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Cooking a Turkey for Thanksgiving? Here's What To Do

Are you hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year? Science explains how long to cook a turkey and the best methods for making a juicy turkey.

By Sara Novak
Nov 23, 2022 3:00 PMMar 25, 2024 7:17 PM
Turkey roasting in the oven with a meat thermometer
(Credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)


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Each year, millions of Americans put their money, time, and energy into preparing the perfect turkey. It’s the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal and an essential component of the holiday. Yet come mealtime, far too many of us are left with a bird that’s dull and dry — the uninspired second fiddle to the mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie.

Most of us cook a turkey only once or twice a year, if that. In other words, we simply don’t get enough practice in to perfect it. This (coupled with the sometimes-clouded judgment rendered by alcohol) can make for a cooking calamity, but it doesn’t have to be this way. With a little preparation and some forethought, a juicy, delectable bird is a just a few chemical reactions away from reality.

Choose the Best Bird

The flavor of a turkey comes from all the little molecules that the animal has been exposed to during its life, says Peter Barham, a professor of physics at the University of Bristol in the U.K. and honorary professor of molecular gastronomy at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. 

How Do I Pick the Right Turkey?

Choosing a higher-quality, free-range turkey is not only tastier, but it’s also more akin to what the pilgrims would have eaten 400 years ago.

“Meat itself has very little flavor,” Barham says. “Its flavor comes from the cooking method and through the amount of work the muscles do.” 

Is it Worth Buying a Free Range Turkey?

Some people stand by free range turkeys. They have a gamier flavor and more dark meat because they‘ve been living properly and utilizing their muscles. The more an animal moves during its life, the more myoglobin molecules, an oxygen-carrying protein that adds color and flavor to the bird, are present. Conventional birds only use their legs, which is why that’s (usually) the only part of the animal with dark meat.

What Size Turkey Do I Need?

And while we all love a leftover turkey sandwich, choosing a bird that’s wastefully enormous can also be problematic. If you get a turkey that’s too large, your oven may not operate in the way that it normally would because the big bird is blocking the heating element and preventing air movement. Typically, the larger the bird, the harder it is to cook, depending on the type of oven that you have.

“Circulating air carries heat around the oven to cook foods evenly and when it’s hindered your main course might turn out to be a disaster,” Barham says.

Read More: The Ancient Art of Raising Turkeys

Start With a Dry Brine

Brining a turkey has become synonymous with proper bird preparation and there’s a scientific reason behind it. 

What Is a Brined Turkey?

A brined turkey is a turkey that has been soaked in a brine solution before cooking. The solution adds flavor and pulls moisture into the meat through the processes of osmosis and diffusion. 

What Is Brining?

When you coat a bird with salt, you may notice that moisture appears on the skin within the first hour. The salt pulls water molecules to the surface of the bird in an effort to balance the amount of water and salt molecules there.

As time goes on, the salt moves from an area of high concentration — on the bird’s skin — to an area of lower concentration — inside its meat — through the process of diffusion. Water is first pulled to the skin because water molecules are smaller and move faster than salt molecules. 

What Does Brining Do?

Once the bird has had hours to absorb the salt, however, it begins to degrade and loosen the turkey’s protein strands. This makes it easier to absorb the water that previously moved to the skin and makes for a more flavorful and juicy bird.

What Is In a Brine and How to Brine a Turkey

A simple dry salt brine combines three tablespoons of kosher salt with one and a half teaspoons of dried herbs (like thyme, sage and rosemary) and three-quarters of a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper for a 14- to 16-pound bird. Rub your defrosted turkey down 24 to 48 hours before cooking it.

Read More: Turkey Trivia: 6 Fun Facts About Turkey

Why Is Turkey So Dry?

One of the main reasons why turkey can be really dry is because ovens produce extremely dry heat, says Barham, which can dehydrate your meat and make it much less palatable. The solution? Basically, your bird needs a steam bath.

How to Make a Juicy Turkey

Placing an ovenproof bowl with about a cup’s worth of iced water beneath the turkey keeps it from drying out as it cooks. The ice allows it to last longer before it turns to steam. This turkey steam bath makes the oven humid and muggy rather than dry and dehydrated.

Read More: Does Turkey Make You Sleepy? What Really Makes You Tired

How to Cook a Turkey

In any animal, muscles contract and relax as a result of activity. But once an animal is cooked, its meat is denatured, and the muscles irreversibly contract. It’s this contraction, says Barham, that can cause problems. 

What Temperature to Cook a Turkey?

The higher the heat of the oven, the more contraction occurs. And the more contractions, the tougher the meat. That’s why the key is to go “low and slow,” says Barham. But at the same time, the temperature must be high enough to melt away the tiny tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue that also make the bird harder to chew. 

How Long to Cook a Turkey?

Slowly roasting at around 250 degrees Fahrenheit for multiple hours (around eight to 12, depending on the turkey’s size) allows your bird to fall within this narrow window of prime cooking.

What Temperature Is Turkey Done?

A turkey is considered fully cooked and safe to eat when its internal temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature should be checked in the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh, and the innermost part of the wing. Using a meat thermometer is the most reliable way to ensure the turkey has reached this safe internal temperature.

Other Ways to Prepare Turkey

Another idea is to butcher the turkey and cook its parts separately. For example, while the turkey breast is much tastier slow-roasted, the leg, which contains ample connective tissue and muscle can be cooked at a much higher temperature. Frying the legs, says Barham, is quite tasty and it’s OK for them to be cooked at the higher heat. It should be noted, however, that breaking down the turkey — a centerpiece of your Thanksgiving Day production — may be considered sacrilege for many families.

Read More: What Is the History of These 6 Thanksgiving Foods?

How to Prepare a Turkey FAQ

How Do You Roast a Turkey?

To roast a turkey, preheat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare the turkey by removing giblets, then season and place in a roasting pan. Roast until the internal temperature of the turkey reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

How Do You Spatchcock a Turkey?

To spatchcock a turkey, you must remove the backbone with kitchen shears, spread the turkey flat, and press down to flatten the breastbone. Then season and roast for even cooking.

How Many Minutes Per Pound Does it Take to Cook a Turkey?

Generally, the rule of thumb is to roast a turkey for about 13 to 15 minutes per pound at 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

How Do You Prepare a Turkey?

To prepare a turkey, you must first thaw it if it is frozen, remove the giblets and neck, rinse and pat dry, then season as desired.

How Long Does it Take to Cook a Stuffed Turkey?

A stuffed turkey takes longer to cook; estimate 15 to 20 minutes per pound at 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

How to Season Turkey?

There are many ways to season a turkey, you can mix softened butter with herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage, and rub it under and on the skin of the turkey. Or, you can place slices of lemon, orange, or apple inside the turkey, along with fresh herbs, for a fresh and zesty taste.

How Long Does it Take to Cook a Turkey in a Bag?

Cooking turkey in a bag usually takes about 2 to 2.5 hours for a medium-sized turkey at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

How Do You Cook a Turkey Breast?

To cook a turkey breast, you can roast it at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 minutes per pound, until the internal temperature of the turkey is 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

How Long Does it Take to Cook a 15 Pound Turkey? 

For a 15 pound turkey, you can cook for about 3 to 3.75 hours at 325 degrees Fahrenheit, until the internal temperature of the turkey reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

How Long Does it Take to Cook a 20 Pound Turkey?

For a 20 pound turkey, expect to roast for about 4 to 5 hours at 325 degrees Fahrenheit, checking for an internal temperature of the turkey at 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Read More: Should the Turkey Replace the Bald Eagle as the National Bird? Ben Franklin Thought So

This article was originally published on Nov. 18, 2021 and has since been updated with new information, including an FAQ, by the Discover staff.

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