How to Cook a Turkey

Recipe From Dr. Mercola

Home cooks, especially beginners, often find it challenging to prepare turkey because of the amount of effort it takes to make sure it’s well-cooked. If you’ve backed out of cooking this delicious bird before but want to give it a go today, read and learn how you can cook tender, juicy and flavorful turkey.

How Long Does It Take to Cook a Turkey?

You’ll know that a turkey is cooked once its internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F in the wings and 180 degrees F in the thigh.1,2 How long you must cook a turkey so it reaches this temperature would depend on the bird’s weight. Roasting a turkey roughly takes 15 minutes per pound,3 although this time can be increased to 20 minutes a pound if it’s a large bird. Cooking times for Unstuffed whole turkey in a 325 degree F oven are as follows:4

Weight (in pounds) Total cooking time (hours)
6 to 8 2 1/2 to 3
8 to 12 3 to 4
12 to 16 4 to 5
16 to 20 5 to 5 1/2
20 to 24 5 1/2 to 6

If you have a stuffed whole turkey, here’s how long it would take to cook it in an oven with the same temperature:5

Weight (in pounds) Total cooking time (hours)
6 to 8 3 to 3 1/2
8 to 12 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 
12 to 16 4 1/2 to 5 1/2
16 to 20 5 1/2 to 6
20 to 24 6 to 6 1/2

If the turkey still hasn’t reached the optimal temperature after the estimated time, put it back in the oven for additional 20 minutes and recheck.6 Once the turkey is done cooking, avoid keeping it at room temperature for two hours or more. The same principle applies to raw turkey too. Leaving turkey at room temperature well after the two-hour mark can increase the risk of bacteria multiplication and contamination.7

Reminders When Cooking a Frozen Turkey

Before cooking a frozen turkey, let it thaw in your refrigerator ahead of time.8 Remember that this may take days, but it’s worth it because the bird will evenly cook all throughout. In general, set aside at least 24 hours of thawing time per 4 to 5 pounds of frozen turkey. The amount of days needed for thawing depend on the turkey’s weight:9

Weight (in pounds) Thawing time (days)
Up to 12 lbs. 1 to 3
12 to 16 3 to 4
16 to 20 4 to 5
20 to 24 5 to 6

When thawing a frozen turkey, your refrigerator’s temperature must be 40 degrees F or colder. Place the turkey with its original wrapper intact inside a tray or a pan at the bottom of your refrigerator, so liquids that leak out won’t spill. Refrain from thawing frozen turkeys in the microwave, at room temperature or in a sink full of cold water.10

Once done thawing, you can now season and cook the turkey. Cooking times also depend on the bird’s weight. Here’s how long it would take to cook a frozen turkey in your oven:11

Weight (in pounds) Total cooking time (hours)
8 to 12 4 to 4 1/2
12 to 14 4 1/2 to 5 3/4
14 to 18 5 3/4 to 6 1/4
18 to 20 6 1/4 to 6 3/4
20 to 24 6 3/4 to 7 1/2

How to Cook a Turkey in the Oven

Most people are used to preparing turkey in their ovens. If this is your first time cooking turkey, have the following items ready:

  • Roasting pan — This will keep the bird in place. You can also use a roasting rack with the pan, if you’re not putting the turkey atop vegetables.12
  • Meat thermometer — This checks whether the bird has finished cooking to its ideal internal temperature.13  
  • Herbs, spices and seasonings — They’ll make your dish more appetizing. Think carefully about how you’ll flavor your turkey and make sure the bird has already been seasoned thoroughly before it goes inside the oven.14

Ensure that your turkey has been completely thawed before cooking, especially if it was bought frozen.15 Once your bird is defrosted and seasoned, prepare to cook your turkey in the oven by following this simple method:16

How to Cook a Turkey in the Oven

Ingredients

  • 1 whole turkey, any size, thawed if frozen
  • 2 cups bone broth or water
  • Optional: 2 sticks (1 cup) melted grass fed butter or coconut oil for basting

Equipment

  • Roasting pan or an alternative roasting dish
  • Roasting rack or something to lift the turkey off the pan
  • Optional (if basting): turkey baster, brush or ladle

Procedure

  1. Thirty minutes to one hour before roasting, take the turkey out of the refrigerator. Remove packaging and the bag of giblets (check in the body cavity and in the neck cavity).
  2. Set the turkey breast-side up on the roasting rack in a roasting pan and let it set while the oven heats.
  3. Position an oven rack in the bottom third of your oven, remove racks above it and heat the oven to 450 degrees F. If your turkey came straight out of the package, rub it with Himalayan salt and pepper before putting it in the oven.
  4. When the turkey is ready to roast, pour bone broth or water into the roasting pan.
  5. Place turkey in the oven and turn temperature down to 350 degrees F. Ideally, roast the turkey breast-side up.
  6. Every 45 minutes, remove the turkey from the oven, close the oven door and baste the turkey. Tilt the pan if needed and use a turkey baster or spoon to scoop up the liquids in the pan and drizzle them on top of the turkey. In the last 45 minutes or so of cooking, you can also baste the turkey with melted butter or oil. This helps crisp up the skin and turn it a beautiful deep golden brown.
  7. Thirty to 60 minutes before it’s finished cooking, check the bird’s temperature using a meat thermometer. Perform temperature checks at 15-minute intervals.17 Insert the thermometer on the turkey breast and outer and inner thighs.
  8. Once the turkey reaches optimal temperature, remove it from the oven. Hold one side of the roasting rack using an oven mitt and tilt the whole pan so the juices run out. Lift the whole turkey and move to a clean cutting board or the serving platter if you plan to cut it as you serve it. Cover the bird loosely with foil and allow it to rest for 30 minutes. Carve the turkey once ready.

Preparing turkey with a convection oven is a different ballgame, since this may speed up cooking time.18 If you have a convection oven and want to try using it to make turkey, take note of these time estimates:19

Weight (in pounds) Unstuffed Stuffed
6 to 10 1 1/2 to 2 hours 1 3/4 to 2 1/2 hours
10 to 18 2 to 2 1/2 hours 2 1/2 to 3 1/4 hours
18 to 22 2 1/2 to 3 hours 3 1/4 to 3 3/4 hours
22 to 24 3 to 3 1/2 hours 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours

How to Cook a Turkey in a Roaster

If you’re using a covered electric roaster to cook turkey, take note that the bird will have less of a roasted flavor. Electric roasters use steam instead of hot air, and this can cause the bird to cook quickly. The resulting turkey may be pale-colored too, so consider using a “browning” sauce.20 After you’ve seasoned the bird, follow these instructions when cooking turkey in an electric roaster:21

    1. Put the insert pan with the turkey into the roaster oven and cover.
    2. Roast at highest setting for 30 minutes. Afterward, turn the temperature down to 325 degrees F.
    3. Avoid lifting the oven lid to baste the turkey, as the bird will self-baste while it cooks. Lifting the lid may cause the roaster oven to lose heat and prolong the cooking time.
    4. To check if turkey is cooked, slightly and quickly lift the lid and insert a meat thermometer into the meatiest part of the thigh.22 The turkey breast and stuffing must have a temperature of 165 degrees F, while the thigh must be 180 degrees F. If temperatures aren’t there yet, check the turkey after another 30 minutes.
    5. Once done, remove the turkey from the electric roaster and let it rest for 20 minutes.

Here’s how long it would take for turkeys to cook in a covered electric roaster:23,24

Weight (in pounds) Unstuffed Stuffed
6 to 10 2 to 2 1/2 hours 2 1/4 to 3 hours
10 to 18 2 3/4 to 3 hours 3 to 3 1/2 hours
18 to 22 3 3/4 to 4 1/2 hours 4 to 4 1/2 hours
22 to 24 3 to 3 1/2 hours 4 to 4 1/2 hours

How to Cook Ground Turkey, Turkey Burgers and Turkey Breasts

There are other parts or variations of this bird you can try if you’re not preparing a whole turkey. Although they differ in appearance, if you’re cooking ground turkey, turkey burgers or turkey breasts, they all must have an internal temperature of 165 degrees F for them to be considered cooked.25,26,27 Here are additional reminders you must remember when cooking:

  • Ground turkey — It’s very lean, has a low fat content and can be used to make turkey meatballs and burgers, or added to sauces. Before cooking it, season with some Himalayan salt, freshly ground pepper or other herbs and spices. Forgetting to do so may result in an unappetizing and bland meat. Make sure ground turkey is cooked all the way through, and have a meat thermometer ready to determine its temperature. Avoid overcooking it because it not only may not retain its flavor, but can turn dry and crumbly.28
  • Turkey burgers — When making homemade turkey burger patties, your hands must be lightly oiled and you need to handle the meat gently. This may help the meat become more tender, prevent it from sticking together and lessen the risk of air being pushed out of the mix.29

    You mustn’t forget to add herbs, spices and seasonings. Not only are the patties made with lean meats that can absorb seasonings well, but this lessens the chances of you cooking a bland and flavorless burger. If you’re going to cook the turkey burger patties after freezing them, ensure they’re thawed before marinating and cooking.30

    Cooking turkey burgers will take a few minutes.31 Check the thickest part of the patty using a food thermometer to know if it’s thoroughly cooked. Avoid overcooking or improperly cooking the burger patties because they can become very difficult to eat. Refrigerate turkey burgers immediately two hours after they are prepared and consume them within four days. If you’re not cooking all the turkey burgers at once, freeze the patties and eat them within four months.32

  • Turkey breast — Often available all year, turkey breasts should be purchased bone-in and skin-on. One whole turkey breast weighing 6 to 7 pounds can feed six to eight people, while half a breast weighing 3 pounds may serve two to four people.

    Just like you would prepare a whole turkey, thaw a turkey breast before cooking it. It would take at least one day to fully defrost the turkey breast in your refrigerator, and after this period, you can store it uncooked for several days before cooking. A turkey breast won’t take long to cook compared to a whole bird. Ideally, a turkey breast should be checked after one hour and roasted until the thickest part of the meat reaches the desired temperature. Kitchn has a simple guide for cooking turkey breast:33

How to Cook a Turkey Breast

Serving Size: 4

Ingredients

  • 3 to 7 pounds thawed, bone-in, skin-on turkey breast (1 half-breast or 1 whole turkey breast joined at the breast bone)
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted grass fed butter
  • 1 tablespoon Himalayan salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Equipment

  • Roasting pan, oven-proof skillet or other baking dish large enough to hold the whole breast
  • Roasting rack or thick-cut vegetables to lift the breast off the pan
  • Measuring spoons

Procedure

  1. Transfer turkey breast to a roasting rack in a roasting pan, or place on top of vegetables in a skillet or other baking dish. Set aside while the oven heats.
  2. Arrange an oven rack in the bottom third of the oven and heat to 450 degrees F.
  3. Using paper towels, pat the turkey breast’s skin dry and rub grass fed butter all over it. If you want, loosen the skin and rub some butter into the meat under the skin too. Season with Himalayan salt and pepper (and if you want, under the skin). Rub seasonings into the skin. When cooking a half-breast, pull the skin to cover the meat as much as possible.
  4. Place the turkey in the oven and immediately reduce heat to 350 degrees F. Roast for one hour, then begin checking the temperature. Continue checking the turkey breast’s temperature every 10 to 15 minutes until the meat’s internal temperature is at 165 degrees F.
  5. When cooked, remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest for 15 to 20 minutes.
  6. Transfer the turkey to a clean wooden cutting board. Carve the turkey starting from the breastbone and continue doing so, while keeping your knife as close to the ribs as possible, until the whole breast is carved from the bone. It’s possible, though, that some meat will remain on the bone. Once you have gotten all of the meat, slice the breast crosswise into slices.

Avoid keeping raw or cooked turkey breast, ground turkey or turkey burgers at room temperature for two hours or more. Doing so may cause development of harmful bacteria in the meat that can cause it to be unsafe to eat.34

Healthy Turkey Recipes You Can Try

Some holidays and special occasions won’t be complete without a roasted turkey. The next time you’re in charge of the turkey, try incorporating a healthy twist to it just like what PaleoHacks’ Jennafer Ashley did for this recipe:

Turmeric and Honey Roast Turkey Recipe

Prep time: 20 minutesCook time: 2 hours and 30 minutes Serving Size: 1 pound of meat

Ingredients

    For the turkey:

  • 1 whole organic cage-free turkey (ideal weight is 11 pounds)
  • 4 cups organic turkey broth
  • 4 tablespoons grass fed butter, cut into slices
  • 4 rosemary sprigs
  • 1 teaspoon rubbed sage
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

    For the Honey Turmeric Glaze:

  • 4 tablespoons grass fed butter
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 2 tablespoons raw honey
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

Procedure

  1. Begin by thawing the turkey according to package directions.
  2. Heat oven to 325 degrees F and move oven rack to the bottom. Remove giblets and rinse entire turkey with cool water. Pat dry with paper towel. Place turkey into roasting pan on rack. Neatly position wings behind turkey.
  3. Place sprigs of rosemary in cavity of turkey. Mix together sage, thyme, onion powder, sea salt and black pepper in a small bowl.
  4. Use fingers to lift the skin of the turkey near the thighs and rub grass fed butter underneath as well as on top. Next, rub dry seasoning under the skin and all over the top of turkey. Pour turkey broth into pan.
  5. Insert an oven-safe meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh without touching bone. Place turkey in oven and roast for one hour, uncovered.
  6. Carefully remove turkey from oven. Baste turkey with broth. If you find that the broth has evaporated, add 2 cups of broth to the pan, allow it to mix with the drippings and then baste as normal.
  7. Place the lid on the roasting pan and return to the oven.
  8. Continue to cook the turkey, basting every 45 minutes until the thermometer reaches 165 degrees F. Cooking time will vary with the size of turkey (the rule of thumb is 13 minutes per pound).
  9. Melt grass fed butter for glaze over medium or low heat. Stir in honey, turmeric, garlic and sea salt until smooth. Use a basting brush to cover turkey with glaze. Return turkey to oven for 20 minutes, uncovered.
  10. Allow turkey to rest 20 minutes before carving.

Turkey is usually accompanied with a savory gravy to complement the rich and flavorful meat. Make some of this Savory Keto Gravy recipe, which uses healthy ingredients and only takes a few minutes to make. Another way to incorporate more turkey in your diet would be to use its bones. Don’t discard them — instead, use them to make delicious bone broth, which you can consume as is or use as a base for soups and sauces:

Free-Range Turkey Bone Broth Recipe

Cook time: 24 to 72 hours Serving Size: 3 quarts

Ingredients

Procedure

  1. Place turkey carcass in a large pot or a Crock-Pot, add apple cider vinegar and enough water to cover the bones.
  2. Let the mixture set for one hour so the vinegar can leach the mineral out of the bones.
  3. Add the vegetables and bring to a boil. If there’s any scum, skim it from the top and discard.
  4. Reduce to a low simmer, cover and cook for 24 to 72 hours (if you're not comfortable leaving the pot to simmer overnight, turn off the heat and let it set overnight, then turn it back on and let simmer all day the next day).
  5. Check the pot or Crock-Pot every eight hours or so and add water as needed.
  6. During the last 10 minutes of cooking, throw in a handful of fresh parsley for added flavor and minerals.
  7. Let the broth cool and strain it.
  8. Add sea salt to taste and drink the broth as is, or store in the fridge for five to seven days or in the freezer for up to six months for use in soups or stews.

Rise to the Challenge and Cook Some Turkey

Now that you have been briefed on its cooking times, you can now take on the responsibility of preparing the turkey that’ll be the star of special holidays or simple occasions. Because turkey is versatile enough to be paired with different vegetables, herbs and spices, you can experiment with multiple combinations and create one show-stopping dish after another.

Ideally, turkey must be purchased pasture-raised and organic from farmers in your area. Avoid packaged turkeys in grocery stores and supermarkets, because they may have come from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that cause significant damage to the environment and your health.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Cooking Turkey

Q: How long does it take to cook a turkey per pound?

A: Allot at least 15 minutes for each pound of turkey to cook,35 but if you have purchased a large bird, set aside 20 minutes per pound.36

Q: What is the most common way to cook a turkey?

A: Most people cook turkeys by roasting them in an oven.

Q: How do you keep turkey moist?

A: If you want a moist turkey before serving, allow it to rest for around 20 minutes after taking it out of the oven. Fine Cooking magazine notes that this process helps the bird’s juices recirculate, because the oven’s heat causes all that liquid to gather at the center of the bird.37

Q: How long is cooked turkey good for?

A: Cooked turkey can last for around four days in your refrigerator, and up to four months in your freezer. To store excess turkey, remove the meat from the bone,38 portion the bird into small pieces and place separately in small containers.39

Q: How long will cooked ground turkey remain fresh?

A: In general, cooked poultry like ground turkey can remain in the refrigerator for at least three to four days.40

Q: Do you cover turkey with aluminum foil when cooking?

A: I don’t recommend using aluminum foil when cooking turkey. Frequent exposure to aluminum, a known toxin, can negatively impact your brain function and possibly increase your risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

+ Sources and References