No other holiday has such a laser focus on a single piece of food—the Thanksgiving Turkey. Say what you will about the sweet potatoes, green beans, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, the pies, even the rolls (oh, those rolls); all eyes are on the turkey on Thanksgiving afternoon. They don’t call it Turkey Day for nothing.
If the turkey isn’t right, the day gets an asterisk. If the turkey is just perfect, everything seems brighter. And YET, how often do you cook a whole turkey during the other 364 days of the year? Maybe at Christmats? Maybe never?
Cooking a perfect Thanksgiving Turkey on cue is a little like being called in to throw the winning touchdown when you haven’t touched a football all year.
Turkey temperature: 157°F (69°C)
So here’s a little gift from us to you: a complete guide to thawing and cooking your turkey, with a special emphasis on using temperatures to not overcook your bird. This is not a recipe, mind you. These principles should work with whatever recipe or cooking method you choose. But understanding these basic concepts and principles should give you the leg up on your competition (Aunt Sally??) and help ensure your superstar status with the family come Turkey Day. Disregard these ideas at your own peril!
What Temperature to Cook a Turkey
Before we get into some very important thermal information, let’s lay out some basics. Roasting a turkey is best done in a two-step process. Preheat your oven to 425°F (218°C) and place your properly thawed turkey with its probes in the right place in your oven and let it cook at that temperature for 1 hour. This will help to crisp the skin and get a jump on the cooking process. Then turn the oven down to 325°F (163°C) and cook for the remaining time—until your leave-in probe thermometer sounds.
So, now that you know the basic procedure for a turkey roast, here are the details that will change you from mild-mannered turkey cook into a bona fide Thanksgiving hero!
How long to cook a turkey
Perhaps the question people ask most about cooking a turkey is how long it is going to take. Charts about turkey cooking times abound, but they all share fundamental flaws. No chart knows just how your oven cycles, no chart knows how cold your turkey is when it goes into the oven. No time chart can checks to see if your turkey was even properly thawed to begin with. In the end, time charts are not an accurate way of knowing when a turkey is done. For that, you must use temperature.
You can follow a time chart right past perfect doneness and into dry-turkey land, but a leave-in probe thermometer when properly applied will help you get a turkey out of the oven because it will tell you exactly what the actual temperature is.
Now, using such a chart as a guide for knowing roughly when to put the bird in the oven isn’t a bad idea, but ultimately the question “how long should I cook my turkey?” is best answered: “until it is done, and no longer than that.” Keep reading to get a deeper understanding of why that is and how to cook your bird best.
Part 1: How to Thaw a Turkey
Proper thawing is critical to the success of your turkey on Thanksgiving day. There are a couple of different ways to thaw a turkey but only one way to verify it’s completely thawed. We have the thermal tips you need to plan when to begin thawing your turkey and to ensure you do it safely.
Do Not Cook a Partially Frozen Turkey
You can actually cook a frozen turkey and you can cook a thawed turkey, but you SHOULD NOT cook a turkey that is partially thawed and partially frozen. If the turkey meat is not at a uniform temperature before you cook it on Thanksgiving morning, you’re asking for disaster.
The dramatic temperature gradients in a partially frozen turkey, from its frozen thermal center to its completely thawed exterior, will cause it to cook unevenly. By the time the frozen area comes to its pull temperature, the outermost layers of the turkey will be woefully overcooked.
Turkey must be kept at a safe temperature during “the big thaw.” While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. However, as soon as it begins to thaw, any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again.Turkey Basics: Safe Thawing, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
To make sure we understood the ways that turkeys thaw, we thawed a few turkeys using different methods to see how long they actually take. We used logging thermometers and probes placed from 2.1 to 6.0 cm deep in the turkey breasts. We thawed one turkey on a tray in the refrigerator at about 36°F (2°C). We thawed another turkey in a bucket of water placed in the refrigerator, with an initial water temp of 40°F (4°C). We thawed another similar turkey in a cooler of water that we kept in the range of 36–40°F (2–4°C). The final turkey we allowed to sit on the counter overnight in a 68°F (20°C) kitchen. The turkeys weighed between 18.02 and 18.74 pounds, except for the turkey thawed on the counter, which weighed 16.99 pounds. We’ll look at the results as we go through the various methods.
The Best Method: How to Defrost a Turkey in the Fridge
The preferred method for thawing a turkey is to put your frozen turkey breast-side UP on a rimmed sheet pan or tray in your refrigerator set to 37°F (3°C), allowing it to thaw gently.
Allow at least 24 hours for every 5-6 pounds (2.3–2.7 kg) of frozen turkey. A 20-pound (9.1 kg) turkey will take 4 full days to thaw in a refrigerator. This method is the least labor-intensive but requires the most time. Be sure to plan ahead! (Read about Turkey Thaw Day below!)
The turkey that we air-thawed in the fridge took 27.4 hours to reach an internal temperature of 30°F (-1°C) and 64.8 hours to reach 32°F (0°C). With the weight of turkey we had (18.74 lb), that came out to about 3.5 hours per pound to reach 32°F (0°C).
The Speed Method: How to Defrost a Turkey in a Cold Water Bath
If you don’t have several days at your disposal, you can try the speed method.
Water has a much greater molecular density than air. Heat transfer from the molecularly dense water to the frozen turkey happens much faster than in air. You will need to allow at least 30 minutes per pound (per .45 kg), so it will still take some time.
- Place your unopened turkey (it must be in airtight wrapping) breast-side DOWN in a cooler and fill with water to cover. Your turkey may float at first, that’s okay. It will begin to sink as it thaws.
- Use an alarm thermometer like the ChefAlarm® with its high alarm set to 41°F (4.5°C) to track the water temperature during a water thaw. If you like, you can also take advantage of the ChefAlarm’s built-in timer to keep track of your hours. Or spot-check the water’s temperature every half hour with an instant-read thermometer like a Thermapen, and add ice to keep the water at 40°F (4.4°C) or below. This is very important! If the water gets above 40°F (4.4°C) while the turkey is thawing, bacteria may begin to grow that could survive the cook.
- This process may require 1-2 large bags of ice—so be prepared.
- The turkey that we water-thawed in the cooler took 27.37 hours to reach an internal temperature of 30°F (-1°C) and 33.2 hours to reach 32°F (0°C). With the weight of turkey we had (18.50 lb), that came out to about 1.8 hours per pound to reach 32°F (0°C). Note that the temperature of the water was warmer than in the fridge by a few degrees, we tried to keep it right at 39°F (3.9°C). This is the fastest way to get it done!
- If you have an extra refrigerator in your basement or garage, arrange its shelves to make room and place the bucket with the cold-water-thawing turkey inside the fridge and close the door. Keep the cooler’s lid tightly closed to help maintain a steady, cool water temperature.
- The turkey that we water-thawed in the fridge took 16.1 hours to reach an internal temperature of 30°F (-1°C) and 60.3 hours to reach 32°F (0°C). With the weight of turkey we had (18.02 lb), that came out to about 3.3 hours per pound to reach 32°F (0°C).
Q: Can I thaw my turkey in the kitchen sink?
A: Yes, but proceed with caution.
- You can use a basin or a sink filled with ice water for thawing your turkey but you will need to exercise extreme caution not to splash the “turkey water” onto your countertops. Any time water splashes or the stream of water from the tap is on, droplets of the possibly contaminated water are sprayed into the air. Have a box of anti-bacterial wipes handy for any spills.
- Monitor the temperature of the water bath in your sink to ensure that it stays below 40°F (4.4°C) to avoid bacteria growth. The best way to do this is with an alarm thermometer, like a ChefAlarm.
- Dangle the probe in the water without submerging the transition from the probe to the cord (unless it’s a Pro Series® Waterproof Needle Probe) and set the high alarm to 40°F (4.4°C). When the alarm sounds (usually every 20 minutes to half-hour), either drain the basin and add fresh cold water or drain just a little water and add ice cubes to the water bath until the alarm stops sounding.
- You can also check the water temperature with an instant-read thermometer like the Thermapen every 30 minutes, and adjust the water temperature as needed. This can be a laborious process, but quickly thawing in cold water can get you out of a pinch if you find yourself with a partially frozen turkey and very little time left.
Verifying that Your Turkey is Thawed
Whichever method you use, verify the internal temperature of your turkey with an instant-read thermometer, like the Thermapen® Mk4. Push the probe tip through the wrapper, deep into the breast in several places. Check deep in the thigh and next to the neck cavity too.
Each time you probe the meat, pull the probe tip out of the turkey slowly and watch as the temperature changes on the display. You are looking for temperatures no cooler than 30°F (-1°C) and not higher than 40°F (4.4°C) throughout.
If you encounter lower temperatures (below 30°F [-1°C]) anywhere in the bird, continue thawing using either method above until the turkey is properly thawed.
Turkey Thaw Day
Turkey Thaw Day is what we call the Saturday before Thanksgiving. For most turkey sizes, this is the perfect day to place your frozen turkey in the refrigerator—allowing plenty of time for thawing without letting the thawed turkey overstay it’s welcome in the fridge before cooking.
Mark “Turkey Thaw Day” on your calendar now to plan ahead and simplify your holiday.
How Not to Thaw a Turkey
A frozen turkey should never be thawed on a kitchen countertop at room temperature, on your back porch, or in the garage. These methods of thawing will leave the outer layers of the meat in the temperature danger zone (40-140°F [4.4-60°C]) for an extended period of time while the innermost, lowest temperature area finishes thawing out.
The turkey thawed on the counter was a disaster. The warm air did too good a job thawing the outside of the bird, reaching 40°F (4.4°C) in only 15.5 hours. BUT it took an additional 4.1 hours for the inside of the bird to even reach 30°F (-1°C)! That means the outside of the bird was sitting in the temperature danger zone for 4 hours before cooking would have even started. Not good. Thawing on the counter gives you a bird that could be very unsafe by the time the center is ready to cook.
Dry Surface = Crispy Skin
Lastly, after you thaw your turkey, thoroughly dry the surface of the turkey before putting it into the oven (or smoker or oil). Water on the surface of the meat will slow down the cook, and cause uneven browning. The heat of the oven or smoker must first work to evaporate the surface moisture before the cooking really begins.
Pat your turkey dry with paper towels right before cooking.
This is particularly important if you will be brining your turkey (soaking it in saltwater). Be sure to get the entire surface of the turkey (even the inside surface of the main cavity and neck cavity) nice and dry before seasoning. Then, slather on the butter or oil and spices (whatever your recipe calls for) and start cooking.
If you want extra crispy turkey skin, a little extra planning and effort up front can pay real dividends. Air-drying, or leaving your turkey uncovered in the refrigerator for the morning (8 hours) or the entire day before (24 hours), will help produce a crispier skin. And, while you’re at it you may as well dry-brine your bird for extra juiciness and flavor!
Part 2: Where to Place the Thermometer in a Turkey
The number of recipes and cooking methods available to help you cook the perfect turkey are nearly endless. Regardless of the cooking method used or the size of your bird, temperature tracking is a major key to turkey success from start to finish, no matter the recipe. Let’s look at why that is.
The more uniform a piece of meat is in shape and size, the more evenly it will cook. This is why we tie up roasts and butterfly some cuts of meat before cooking them. Needless to say, whole turkeys are anything but uniform in shape.
The breasts are thick at one end and tapered toward the other, while the legs are quite a bit smaller. Not to mention the fact that some areas of the turkey are shielded from exposure to the heat of cooking. These different areas of the turkey simply will not cook at the same rate.
With all of these variables at play, accurate temperature tracking is never more critical to success than it is when cooking a turkey. Regardless of whether your bird this year is roasted, smoked, deep-fried, or spatchcocked, knowing how to track and spot-check the turkey’s internal temperature will allow you to cook this year’s bird with confidence. And the critical first step to gauging the internal temperature of your bird this Thanksgiving is properly placing the probe.
Note: Use Two Thermometers
When cooking a turkey, you need two thermometers, not just one. An oven-safe leave-in probe thermometer to track the cook and an instant read thermometer to verify its doneness. And the first thing you need to do to ensure perfect turkey doneness at the end of your cook, is to properly place the probe of your leave-in probe thermometer at the beginning.
The First Step: Accurate Probe Placement
For best results this Thanksgiving, place your thermometer’s oven-safe probe into the deepest part of the turkey breast, avoiding bone. (The Pro-Series® probes that accompany many of our thermometers are perfect for the oven)
Bones have a different mass than that of meat fibers and conduct heat differently. A probe resting against a bone will not give an accurate temperature reading for the meat itself.
How to Place the Probe
- Insert the probe laterally, from near the neck cavity, parallel to the cutting board or pan.
- The probe’s tip should be about 1/2 to 1 inch (1.3 to 2.5 cm) from the internal cavity of the bird to avoid touching the bone.
With the DOT’s probe in place, we’re ready to track the internal temperature of the breast during the cook. Note that the target internal temperature for the leg meat is different, but we’ll cover how to measure that later in the series.
To get it right, understand these 3 things:
1. Temperature gradients
While meat is cooking, heat transfers from the outside in. Because of this, the outside of a turkey will be at a higher temperature with lower temperatures as you move toward the center of the meat. This difference in temperature between the exterior and interior of the meat is referred to as a temperature gradient.
When cooking anything, the higher the temperature you cook at, the larger the temperature gradient inside the meat. That is, turkey cooked at 450°F [232°C] will have a larger band of overcooked meat around its edges than turkey cooked at 250°F [212°C].—The Food Lab’s Step-by-Step Guide to Smoking A Turkey, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
Understanding temperature gradients leads right into the core of where to place your thermometer’s probe. The thermal center:
2. Thermal center
The thermal center is the point in the turkey furthest from the exterior of the meat that takes the longest to cook.
The largest mass of the turkey is its breast meat, and the deepest part of the breast in its thickest area is where the thermal center will be. This lowest temperature is the one that needs to be tracked during the cook because your meat is only as done and safe as the lowest temperature found.
3. Understand your thermometer’s probe
For the most accurate probe placement, it helps to know a thing or two about your leave-in thermometer’s probe. you need the part of the thermometer that is actually taking the temperature to be in the thermal center. For a Pro-Series probe, that means the tiny cone at the very tip of the probe. With the sensor in such a small area, you can pinpoint accurate readings from within very small temperature gradients in the meat. Just make sure your probe tip is in the thermal center!
(For more on probe placement in turkeys, see our post on the topic.)
Why the Probe’s Sensor Matters
Thermal center? Probe tip? Grandma never talked about those things when she was cooking a turkey. Are they really that important?1
Temperature gradients and the thermal center
With food cooking from the outside inward, a difference in temperature exists from the outer surface of the bird to the center of the deepest area in the breast meat. This difference in temperature, or temperature gradient, can be as much as 45°F (25°C), with the temperature changing gradually from outside to inside. This lowest temperature area, or thermal center, is a very small space to measure. That’s why a probe’s sensor matters. A small sensor allows you to get a pinpoint-accurate reading of the temperature, not an average tempareute that is spread out over a few inches.
The Pop-Up Timer
Millions of Thanksgiving turkeys are pre-embedded with a pop-up timer every year. Consumer Reports performed tests with several pop-up timers and discovered that nearly all yield unacceptable results. Most of them popped up well above 165°F (74°C) yielding dry turkey meat, with a few indicating doneness at unsafe temperatures—one as low as 139°F (59°C). Eating turkey cooked to this temperature will make your family sick!
These devices that are supposed to gauge doneness don’t even give a measured reading and are very unreliable. If your turkey comes with a pop-up, ignore it.
…neither can you trust the pop up thermometer that comes inserted in the bird. The plunger that pops up is anchored in metal that is supposed to melt at a set temp, often at 185°F (85°C). At that temp a turkey breast is more particle board than party.—Meathead, AmazingRibs.com
Dial thermometers, a.k.a. bi-metal stem thermometers
A typical bi-metal stem thermometer’s reading merely reflects an average temperature as measured over the length of the sensor and whole probe length—it doesn’t necessarily sit in the small target area. A dial thermometer’s sensor length is typically 2-1/4″, and it can’t tell you the lowest temperature in the breast meat because it is averaging temperature over a very wide area in the breast. Its poor accuracy makes the dial thermometer very unreliable to measure the target pull temperature.
Sensors you can count on
Oven-Safe Pro-Series Probes
We’re using a ChefAlarm to track the internal temperature here, and all Pro-Series probes use thermistor sensors that are located in the first 1/4″ of the probe’s tip. This small sensor is perfect for measuring the temperature in a narrow area such as your turkey’s thermal center. The reading is not an average temperature, the ChefAlarm’s display is the actual temperature from the precisely targeted area in the meat at the probe’s tip.
Part 3: Tracking Your Turkey’s Temperature
Tracking your turkey’s internal temperature is another critical step in the success of your holiday bird, because you need to know when to remove it from the heat source. Whether you’re roasting, smoking, or deep-frying, an oven-safe thermometer like the ChefAlarm will help ensure a succulent and flavorful turkey that’s also safe to eat.
Know When to Pull Turkey From the Oven
So many of us overcook poultry for fear of possibly undercooking it. A turkey pulled too early could possibly still contain foodborne illnesses, while a turkey pulled too late will be dry. With accurate temperature tracking, you’ll never overcook a turkey again and, more importantly, you’ll be certain your family is safe!
Target Pull Temperature
The whole point of accurate probe placement is to accurately track the internal temperature of your turkey’s thermal center. And knowing exactly when to remove it from the heat source is what tracking the thermal center is all about.
Set the Alarm
We have found that a pull temperature of 157°F (69°C) works best to account for the rise in temperature that will occur during the rest and achieve the optimal final cooking temperature of 165°F (74°C). Set the ChefAlarm‘s high alarm to 157°F (69°C) and the alarm will sound when its internal temperature on target. Once the probe is placed and your high alarm is set—get cooking!
Pull at the Target Temp and Not a Degree Later
Once the meat’s temperature reaches 150°F (66°C), its protein fibers begin to tighten, contract, and start expelling moisture more rapidly. Cooking the turkey to temperatures substantially above 165°F (74°C) will yield dry breast meat. Even 5°F (3°C) above the target temperature will significantly impact your results. Our target pull temperature of 157°F (69°C) is calculated to allow both for the carryover rise to 165°F (74°C) and to meet the USDA’s alternative recommendation that turkey be held at 157°F (74°C) for 49.5 seconds in order to achieve the same level of pathogen reduction.
How Long Will the Turkey Take To Cook?
We all want the answer to this question. Thanksgiving Day food preparation, and when to schedule your dinner, revolves around when the turkey will be ready to serve.
Cook Time Variables:
Cooking times called out by charts and recipes are only approximations of how long it will take for a whole turkey to cook, based on oven temperature and weight of the bird. According to the USDA, many other variables affect the length of the cook, including:
- Whether the turkey is completely thawed, or still partially frozen
- Stuffed or unstuffed
- Uneven heating in your oven
- Oven accuracy
- The type of roasting pan: whether it’s dark, shiny, or dull
- Depth and size of the pan
- Tenting with foil
- Using a roasting pan with a lid
- Use of an oven bag
- Where the turkey is positioned in the oven
- A turkey that is too large for the oven, resulting in insufficient heat circulation
The truth is that charts and recipes with cook time recommendations are a very rough estimate, not a gauge of doneness at all. The only 100% reliable way to know when the turkey is ready to be pulled from the heat is through tracking its internal temperature. We couldn’t say it better than Harold McGee…
A number of different guidelines have been proposed for predicting how much time it should take to roast a given piece of meat. Minutes per inch thickness and minutes per pound are the usual approximations. However, the mathematics of heat transfer show that cooking times are actually proportional to the thickness squared, or to the weight to the 2/3 power. And the cooking time also depends on many other factors.
There is no simple and accurate equation that can tell us how long to cook a particular piece of meat in our particular kitchen. The best we can do is monitor the actual cooking, and anticipate when we should stop by following the temperature rise at the center of the meat.—On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee
Maintain Stable Oven/Cooker Temperature
- Opening Oven Door=Heat Loss
- Heat Loss=Longer Cook Time
In an Oven: If you’re relying only on an instant-read thermometer like a dial thermometer or even a Thermapen to track your turkey’s temperature during the cook, you will need to open the oven door for each spot-check. Every time the oven door is opened, its temperature can drop by 50°F (28°C)! Decreased oven temperatures will inevitably extend the time it takes for your bird to cook. So, be sure to use a leave-in probe thermometer that can track your turkey’s internal temperature from outside the oven, like the ThermoWorks ChefAlarm.
In a Smoker: The same goes for your smoker. Once the lid is opened, a multitude of problems can occur. The temperature initially drops, but the oxygen introduced to the burning coals acts as fuel, eventually causing a temperature spike. Tracking the temperature with a ChefAlarm makes it easy.
Part 4: White Meat vs. Dark Meat Cooking Methods
One of the most challenging aspects of cooking a whole turkey is that there are two distinct types of meat that need to be cooked to different doneness temperatures—and all the meat is supposed to be ready at the same time! Below you’ll find solutions to this thermal conundrum.
The Difference Between White and Dark Meat in Turkey
The differences between white and dark turkey meat are similar to the differences between a tenderloin steak and a brisket. Can you imagine trying to cook each at the same time? Thinking of cooking a turkey with that perspective, it’s no wonder that breast meat is often overcooked and dry, and the leg meat can be tough. The difference lies in the type of muscle that each is, and how it’s used on the animal.
Breast meat: fast twitch muscle
Fast twitch muscles contract quickly and are meant for short bursts of energy, not constant activity. It’s typically more tender and lean, without a high amount of connective tissue. Since turkeys are flightless birds, their breast meat is white rather than dark like the breast meat of a duck or goose.
Prolonged cooking can result in dry, tough white meat. For best results, fast twitch muscle meat should be cooked to its pull temperature (157°F [69°C]), and not a degree higher.
Thigh and leg meat: slow twitch muscle
Slow twitch muscles are from heavily-worked areas of the animal and are designed for constant, extended periods of activity. They are well-oxygenated and darker than breast meat with more collagen-rich connective tissue.
The web of connective tissue in the muscle needs to be cooked to and held in a higher temperature range (175-180°F [79-82°C]) to properly dissolve—helping the tough protein become tender.
Once dissolved the connective tissue unwinds, turning into gelatin. This process of connective tissue turning into gelatin is what gives tough, slow twitch muscle meats (like pork shoulder and brisket) their silky, succulent texture.
Did You Know? Gelatin can absorb up to 10 times its weight in liquid.
Dark meat is perfectly safe to eat once it has reached 165°F (74°C). But optimizing your cooking method to reach a higher temperature range will improve its texture dramatically for a better eating experience.
Different Pull and Doneness Temperatures
- White Meat Pull the white meat at 157°F (69°C), so it will come to a final resting temperature of at least 165°F (74°C).
- Dark Meat The higher temperature range of 175-180°F (79-82°C) allows the connective tissues to dissolve, and turn the tough meat into tender and silky meat. The legs and thighs are smaller than the breasts, and will not experience as much carryover cooking (food retains heat and continues to cook even after being removed from the source of heat). Temperatures 5-10°F (2-5°C) above 175°F (79°C) will not harm the dark meat.
Turkey Oven-Roasting Methods
To prevent a turkey with dry breast meat, it must be pulled from the oven at 157°F regardless of the dark meat’s internal temperature. To achieve the end goal of tender, juicy breast meat and silky, succulent dark meat, the internal temperature in the thighs needs to be at least 175°F by the time the breast meat reaches 157°F. To help alleviate the challenge of cooking to completely different types of meat at the same time, there are different methods, tips, and techniques that have been developed by chefs and food science experts. And we tried them all!
1. Deconstructing the bird
- Cooking White and Dark Meat Separately
- Breaking down your turkey and cooking the breasts separately from the legs allows you to more easily control how each type of meat is cooked. The most obvious drawback to this deconstructed cooking method is that you won’t have a traditional whole turkey to present to your guests at the table.
- Many experts recommend this method for speed in cooking and the meat’s doneness temperatures. The turkey becomes more uniform in thickness, and there is maximum exposure with the legs.
To learn more about this technique, read our post, Spatchcocked: Roast Your Turkey in Record Time!
2. Keeping the turkey whole
There are a few different tips and techniques of cooking a whole turkey to keep the breast meat tender and juicy, while allowing the legs to come up to their best temperature range to dissolve connective tissue.
- Do not truss the legs
- Leave the legs open to expose more of their surface area to the heat. Trussing makes them more compact, shielding them from cooking quickly.
- Icing the Breasts
- Allow the raw bird to rest at room temperature while icing the breasts. This method, recommended by Harold McGee, gives the dark meat a thermal head start. Periodically replace the ice bags with fresh ice to keep the breast meat’s internal temperature at 40°F (4°C) or below. The turkey can safely be left on the counter at room temperature for four hours (and no longer) prior to cooking. The turkey should then be cooked immediately.
- Allow the raw bird to rest at room temperature while icing the breasts. This method, recommended by Harold McGee, gives the dark meat a thermal head start. Periodically replace the ice bags with fresh ice to keep the breast meat’s internal temperature at 40°F (4°C) or below. The turkey can safely be left on the counter at room temperature for four hours (and no longer) prior to cooking. The turkey should then be cooked immediately.
- Tenting with Foil
- Alton Brown recommends covering the breasts with heavy duty foil to shield them from the heat keeps the white meat from overcooking while the leg meat cooks.
- Roasting upside down
- In this method the breast meat is shielded from being exposed to direct ambient heat while the legs are more exposed to the heat, helping them to cook faster. The turkey is flipped over breast-side-up during the last part of the cook to allow the skin to brown. The experts at America’s Test Kitchen recommend this method.
Starting the bird breast side down shields the white meat from oven heat and helps solve the fundamental problem with cooking any bird—dark meat should be heated to a higher internal temperature than white meat. To crisp the skin on the breast, turn the bird breast side up for the second half of the roasting.—The Science of Good Cooking, Cook’s Illustrated, pg. 104
- Using a baking steel or stone
- Preheating a baking steel or stone will create a radiant heat source directly below the bird, helping the legs to reach their appropriate temperature faster. Kenji from SeriousEats recommends this method for cooking whole birds. Preheat the oven to 550°F (260°C) (or as high as it will go) with the baking stone for an hour, then reduce the temperature to 300°F (149°C) once the turkey goes in.
Turkey Tip: Roasting pans with high sides are a no-go!
…they shield the underside of the bird, preventing it from browning and crisping, but they also shield the legs—the very part you want to cook fastest! A much better tool for roasting a turkey is a plain old aluminum half sheet pan with either a wire rack or a v-rack set in it.—The Food Lab’s Definitive Guide to Buying, Prepping, Cooling, and Carving Your Holiday Turkey, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
In Our Demo Kitchen
To prevent dry breast meat, the turkey must be pulled from the oven at 157°F (69°C) regardless of the dark meat’s internal temperature. The goal is for the dark meat to have effectively dissolved its connective tissue by reaching an internal temperature of about 175°F (79°C) by the time the breast meat needs to be pulled from the oven. We always use Butterball turkeys in our kitchen. They are pre-brined, helping to ensure a juicy, flavorful bird. This year we’ve cooked over 20 of them with each of the well-vetted techniques listed above. All had an impact on the turkey’s rate of cooking and the final quality of each type of meat.
For each project, we used our dual-channel oven thermometer, Smoke. It was ideal because we could simultaneously track the internal temperature in both areas of the turkey with one thermometer. We used the high temp cooking probe in the breast, and the shorter, finer needle probe in the thigh.
Our Best Turkey Cook Results!
We found that a method combining 1) icing the breasts while the turkey sits on the counter, 2) using a preheated baking stone in the oven, and 3) keeping the legs open rather than trussed, resulted in a turkey with the different pull temperatures we were looking for. In other words, perfectly tender and juicy breast meat with silky dark meat…success! Why it works:
- Icing the breasts lowered the white meat’s temperature by about 15°F (8°C) compared to the dark meat before the turkey went into the oven. With the breast meat’s temperature so much lower than the legs, the breast meat took about an hour longer than it normally would to reach its ideal pull temperature. Giving the dark meat more time to reach the higher temperature range necessary for its connective tissue to dissolve.
- The preheated baking stone maintained steady radiant heat close to the legs, helping them reach their higher temperature.
- And finally, keeping the legs open rather than trussed also helped ensure the dark meat had ample heat transfer on all sides.
Hopefully, this will help you get a perfect doneness on both parts of your turkey. Juicy breast and tender thighs will make everyone happy, but you have to watch the temperatures to get it right!
Part 5: Verifying Pull Temps—How to Know When Your Turkey is Done
The best way to know your turkey is done is, simply, to take its temperature. Yes, you’ve been monitoring the temp with a leave-in probe thermometer, but there’s a good chance that you didn’t hit the thermal center with the tip of the probe, despite your best efforts. Verifying your turkey’s temperature with an instant-read thermometer like the Thermapen® ONE is crucial in making sure your bird is fully cooked. Let’s take a look at why that is.
Thermal Gradients and the Need to Track and Verify the Turkey’s Temperature
Before the thawed turkey goes into the oven, it’s mostly at one equal temperature from edge to edge. When placing your thermometer’s probe properly for temperature tracking during the cook, the probe’s sensor is likely very close to the thermal center of the breast meat. After cooking, temperature gradients exist. With the presence of temperature gradients, the only way to know if the reading on your Leave-in Probe Alarm Thermometer is the lowest temperature in the meat is to spot-check the internal temperature of your turkey with an instant-read thermometer like a Thermapen.
A clock cannot tell you when food is cooked. Only a thermometer can do this. …Actual cooking time will vary depending on how well it is defrosted, whether or not you brined or injected, what temp your fridge is, if it sat at room temp for a while, how close your bird is to the gravy pan, how well your cooker holds a steady [temperature], the quality of your thermometers, airflow within the cooker, humidity in the cooker and the breast size of your bird.—Meathead Goldwyn, AmazingRibs.com
How NOT to Check Your Turkey’s Doneness
Verifying the temp—actually checking actual doneness—is obviously important, but it may seem like a new idea to you. After all, your Grandmother might not have used an instant-read! But If you think on it, maybe her turkey wasn’t always the very best. There are lots of ways people used to check turkey doneness, and they can be fairly well entrenched into our thinking. Looking at those “verification” processes with an eye to thermal thinking can help us understand why they don’t work like they should.
- Slicing the turkey and making sure that the juices run clear
- The juices may never be colorless or clear even when a safe doneness temperature is reached.
- Wiggling the legs
- The legs become loose in their joints when connective tissue has broken down, and that begins to happen most effectively in the range of 160-170°F (71-77°C). The breasts could be overcooked and completely dry by the time the legs wiggle freely.
- Waiting for the Pop-up Timer to pop up
- Turkey pop-up timers embedded by the manufacturer are notoriously inaccurate and unreliable. If your turkey comes with a pop-up timer, leave it where it is and just ignore it (pulling it out will leave a hole for hot air to get in and help dry out the breast).
- Strictly following turkey cook time chart recommendations
- Because so many variables affect the length of a cook, charts and recipes with cook time recommendations are a very rough estimate, not a gauge of doneness at all.
Use a Thermometer
None of these methods can be used to accurately verify the doneness of your turkey. There are multiple factors contributing to how your turkey cooks such as oven temperature and oven accuracy, depth and size of the roasting pan, tenting with foil, convection vs. conventional ovens, whether the turkey is trussed, and where the turkey is positioned in the oven, just to name a few. Verifying the internal temperature is the only way to know your turkey is thoroughly cooked.
Forget about timing charts, checking for juices, or poking your meat with your finger. The only 100% reliable way to tell when your turkey is cooked is to use a thermometer like the instant-read Thermapen.—The Food Lab, Kenji Lopez-Alt
We suggest the Thermapen Mk4 because its super-fast 2-3-second readings make it easy to spot-check multiple areas quickly. Verifying the bird’s internal temp within a matter of seconds means less time for the oven to lose heat.
As we’re passing the probe through the meat, it’s easy to see the temperature gradients from edge to edge with the constantly changing readings. The reading constantly changes because that’s what’s going on in the meat—so cool!
How to Verify Your Turkey’s Temperature
Here’s what to do:
Remember, your turkey is only as done as the lowest internal temperatures you can find.
- Use an instant-read thermometer, like a Thermapen.
- Plunge the probe deep into the breast meat from the top and then pull the probe tip slowly back through the turkey meat.
- Do this in at least two places in the breast and at least two places in the thigh.
- You’re looking for a lowest temperature reading of at least 157°F (69°C) in the breast meat (to allow for carryover cooking, more on this next week)…
- …and 175°F (79°C) or above in the thigh.
- If you encounter temperatures below 157°F (69°C) in the breast, return the turkey to the oven. If a lower temperature is found, replace the ChefAlarm’s probe to track the lowest temperature area and return the turkey to the oven to continue cooking until 157°F (69°C) is the lowest temperature found.
- The thigh meat will taste better at temperatures above 175°F (79°C) but is perfectly safe to eat above 165°F (74°C).
Why spot-check in multiple areas?
When tracking your turkey’s internal temperature with an alarm thermometer only one area is being monitored (or two if you’re using a dual-channel thermometer like Smoke™). So why is it so important to check multiple areas in the bird with an instant-read thermometer?
Many different temperatures exist in an oven at any given time (see the illustration below). These different temperature areas will transfer heat at different rates—especially since a whole turkey isn’t a uniform piece of meat.
Only spot-checking one breast and one thigh isn’t sufficient because the temperatures in the other breast will not be exactly the same. Probe each thigh and breast in at least two areas to be sure you have found the lowest temperature in your turkey.
Rest Your Turkey After Cooking
Pulling your turkey from the oven is actually NOT the last step before carving and serving. Resting your turkey is. At ThermoWorks we recommend a 30-minute rest. The fact is that the muscle fibers and internal temperatures are still changing during the rest. Resting your turkey is a critical part of preparing your turkey to be succulent, moist, and delicious. You won’t want to skip this part in finishing your Thanksgiving masterpiece.
Why Rest? Two Reasons:
1. Carryover cooking in turkey
The higher temperatures that exist on the outside of the turkey will continue moving toward the lower temperature center area of the meat even after you take your turkey out of the oven. For about 30 minutes after being pulled from the heat source, the heat from the outer portion of the meat will increase the turkey’s internal temperature.
The best chefs understand this principle and plan accordingly by removing large cuts of meat, like turkeys, 5-15°F (3-8°C) before their target temperature to allow the muscle fibers time to rest.
This rise in temperature after food has been removed from its heat source is known as Carryover Cooking. The exact amount of carryover cooking your turkey experiences will depend on how big it is and how hot your oven is.
During the rest, heat transfer toward the center of the turkey will slow, and eventually stop. The internal temperature will reach its maximum, and the entire turkey will begin to cool. We call this evening of temperatures during a rest “equilibration.”
2. Redistribution of expelled juices
Another reason to rest your turkey is so it has a chance to reabsorb its juices. While exposed to the intense heat of an oven, smoker or fryer, turkey meat’s protein fibers shorten, shrink, and contract, expelling out the water they’ve retained. During the rest, these protein fibers have a chance to relax and reabsorb some of the juices that are lost. A turkey carved and served without resting will spill more of its juices onto the cutting board and not be as moist.
How to Track Carryover Cooking During the Rest
- Once you have verified that your turkey has reached its pull temperature of 157°F (69°C), remove the turkey from the oven.
- Leave the Pro Series high temp cooking probe in place, and the ChefAlarm will record the maximum temperature reached by the internal meat of the turkey during the rest.
- Set your ChefAlarm’s timer for 30 minutes, and allow your turkey to rest at room temperature.
- Check the ChefAlarm’s Max temperature reading to see what your turkey’s final resting temperature was. Even if your turkey didn’t reach 165°F (74°C), it only needs to be held for 25.6 seconds at 160°F (71°C) to reach the same level of food safety (a 7-log reduction in pathogens as defined by the USDA).
- For more on the USDA’s guidelines for poultry safety, see our post on Chicken Temperatures, where you can download a PDF of their thermal guidelines.
To Tent or Not to Tent?
Should the turkey be covered or uncovered during the rest? The reason why most people often cover their turkey with aluminum foil while it rests is to help it retain its heat. The problem is that condensation collects beneath the foil and the turkey skin can become soggy.
If you want your turkey skin to stay crispy, keep the turkey uncovered during the rest. If you need to hold the turkey for longer than half an hour before serving, keep it warm in an oven set to 150°F (66°C). Leave your ChefAlarm probe in place and track the Max temp as carryover cooking will still occur.
The intensity of carryover cooking seen in your turkey depends on 2 things:
- Size of the Turkey. The larger the turkey, the more carryover cooking you can expect. We found that a 10 lb. bird cooked at 325°F (163°C) experiences very little temperature increase while resting, while a 23 lb. bird rose almost 10°F (5°C) at its thermal center.
- Cooking Temperature. The higher the cooking temperature, the greater the internal temperature increase during the rest. A turkey smoked at 250°F (121°C) may only see a 2°F (1°C) temperature increase, depending upon its size, while a spatchcocked turkey oven-roasted at 425°F (218°C) may see a 15°F (8°C) rise in temperature. A 20 lb. turkey cooked at 325°F (163°C) should see about an 8°F (4°C) increase at its thermal center.
Once the 30-minute rest is done, it’s finally time to carve and serve your Thanksgiving turkey!
The texture, juiciness, and food safety of your turkey are a direct result of careful temperature control throughout the entire process, from thawing to resting. Follow our thermal tips from start to finish, and this year’s Thanksgiving turkey just may be your best ever.
Appendix: How to Safely Stuff a Turkey
You’ve likely heard experts say that you should never stuff a turkey.
Either the stuffing will turn out perfectly and the breast meat will be dry, or the meat will be perfectly juicy but the stuffing will be undercooked and soggy. Worse still, with all the juices from the turkey moistening the stuffing, it needs to reach an internal temperature of 165ºF (74ºC) to be safe to eat! Undercooked stuffing is a serious food safety hazard. And the stuffing is the last thing to come to temperature.
You can always cook your stuffing separately, but then it isn’t infused with all the delicious flavors from the turkey. What to do?! Hardly any Thanksgiving table is complete without stuffing.
Have Your Stuffing and Eat it Too
Fortunately, the traditional Thanksgiving presentation with stuffing inside the bird is both delicious and safe when done properly. It just requires a little extra preparation. Here’s what to do:
Preheat the stuffing, then cook your bird
The key to safe stuffing is, actually, far simpler than you might think–just heat the stuffing before you put it in the turkey. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats presents this solution in his new book The Food Lab.
By preheating the stuffing you jump-start the cooking process. But how do you heat the stuffing and transfer it to the turkey’s cavity without cooling it down, or burning your fingers in the process? Again, it’s easy.
1. Line the Cavity:
Lay out 2-3 layers of cheesecloth approximately 2 feet by 4 feet, and line the turkey’s cavity (as pictured). Once the turkey is lined, fill the bird completely with the cold stuffing. Once it’s full, tie off the cheesecloth pouch and trim off any excess cheesecloth. Voila! You’ve created a little sack of stuffing that perfectly fits the shape and size of your turkey, and the stuffing will stay in a compact little space. You won’t have to worry about making a mess or cooling down the stuffing by moving it back and forth.
2. Preheat the Pouch:
The easiest way to heat up the stuffing is in the microwave. Place the pouch of stuffing on a microwave-safe plate and microwave for about 7-10 minutes until the center of the stuffing reaches 180-190ºF (82-88ºC) when checked with your Thermapen. (Thanks to our friend, Kenji Alt-Lopez for verifying the proper preheating temperature of the stuffing). The temperature of the stuffing will actually cool dramatically during the first half of your turkey’s cook because of the frigid temperature of the turkey surrounding it. But this initial burst of heat will keep your stuffing pouch warm enough to reach its target temperature at just about the same time as the turkey around it.
3. Return Stuffing to the Bird:
The stuffing pouch will be quite hot, use tongs to return it to the turkey cavity, and prepare your turkey for roasting as usual. We placed our turkey on a v-shaped roasting rack and placed it on a sheet pan, then rub a compound herb butter under and on top of the turkey’s skin. (Don’t forget to properly place your probe!)
Place the stuffed turkey into the oven and roast until you reach your target internal temperatures in the breast (157ºF [69ºC]) and leg (175ºF [79ºC]). Use a Thermapen to test the internal temperature of your stuffing. Depending upon the method of your turkey cooking (lower temperature methods won’t experience as much carryover cooking after the turkey is removed from heat), your stuffing pouch will need to read 157ºF (69ºC) or higher for it to reach a safe resting temperature of at least 165°F (74°C).
4. Finish the Stuffing:
If you like crispy bits of stuffing, simply cut open the cheesecloth pouch near the end of the cook to allow some of the stuffing to crisp up with more direct exposure to heat. You can also remove the pouch and empty the stuffing onto a greased or parchment-lined pan and bake for another 5 minutes or so if you would prefer a drier stuffing (or if you have to pull your turkey meat before the stuffing is completely up to temperature). Return the stuffing to the bird when you are done (the pouch makes this easy).
5. Rest the Meat:
Remember to let your turkey rest, just like any other cooked meat. After removing your turkey from the oven, let it rest for about 20-30 minutes before carving and serving. This gives you time to remove the cheesecloth pouch and scoop the stuffing back into the bird, if you like.
Our turkey cook:
- We used an approximately 12-pound Butterball turkey (Butterballs are pre-brined), and rubbed an herb butter under and on the outside of the skin after completing the stuffing pouch and tying the legs. We used Kenji López-Alt’s recipe for Sage and Sausage Stuffing from SeriousEats.com.
- We started the oven temperature at 500ºF (260°C), and dropped it to 325ºF (163°C) just after as we put the turkey into the oven. The high start temperature helped to crisp the skin. Our turkey took 3 hours to reach its target pull temperature of 157ºF (69ºC)
Preheating the stuffing works. Our stuffing was ready just when the bird was done. The meat was tender and juicy, the skin was brown and crisp, and the stuffing was both beautiful and infused with the natural aromas and juices of the turkey.
If you decide to stuff your bird this year, just remember to do it safely.
We hope that your Thanksgiving or holiday turkey is the best you’ve ever had! No matter your recipe, be sure to follow all these thermal guidelines to get the very best results this year and again next year, too. Just remember: thaw correctly, get the thermometer in the right place, track and verify your temperatures, be aware of dark and white meat differences, and be careful with the stuffing! Good luck and happy cooking!
Shop now for tools used in this post:
Let’s be honest here—Grandma was a wonderful woman, but her turkey was often…not the best. Right? Don’t worry, we won’t tell. ↩