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How to Cook the Perfect Turkey

Cooked turkey on garnishes with dark background

Remember back when making the perfect turkey just meant tracing your hand with a crayon onto some colored paper? Now that you're all grown up, there's far more pressure to deliver a tasteful turkey. Rather than your creation being merely affixed to the refrigerator door, this year's bird is going to be put on a plate and displayed for the entire family to admire (or, if done badly, to recoil in horror from). Since your gastronomic gobbler has the potential to make or break Thanksgiving dinner this year, we thought it best to offer you some assistance, equipping you with proven techniques for a moist and delicious main course!

Picking the Right Bird

Wild turkey outside in the woods

Fresh, frozen, organic, or heritage, choosing a turkey is essential. A heritage turkey is a traditional breed of turkey—such as Black, Bourbon Red, and Auburn turkeys—which is often leaner and more flavorful but comes at a steeper price. Most people will stop at their local grocery store to pick a fresh or frozen bird.  When choosing the right size of bird, a general rule of thumb is to have one pound per person. If you're looking to stay on the organic side of life, try picking a bird that is raised on organic feed and is held up to industry standards.

Clean the turkey

Clean, uncooked turkey on a wooden cutting board with garnishes surrounding on countertop

Before adding anything to the turkey, you'll need to clean out the insides. Start by removing the bag containing the neck, heart, and gizzards. Rinse out your turkey with cold water and then dry it with a paper towel. This will give your bird a crispy golden skin. To ensure your bird doesn't fly away, tuck the wings under the breast! This will keep the bird sitting nice and proper. It also helps keep the wings from burning.

The Baked Turkey

Clean, uncooked turkey and vegetables on baking sheet ready for the oven

Novice or not, baking a turkey may require a little less skill than you think(but more than tossing the bird in a pan and into the oven). Before throwing a naked bird into the oven and hoping for the best, most recipes suggest making a bed and dressing up the bird. And no, we don't mean dress it in a suit and tie and lay it in your bed.

Dress It up and Make the Bed

Start by adding a layer of aromatic vegetables to the bottom of your roasting pan. This will create a natural roasting rack for your bird to lay on. Lifting the turkey off the bottom of your pan increases hot air circulation, making it crispy all over. Add a little color to the inside of your turkey by stuffing it with cut onions, carrots, and celery, along with some rosemary sprigs and fresh sage.

Tie It up and Season

Once you've stuffed that beautiful bird, show off some culinary skills and tie up the turkey's legs together with some kitchen twine. This will help create a tight professional looking package. Season the outside of the turkey by rubbing it with butter or oil. Add some salt and pepper, and your bird is ready for the tanning bed (AKA your oven).

Cooking Time

Put the oven rack in the lowest position and preheat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Some frozen turkeys will come with a thermometer already inserted into the bird, which will pop up when the internal temperature has reached 165 degrees. If your bird did not come with a thermometer check the temperature once cooking time is up to ensure a minimum temperature of 165 degrees. The average recommended cooking time is about 15 minutes per pound. Of course, if your turkey is still frozen, it may take a little longer. If you’re using a frozen turkey, we recommend defrosting it completely before baking. The USDA recommends thawing a frozen turkey in the refrigerator. This may take some time, so plan accordingly. You’ll need to let your bird defrost for about a full day for every 4-5 pounds. So, if your turkey weighs 16 pounds, plan to let it defrost for about 4 days prior to cooking.

The Fried Turkey

Person prepping turkey to put in deep fryer outside

If you want to skip the oven this year and take your turkey adventures outdoors, then deep-frying might be right for you. When done right, a deep-fried turkey is a very juicy alternative to a roasted turkey and will make you the undoubted hero of your holiday dinner.

Safety Precautions

Before even thinking about deep-frying a turkey, there are some safety measures you need to take. Because you are heating up gallons of oil with a propane burner to 350 degrees F, and lowering a turkey into it, keeping the children and pets away from the set-up is an excellent place to start. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions for the deep fryer and have a fire extinguisher handy. Good fry cooks never leave the bird unattended.


To get started, you'll need to gather up some equipment, including the deep fryer, fire extinguisher, several aluminum roasting pans, kitchen towels, tongs, a turkey hook, and both a meat and oil thermometer.

Time to Brine

Since you won't be able to stuff your birds, and rubbing the skin with a season will cause it to burn, the best way to add flavor to the meat before frying it is by soaking it in a brine. What is a brine? A brine is a high-concentration solution of salt in water. To make a simple brine combine 1 ½ cups of salt, 1 cup of brown sugar, and 1 quart of water. Stir until the salt and sugar dissolve; if the sugar and salt aren't dissolving add some heat to the mixture by microwaving it. Then add 3 quarts of ice water and stir. Before pouring the brine over the bird check that the temperature is below 40 degrees F. Brine for at least 24 hours.

Pulling fried turkey from the deep fryer

Drying Time

Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to dry your turkey before frying it. This can take up to 24 hours but will give your bird a crispy skin. You can help the process along by patting your turkey with a paper towel, but air drying will provide you with the best results. Remove the turkey from the brine and place on a roasting rack inside the fridge, uncovered.

It's Frying Time

If you haven't noticed yet, everything is about time here. Frying a turkey is very time consuming if done correctly. While you can bake a frozen turkey, you should never drop a frozen turkey into a deep fryer. Always ensure your turkey is completely defrosted before deep frying to prevent oil from boiling over and causing potential injury. YOu also shouldn’t plop a cold turkey into the hot oil. Instead you'll need to remove it from the fridge and let it warm up to room temperature first. This usually takes about 30 to 60 minutes. Meanwhile, follow the manufacturer's instructions for turning on the fryer, adding the oil, peanut oil and corn oil are typically used. Check the temperature of the oil, it should be 350 degrees F, before submerging the turkey. SLOWLY add the turkey to the hot oil. Lower a quarter of the bird at a time, wait for 1 to 2 minutes between each stop. For every pound of turkey, you have to cook for 3 to 3 ½ minutes until the internal temperature is 165 degrees F. Remove the turkey from the fryer into an aluminum roasting pan and let it drain. While the bird is still warm add extra seasoning by sprinkling on a dry rub.

Let It Rest!

Carving into the turkey right away will release the moist juices and cause your bird to go dry. Let your bird rest covered loosely with aluminum foil for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, dive in and carve away.

The Smoked Turkey

Fried turkey and vegetables in smoker

Ever wondered how a smoked turkey would taste? Well, wonder no longer, smoking a turkey might be the least fussy method for cooking your Thanksgiving feast. It's less time consuming than frying and simpler than baking. It also frees up your oven for side dishes! Give your guests a mouth-watering meal while showing off your pit-master skills by smoking a turkey whole.


Obviously, you will need a smoker. There are many different types of smokers such as wood, electric, charcoal, and propane, so different materials will be required depending on the type you have. Make sure your smoker is big enough to hold your bird and has enough space around your turkey to allow airflow. You'll also need a meat thermometer to check for proper cooking temperature.

Preparing the Bird

Turkey is a delicate meat that needs to be handled with care when smoking. There are many different ways you can prepare your turkey. You can try the same way as frying it or baking it, then coat the outside in a homemade BBQ rub for an extra smoky flavor, or you can try spatchcocking it. To spatchcock a bird, take a pair of butcher shears, cut along the spine, and remove it with the breast bone. This will allow the bird to lay flat, cooking it faster because it's thinner. The only downside is you can't stuff the bird, and there is a potential for it to dry out.

Smoking Time

All turkeys need to be heated to 165 degrees F internally. Be sure to start smoking your turkey early, as it can take up to 6 hours before it's ready to be consumed. Keep your smoker between 225-250 degrees F and plan for 30-45 minutes of cook time per pound. There are many different flavors of wood to use in the smoker; applewood will give you a mild and sweet flavored turkey. There is also cherry wood and hickory. Basting the turkey while it's smoking will help keep the meat juicy and moist. If you've brined the turkey beforehand, you can skip the basting step. Let your turkey rest, just like frying, you want to avoid losing the juices. Transfer your turkey to a plate, cover loosely in aluminum foil, and let sit for 10- 15 minutes. Then serve!

Now that you're equipped with this tasteful turkey knowledge, enjoy a hearty holiday meal with friends and family, laughs, and cheer. Let the tryptophan kick in as you doze off thankful for your triumphant Thanksgiving success. Also, check out our Pinterest page for some of our favorite turkey recipes.

While do-it-yourself projects can be fun and fulfilling, there is always a potential for personal injury or property damage. We strongly suggest that any project beyond your abilities be left to licensed professionals such as electricians, plumbers, and carpenters. Any action you take upon the information on this website is strictly at your own risk, and we assume no responsibility or liability for the contents of this article.