If you are planning a family dinner for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you are probably wondering how to cook a turkey. Well, look no further. This guide will help you cook an unstuffed turkey that is moist and juicy.
I remember the first time I cooked a turkey. I was terrified! Family was coming over and I was in charge of making the Thanksgiving dinner. My fear was all over the place, as I was worried I would both undercook and overcook the turkey.
I have learned a lot since those early days. The main thing that I discovered is that cooking a turkey is not as difficult as I thought it would be.
Cooking a turkey is actually quite simple. There are some common steps you can take to ensure that you have a perfectly cooked and delicious turkey.
Tips for a cooking the perfect turkey
- Make sure that the turkey is completely thawed. If you are using a frozen turkey, make sure that you have given it enough time to thaw in the fridge. Turkeys are big so it can take days to thaw a large turkey in the fridge! If there are parts of the turkey still frozen, it will not cook evenly.
- Check in the cavity of the bird. Some turkeys come with the neck, gizzards and other bits stuffed in the cavity and under the skin. Sometimes they come in a bag. Remove and discard those turkey parts.
- Brining the thawed turkey in the fridge for 24 hours will result in a roasted turkey that is extra moist and full of flavour. For details on how to brine a turkey, check out my post on How to Brine Chicken. The method is the same. You will just need a larger container and more brine. A brining bag works very well for a turkey, as it can be easier to fit a bagged turkey, with a brine, in the fridge.
- Use a roaster that has a rack. Placing the turkey on a rack allows the heat to better circulate around the turkey and cook more evenly.
How to Season a Turkey
To get the turkey ready to go in the oven, one of the first things I do is pat the skin dry with a paper towel. Whether you take the turkey out of the plastic packaging or remove it from the brine (if you brined the bird), it will be wet all over the skin. Moisture on the skin does not hinder the cooking, but if you like that browned crispy skin look and flavour, then it is best to pat it dry.
Next, sprinkle salt and pepper all over the bird. Make sure to get the salt and pepper on the underside of the turkey and in the crevices as well.
If the turkey is not going to be stuffed, then I like to fill the cavity with aromatics to enhance the flavour of the bird. I cut a lemon in half, quarter an onion and put both in the cavity. You can throw in a few garlic cloves and bay leaves as well.
Pour a cup of water into the roasting pan. This prevents the drippings from burning on the bottom of the roasting pan. I also find it helps later on when I am making gravy from the drippings.
Do you cover or baste the turkey?
I do not cover or baste the turkey when it is in the oven.
I find that using a roasting pan with a cover will actually steam the turkey. In my experience, it seems to draw more of the moisture out of the bird. Also, the cover prevents the skin from browning and crisping up. From a presentation standpoint, I love the way a beautifully browned turkey looks on a platter. Also, that salty, crispy skin is always fought over around our table and you won’t get that effect if the turkey is covered.
Basting is not something I do either. Some people say that basting will keep the turkey moist. From my experience, it is more important not to overcook the bird. An overcooked turkey is a dry turkey. Basting will not help that either way.
How long does it take to cook a turkey?
- Set the oven for 400F.
- Once the oven has reached 400F, put the roaster with the turkey in the oven and immediately lower the temperature to 325F.
- The initial higher temperature simulates a convection oven. The higher heat seals in moisture. I find that this creates a juicier bird and browns the skin beautifully.
- The turkey is done cooking once it reaches 165F. Use a digital thermometer to check the internal temperature. I like to check in the thick part of the inner thigh as well as the fattest part of the breast.
- For a 14 pound turkey, it takes roughly 3 1/2 hours to cook through. Start checking the temperature at around the 3 hour mark.
- Note: Some ovens have a convection setting. These instructions are not for using the convection setting. If you want to use convection, I would reduce the temperature by 25F. Also the cooking time will be shorter. You will want to start checking the internal temperature of the bird earlier.
Don’t forget to rest the turkey
Once the turkey has finished cooking, take it out of the oven and let it rest. Resting the bird prior to carving is an important step. The juices of the turkey are drawn back in and the turkey will be far more moist.
I like to let the turkey rest for 10-15 minutes. If you want, you could tent some foil over the bird. This will keep the turkey from cooling down too much.
While the turkey is resting, I like to make the gravy. The drippings from the roasting pan are full of flavour and will make incredible gravy for the turkey and mashed potatoes.
Dishes that go well with turkey
If you are planning to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving, Christmas or some other holiday gathering, you may be wondering what other dishes go well alongside turkey.
Check out the recipes of these side dishes that are great for a turkey dinner.
- Mom’s Turkey Stuffing
- Homemade Cranberry Sauce
- Garlic Mashed Potatoes
- Mashed Potatoes with Chives and Pecorino
- Baked Ratatouille
- Candied Carrots
- Pumpkin Pie Casserole
How to Cook a Turkey
- 1 whole turkey about 14 pounds
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1 medium onion peeled and quartered
- 1 lemon halved
- 3 bay leaves
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 cup water
- Preheat oven to 400F.
- Use a paper towel to pat dry the skin of the turkey. Season all sides of the bird with salt and pepper. Fill the cavity with onion, lemon, garlic and bay leaves.
- Place the turkey on a roasting rack and in roasting dish. Pour in the 1 cup water.
- Place the turkey in the oven and immediately reduce the heat to 325F.
- Cook until the turkey is cooked through and reaches an internal temperature of 165F (checked in the inner thigh meat and in the thickest part of the breast). For a 14 pound turkey this takes around 3 1/2 to 4 hours. A general guide is that it takes approximately 15 minutes per pound to cook an unstuffed turkey.
- Let the turkey rest for 10 minutes before carving.