it’ll need to be prepared separately. A number of the authors provide links to their stove-top or slow-cooker stuffing recipes.
That’s not to say the cavity of the turkey goes to waste. Sixteen of our recipes instead place aromatics inside their bird.
Aromatics are ingredients that add flavor and aroma to the dish when heated. They are extensively utilized in many, many dishes of many, many cooking styles. Think onions, garlic and herbs and you’re on the right track.
You may be wondering how a few loose ingredients in the cavity of the turkey can make much difference to the flavour of the meat. At the risk of starting a flame war, I’d say you’re probably right. Strongly aromatic additions like rosemary can certainly lend a nice aroma to the meat, but your onion and apples won’t do much, if anything, for the meat. They will however, help provide a wonderful flavor punch to your drippings, which end up in your gravy…you get the idea.
Whatever they do, they must do it well, because sixteen of the recipes insert aromatics into their turkey.
What aromatics should you use?
There are a wide variety of ingredients used here, but again there are some strong themes:
- Almost all of the aromatics include onions (thirteen of sixteen if data is your thing)
- Garlic is the next most common, appearing in ten of the recipes
- Lemons are used in nine of the recipes
- Herbs are also used in nine of the recipes. Like with our herb butter, the most common are: (add music icon here?)
- Celery and apples appear in five recipes each
- Carrots are used in four of the recipes
Monica at The Yummy Life was the only author to recommend adding aromatics (onion only in this case) to the neck cavity.
If you don’t use your drippings for gravy you may not see the value in putting aromatics inside your turkey. But they’re inexpensive ingredients, and they’ll only add flavor.
Trussing your turkey
Trussing is tying the turkey’s legs together to prevent them from splaying apart while cooking. And it’s yet another area of contention.
Most of the authors of our twenty recipes recommend trussing, but as best I can tell, it is mainly for presentation. Beyond presentation is where it gets contentious. Some chefs, like Alton Brown, say trussing prevents uneven cooking. Others, like David Joachim and Andrew Schloss, say trussing causes uneven cooking!
The former camp advise that the more compact shape of a trussed turkey cooks more evenly. The latter camp are concerned about the limited air circulation around the trussed legs, tucked up against the body of the bird. Given that the legs cook slower, and we ideally want them to reach a higher temperature, I’m inclined to agree with the latter argument. But I’m not expert, and many of our authors make their turkey turn out beautifully when it’s trussed, so it’s clearly not a deal breaker either way.
One thing I think everyone can agree on is that a trussed turkey looks much better than an untrussed one, so if you’re carving at the table, your decision is likely an easy one.
Hopefully so far this has helped you figure out how you want to prepare your turkey, or at least given you some direction in choosing a recipe. Now on to the good bit – roasting your turkey.
How to oven roast your turkey
The goal with roasting a whole turkey is, for most people, two-fold:
- Perfectly cooked meat, all over the bird
- Beautifully brown, crispy skin
Which is actually quite complex to pull off!
The dark meat of the legs take longer to cook and become tender than the lighter breast meat. This is because the leg muscles are harder working during the turkey’s life, so they develop differently, with more fat and more collagen. This is especially true of farmed turkeys, which rarely if ever use their wings fully. The differences are explained well in more detail here if you’re interested in the science. This all means you need to consider both meats individually as you roast your turkey.
The skin is completely different, cooking much more quickly than the large, dense muscles. As a result, it needs special attention too!
Don’t worry though. Oven roasting the perfect turkey is arguably one of the most studied culinary feats. So there’s plenty of knowledge out there. And based on the ratings and comments on our twenty recipes, there’s more than one successful method too. Which would also explain why it’s so hotly debated, amongst experts, friends and family members alike!
Based on our twenty recipes, there are a number of things you need to consider when it comes time to roast your turkey:
- Should you use a rack under your turkey?
- Breast up, breast down or both?
- Covering your turkey or not; and with what and when if you do?
- What temperature to roast at, and should you change it during cooking?
- Basting your turkey
- Determining when your turkey is cooked
I’ll go into each of these below, but it’s worth pointing out that several of these decisions are linked closely together.
To rack, or not to rack?
Why would you roast your turkey on a rack? Because it lifts it out of the drippings, and out of the stock if you’re using it. This allows air to circulate around the entire bird, and prevents a soggy bottom. No one wants a soggy bottom.
Given this, it’s no surprise that sixteen of the recipes use a rack in their roasting pan. Check carefully though once you choose a recipe, because several of the recipes use a rack, but don’t mention it in the directions. Some of these could be seen in the photos, and some in replies to questions from commenters.
That said, you can roast your turkey without a rack, like the other four recipes choose not to. Natasha at Natasha’s Kitchen recommends not using a rack so that the bottom of the bird self-bastes. She also notes that this meat is often not eaten and makes for great leftovers.
If you do want to use a rack and don’t have one, a number of the authors suggest alternative techniques. One is to use scrunched or rolled aluminium foil. The other, which I’ve used often for roast pork, is to use a bed of coarsely chopped or whole vegetables, especially carrots. Using vegies adds additional flavor and complexity to your drippings, and therefore gravy, too. This works great for a variety of roast meats.
Which side up?
You’re about to lift your turkey into the roasting pan, and you stop. Do you put it in breast up? Or breast down?
Or maybe you’ve seen all the photos of turkeys done breast side up, and you’re wondering why you’d roast turkey with the breast side down?
These may seem like unimportant questions, but they’re actually not. It matters for a number of reasons:
- Temperature distribution in the oven. Most ovens are hotter at the top, even convection/fan-forced models. This means whichever meat is at the top will cook faster.
- Hot air circulation. Even if the turkey is on a rack, there’s still less air circulation in the narrow gap between it and the pan. This means whichever meat is at the bottom will cook more slowly. Circulation is also a key factor in getting a nice crispy skin. For the best skin you want lots of hot air circulating around the skin.
- Gravity plays a role in how moisture distributes itself in the meat, albeit a more minor role. Whichever meat is down will naturally accumulate more fluid, making it juicier.
So this creates a conundrum, doesn’t it? You want your breast meat to cook more slowly, so breast down would make sense. But you also want a nice crisp skin over the breasts, so maybe it should be breast up? Yikes!
So which side should go up?
The good news is, our twenty authors are almost unanimous on this one. Eighteen of the recipes are roasted breast side up. They use several different techniques to prevent the breast cooking too quickly, which we’ll come to shortly.
The other two recipes, from Jillian at Food Folks and Fun and Monica at The Yummy Life, start with the turkey breast side down. Both authors then turn their turkey over, breast side up, at some stage during cooking, and they stay this way until they come out of the oven. This is to ensure the skin over the breast has the chance to crisp up.
Roasting your turkey breast side down is a great way to slow down the cooking of the breast meat and simultaneously speed up the thigh meat. But there’s something else to consider with this approach. Flipping a big, heavy, steaming hot turkey is not a simple feat. It’s easy to imagine this is why many authors don’t use this approach. Both Jillian and Monica recommend equipment to help turn your turkey.
Covering your turkey
Covering your turkey with foil, or a lid, or something else during roasting can play an important role both aspects of our goal:
- It can help manage the different cooking speeds of the two major meats
- It can impact the crispiness of the skin
That said, there’s no consistency amongst the recipes with regards to covering your turkey. Five authors cook their turkeys uncovered, and there’s no connection to their roasting temperature preference (more on that shortly). Two more authors advise covering with foil only if your turkey’s skin is browning too much. The rest of the recipes use some type of covering, but the approach is again varied. Some cover their turkey for the whole time, some only at the beginning, and some only at the end.
The most common covering is foil, but even with that, the authors’ approaches vary. Some of the recipes advise tenting your turkey with foil, and others recommend pressing the foil against the skin.
Clever turkey coverings
A clever idea that three of the recipes utilize is to cover just the breast with foil for some of the cooking time. As Julie at Yellow Bliss Road explains, the foil dissipates some of the heat, allowing the breast to cook a little slower. Although it’s not a common approach, I must admit I’m intrigued to give it a go because it makes such great sense. Especially with regards to managing the differing cooking speeds of the different meats.
Two of the authors use a technique I’d never come across before. Serena from Serena Bakes Simply from Scratch and Tieghan from Half Baked Harvest both cover their turkey in cheesecloth which has been soaked in butter (and in Serena’s recipe, wine). Their recipes are quite different otherwise, but it’s easy to imagine this approach keeping the skin of the turkey beautifully drenched in butter during its time in the oven.
What about roasting your turkey in a bag?
Although a number of readers ask different authors about them, only one recipe, by Karlynn at The Kitchen Magpie, uses a roasting bag. Although she cuts a few small steam holes in it, the turkey is covered in the bag for the whole time in the oven.
So, like several other aspects of cooking your turkey, there’s not an obvious common theme here. Some of the variation is likely due to different authors’ ovens, and probably also due to differing preference for the crispiness of the skin.
What temperature should you roast your turkey at?
Like so many other aspects of roasting a turkey, you have choices for your oven temperature too. There are a number of different approaches to achieving the goal we set out above. Our twenty authors used three different approaches, although two of these dominated:
- Cooking the turkey at one consistent lower temperature
- Starting the turkey in a hotter oven, and later decreasing the temperature
- Starting the turkey in a cooler oven, and later increasing the temperature
The first two approaches were equally popular, being used by nine authors each. Only two of the recipes started cool and increased the temperature later.
Cooking your turkey at one consistent temperature – low and slow
This approach is arguably the simplest, although in most of the recipes there are still intermediate steps to be completed during cooking.
Two authors go definitively low and slow. Karlynn at The Kitchen Magpie and Serena from Serena Bakes Simply from Scratch roast their turkeys at 300°F/150°C. This temperature will obviously take longer, but slow cooking is a great approach for tougher meats, like turkey legs. It’s also worth noting here that the USDA advises cooking at no less than 325°F/160°C. That said, both Karylnn and Serena obviously have success (and safety) with this temperature.
If you’d rather play it a bit safer, fear not, because two more of the recipes use 325°F/160°C. The other five in this group roast their turkey at 350°F/175°C.
Starting hot and finishing cooler
The other popular method to roast your turkey is to start it out hot and lower the temperature later. The objective here is to rapidly brown and crisp the skin, which fans of this approach will tell you helps to lock in the moisture.
There’s quite a bit a variation in chosen temperatures amongst the nine recipes that use this approach. The starting temperatures range from 400°F/200°C, which isn’t particularly hot, to 500°F/260°C, which was beyond the capabilities of an oven I had years ago! The finishing temperatures are much more consistent, with seven of the nine recipes at 350°F/175°C. Of the other two, one finishes at 325°F/160°C and one at 375°F/190°C.
There’s also a lot of variation in how much the authors change the temperature, with the lowest drop at just 50°F and the greatest at 150°F.
Similarly, there’s a lot of variation in how long they roast their turkeys at the hotter temperature, ranging from twenty minutes to an hour. And you might think that the shorter times equate to the hotter ovens, but there’s so much variation it’s hard to pick a theme.
What temperatures to use for a hot start?
So, if you’re looking for a sense of the most common temperatures and times with this approach, it’s kinda hard to say. I can say that 350°F/175°C is definitely the most popular finishing temperature. Beyond that, you’ll need to pick a recipe for more specific guidance. I’ve sorted the recipe links at the end by oven temperature approach to help you choose if you need.
Of course this approach is also popular for other meats. It’s particularly good when you really want crispy skin, like crackling on your roast pork. I’ve had a lot of success with this approach. My current oven reaches 530°F/275°C, and I use every bit of that for thirty to forty-five minutes to quickly crisp up the skin before lowering the temperature to go more gently on the meat.
Starting low and finishing hotter
The objective of this method is to cook the meat slowly, much like the low and slow approach, but then give the skin a good blast at the end, ensuring a crispy finish.
Only Julie at Yellow Bliss Road and Melissa at No. 2 Pencil use this approach. They both start at 325°F/160°C, but that’s where the consistency ends. Their times at this temperature and at the finishing temperature are different. And their finishing temperatures are different, although not by much (400°F/200°C and 425°F/220°C respectively).
Basting your turkey
This one surprised me a bit. Only five of our authors baste with any frequency. A couple of others baste two or three times. The rest don’t baste during cooking at all.
This is obviously related to the extensive use of butter under, and on, the skin of the turkey. As this butter melts it continuously bastes the turkey as it roasts. Ingenious really! And it means with the right preparation you can roast your turkey without basting.
As I mentioned earlier, two of the authors cover their turkeys in cheesecloth which has been soaked in butter. Both authors baste over the cheesecloth, but at very different intervals.
Regular basting obviously means you’ll be more closely tied to the kitchen during the lengthy cooking time. Sabrina at Dinner Then Dessert suggests brining your turkey if you’re not up for basting.
Another concern that popped up more than once about basting was that it increased cooking time. I’d never really thought about it, but basting means the oven door is regularly being open. Each time this happens, the oven temperature drops noticeably. Depending on your oven, it could take quite some time to come back to temperature. More than one reader queried or commented on this on the basting recipes.
How long should it take to roast your turkey?
If you’re looking for a definitive cooking time in hours and minutes, you won’t find it in any of these recipes. And neither you should, because the answer is “it depends”. It depends on:
- The size of your turkey. Bigger turkeys obviously take longer to cook.
- Your oven. Every oven is different. They distribute heat differently. And hold heat differently. They heat back up at different speeds after the door is opened. And they are very often slightly (or even significantly) mis-calibrated, or become so with age. And this means that the temperature on the dial or LCD could be meaningfully different from the actual temperature inside.
- Your turkey. Like ovens, turkeys are different. They have different muscle densities, different manufacturer preparations and more.
- Stuffing. If you stuff your turkey, it will take longer to cook than an unstuffed turkey.
- Where you live. What? Yep! Apparently high altitude increases cooking time by as much as five minutes per pound above 3,000 feet (914 metres). This was news to me! Thanks to Serena from Serena Bakes Simply from Scratch for pointing this out to one of her readers.
Planning for cooking time
This doesn’t mean you need to stick it in the oven with no idea though. There are a number of good resources around, many of which our authors reference, to give a ROUGH time per weight. The USDA and Butterball both have charts with cooking time indications.
If you’re looking for a bit of a rule-of-thumb, the authors of our twenty recipes variously quote 12-14 minutes per pound, 13-15 minutes per pound, 15 minutes per pound and more. As you can see, it depends!
Every author though, and all of the other sources you’ll find, will recommend the use of a meat thermometer to ensure your roast turkey is fully cooked.
What temperature should your turkey meat be when it’s done?
This is a much more complicated question than it seems because it impacts two different issues:
- Food safety. Heat kills bacteria, and no one wants to get sick, or worse, make their family or friends sick. No, not even that really, really annoying relative.
- Meat quality. Overcook the meat and it will quickly become tough and dry, especially the breast meat.
Food safety is relatively easy. As long as you get all of the meat to the right internal temperature for long enough, any dangerous bacteria will be killed. But meat quality is much more challenging, because these temperatures are right at the boundary of moist, tender breast meat. So the trick is to hit the right temperature, but for no longer than you absolutely need to. And if you really want to know what’s going on inside your turkey’s breast and thigh meat, you need a meat thermometer.
All but two of our authors recommend the use of a meat thermometer. The other two don’t explicitly do so, but they both recommend cooking your turkey until it hits an internal temperature of 165°F/75°C. Unless they have remarkably sensitive (and heat-resistant) finger tips, we can safely assume they’re also recommending the use of a meat thermometer.
If you haven’t come across one before, I have a description of meat thermometers and how to use them in my glossary.
Your two targets with a meat thermometer are obviously your breast meat and your thigh meat. But it can seem a little confusing to figure out where to insert the thermometer, especially for the thigh. Monica at The Yummy Life has a great description with a diagram and a photo to help you find the right spot to insert the thermometer in the thigh.
A number of authors also recommend throwing away the little red pop-up thermometer that comes already implanted in some turkeys. I’ve never seen one, but apparently they can be very unreliable, or simply set too high. On top of that, they’re only testing one location, and usually not the most important location – the thickest part of the thigh.
Food safety for roast turkey
A lot of recipes and articles on roast turkey make it seem like this issue is pretty straightforward. Hit a certain temperature, and your food is safe. This is true, but it’s not the whole story. What you’re usually getting with these is the temperature at which all harmful bacteria will be instantly killed, or at least very quickly. It’s also true that harmful bacteria are killed by exposure to lower temperatures, but for longer times.
As an example, Rachel at The Stay at Home Chef states that turkey is safe to eat so long as it’s been at 150°F/65°C for at least 5 minutes. The UK Food Standards Agency list times and temperatures required to kill harmful bacteria as follows:
- 140°F/60°C for 45 minutes
- 150°F/65°C for 10 minutes
- 160°F/70°C for 2 minutes
- 165°F/75°C for 30 seconds
- 175°F/80°C for 6 seconds
This is a little different to Rachel’s because different governments have different safety buffers built into their recommendations, but you can see the point. You can actually safely cook your turkey meat to a lower temperature. But you must make sure it has maintained that temperature for a longer period of time, which can be tricky to manage. This is why most regulatory bodies and published recipes recommend a temperature that kills very quickly.
Lower internal temperatures
Pulling your turkey out of the oven at a lower temperature can be safe for another reason too. As Maya at Wholesome Yum highlights, the temperature of the meat will continue to rise a little while resting. So if you cook it to 165°F/75°C in the oven, depending on the size of your turkey it could rise another five to ten degrees. For the breast meat in particular, this is not good news. Maya removes her turkey from the oven at 150°F/65°C and lets it rest for 20 minutes. She then checks the temperature again before serving to make sure it has indeed risen to the safe 165°F/75°C.
If you’re interested in exploring lower temperatures more, there are some great articles out there. Mike at Dad Cooks Dinner has a great overview.
Resting your turkey after roasting
As tempting as it is to jump straight in and eat once the turkey’s done, it is common to rest it beforehand.
Resting simply involves keeping it covered and warm (not hot) for a period of time after it comes out of the oven. This is done to allow the juices to redistribute evenly throughout the meat. The cooking process makes the outside meat drier, and resting helps reset this imbalance. This doesn’t only apply to roast turkey. Any cooked meat benefits from resting, especially larger pieces.
Our authors obviously agree, because all twenty recipes advise resting after cooking. The delicious smell obviously overcomes some of our authors earlier than others, with several recommendations for ten, fifteen or twenty minutes, and one for simply brief resting. Others prefer a longer settling time, with thirty minutes, forty-five minutes or even an hour advised. For the data lovers, here’s the distribution:
As you can see, it’s quite the spread. I’m guessing it has as much to do with how long it takes the author to make the gravy as it does with meat science. One thing’s for sure, you should definitely rest your turkey after roasting. And if you do so for between fifteen and thirty minutes you’ll be in the majority.
How to cook the perfect roast turkey
Having read this far you’ll hate me for this, but based on these recipes there is no silver bullet approach to cooking your turkey perfectly. Reading the comments their recipes attract these twenty authors all achieve success. It’s hard to imagine you’d go wrong with any one of them. But they all use different approaches, hence no silver bullet. That said, there are some common themes and definitely a few consistent things you need to consider in your approach to your own turkey.
Remembering that our goal is juicy meat, crispy skin and safe eating, if you remember only one thing as you plan your approach, remember this:
Breast meat and leg meat are different in almost every way. Most importantly, they cook at different rates. Legs take longer than breasts.
All of the recipes I reviewed accounted for this fact in some way. The techniques at your disposal include:
- Preparation of the skin
- Preparation of the meat
- How you place your turkey in the roasting pan
- How you cover your turkey, and when
- What temperature you set your oven to, and whether you change it during cooking
- Resting your turkey after roasting
Yikes! Easy to get overwhelmed, isn’t it?
The essence of roast turkey
Don’t worry, based on these recipes there are some common themes to help you along:
- Pre-baste your turkey with butter and herbs, both on and under the skin. You won’t go wrong with some combo of rosemary, sage, thyme, parsley, garlic and lemon.
- Stuff the cavity with aromatics. Popular options here are onions, garlic, lemons and similar herbs to your butter.
- Truss your turkey
- When you place your turkey in the oven pan:
- Place it breast side up,
- and place it on a rack to lift it out of the drippings.
- There are two popular approaches to cooking your turkey:
- low and slow (at one temperature for longer), or
- start it hot, and lower it later
- Your turkey is ready to eat when the meat is 165°F/75°C. If you can make it work, it’ll be even better if your thigh meat is a little hotter.
- Rest your turkey for fifteen to thirty minutes before carving.
So, there you have it – the essence of a modern roast turkey! Hopefully this has helped you make some decisions about how you roast your holiday turkey, or how you choose a recipe to follow. I’d love to hear your experiences, so please feel free to comment at the bottom of the page.
Oh, and you know what’s perfect after a turkey dinner? A big slice of pumpkin pie!
And what about making any leftovers into a white bean chili?