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How to Prepare Your Thanksgiving Turkey Perfectly This Year

Your ultimate guide on how long to cook your turkey, the tools you'll need and what to do if something does go wrong.

a whole turkey on a serving dish
Here's everything you need to know to ace your Thanksgiving turkey. 
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This story is part of Home Tips, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

Thanksgiving is just a couple weeks away, which means it's crunch time. If you're hosting, you need to start planning out your menu, prepping your home for guests and brushing up on your cooking techniques. But it's also time to start thinking about the main event: the turkey

How are you going to prepare the turkey? Are you going to make it in an oven? Do you have all the materials you need? The last thing you want to do is procrastinate -- I mean, Thanksgiving isn't called Turkey Day for no reason. It's important to nail your turkey recipe -- and we can help. 

Here's everything you need to know to ace your Thanksgiving turkey this year. For more holiday hacks, check out our Thanksgiving cheat sheet to nail the day. 

How much turkey do you need this Thanksgiving?

If you want to go all out by making a whole turkey, you can definitely do that. If you want to save time and money by going with a turkey breast instead, you can do that too. While it can be hard to determine how much turkey each guest will eat, a good rule of thumb to follow is buying one to one and a half pounds of turkey per person. That means a standard 12 to 15 pound turkey should feed about eight people as part of a meal, and you can scale up or down as needed. 

whole turkey on a decorative tray

A beautifully prepared turkey is in your future.

Maren Caruso/Photodisc/Getty Images

What's the best way to thaw a turkey?

Don't forget this step -- definitely don't forget this step. Unless you buy a precooked turkey from a grocery store, your turkey is most likely going to be bought frozen. This means you need to plan ahead, since your turkey can take between one and six days to fully thaw. 

You can follow our full guide on how to thaw turkey with the best methods, but it's actually pretty easy -- you just need time. 

The best method is thawing the turkey in the refrigerator. The USDA recommends 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, so you'll need several days to fully thaw your bird. Plus, you can keep the turkey in the fridge for another two days once it's fully thawed, so feel free to start a day earlier and plan for another day of resting before you actually plan to cook.

How long does it take to cook a turkey?

Cooking time, of course, depends on how much turkey you're preparing. The important thing is that your turkey is cooked to the proper temperature (165-170 F), so you'll need to rely on a meat thermometer for help. (Don't trust the pop-up turkey timer that may come with your bird -- it usually won't pop until the turkey is overcooked.) 

That said, here are some general guidelines based on an oven temperature of 350 degrees F, our preferred temperature to roast turkey. 

How long to cook a turkey

12-14 pounds ~ 3 hours
15-18 pounds ~ 3.5 to 4 hours
18-20 pounds ~ 4 to 4.5 hours
21-24 pounds ~ 4.5 to 5 hours

I recommend checking on your bird every so often to ensure it doesn't dry out (keep reading for tips on how to fix a dry turkey). 

If you prefer a higher-heat method, it will obviously take less time, but you run the risk of burning the skin of the turkey; that holds true with the "start high, then lower the heat" method too. It's more reliable -- and simple -- to keep the oven at one temperature throughout. 

thanksgiving dinner table with turkey and sides

Here's a go-to guide for turkey roasting times. 

Cavan Images/Getty Images

Should you brine your turkey?

This is certainly optional, but I recommend brining a turkey the day before roasting it. Brining is the process of covering the meat in salt to tenderize and moisturize the meat. Turkey is a leaner meat and the light part cooks faster, meaning by the time the dark meat is fully cooked, the light meat may be overcooked. Brining can help prevent dryness. 

There are two popular methods of brining: dry brine and wet brine. Dry brining involves rubbing coarse salt on the turkey; wet brining involves soaking the bird in a salt water bath. For both methods, the turkey needs to be fully thawed.

Brining can take anywhere from eight to 18 hours. A word of caution: Brining too long can have the very opposite effect and dry out your turkey, so I recommend brining for 24 hours maximum. Also, most supermarket birds have been preinjected with a salt solution, so you probably won't need to brine. 

Tools you need to cook a turkey

For a basic roast turkey recipe, you won't need any special, chef-grade ingredients or equipment -- and you probably already have most things in your kitchen. But here's a rundown of what you'll need:

A roasting pan is ideal for cooking a Thanksgiving turkey.

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If you're basting the turkey meat with the drippings, you'll want one of these. Bonus: It comes with a cleaning brush to get all the grease out.

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A meat thermometer is your best friend when it comes to cooking a turkey. A meat thermometer will tell you when your turkey is done. When taking the internal temp, insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the breast or thigh. Make sure the probe isn't touching bone, since that's the coldest part of the turkey and won't give you an accurate read. 

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How to season a turkey

You need to season your turkey, so you'll need some fresh herbs, spices and aromatics. Below, we have a seasoning recipe that is a great starting place for any novice or pro, but you can always adjust to your taste as needed. 

You can always use poultry seasoning that's premade from the store, but make sure you buy it fresh. Don't use the bottle from last year! 

Here's a standard shopping list for turkey seasonings:

  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • Vegetable oil (or olive oil)
  • A half stick of butter (softened at room temperature)
  • Half a lemon
  • Half an onion (cut into four pieces)
  • One celery stick (cut into three pieces)
  • Fresh sage
  • Fresh thyme leaves
  • Bay leaves (fresh or dried)

What's the best way to roast a Thanksgiving turkey?

Here's our advice for roasting your bird on Thanksgiving day (or whenever you're celebrating): 

1. The day before you plan to roast your turkey, make sure it's fully thawed, then remove the contents from the cavity. Discard the giblets (heart, liver and gizzard), but save them to make a gravy or stuffing. Reserve the neck!

2. Rub the turkey generously with salt, including under the skin covering the breast.

3. Place the turkey on a pan or baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the next day when you roast. This helps the bird stay tasty and juicy.

4. The next day, place the oven rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. This will take about 20 minutes, so in the meantime, remove the turkey from the fridge and prepare it for roasting per the next steps.

5. Pat the turkey completely dry (inside and out) with paper towels and tuck the wing tips back and underneath the body. Rub a generous amount of vegetable oil inside the cavity, all over the outside and under the skin. Then, season well with salt and pepper, including inside the cavity.

6. Mix the fresh herbs (listed in the above section) into the softened butter, break into small chunks and place them under the skin covering the breast. Put the lemon, onion, bay leaf and celery inside the cavity. (While many might still put stuffing inside the cavity, this method has been linked to salmonella outbreaks since the turkey may not get up to temperature. When you cook it separately, you get more crusty surface area and juicy meat.)

7. Place the turkey breast side down on the roasting rack, and put the reserved neck in the bottom of the pan for extra flavor. Roast in the oven for 45 minutes, basting the turkey every 20 minutes or so once the juices start to accumulate in the pan.

8. After 45 minutes, flip the turkey onto its back and continue to baste every 20 minutes. Roast for about two to two and a half hours (follow the above cooking time chart).

9. When a meat thermometer inserted into the inner thigh registers 170 degrees F and the juices run clear, remove the turkey from the oven. Let it rest 20 to 30 minutes before carving. If you're planning on making your own turkey gravy, be sure to set aside the roasting pan and reserve both the vegetables from inside the bird's cavity and the neck.

Close up shot of Thermometer in Roasted Turkey

Look for these temperatures in your turkey: 180F in thigh, 170F in breast, 165F in stuffing.

Okrad/Getty Images

Or, try this easier method

Flipping the turkey can be a hassle, but this method is simpler yet just as delicious. You can simply roast the turkey in one, upright position for the entire cook time.

I recommend you baste the breast every 30 to 40 minutes to ensure it's tender and doesn't dry out. You can also tent the pan with aluminum foil if the skin starts to brown before the meat is done, just take the foil off for the final few minutes to get a nice crispy skin on the turkey.

How to prepare a spatchcocked turkey

If you want to flex some cooking skills, you can spatchcock the turkey before you roast it. To spatchcock a turkey simply means removing the backbone so it lays flat as it roasts. This technique helps the turkey cook faster and more evenly, and will result in juicy white meat and crispy skin. 

If you go this route, you don't need to start the turkey breast-side down, but you should check the meat earlier than you normally would, since it will be done sooner.

How to fix overcooked, dry turkey

Sometimes, despite your best efforts -- and the help of this guide -- things can go awry. The good news is you can usually fix your mistakes when it comes to cooking. 

To moisten dry turkey, dilute equal parts gravy with well-seasoned stock and pour the mixture over the meat. Then you can cover the meat with foil and pop it back in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes at 200 degrees F. Plus, you can always smother the meat with gravy or cranberry sauce, too. 

How to fix undercooked, raw turkey

If your deceptively golden-brown turkey turns out to actually be raw inside, there are some ways to fix the undercooked meat. Don't just throw it back into the oven. Follow this guide:

First, carve off the turkey legs and breasts (try to keep them as intact as you can). Next, place the pieces on a baking sheet and put them in a preheated oven at around 375 degrees F. Be sure to check on the meat every 15 minutes or so with a meat thermometer until the pieces hit an internal temp of 165 degrees \ F. Then slice up the turkey and platter it.

More ways to nail Thanksgiving