Every Thanksgiving and Christmas I'm asked for tips on roasting turkey. To aid people, I came up with this comprehensive guide for preparing, roast and serving the bird. This information is published in my lets-have-a-party book Everyone Can Cook for Celebartions.
What size to buy
Many guides suggest allowing 1 lb (500 g) per person when buying turkey. If
you’re serving six people, however, it’s unlikely you’re going to find a 6 lb (2.7 kg)
bird—tiny for a turkey. I recommend 11/4 to 11/2 lb (625 to 750 g) per person, or even
a little more if you want ample turkey leftovers from which to make sandwiches,
soup and other dishes. Remember that the bigger the bird, the higher the meatto-
bone ratio tends to be, so it’s safer to estimate less weight per person (11/4 lb/
625 g) when buying a very large turkey, such as one that weighs over 20 lb (9 kg).
Storing and thawing
Buy fresh turkey a maximum of two to three days before you’ll cook it and, if it’s
packed and sold at a supermarket, always check the best-before date. If buying a
frozen bird, they tend to go on sale a few weeks before Thanksgiving and before
Christmas, so buy it then and keep frozen until needed. Never thaw turkey on the
kitchen counter at room temperature. The bird’s exterior will thaw first and this
may cause bacterial growth before the center of the turkey is thawed. The safest
way is in the refrigerator. Allow 24 hours thawing time for every 5 lb (2.2 kg) of
turkey, or even a bit more for very large birds. For example, a 12 to 14 lb (5.5 to
6.3 kg) turkey will take about three days to thaw.
To stuff or not to stuff
You can make dressing for turkey and bake it separately from the bird. It will taste
delicious and can be made oven-ready ahead of time, and you won’t have to worry
about the process of safely stuffing it inside the turkey.
However, many prefer to stuff the bird, as it can enhance the flavor of mild-tasting
turkey and also produce a richer-tasting dressing. Always stuff the bird just before
you put it in the oven. Fill the main cavity, making sure it’s loosely stuffed, not
packed in. If you pack it in, it won’t get hot enough to kill any bacteria present in
the turkey. Also stuff the cavity behind the large flap of skin at the neck end of the
bird. You can pack the dressing tighter here as it’s closer to the heat. Any leftover
stuffing can be baked in a casserole dish.
Remove the stuffing from the turkey as soon as the bird is cooked. Transfer to a
heatproof serving dish and keep warm in the oven while the turkey rests before
carving. If the stuffing does not feel hot, bake until it reaches a bacteria-killing
165°F (74°C) when tested with an instant-read thermometer.
To baste or not to baste
Some folks put the turkey in the oven and don’t open the door until it’s done.
Others occasionally baste it with the pan juices to keep the bird moist and give it
a rich color. The more you open the oven door, however, the longer it will take for
the turkey to cook.
I take an in-between approach. I let the turkey roast undisturbed until my first
temperature check, which usually comes at a time when the bird is not quite
cooked. Since I’ve opened the oven door to test the bird, it makes sense to baste it
then as it will improve its color when it is fully cooked.
The charts below are for cooking a whole turkey without basting at an
oven temperature of 325 to 350°F (160 to 180°C), using a regular (not a convection)
oven. If you look at the whole turkeys for sale at your supermarket, you’ll notice
that even if they are the same weight, they will not all be uniform in shape. Some
birds will have thicker breasts, others longer, thinner legs, all which can affect
cooking time. That’s why it is important to check for doneness about one hour
before the end of the recommended roasting time. The turkey is done when an
instant-read meat thermometer inserted deep into the inner thigh, not touching the
bone, reads 170°F (77°C) for an unstuffed turkey or 180°F (82°C) for a stuffed one.
Carving the bird
After roasting, lift the turkey out of the pan and onto a large platter. Tent with foil
and rest at least 15 minutes to set the juices (the turkey will stay hot a surprisingly
long time). Use a sharp, thin-bladed carving knife to remove the leg and wing on
one side of the turkey. Cut the leg into drumstick and thigh pieces; thinly slice
meat from them. Carve the breast by making thin, slightly angled, vertical slices
that run parallel to the breastbone. Repeat the process on the other side of the
bird. Unless you’re carving at the table, arrange the meat on a platter.
Roasting times for an unstuffed turkey
6–8 lb (2.7–3.5 kg) 21/2–23/4 hours
8–10 lb (3.5–4.5 kg) 23/4–3 hours
10–12 lb (4.5–5.5 kg) 3–31/4 hours
12–16 lb (5.5–7.25 kg) 31/4–31/2 hours
16–20 lb (7.25–9.0 kg) 31/2–41/2 hours
20–25 lb (9.0–11.25 kg) 41/2–5 hours
Roasting times for a stuffed turkey
6–8 lb (2.7–3.5 kg) 3–31/2 hours
8–10 lb (3.5–4.5 kg) 31/4–31/2 hours
10–12 lb (4.5–5.5 kg) 31/2–33/4 hours
12–16 lb (5.5–7.25 kg) 33/4–4 hours
16–20 lb (7.25–9.0 kg) 4–5 hours
20–25 lb (9.0–11.25 kg) 5–6 hours
When the meal is done, remove any meat on the carcass as soon as you can.
The cooked meat can be refrigerated for 2 to 3 days. You can also sliced or dice
the meat, put it in freezer bags or containers, and freeze for up to 2 months. To
make turkey stock, break or cut the carcass into large chunks and place in a tall,
large pot. Add a sliced onion, carrot, a celery stalk or two, a few whole black
peppercorns, a pinch or two of dried thyme and 2 or 3 bay leaves. Add about
12 cups (3 L) of cold water, ensuring the bones are well covered. Gently simmer
the stock (small bubbles should just break on the surface), uncovered, for 2 to
3 hours, or until a rich turkey taste is achieved. Add additional water during
simmering, if necessary.
Strain the stock, cool and refrigerate. Remove any fat that has solidified on the
surface. The stock is ready to use or be frozen for up to 2 months.