The Food Lab's Definitive Guide to Buying, Prepping, Cooking, and Carving Your Holiday Turkey

Here's to getting the best out of your holiday bird, whether it's your first or your 50th.

Pouring gravy over a serving plate of turkey and sides.
Got turkey questions? Our definitive guide has the hardcore, well-tested answers. Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Back when I used to work in the wild and crazy world of magazines, we ran into the same conundrum year after year: What can we say about turkey this time around? It's a problem that only arises when your articles are temporally fixed with a shelf life of a month before the next issue comes out. It inevitably led to a sort of turkey arms race. Every year we had to come up with some explanation for why THIS IS THE ONLY TURKEY RECIPE YOU'LL EVER NEED.

You can see the problem inherent in that system, right?

Here on the internet, we don't have that problem. Our articles are here to stay and what's more, easy to update, expand, and reference. Without the need to crowbar in new headlines year after year, it means we can stick to our guns and tell you the TRUTH about turkey, whether it's how to cook, what turkey to buy, whether or not you should brine it, or what to do with those leftovers. That's not to say we're not hard at work coming up with new techniques to test, new recipes to try, and new variations on old favorites, but it does mean that when I say that spatchcocking is the fastest, easiest way to get a crisp, juicy bird on the table, then by gum I'm going to keep saying it until we come up with a faster or easier way, headlines be damned.

This is good news for you guys. It means that within a few short clicks, you have years' worth of our hardcore testing and tasting results to help guide you through getting the best out of your Thanksgiving bird, whether it's your first or your fiftieth. We've tested techniques, busted myths, and got our hands dirty to bring you real results that actually work.

Welcome to the official Serious Eats Guide to Turkeys.

You can read the whole thing or jump straight to a section with the navigation below.

The Short Version: Our Top Recommendations

Don't feel like reading? Here's the quick-and-dirty version with our five most important recommendations.

  • Buy a natural (un-enhanced) bird, preferably free-range or heritage breed for more flavor.
  • Stick to birds in the 10 to 12 pound range, about one pound per guest. Need more meat? Use two small birds instead of one larger one.
  • Do not brine it. Instead, dry-brine it by salting it generously with kosher salt over the skin and letting it rest loosely covered in the refrigerator overnight.
  • Cook your turkey by spatchcocking it.
  • Use a thermometer to tell you when the turkey is done.

Read on for more details.


Q: What do Natural, Kosher, Organic, and Heritage really mean and which should I buy?

Most folks at home have three factors to balance in their turkey equation: flavor of the bird, how difficult it is to prepare, and the ethical and environmental standards by which it was raised. Here's what labels mean.

  • Natural birds contain no additives and are minimally processed. The flavor can vary depending on the producer and breed, but they are generally the less flavorful than a free-range, organic, or heritage breed bird..
  • Kosher birds have been pre-salted and as such are deeply seasoned and good at retaining moisture. They can be cooked directly as-is and will dry out less than a natural bird if overcooked. Some folks (myself included) find that kosher birds can have an oddly chemical aftertaste.
  • Self-basting birds have been injected with a salt and flavor solution to help keep them moist while cooking. They come out incredibly moist, almost wet, and can be cooked directly from the package with minimal pre-roast work required. They also tend to be dull and diluted in flavor.
  • Organic birds and free-range are raised according to stricter humane standards and must also have access to outdoor space, though the standards for how this is defined are extremely liberal. A small door to a concrete lot at one end of a large open barn is sufficient to garner the label, which means that many free-range and organic turkeys make it to market without ever having seen the actual light of day. Additionally, organic turkeys are raised without antibiotics and solely on organic feed
  • Heritage breed birds are birds that come from specific breeds of turkeys that have been kept relatively genetically pure through the generations. They can vary in size, shape, and flavor, but they generally have more strongly flavored meat and smaller breasts than modern turkeys, which have been bred to have as much breast meat as possible. Heritage breed birds are pretty much exclusively sold in their natural state, with neither koshering nor enhancing treatments. They tend to be much pricier than other options, but also tend to be better raised, so from both a humanity and flavor standpoint, they're an attractive option.

I typically choose a natural turkey, preferably heritage breed or organic for my own Thanksgiving table, though all birds can be prepared with good end results.

Check out our full guide to Natural, Kosher, and Injected birds for more details!

Q: What's an "enhanced" or "self-basting" turkey, and do I want one?

"Enhanced" or "self-basting" birds have been injected with a salt and flavor solution to help keep them moist while cooking. Most large scale name-brand commercial birds are enhanced. Look for a little sign on the label indicates the turkey has been bulked up with a salt, water, and flavoring solution. The advantage is that they come out incredibly moist, almost wet, though note that more moisture is not the same thing as more flavor. Self-basting turkeys tend to be dull tasting. If you value ease of preparation and juiciness over all, this is your bird.

Q: What size turkey should I buy?

Plan on about one pound of turkey per person, which translates to around half a pound of edible meat. Over 15 pounds or so, turkeys become more difficult to cook, take much longer, and are more prone to drying out. I find the best birds are around 10 to 12 pounds.

Q: What if I'm cooking for a large group? Are really big turkeys a good option?

I'd strongly recommend considering cooking two smaller birds instead of one large one. Smaller birds come out more evenly cooked and moist. If this is not an option, then you'll need to adjust your cooking temperatures. For birds between 15 to 20 pounds, reduce the oven temperatures suggested in our roast turkey recipes by 50°F and increase cooking times by up to 40% (make sure to use a thermometer to tell when the turkey is done). You may find that with a large bird, the skin will not crisp as much. To get crisper skin, return the bird to a 500°F oven for 10 to 15 minutes after resting, then carve and serve immediately.

Better yet, just take it apart and roast it in parts You'll have much better control over final temperatures and it'll take up less space in your oven to boot!

Storage and Thawing

Q: When should I buy my turkey?

Wrapped fresh, turkeys will last for several weeks after their packing date, so make sure to check the label when you purchase it. I try and get my bird at least a week or two in advance just so that I can avoid the stress of knowing if it will arrive in time or worse, having to scour the city for a last-minute turkey only to discover that the only ones available are frozen solid.

Frozen turkeys can be bought and stored in your freezer up to three months in advance.

Q: Which is better, frozen or fresh?

Freezing meat creates ice crystals that damage cell structure. Frozen meat of any kind is more prone to moisture loss than fresh meat—in my tests, frozen meat can lose up to 12% more moisture than fresh when cooked. I prefer to buy fresh turkeys.

That said, many turkeys sold as "fresh" at the supermarket have actually been frozen and thawed before sale. Even turkeys labeled by the producer as "fresh, never frozen" may have been frozen by the shipping company or the supermarket. Look for frost on the packaging when purchasing a fresh turkey. This is a good sign that it was recently defrosted.

Q: What's the best way to thaw turkey?

If you do end up with a frozen turkey, make sure to give yourself plenty of time to defrost it. The best way is to defrost in the bottom of the refrigerator with the turkey set on a large platter or tray. A 12- to 15-pound turkey will take three to four days to fully defrost.

If you need to defrost your bird in a hurry, place it in a large cooler or tub full of cold water, changing out the water every hour or so. This should get a full-sized bird fully thawed within 12 hours.

Q: Can I cook a frozen bird?

No! Try it and you'll end up with a bird that's overcooked on the exterior and still completely frozen in the middle, even after hours in a hot oven. If your bird is still frozen on Thanksgiving morning, your best bet is to make sure those side dishes are really darned good.

Q: How long can I store a thawed or fresh turkey?

Once you've fully thawed your frozen turkey or un-packaged your fresh turkey, you should cook it within three days.

Q: Can I refreeze my thawed turkey?

From a quality standpoint, I wouldn't recommend it. Every time you freeze and defrost meat, you damage its structure more and more. From a safety standpoint, thawed meat should only be refrozen once. After than you run a more serious risk that bacterial contamination is building up to unsafe levels.

Brining, Rubbing, Salting, and Basting

Q: Does brining really make for juicier meat?

Brining does indeed make for juicier meat! The basic process involves soaking meat (usually lean meats like turkey, chicken, or pork chops) in a tub of heavily salted water overnight (most brines are in the five to eight percent salt range by weight water). Over the course of the night, the meat absorbs some of that water. More importantly, that water stays put even after the meat is cooked. By brining meat, you can decrease the amount of total moisture loss by 30 to 40%.

Graph showing degrees of weight loss in cooked turkey.

To understand what's happening, you have to look at the structure of turkey muscles. Muscles are made up of long, bundled fibers, each one housed in a tough protein sheath. As the turkey heats, the proteins that make up this sheath will contract. Just like a squeezing a tube of toothpaste, this causes juices to be forced out of the bird. Heat them to much above 150°F or so, and you end up with dry, stringy meat.

Salt helps mitigate this shrinkage by dissolving some of the muscle proteins (mainly myosin). The muscle fibers loosen up, allowing them to absorb more moisture, and more importantly, they don't contract as much when they cook, making sure that more of that moisture stays in-place as the turkey cooks.

Check out this article for more on the basics of brining.

Do you recommend brining your turkey?

Sounds like brining's a good idea, right? Not so fast. Brining will add liquid to your turkey, but it will also dilute the bird's flavor. Using a flavored liquid like cider or broth doesn't really help either. Because of an effect called "salting out," salt will selectively move into the bird, while larger flavorful molecules will be excluded.

I prefer the more intense flavor of an un-brined bird, and so long as you don't overcook it, even an un-brined bird can come out plenty juicy.

Q: What's a better method than brining?

Glad you asked! Prolonged salting, also known as dry-brining, is the method I use. When you salt a turkey (or chicken) breast, meat juices are initially drawn out through the process of osmosis. As the salt dissolves in these juices, it forms what amounts to a very concentrated brine, which then allows it to break down muscle proteins. The loosened muscle fibers allow the juices to get reabsorbed, this time taking the salt along for the ride.

Through this process—osmosing, dissolving, re-absorbing—the salt will slowly work its way into the meat, offering the same sort of moisture protection that brining does, all while seasoning your bird more deeply.

Neither brining nor salting is 100% necessary if you use a thermometer and make sure you don't overcook your turkey, but they're good safeguards just in case.

Check out this article for an in-depth look at salting poultry.

Q: Ok, so how do I brine or dry-brine?

Check out our Quick and Dirty Guide to Brining here!

Q: Should I still dry-brine a kosher or self-basting bird?

As kosher and self-basting birds are already treated with salt, there is no need to brine them.

Q: Does rubbing butter, oil, or a dry rub on my turkey affect the way it cooks?

Yes, though contrary to what some sources claim, oil, butter, and/or aromatics are nothing more than a surface treatment—they don't penetrate far beyond the skin (even if applied directly to the meat underneath. I generally do nothing more than rub my turkey skin with a little oil and season with salt and pepper, though there are other things to consider:

Going naked is the easiest, and will give you the crispest skin, particularly if you let the turkey air-dry overnight in the fridge. Do not let a turkey dry out for more than one night or it ill turn leathery and tough instead of crisp.

Spice rubs can add flavor to skin. For best results, combine them with your dry-brine and rub them on the day before. Here's a great guide to making a balanced rub!

Oil will get you a more even golden-brown color, as it helps distribute heat from air in the oven more evenly. It also provides a good surface for salt and pepper to stick to while helping prevent skin from turning leathery.

Butter or herb-butter will add lots of flavor to your skin but it'll also greatly reduce its crispness. Butter is about 18% water. It cools down the skin as it evaporates off. Milk proteins present in butter also brown on their own, so turkey skin rubbed with butter will have a spottier appearance than one rubbed in oil. Some people prefer this appearance.

Q: Should I baste my turkey as it cooks?

Basting will not add moisture to meat, but it can help a turkey cook faster if you are behind schedule. Basting will also re-deposit dripped proteins and aromatic compounds onto the surface of the turkey, which can add flavor but also creates uneven browning. Basted birds tend to have a streaky-skinned appearance.

Q: Any other tips for getting extra-crisp skin?

Yes! Combine your salt rub with a little baking powder before rubbing it into the turkey and letting it rest overnight. That's right, baking powder. It's a trick I discovered while working on my recipe for The Best Oven-Fried Buffalo Wings a few years ago. Baking powder mixes with the juices on the surface of the turkey skin and reacts, forming microscopic bubbles. These bubbles then crisp up, adding extra surface area and crunch to your turkey as it bakes. Baking powder's slightly alkaline pH also promotes better browning and more efficient breakdown of proteins in the turkey skin.

Q: OK, I'm convinced! How do I dry-brine my bird?

Easy. For a 10- to 15-pound bird, combine two tablespoons of kosher salt with one tablespoon of baking powder and one teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper in a small bowl. Use the mixture to season your bird evenly across all of its surfaces, making sure to get it into nooks and crannies under the wings and around the legs. Place the bird on a plate in the fridge overnight and loosely cover it with plastic or cheesecloth.

The next day, rinse if desired to remove excess surface salt (I skip this step because I like salty skin). Pat dry. Roast as desired. For even better results, carefully separate the skin from the breast and thighs and rub the salt directly on the meat, under the skin.


Q: What's the best way to roast my turkey?

Spatchcocked roast turkey.

For my money, the spatchcocked turkey is by far the fastest, easiest, and best way to roast a turkey. By removing its backbone and flattening it out you not only get more even cooking, but you also get juicier meat and crisper skin, faster cooking (about a 50% time savings over a regular roast!), with a nice backbone to make tasty gravy out of to boot. It simply can't be beat!

We all know the problem with turkeys: the leg meat needs to be cooked to around 165°F to be palatable, while breast meat dries out when it gets much above 145 to 150°F.* With a spatchcocked bird, your breast and legs will naturally reach the ideal final temperature at the same time, no basting, icing, flipping, or any other tricks required!

*The USDA recommends cooking turkey breast to 165°F, which is a guarantee you'll have dry, tough meat. So long as you use a thermometer and hold the turkey at 145 to 150°F for at least 15 minutes or so, the results are perfectly safe to consume.

Q: OK, I get it. Spatchcocking is awesome. But I want a traditional-looking bird. How do I get there?

If you have your heart set on a traditional-looking whole or stuffed bird, you need to solve the problem of unevenly cooked meat another way. The easiest method I know of is to harness the heat retention capabilities of a baking stone or Baking Steel. Preheat your stone or steel at the bottom of the oven. Have your turkey ready-to-cook on a V-rack set in a baking sheet and slide it directly into the steel. Immediately turn the oven down to around 300° or so. The retained heat in the roasting pan and stone will give the leg meat closer to it a head-start, and you'll find that your turkey will all come to the right temperatures at pretty much the same time. It's not quite as foolproof as spatchcocking and the skin doesn't get quite as crisp, but it's the best technique I know for roasting a whole, intact bird.

Check out the recipe for Easy Herb-Rubbed Turkey With Giblet Gravy right here.

Q: Do I need one of those expensive roasting pans and racks to cook my turkey?

No way! Sure, they make lifting in and out of the oven easier, but they're actually worse for cooking a turkey. Not only do 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 best part? They run about $15 compared to the $150 you'd spend on a quality roasting pan.

Q: How do I know when my turkey is done?

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. For turkey that is moist and juicy, aim for breasts that register 150°F in their deepest section and legs that register at least 165°F.

Q: What's the best way to stuff my bird?

Food expert Alton Brown has gone on record saying that you can't make a good roast turkey with stuffing inside. The difficulty is that once you stuff the bird, that stuffing also needs to come up to a safe final temperature, since it's been absorbing turkey juices the whole time. By the time the stuffing comes up to safe temperature, the breast meat will be hopelessly overcooked.

So what's the solution?

It's actually quite simple, and even Alton himself has gone back and recommended a similar method since his earlier disdain for stuffing: just heat the stuffing before you put it in the turkey.

By preheating the stuffing, you give it a jumpstart on the cooking process. That way, as long as it never cools down to a dangerous temperature range during the cooking process, you're completely in the clear.

Collage of stuffing wrapped in cheesecloth and stuffed in turkey.

I heat up my stuffing in a cheesecloth pouch inside the microwave before placing it inside the bird. This makes it far easier to get into the bird before roasting, as well as making it easier to retrieve when the bird is cooked.

Since the stuffing cools down a bit during cooking (the cold turkey chills it), you need to start it at around 160°F in order to ensure that it comes back up to a safe temperature by the time the turkey is done roasting.

Graph showing stuffed turkey internal temperatures.

Check out this recipe for Easy Stuffed Roast Turkey With Giblet Gravy for more details on how to cook a stuffed bird.

Here's a recipe for my favorite Classic Sausage and Sage Stuffing.

Q: Can I stuff a spatchcocked bird?

You can indeed, and it's actually easier than stuffing a traditional bird! Simply place a big ball of raw stuffing underneath the cavity in the breast, lining it underneath with aluminum foil so that it doesn't fall into the holes of the wire rack. If you've got enough space, you can tuck more stuffing underneath the flap of skin around the neck, as well as under each of the legs. Once the turkey has finished roasting, remove the stuffing, combine it with the remaining stuffing leftover from the recipe, transfer it all to a buttered casserole dish, and bake until crisp.

Q: What can I do with the giblets?

Add them to the gravy! I like to sauté the chopped giblets in a little butter before adding flour and whisking in the stock in this Basic Gravy recipe.

Q: What's the best way to make gravy?

If you've gone the spatchcocked turkey route, then you'll have a backbone to work with. Start by chopping it up and browning it in oil, then add some aromatics like chopped onion, carrot, celery, bay leaves, parsley, and black peppercorns. Add enough homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock to cover and let it simmer for at least an hour. Strain out and discard the solids. You've now got yourself a pretty solid turkey stock to work with.

Once you've got that stock, it's simply a matter of following one of our gravy recipes for a flavor-packed sauce to cover your turkey and mashed potatoes.

For extra flavor, try spiking your gravy with a splash of soy sauce and fish sauce!

Q: I'm only cooking for a few. How do I roast a small turkey or a turkey breast?

When cooking for a small crowd, I like to forgo the whole turkey and go with a simple Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast And Stuffing.

Alternatively, get yourself an extra-small turkey and cook it just like this Butterflied Roast Chicken With Quick Jus.

Q: I'm the adventurous type. Any over-the-top recipes that'll deliver superior results if I put in the time?

Ah, you're my kind of people, and have I got some recipes for you!

Sliced turkey porchetta on serving board.

First off, start with the turchetta, a all white-meat roast treated just like a traditional Italian pork loin porchetta. It's cured with garlic, chilies, and sage, rolled into a cylinder, wrapped with its own skin, then slow-roasted and finished with a sear for the juiciest, most tender, most flavor-packed turkey you'll eve try.

Wait, I lied. Even better is the Sous-Vide Deep-Fried Turchetta, which follows the same basic premise but uses the precisely controlled cooking power of a sous-vide circulator along with a deep fryer for maximum crispness and juiciness.

This will ruin you for all other turkey.


With the leftover legs, why not go for this Red Wine-Braised Turkey Legs recipe? Fall-off-the-bone tender meat, crisp skin, and a rich red wine gravy are the end results.

Turkey Weisswurst (White German-Style Sausage With Lemon, Nutmeg, and Parsley)

Finally, if you're into charcuterie, use up the leftover turkey tenderloins to make these Turkey Weisswurst, an ultra-juicy German-style white sausage flavored with lemon, nutmeg, and parsley.

Your Thanksgiving guests will have no idea what hit them!

Serving and Leftovers

Q: Do I need to let my turkey rest before carving it? How long?

Yes! Just like any piece of meat, resting allows your bird to retain its internal juices better upon slicing, leading to moisture, juicier end results. Read up a bit more on the science of resting meat right here. For a 12 to 15 pound turkey roasted at high temperatures, a rest of at least 20 to 30 minutes before carving is recommended. This should give you adequate time to get the family seated.

Q: How do I carve my turkey?

Overhead photo showing carving turkey breast.

Glad you asked, and even gladder that I spent the time to put together this handy illustrated slideshow to walk you through the process step-by-step!

Q: What's the best tool for carving?

Forget about carving knives or electric knives. All you need for a turkey is your favorite razor-sharp chef's knife. I like to use the Misono UX-10 Gyutou, but check out our guide to chef's knives for a closer look at some other options in all price ranges.

Q: How should I store leftovers?

Leftover turkey should be packed up and refrigerated within a couple hours after serving for optimal food safety. I like to cut the meat off the bone in as large chunks as I can (sliced turkey is difficult to reheat without overcooking), then immediately use the bones to make a good roast turkey broth. Just cover the bones with water and simmer them for a few hours with some aromatics like onions, carrots, celery, and bay leaf. Strain and freeze or refrigerate to use in recipes like this hearty turkey soup or turkey n' dumplings.

Q: Any suggestions for how to serve leftovers?

Overhead of pot and serving bowl of turkey matzoh ball soup.

For many folks, the day after Thanksgiving is better than the event itself. You can count me among that group. We've got a whole slew of recipes for you over on our Thanksgiving Leftovers guide, ranging from hash to stew to ramen to sandwiches and everything in between!

By the way, Stuffing Waffles is really all you need to know.

Serving tray containing carved and arranged turkey.

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