How to cook a turkey? Don’t waste your time with other posts. Here’s the plain truth: The secret to perfect turkey is proper control of turkey temperature. And that’s our jam. Use whatever recipe you like—deep-fry it, smoke it, roast it, whatever. But neglect these fundamental principles at your own peril!
Turkey Doneness Temperature
How to Cook a Turkey at a Glance: Cooking Time and More
- Thawing: You need to verify that your turkey is fully thawed before putting it in the oven or smoker or frier to avoid disaster. Best thaw method is in the fridge—1 day per 5 lbs.
- Internal Temp Tracking: Track internal turkey temps while roasting, if you can. Place an alarm thermometer probe in the thickest part of the breast (another in the thigh).
- Oven Temps: Best roasting is two stage process—450°F (232°C) for 1 hour, then down to 325°F (163°C) for however long it takes until the turkey is done. If you read a post telling you exactly “how long to cook a turkey,” hit the back button fast.
- Verify Turkey Doneness: Be sure to verify your doneness temps with an instant-read thermometer. The lowest reading you find should be 157°F (69°C) in the breast or put it back in the oven or smoker a little longer.
How to Cook a Turkey In Depth: Everything You Need to Know…
No other holiday has such a laser focus on a single piece of food—the Thanksgiving Turkey. If the turkey isn’t right, the day gets an asterisk. If the turkey is just perfect, everyone somehow feels more thankful. To say nothing about the real danger of food poisoning with poultry! And YET, how often do you cook a whole turkey during the other 364 days of the year? Maybe at Christmas? 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. But don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.
Now that you’ve reviewed the “at a glance” headlines, it’s time to dig a little deeper. Let’s start with some of the most common questions…
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 and posts about turkey cooking times abound promising “Turkey Cook Times,” but they all share the same fundamental flaw—no chart can take into account all the variables that can actually affect your particular turkey’s actual cooking time…
Things that Change Rate of Cooking…
- The accuracy of your oven or smoker (most ovens are off their set point by 25-50°F [14-28°C])
- The type of oven (conventional, convection)
- Uneven heating flow in your oven
- Where the turkey is positioned in the oven or smoker
- The depth and size of the pan
- The type of roasting pan: whether it’s dark, shiny, or dull
- Using a roasting pan with a lid (don’t do this BTW)
- The exact size of your turkey
- It’s shape dimensions relative to other turkeys
- The fat content of your turkey
- How warm it was when it went into the oven or smoker
- Whether it was completely thawed or still partially frozen
- Whether it was tented with foil or not
- Whether it is stuffed or unstuffed
So, can you trust a turkey time chart to make sure your turkey is a) done enough to be safe to eat or b) not dry and tasteless? No, you cannot. Time charts do have their use. They help you estimate when to start cooking your turkey relative to dinner time. But for delicious turkey, you want to cook your turkey until it is done and not a moment longer.
WHAT TEMPERATURE IS TURKEY DONE?
Click on almost any other “how to cook a turkey” post and you’ll see the same bad information repeated over and over. But despite what they all say, you absolutely should NOT cook your turkey breast meat to 165°F (74°C) or to—heaven forbid—180°F (82°C)!
Our answer? Cook the breast meat to 157°F (69°C) for moist, juicy turkey.
Bone dry turkey white meat is the reason so many people kind of hate turkey. It’s also why turkey gravy and cranberry sauce are de rigueur on so many Thanksgiving dinner tables. But if you’ve ever eaten properly cooked turkey white meat, you know it can be moist and absolutely delicious without any added condiment!
TWO DIFFERENT TYPES OF MEAT
Part of the challenge here is that a whole turkey actually has two very different types of meat on the same bird: the lean and tender white meat of the breast and the heavily worked dark meat of the legs and thighs. Cooking them at the same time is a little like trying to cook a steak and a brisket in the same oven. Since the dark meat, like a brisket, needs higher temperatures for the collagen to melt, our recommendation for the tender dark meat is 175-180°F (79-82°C)! (Read more here about how to achieve both temps in the same bird.)
IS IT SAFE TO EAT?
The other challenge is that people misinterpret the food safety tables put out by the USDA. Achieving a reduction of the poultry pathogen Salmonella is a function of both time and temperature. Note this screenshot from the USDA’s own tables on turkey safety…
This shows that a turkey held at 157°F (69°C) for 50.4 seconds will achieve the same lethality on Salmonella as a turkey cooked to 165°F (74°C) does instantaneously. And what are the odds that a turkey pulled at 157°F (69°C) will remain at that temp for at least a minute? 100% because of something called Carryover Cooking. The temperature is actually guaranteed to keep going up for a spell after you remove it from the oven or smoker.
Meanwhile the white meat in turkey will start to expel its water in the 150’s F (60’s C) and be bone dry by the time it reaches 165°F (74°C).
Do your family a favor this Thanksgiving. Pull your turkey from the oven or smoker at 157°F (69°C). But remember to verify!
With those big questions out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks. Here’s the best advice you’ll find on how to cook an amazing turkey. It starts right up front with the thaw…
It’s often overlooked but the first key to delicious turkey is proper thawing. You can actually cook a fully frozen turkey and, of course, you can cook a fully thawed turkey. But cooking a turkey that is partially thawed and partially frozen on Thanksgiving morning is a recipe for disaster.
A partially frozen turkey will cook unevenly. By the time the inner frozen area thaws and comes to its pull temperature, the outermost layers of the turkey will be woefully overcooked.
THE BEST METHOD: HOW TO DEFROST A TURKEY IN THE FRIDGE
The best way to get an evenly thawed turkey is the slow and gentle way. It takes a little forethought and making some room in your fridge but is the easiest method, as well.
Put your frozen turkey breast-side UP on a rimmed sheet pan or tray in your refrigerator set to 37°F (3°C).
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.
TURKEY THAW DAY
For almost all turkey sizes, the Saturday before Thanksgiving 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. So mark “Turkey Thaw Day” on your calendar now!
SPEED THAW METHOD
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 cold 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.
VERIFYING THAT YOUR TURKEY IS THAWED
Whichever method you use, you should ALWAYS verify that the internal temperature of your turkey is above freezing BEFORE putting it in the oven or smoker. Again, you can actually cook a frozen turkey and, of course, you can cook a thawed turkey, but you can’t cook a partially thawed, partially frozen turkey. If the center of the turkey is still frozen, by the time it comes to a food safe temperature, the outside meat will be burned to a crisp.
Using a fast and accurate instant-read thermometer, like Thermapen ONE, push the probe tip through the wrapper, deep into the breast and pull it out noting the temperature reading as it changes. The lowest temperature you see should be 30°F (-1°C) or above (and, of course, below the danger zone—40°F [4.4°C]). Check in several places. Check deep in the thigh and next to the neck cavity too.
If you encounter ice with the probe, or see a temperature reading below 30°F (-1°C), continue thawing using either method above until the turkey is fully thawed.
PART 2: PREP YOUR TURKEY SKIN FOR THE OVEN OR SMOKER
One of the most delicious parts of a properly cooked turkey is crispy skin. And crispy skin after cooking starts with DRY skin before cooking. 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.
So, prep your turkey skin by either drying or, better yet, dry brining your turkey skin before cooking.
Pat your turkey dry with paper towels right before cooking. (This is particularly important if you wet-brined your turkey 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.
Slather on the butter or oil and spices (whatever your recipe calls for) and start cooking.
Optionally, get even crispier skin and juicier, more flavorful turkey meat by dry-brining your bird. Dry brining is essentially air-drying your turkey. After applying your spices (we prefer just plain salt and pepper), leave your uncovered in the refrigerator on a baking tray for the morning (8 hours) before or the entire day before (24 hours) cooking your turkey.
PART 3: TRACKING YOUR TURKEY’S INTERNAL TEMPERATURE
TWO THERMOMETERS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
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. These different areas of the turkey simply will not cook at the same rate.
That’s why it’s important both to track your cooking temp with a cooking alarm thermometer like Smoke X, ChefAlarm, or DOT (sometimes called a “leave-in probe thermometer” or an “oven thermometer”) and to verify your doneness temps with a fast and accurate instant-read thermometer. Two different thermometers for two different but very important jobs.
If you only have one, the instant-read is the more important, since it allows you to verify doneness temperature in multiple places. But each time you open the oven door or the smoker lid to check on your turkey temps, you’re likely to reduce the internal temperature of the oven or smoker by as much as 50°F (28°C). Each time!
But with an alarm thermometer, you’ll be able to track your turkey’s internal cooking temperature from outside the oven or smoker, so you won’t miss the critical moment when your turkey is done!
Remember, your goal is to cook your turkey breast to exactly 157°F (69°C) and not one degree more before removing it from the oven, smoker, or frier.
PART 4: WHERE TO PLACE THE THERMOMETER PROBE
Most “How to Cook Turkey” posts show the thermometer sticking straight up out of the breast of the turkey, but that is a bad idea. The “gradients” or different temperatures in a turkey breast while it cooks follow the contours of the breast itself, which are long and flat (picture a chicken breast).
Pushing a probe vertically through the top means you are cutting across those gradients. That’s the right way to verify the doneness of the bird, but for temperature tracking, we recommend increasing the likelihood that you position the probe sensor in the “thermal center” of the breast by following its contours and inserting the probe horizontally, parallel to the baking tray.
Hold the probe against the turkey breast to estimate how deeply you should push the probe tip into the breast to reach its center. With your other hand, pinch about where you think the probe will reach the outer edge of the turkey.
Insert the probe laterally, from near the neck cavity, parallel to the cutting board or pan up to your fingers pinching the probe with your other hand.
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. You can wiggle the probe tip inside the turkey breast and feel with your other hand to verify it is near the center of the breast.
If you DO have a second probe to work with, push it deep into the thigh—between the leg and the body of the turkey. If you hit bone, pull the probe tip back half an inch.
Set the alarm thermometers high alarm to 157°F (69°C) in the breast. If you have a second channel for a second probe in the thigh meat, set its high alarm to 175°F (79°C).
With a cooking alarm thermometer you will be able to track your turkey’s internal temperature from your counter top! Avoid the temptation to open the oven or smoker, and let out the hot air, until the alarm sounds.
When the alarm sounds, it’s time to verify the doneness of your turkey.
PART 5: VERIFYING PULL TEMPS—HOW TO KNOW WHEN YOUR TURKEY IS REALLY 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.
HOW TO VERIFY YOUR TURKEY’S TEMPERATURE
When your alarm thermometer’s high alarm sounds at 157°F (69°C) in the breast, it’s time to verify that its reading is the lowest temperature.
Remember, your turkey is only as done as the lowest internal temperature you can find.
Using a fast and accurate instant-read thermometer, like a Thermapen ONE, plunge the probe deep into the breast meat from the top and then pull the probe tip up slowly back through the turkey meat watching the thermometer display.
Do this in at least two places in the breast. You’re looking for a lowest-temperature reading of at least 157°F (69°C) in the breast meat.
If you encounter temperatures below 157°F (69°C) in the breast, reposition of the alarm thermometer’s probe until the reading on the alarm thermometer matches the lowest reading you found on the instant-read (be careful to use a hot pad on the hot probe). Return the turkey to the oven or smoker to continue cooking until the alarm sounds again and 157°F (69°C) is the lowest temperature found in the breast.
When the breast meat doneness temp is verified, go ahead and check your dark meat by pushing the probe tip of your instant-read thermometer deep into the thigh meat between the leg and the body of the turkey. Pull the probe tip up slowly back through the thigh meat watching the thermometer display.
The dark meat will will taste better at temperatures above 175°F (79°C) but is perfectly safe to eat above 165°F (74°C). (Read more about how to achieve higher temps in the dark meat while keep the breast meat tender.)
PART 6: REST YOUR TURKEY AFTER COOKING
Pulling your turkey from the oven or smoker or frier is actually NOT the last step before carving and serving. Resting your turkey is. We recommend a 30-minute rest before carving.
Why rest? Two important 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 heat.
This is called carryover cooking. While small cuts of meat like steaks or chops experience minimal carryover, large cuts, like turkeys or roasts, can experience as much as 5-10°F (3-6°C) increase in internal temperature while the exterior cools. We call the way a cooked turkey comes to one temperature while it rests “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 or smoker.
If you have a ChefAlarm or Smoke alarm thermometer from ThermoWorks, leave the probe in place, and the alarm thermometer will record the maximum temperature reached by the internal meat of the turkey during the rest.
Set a timer for 30 minutes, and allow your turkey to rest at room temperature (the ChefAlarm has one built-in).
Check the ChefAlarm or Smoke’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).
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 alarm thermometer probe in place and track the internal temperature while you wait.
APPENDIX 1: 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. It’s worth noting that this is physically impossible with an old-fashioned dial thermometer. The sensor in dial thermometers is an inch-long spring that averages temperatures over the bottom inch of the probe to take a reading. And the so-called “pop-up thermometers” that come in some turkeys are only measuring the outer quarter inch of the breast!
But for a digital thermometer probe, like our industry-leading Pro-Series probes, the sensor that needs to be in the thermal center is 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!
APPENDIX 2: HOW TO GET HOTTER DARK MEAT THAN WHITE MEAT
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 (79°C) by the time the breast meat reaches 157°F (69°C).
To help alleviate the challenge of cooking two completely different types of meat at the same time, chefs and food science experts have pushed different methods, including roasting the turkey upside down, shielding the breasts with tin foil, or even separating the white meat from the dark meat and cooking them separately.
But if you want to keep the turkey whole, there are two methods that we have found stand above the rest when it comes to the thermal principles at play that make or break turkey success.
OPTION 1: ICING THE BREASTS
This method, recommended by Harold McGee, gives the dark meat a thermal head start before the turkey goes into the oven or smoker and it works like a charm. It may seem a bit alarming to leave the turkey out on the counter for a couple of hours before putting it in the oven or smoker, but food safety experts who know about the Temperature Danger Zone, know that food can safely rest between 40 and 70°F (4 and 21°C) for a total of 4 hours.
Fill two sandwich or quart-sized Ziploc bags (depending upon the size of the turkey) with ice and clip them together at the top with a binder clip.
Remove the turkey from the fridge and set it on a baking tray on the counter. Balance the Ziploc bags over the breasts
Set a timer, like the Extra Big & Loud, for 2 hours. When the timer goes off, remove the ice bags, properly place your probes and immediately put the turkey in the oven or smoker as usual.
Optionally, one hour into your breast icing, place a ceramic pizza stone in the oven and preheat the oven to 500°F (260°C) for one hour to allow the pizza stone to absorb heat. The hot pizza stone near the bottom of the turkey—where the legs and wings are—will help maintain a temperature differential between the dark meat and light meat. When the final 2-hour timer sounds, reduce the oven to 450°F (232°C) before putting the turkey in the oven.
If you are able to track both the breast meat and the thigh meat temperatures while you are cooking, you should notice a good 10 to 15°F differential (6 to 8°C) between the two that will track the whole way through the cook.
OPTION 2: SPATCHCOCKING
Of all the turkey cooking methods, this one delivers the biggest punch, in our humble opinion. If you’ve ever baked a pan of brownies you must have noticed how the brownies near the edge of the pan are fully cooked while the brownies in the center of the pan are still gooey.
Spatchcocking involves removing the backbone of the turkey to allow it to be flattened into a roasting tray and relies on the same principle to “fully cook” the dark meat on the outside of the tray while keeping the white meat in the cooler center.
APPENDIX 3: CARVING
Carving your turkey properly is the perfect finishing touch. Not only does it make it easier for people to eat, but it is the perfect way to publicly demonstrate your new-found turkey prowess! But carving a turkey—with all its nooks and crannies, the legs, wings, and breasts on the ribcage—is not like carving a tenderloin. It takes a strategic plan.
To carve your turkey…
Remove the turkey leg by slicing down between the thigh and breast. Pull the thigh away from the breast until the thigh pulls out of joint. Finish severing the joint with the point of your knife until the entire leg is free.
Separate the turkey drumstick from the thigh by following the line between the leg and the thigh with the point of your knife. Again, pull the drumstick away from the thigh to reveal the joint. Finish severing the joint with the point of your knife.
Do the same to the other thigh and drumstick.
Free the breast by cutting down right next to the keel bone. Angle your knife outward and follow the bone structure down of the bird all the way along the ribcage until the breast meat is free. Starting at one tip, slice the breast meat into cross-sections, each with their own strip of skin.
Repeat on the other breast.
Remove the wing by pulling the wing away from the carcass to identify the joint. Sever the joing with the point of your knife. Repeat for the other wing.
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. Good luck and happy cooking! And be sure to let us know how YOUR turkey turned out below in the comments section…Print
How to cook a turkey, the easy, accurate way
- 1 turkey, thawed until no part of the bird is colder than 30°F (-1°C)
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- Oil or rendered fat
The day before you cook the turkey—dry brine: optional but highly recommended.
- Unwrap the turkey and remove the neck and giblets, if present.
- Place the turkey on a rack set in a rimmed baking tray.
- Liberally coat the skin of the turkey with kosher salt and season it with pepper.
- Place the turkey, unwrapped, in the refrigerator on the bottom shelf. Let it sit overnight.
The day of the cook
- Preheat oven to 425°F (218°C)
- Dry the skin with paper towels if it is damp, or if you didn’t dry brine it.
- Rub the skin well with oil or rendered fat.
- Place a handful of aromatics in the cavity of the turkey.
- If you didn’t dry brine, season the skin well with salt and pepper.
- Probe the turkey in the deepest part of the breast with the probe from a ChefAlarm. Set the high-temp alarm for 158°F (69°C).
- Place the turkey in the oven and cook for 1 hour.
- Turn your oven’s temperature down to 325°F (163°C), open the door briefly to vent heat.
- Continue to cook the turkey until the high-temp alarm sounds.
- Verify the temperature with your Thermapen ONE. If you find a lower temp than 157°F (69°C), move the ChefAlarm probe to the cooler spot and continue to cook.
- If the Thermapen gives the appropriate pull temp, remove the turkey from the oven.
- Allow the turkey to rest on the countertop for about 30 minutes. Don’t worry, it will still be plenty hot!
- Carve and serve!
Shop now for products used in this post: