I promise you, cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving is easier than you might think. Let me walk you through it. These step by step instructions for cooking a Thanksgiving turkey will be extra detailed to put any first timers at ease. Here we go.
Pre-Thanksgiving Turkey Prep
Buying a Turkey
The first step is obvious. Buy a turkey. Buy about 1 pound per person. You can order a fresh turkey, or you can buy one at a grocery store. There is a good chance that the grocery store turkeys might be frozen, so get your turkey at least 3-5 days early so it has time to thaw out in your fridge. Research says that the turkey could need up to 1 day for every 4 pounds of weight to thaw out in your fridge.
Buy Turkey Seasonings
While you are buying your turkey, pick up butter, thyme, rosemary, sage, a lemon, garlic, an onion, and chicken stock too.
To Brine Or Not To Brine
You can opt to brine your turkey, but I would recommend against it. It is a lot of extra work, and if you brine a turkey you can’t use the bones to make stock for turkey soup – it will be salty and bitter (I learned this one the hard way).
What to do the Night Before
The night before Thanksgiving, completely unwrap the turkey. Then remove the neck and the giblets. These will be in the cavity of the turkey. The giblets will likely be in a small bag and the turkey neck is big and you will find it easily. I recommend doing this the night before so that you can make sure that the cavity of the turkey is thawed out.
If it is still a little icy, it should thaw overnight now that you unwrapped the turkey and took the neck and giblets out. Rinse the inside and outside of the turkey in cool water. Pat it dry with paper towels and sprinkle the inside and outside with a bit of salt. Put the turkey in a pan, and return it to the fridge unwrapped. Letting the turkey dry out in the fridge overnight will make the skin crispier.
Step by Step Instructions for Cooking a Thanksgiving Turkey
Calculate How Long it Will Take to Cook
Now let’s get to cooking the turkey. Turkeys take about 10-15 minutes per pound to cook, and then they need 30 minutes to rest before carving. So do a little math to determine when you want to put the turkey in the oven.
In my experience, turkeys usually cook at 12 minutes a pound to give you a more exact number.
Prepare the Turkey
An hour before you need to start cooking the turkey, remove it from the fridge. Letting it come a bit closer to room temperature will help the turkey cook a little faster. Remove some butter from the fridge too.
Adjust the oven racks to make room for the turkey. Heat your oven to 400 degrees.
After an hour has passed, place the turkey in a roasting pan breast-side-up. I prefer to use a roasting pan with a rack since I think it helps the turkey cook more evenly.
Season the Turkey
Rub 3-4 tablespoons of butter generously all over the outside of the turkey. You already salted the turkey last night, but add a little more salt if you think it needs it. Sprinkle pepper inside and outside. Then filled the cavity of the bird. Chop the onion and lemon into quarters, and add it to the cavity. Then add 4-6 cloves of garlic. Set aside 1 sprig of thyme and rosemary, and add the rest of the herbs to the cavity of the turkey.
Wrap small pieces of aluminum foil around the bottom of the drumsticks, this prevents them from overcooking and drying out.
Use butchers twine to tie the drumsticks together.
Putting the Turkey in the Oven
I absolutely love my instant read thermometer that is meant to be used throughout the cooking process so I can constantly monitor the turkey. I think a in-oven instant red thermometer it is a great investment that takes the guesswork out of roasting meat.
Insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh, so it isn’t touching the bone. If you don’t have an in-oven thermometer, start to check the temperature of the turkey 20 minutes before you think it might be done and until it reaches 165 degrees.
Sprinkle the remaining rosemary and thyme over the outside of the turkey.
How to Roast a Turkey
Place the turkey in the oven to roast. I like to start the turkey at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, and then I reduce it to 350 degrees. When you reduce the temperature, check on the turkey. You may want to tent the turkey with aluminum foil at some point so that the skin doesn’t go from browned to burnt. I just check every 30 minutes or so to see how things are going and once the turkey is nice and brown I place aluminum foil over the turkey very loosely.
Now you have some free time while you wait for the turkey to cook. That’s right, I don’t baste the turkey. I just let it cook. But I do check to make sure that the pan drippings don’t dry up or burn, pour chicken broth into the bottom of the pan as necessary to prevent the pan drippings from burning.
Taking the Turkey Out of the Oven
Do a little planning for when the turkey comes out of the oven. Once the turkey is cooked you will want to place it on a platter and wrap it with 2 layers of aluminum foil. I recommend tearing off foil and arranging it on a platter so you can plop the turkey on top and wrap it all up. The other thing you need to do is pour all the turkey dippings into a glass container like a mason jar. Both of these tasks might require two people, and I suggest recruiting a strong person to help.
As soon as the turkey reaches 165 degrees, remove it from the oven, and wrap it with foil. Then use a spatula to scrape up any browned bits from the roasting pan. Then pour all the pan drippings into a glass container so that you can make gravy. You want to use a glass container so you can see the line of fat on top of the dippings.
I strongly suggest making gravy. It’s easy and you have time to do this while the turkey is resting. The turkey needs to rest so that it won’t lose all of the juices when you carve it. This way the turkey is juicier.
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a sauce pan over medium heat. Once melted, whisk in 1 tablespoon of flour. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until the mixture is golden brown. Then use a baster to suck up the turkey drippings, below the line of fat that will form on top.
Whisk all of the drippings into the gravy. Add 1/2 – 1 cup of chicken stock, and let the gravy come to a slow by steady bubble. Whisk constantly letting the gravy thicken. Taste test the gravy and season with salt and pepper if necessary.
Click here to learn how to making gravy from pan drippings – complete with a video.
Carving the Turkey
Once the gravy has been made and the turkey has rested for 30 minutes, go ahead and carve the turkey. Unwrap it from the foil. There are two techniques for carving a turkey. Some people cut the entire breast off and then carve it, but you can also carve slices off the turkey, it is a matter of personal preference.
I put my husband in charge of carving while I made sure all the side dishes were hot and ready to go. Charles starts by carving slices of turkey off, starting outside and working in. He places the slices of turkey on a platter, along with the wings and drumsticks.
Making Turkey Stock
I always make soup with the leftover turkey. Save the turkey bones for this. Here is a recipe for Turkey Stock, and this is my recipe for my Day After Thanksgiving Soup – it is so good my husband looks forward to it every year.