Roasting a turkey is one of those things that seems really hard, but isn’t actually that bad. Basically, it’s like roasting an oversized chicken. As long as you follow the same general practices, scaled to size of course, you should be able to get a beautifully roasted bird on the table without a problem.
Let’s say, though, that you’ve never roasted a chicken either. At least, this was my particular predicament the first time I hosted Thanksgiving dinner. At the time I was an intern at a fancy food publication, and I’d spent the week before T-Day probing every editor I ran into for their turkey roasting expertise. One said to me, “If you’ve roasted a chicken before, you’ll be fine.” Immediately, I started to panic, because I’d never roasted a chicken before! How was I supposed to successfully make a turkey if I hadn’t even done that?
In my newly induced turkey terror, I spent hours scouring the web for all the pieces of advice I could find. In the end, my bird turned out OK. The meat was tender, the juices made a great gravy, and all of my guests were perfectly contented. Sure, the skin wasn’t as browned and crispy as I would have liked, but I’ve since learned how to guarantee that always happens—and I was able to hide it from my guests with a little behind-the-scenes magic.
When I finally did roast my first chicken, it was way, way easier than I ever imagined, probably thanks in no small part to what I learned from making a turkey. So whether you’ve done it or not, I’m living proof that you don’t have to have roasted a small bird to successfully make a big one. Here, you’ll find all the tips and tricks you need to roast a turkey from experts at Whole Foods Market and my own personal experience.
To determine what size turkey you should buy, use this simple trick.
Before you can roast your turkey, you have to buy it, and before you buy it, you need to figure out how big it should be. Theo Weening, Whole Foods Market global meat buyer, tells SELF that to do this, all you have to do is make sure your bird is 1.5 pounds per guest. That may seem like a lot for one person, but it takes into consideration the excess weight they won’t be eating from the bones, and extras for leftovers, so in the end it should be just the right amount. He says that turkeys range from 6 to 22 pounds, so you should have no problem finding the right size for your guest count.
And if you’re feeding a crowd, the pros say you might want to consider buying an extra turkey breast.
If your crowd is going to be really, really big—like, so big that you’re considering making two turkeys—just buy an extra breast instead, says Weening. According to Bon Appetit, if you do do this, you should buy a bone-in turkey breast, because the bone keeps the meat more tender for longer, meaning the leftovers will be moister and more flavorful than the breast meat you slice off of the turkey, which will dry out quickly without the bone.
Buy frozen turkeys at least three days ahead of time.
If you buy a frozen turkey, it’s obviously going to need time to defrost. And since it’s so much bigger than what you’re normally defrosting, it’s also going to need more time to defrost completely. Per the USDA, small turkeys (4 to 12 pounds) will need one to three days in the fridge, whereas large turkeys (20 to 24 pounds), can need up to six.
Weening says that if you’re short on time, there is a way to speed up the process. Make sure it’s sealed in an airtight container so that it doesn’t get wet (a large plastic bag should work), then submerge it in cold tap water. Make sure to keep the water cold at all times, otherwise your turkey runs the risk of falling into the temperature danger zone between 40 and 140 degrees F. And since you’ll need about 30 minutes in the water per pound of turkey, defrosting it this way will require constant attention for most of the day. If you can buy your turkey ahead of time to let it defrost in the fridge, definitely do, but if this your only option, it works in a pinch.
Though you can usually find fresh turkeys if you prefer—you just need to know where to look.
While fresh turkeys aren’t sold everywhere, you can find them at specialty markets or your local butcher. Weening says that Whole Foods Market customers tend to prefer fresh turkeys to frozen, so they always keep them stocked during and before Thanksgiving. They’re a bit more pricey than your basic frozen Butterball, but they don’t require any labor-intensive defrosting. So if you’re short on time, and you don’t want to babysit a turkey in a bath, consider going this route.
Once you have your turkey, this is all the other equipment you’ll need.
Molly Siegler, from the Whole Foods Market culinary development team, tell SELF that that the main piece of equipment you absolutely must have is a large roasting pan—she says disposable is fine if you don’t want to make an investment. You’ll also need a meat thermometer to check that turkey has reached a safe temperature to eat when it’s near-finished roasting.
Though not essential, she also recommends using a roasting rack. It’ll help your bird get crispier because it will keep it above its juices, rather than soaking in them. Though if you don’t have one and don’t feeling like buying one, she says you can get away with roasting a turkey without one, the skin just won’t be as crispy.
The first time you roast a turkey, forget dry brining and wet brining and keep it simple with a salt and pepper rub.
Around this time of the year, the Internet is rife with guides to dry-brining and wet-brining your Thanksgiving turkey. If it’s your first time roasting a turkey, tune out that noise and keep your seasoning nice and simple. “If you get a good turkey,” says Siegler, “all you will need to do is salt and pepper.” I’ve been using this super simple recipe from the Barefoot Contessa since the start.
Season your turkey eight hours to two days before you plan to roast it.
The farther in advance you season your bird, the more time it will have to flavor your bird, tenderize the meat, and dry out the skin, which is the secret to getting that crispy, browned exterior. Salt plays a large part in this process as it sucks most of moisture from the skin (which is not unlike when you cure something with salt!). In fact, recipes that call for more salt than spices typically result in crispier skin overall.
And when you season it, make sure to get all the way underneath the skin.
Rub your seasoning absolutely all over the turkey: On top of the skin, underneath the skin, in the cavity, and so on. You may have to use a bit of force to separate the skin from the meat, but it’ll be so worth it.
Keep your bird in your fridge uncovered for several hours. Then, let it rest outside of the fridge for 30 minutes before you stick it in the oven.
To further let the bird dry out, let it sit uncovered in your fridge for a few hours before you roast it. This will zap any moisture that might remain. Then, Siegler says you should let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before roasting. “It will cook more evenly if it’s not direct from the refrigerator to the oven,” she explains.
Use the turkey gizzards and neck bone to make stock and stuffing.
I used to run and hide when my dad would pull the gizzards out of the turkey on Thanksgiving. Now, I relish in the activity. I love using those extra bits of bird because I get a kick from that feeling of not wasting anything. Not to mention, they add a ton of flavor to my feast. I use the bones and heart in my stock, which ends up adding flavor to a bunch of my dishes. I also like to cut up the bits of liver and actually add them to my stuffing. It’s sounds kind of gross, but it tastes amazing (it gives the whole thing a flavor like pâté!).
Before you stick it in the oven, there are a couple more things you need to do.
The other secret to ensuring your bird turns out browned? Fat. Butter and olive oil are the two most commonly used when it comes to roasting turkey. Olive oil will make a crispier skin because it has less water than butter (remember, moisture is the thief of crispiness). But nothing gives something that buttery flavor quite like butter.
Whichever one you choose, use it to coat the entire bird inside and out—and that includes under the skin! Then, stuff the cavity with aromatics like citrus, herbs, garlic, and onions. These ingredients will guarantee your turkey is flavorful throughout. Do all of this just before you put your bird in the oven.
Depending on the size of your turkey, it’ll need at least three to four hours in a 350 degree F oven before it’s ready.
Siegler says that a 14-pound turkey will need to roast at least three hours at 350 degrees F before it will be ready to eat. The larger your bird, the more time it will need. But once you get past that three hour mark, it can be hard to know exactly how much longer you should cook it for. Instead, Siegler says you should rely on a meat thermometer. Check on your bird every 30 minutes after the original three hours have passed. Stick your thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh (but don’t touch the bone!). When it reaches 165 degrees F, it’s ready to eat.
Before you carve it, let it rest for 30 minutes.
When your turkey first comes out of the oven it will be way too hot to handle. Letting it rest for 30 minutes gives it time to cool so that you can properly carve it, and it gives the turkey time to absorb all of the flavors and juices that have run loose.
Carving isn’t easy, but with some tips (and YouTube videos), you shouldn’t have a problem.
“The best way to get the most out of the turkey is to carve the full pieces of meat away from the bone and then slice each piece for easy serving,” Siegler explains. “Using a very sharp knife and a two-pronged fork to steady the turkey, cut through the skin between the breast and leg. Force the leg away from the turkey and cut through the joint to separate the leg completely. Use your hands to rotate the leg away from the turkey to locate the join, and repeat with the other leg.”
If you need some visual guidance, check out this video. You may need to watch it a few times (I know I did).
Carve the turkey away from guests. You know, in case things don’t go as planned.
According to Siegler, you should carve the turkey in the kitchen away from your guests. “This makes it easier on you and also on your guests,” she explains. As much as people think they want to see that beautiful bird all dressed up and on the table, the reality is they probably just want to eat it. And carving takes time. Do it in the kitchen before you bring it out to the table. That way, if you fudge it, which you probably will the first time around, you won’t have 10 guests staring you down as you do it.
Even if your carving job isn’t perfect, lay the bird out on a serving tray with some slices of lemon and sprigs of herbs. They’ll make the whole look beautiful. Even if it’s just OK, your guests will be none the wiser.