Definitive Guide to Thanksgiving Turkey

Turkey isn't just the most iconic element of the Thanksgiving table—it's also big, expensive, and time-consuming to prepare. So why leave anything to chance? Whether you're spatchcocking your turkey, roasting it whole, or deep-frying it in your backyard, we'll walk you through the entire process, from picking out the right bird and getting it ready for the oven all the way to carving it for a show-stopping presentation.

Turkey isn't just the most iconic element of the Thanksgiving table—it's also big, expensive, and time-consuming to prepare. So why leave anything to chance? Whether you're spatchcocking your turkey, roasting it whole, or deep-frying it in your backyard, we'll walk you through the entire process, from picking out the right bird and getting it ready for the oven all the way to carving it for a show-stopping presentation.

Buying

How to Pick the Perfect Turkey
Sure, buying a turkey may sound simple—right up until you get to the supermarket. At Serious Eats, we recommend buying a natural (unenhanced) bird—preferably free-range and of a heritage breed for more flavor. For best results, look for a 10- to 12-pound turkey, which will be easier to handle and cook more evenly. You'll want to have about one pound per guest. If you need more meat, considering buying two and spatchcocking them, so they both fit comfortably in your oven.
Read more about how to pick the perfect turkey for your Thanksgiving dinner

Buying FAQs

What kind of turkey should I buy?
Most folks at home have three factors to balance in their turkey equation: the flavor of the bird, how difficult it is to prepare, and the ethical and environmental standards by which it was raised. We typically choose a natural turkey, preferably heritage-breed or organic, though all types of birds can be prepared with good results. Check out our full guide to natural, kosher, and injected birds for more details!
When should I buy my turkey?
Wrapped fresh, turkeys will last for several weeks after their packing date, so check the label when you purchase yours. We try to get our birds at least a week or two in advance just so we can avoid the stress of wondering 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; allow plenty of time to defrost it in your refrigerator (it can take four days for a 15-pound bird to fully defrost, and no, you do not want to attempt roasting a partially frozen one).
What size turkey should I get?
Plan on about one pound of turkey per person, which translates to around half a pound of edible meat. Turkeys of more than 15 pounds or so are more difficult to cook, take much longer, and are more prone to drying out. We find that the best birds are around 10 to 12 pounds. If you're cooking for a large group, we'd strongly recommend that you consider 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 oven temperature. For birds between 15 and 20 pounds, reduce the oven temperatures suggested in our roast turkey recipes by 50°F and increase cooking times by up to 40 percent. (Make sure to use a thermometer to tell when the turkey is done.) You may find the skin will not crisp as much on a larger bird. To get crisper skin, return the bird to a 500°F oven for 10 to 15 minutes after resting, then carve and serve immediately.
Does it matter whether I buy a fresh or frozen turkey?
Freezing meat creates ice crystals that damage cell structure. Frozen meat of any kind is more prone to moisture loss than fresh meat—according to our tests, frozen meat can lose up to 12 percent more moisture than fresh when it's cooked. We prefer to buy fresh turkeys.

Prepping

The Better, Easier Way to Brine
So you have your bird. But don't throw it in the oven just yet. For the juiciest, most flavorful turkey, we recommend dry-brining your bird overnight in a combination of kosher salt and baking powder. This method offers more benefits than traditional wet-brining with way less fuss.
Find out why dry-brining your turkey is superior to traditional liquid brines

Prepping FAQs

What's the best way to thaw turkey?
If you do end up with a frozen turkey, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to defrost it. The best way is to defrost it 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. Once you've completely thawed your frozen turkey or removed your fresh turkey from its packaging, cook it within three days.
Should I brine my turkey?
Brining 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 range of 5 to 8 percent salt by weight.) 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 reduce the total moisture loss by 30 to 40 percent. 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. Prolonged salting, also known as dry-brining, is the method we 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. The turkey ends up as juicy as a traditionally brined bird but with none of the flavor dilution.
Can I cook a frozen turkey?
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.
Can I start brining my turkey while it's frozen?
No, you should wait to brine your turkey until it has defrosted. Once your bird is thawed, go ahead and soak it or rub it down with dry brine.
Do I need to take out the turkey's wishbone?
You don't have to take out the wishbone, but doing so before roasting will make it much easier to carve your finished bird without making a mess of the breast meat.
What's the best way to get crispy skin?
Before roasting the turkey, combine your salt rub with a little baking powder before rubbing it into the bird and letting it rest overnight. Baking powder mixes with the juices on the surface of the turkey skin and reacts, forming microscopic bubbles that crisp up, adding extra surface area and crunch to your turkey as it bakes.

Cooking Methods

Roasting's Just One Way to Cook Your Bird
There's more than one way to cook turkey. Whether you subscribe to our preferred method—spatchcocking—or you're interested in taking a modernist approach with sous vide, we'll walk you through the best way to cook your bird, no matter the method.

Cooking Methods FAQs

Should I baste my turkey?
It depends. If the turkey looks like the skin needs better browning and there's fat at the bottom of the roasting pan, baste away (or just brush on some oil). Basting will never make the actual meat more tender, so it all depends how you like the skin.
How do I know when the turkey's done?
The only 100 percent reliable way to tell when your turkey is cooked is to use a thermometer, like the instant-read splash-proof Thermapen. For turkey that's moist and juicy, aim for breasts that register 150°F at their deepest point and legs that register at least 165°F.
How do I take the turkey's temperature?
You should always measure the temperature in the turkey's breast, the part of the bird most prone to drying out. Roast your bird until the breast registers 145 to 160°F (depending on how well done you like it), then just double-check the legs to make sure they've come up to at least 165°F or so. If they need a bit more cooking, remove them and leave them in the oven for longer while the breasts rest.

Spatchcocking

Flatten Your Turkey for More Even Cooking
Spatchcocking your turkey (also known as butterflying) is the easiest route to evenly cooked, moist meat encased in shatteringly crisp skin—and it doesn't hurt that it requires less cooking time than an intact roast, too. This recipe takes just two hours, start to finish, which leaves you with plenty of spare time to whip up a meaty homemade gravy.
Read why spatchcocking is the best way to evenly and quickly cook turkey

Spatchcocking Recipes

Spatchcocking FAQs

What is spatchcocking?
Spatchcocking is the process of removing the bird's backbone and flattening it out. This flattened form exposes the legs to higher heat in the oven, helping them cook a little faster than the breasts—which is exactly what you want for juicy meat.
Why should I spatchcock my turkey?
You not only get more even cooking when you spatchcock your turkey—you also get juicier meat and crisper skin, faster cooking (about a 50 percent time savings over a regular roast!), with a nice backbone to make even tastier gravy.
Can I stuff a spatchcocked turkey?
Yes, 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. Once the turkey has finished roasting, remove the stuffing, combine it with the remaining stuffing left over from the recipe, transfer it all to a buttered casserole dish, and bake until crisp.

Whole-Roasting

The Ultimate Norman Rockwell Turkey
If Thanksgiving just isn’t Thanksgiving unless someone marches a whole bird on a platter into the dining room, the best way to get that traditional look without sacrificing good flavor or texture is to say goodbye to the expensive roasting pan. Instead, place your turkey on a V-rack set directly on a half sheet pan, which improves circulation, so that the belly skin gets crisp. In addition, we place a preheated baking stone or Baking Steel underneath the tray to focus intensely high heat at the legs, helping them to cook through before the breasts dry out.
Improve the flavor and texture of your whole-roasted turkey with these simple tips

Whole-Roasting Recipes

Whole-Roasting FAQs

I want a traditional-looking turkey. How can I make a delicious one without spatchcocking?
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. We have a solution for that, harnessing the heat-retention capabilities of a baking stone or Baking Steel to give the legs a head start. You can find the full instructions here.
Do I need one of those expensive roasting pans and racks to cook my turkey?
No, they're actually worse for cooking a turkey. 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.
What's the best way to stuff my bird?
You'll want to heat your stuffing before putting it in the bird to remove the risk of either dry meat or food poisoning. Here's how to preheat your stuffing, so it gets a jump-start on the cooking process.

Cooking In Parts

Divide and Conquer for Even More Control
Sure, a whole roast turkey is a beautiful sight on the Thanksgiving table. But if you want ultimate control and every bit of the bird perfectly cooked, you need to cook your turkey in parts.
Check out our favorite ways to cook a turkey in parts

Cooking In Parts Recipes

Cooking In Parts FAQs

Why cook my turkey in parts?
Separating the dark meat from the white is the only way to nail the 20-degree temperature differential between properly cooked thighs and breasts. In addition to producing more evenly cooked meat, turkey cooked in parts offers all sorts of other benefits like crisper skin and more even seasoning.

Deep-Frying

How to Deep-Fry a Turkey Without Killing Yourself
Though it might sound like a gimmick to the uninitiated, there really is something to deep-frying your turkey—it's a great way to get juicy meat and potato-chip crispiness in the skin. But doing it without ending up the inadvertent star of a viral video...well, that takes a good bit of care. (For one thing, it's vital that your turkey be dry—water or ice + hot oil = disaster.) Lucky for you, we have all the tips and step-by-step directions you need to execute the process successfully and safely.
Find out how to deep-fry safely and successfully

Deep-Frying Recipes

Deep-Frying FAQs

Is deep-frying turkey dangerous?
In short, yes—but that doesn't mean you can't do it. Clear the area of pets and children, follow all the manufacturer's instructions and warnings included with your deep-fryer, read through our guide to deep-frying turkey, and you'll be well on your way.
What are the benefits of deep-frying a turkey?
This method can deliver an incredibly juicy bird with the crispiest skin imaginable. In addition, it's a somewhat forgiving method, producing a bird that's relatively juicy even if you accidentally overcook it.
How big of a turkey can I fry?
In conventional 18-pound turkey fryers, we recommend frying birds no larger than 15 pounds. Smaller birds will cook more evenly, and frying a large bird increases the risk of oil spillover or of burning the skin before the center cooks through.
Can I fry a turkey inside?
Yes, you can, and it's actually safer than the outdoor method. We use an indoor countertop turkey fryer, which is designed to deep-fry a bird relatively safely.
Will I need special equipment to fry a turkey?
Yes, you will. For outdoor frying, you'll need a propane tank, an outdoor turkey-frying rig, which includes a burner and stand, a pot, a thermometer for the oil, and the hanger and lowering mechanism for the bird. For indoor frying, you'll need an indoor countertop fryer designed to accommodate turkeys, such as this one.

Smoking and Grilling

Your Guide to a Live-Fire Thanksgiving
If November is still grilling season where you live, you'll be happy to know that spatchcocked turkeys cook just as well over a live fire as they do in the oven. This is a true barbecue-style turkey, cooked low and slow to ensure moistness. Adding baking powder to the brine helps the skin crisp up beautifully. While a whole turkey smokes just fine, if you butterfly yours, you'll be rewarded with crisper skin and a significantly shorter cooking time.
Get our step-by-step guide to smoking turkey

Smoking and Grilling Recipes

Smoking and Grilling FAQs

What are the benefits of smoking a turkey?
Turkey and smoke are a natural pairing, and smoking your bird will leave each slice shiny with juice and fork-tender with deep smoke flavor. This turkey-smoking method calls for slow-cooking the bird over indirect heat, rendering the meat evenly cooked and very tender.
How long does smoking a turkey take?
Spatchcocking your turkey before smoking speeds up cooking time, but this is certainly not the quickest way to Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey will spend between 2.5 and 3.5 hours smoking, and it can be brined for up to three days in advance.
Will I still get crispy skin?
Yes, you will. The dry brine you apply will help the turkey skin retain moisture as it smokes, and the baking powder in the brine will help trigger browning reactions more quickly. A quick rub with oil before applying the spice mixture will help slow down the escape of moisture from the skin.
What kind of wood is best?
We recommend using hickory, since it has a milder flavor than mesquite or applewood. It's best to buy whole chunks of wood, which burn more slowly, adding sweet smoke flavor to your food as it slow-cooks, in contrast with fast-burning wood chips.
Can I smoke my turkey whole, or should I spatchcock it?
You should spatchcock your turkey before smoking. Spatchcocking the bird will help it cook more evenly and develop crisper skin.

Carving

Take It From Hack Job to Show-Stopper
For many folks, the hardest part of cooking a turkey is carving and serving it. Depending on how you roasted the bird, the carving instructions will be a little different. We've broken down the best way to carve a whole turkey as well as our recommended spatchcocked bird.
Learn how to carve a turkey, whether it's spatchcocked or whole-roasted

Carving FAQs

Do I need to let my turkey rest before carving it? How long?
Just like any piece of meat, resting allows your bird to retain its internal juices better upon slicing, leading to moisture, juicier end results. For a 12- to 15-pound turkey roasted at high temperatures, a rest of at least 20 to 30 minutes before carving is recommended.
What's the best tool for carving?
Forget a fancy electric turkey-carving knife, all you need for carving turkey is your favorite razor-sharp carving or chef's knife. Carving knives have narrower and more flexible blades that work their way through long expanses of meat more easily, but any chef's knife will do the job. Check out our reviews of carving and chef's knives for a closer look at some of our favorite blades.

How do I carve my turkey?
Glad you asked, and even gladder that we have this handy illustrated guide to walk you through the process step-by-step!