Cooking a turkey for the first time is a little like going on a blind date. You are hopeful and anxious but just not sure how the whole experience will work out. Also, you will decide soon after if the experience was worth repeating.
Relax, you can do this! We’ve got you covered with these basic tips. If this is the first time you’re cooking a turkey, stick to a classic roast turkey as described below, with no stuffing, brining or exotic marinades.
Buying a Turkey:
Fresh or frozen?
- A fresh turkey should be ordered in advance, and picked up 1 to 2 days before cooking. If not pre-ordered, there might not be any fresh turkeys left close to the holiday.
- If buying a frozen turkey, you can buy it at any time when the price is right. Frozen turkeys need enough freezer space for storing and refrigerator space for safe thawing, which depending on size could take up to 6 days.
Organic, free range, natural, pre-basted, etc.?
These are personal choices based on your preferences, availability and ability to afford.
- If guests might be sensitive to dairy or gluten, etc. avoid pre-basted birds unless you carefully read the label looking to avoid these ingredients.
How big a bird?
These are estimates based on average consumption with a little room for leftovers:
- If cooking a whole bird, plan on 1 pound per person–this accounts for the weight of bones, skin and some evaporation during cooking.
- If cooking a whole breast (includes bones), allow ¾ pound per person, boneless breast ½ pound per person.
Thawing Your Bird:
In the Refrigerator
- Allow 24 hours per 4-5 lbs. of frozen turkey when thawing in the refrigerator.
- A thawed turkey can be stored in the refrigerator 24-48 hours before cooking.
- Keep frozen turkey in its original wrapper and place in a plastic bag, large platter or pan to catch any juices that might drip during thawing in the refrigerator.
With Cold Water
Forgot to thaw the turkey in time or don’t have space in your fridge? Don’t panic!
- Thoroughly clean and sanitize your sink and fill it with cool water.
- Submerge the turkey (in its original wrapper) plus a leak proof plastic bag in the sink.
- Change the icy cold water for cool tap water every 30 minutes. (Allow 30 minutes defrosting time per pound.)
- Cook immediately after thawing is complete.
- Thoroughly clean and sanitize your sink after thawing.
- Always start with clean hands, counters and sink.
- Before roasting, remove any extras packed into the cavity of the bird, like gizzards, neck, gravy packet etc. Don’t rinse the turkey as this can spread bacteria throughout the kitchen.
- Generously season the inside (neck and stomach cavities) and outside of the turkey with your choice of salt, pepper, garlic, onion powder, herbs (sage, thyme, oregano) or my favorite, a Cajun blend of herbs and spices.
- Set oven temperature to 325°F. Place breast side up on an oiled wire rack in a shallow (2 – 2.5 inch deep) roasting pan.
- If roasting a whole turkey, you can put chopped raw onion and celery in the cavities. If you are cooking a breast, add 1 cup water to the bottom of the roasting pan. Wash hands and surfaces, such as counters and sink after handling raw poultry or meat. Loosely cover the turkey with foil for the first 1 ½ hours, then remove foil to finish cooking and brown the skin. This browning gives the turkey and juices (gravy) a roasted flavor.
- Always use a thermometer to determine when the meat is done. It should read 165° F or higher in the inner most part of the thigh and/or thickest part of the breast. Plan on cooking time of about 15- 20 minutes per pound.
- When done, move turkey from roasting pan to a cutting/carving board, tent it loosely with foil and wait 20 minutes before carving. For more ways to cook a turkey (oven bags, electric roasters, grilling, smoking, microwaving or frying) visit USDA Poultry Preparation.
Roasting Ahead of the Big Meal:
- A fully cooked turkey can be carved, placed in shallow containers (less than 2 inches deep) and refrigerated a day in advance. Refrigerate in loosely covered pans or containers until completely cooled. Then cover tightly.
- Before serving you can reheat in an oven set to 325° F. To keep turkey moist, add a little broth and cover with foil. Reheat to an internal Temperature of 165° F. Use a food thermometer to be sure.
- Never partially bake a turkey! Baking the turkey half way to finish cooking later or at another location, might seem like a way to save oven space and time, but it is a half-baked idea. It could be a food safety disaster. Transport meat (fully cooked or raw) either cold 40° F or below, or hot 140 °F or above. Any temperature in-between allows bacteria to grow quickly to unsafe levels.
You’ve done enough; let someone else carve the turkey!
- Make arrangements ahead of time as to who this will be. Allow them time to do some online research on carving techniques. Let the carver bring their A game and the carving knife! Ok, you can provide the knife. It is safer than a guest traveling across town or country with a knife. Make sure the knife is sharp.
- Don’t forget to provide a large cutting board set in a shallow-sided tray to catch any excess juices, a carving fork and knife sharpener.
- NOTE: If the turkey won’t be served within 2 hours after being cooked, keep it warm at 140 F or above until you’re ready to carve and serve.
Storing Left Overs:
Hopefully you will have some leftovers!
- Cut turkey into smaller portions or slices.
- Place leftovers in shallow containers, cover and refrigerate, within 2 hours of carving.
- Use or freeze leftovers within 3-4 days.
Need to Talk?
If you need to talk to someone call your local CSU Extension Office or the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline 1-888-674-6854, available year round Monday through Friday from 10 am to 4pm ET (English or Spanish). Recorded messages are available 24 hours a day.
For Tips on planning ahead for holiday meals go to CSU Farm to Table.