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How to cook a perfect turkey for Thanksgiving

There’s a sense of accomplishment when you set a large, golden bird on the holiday table

You, too, can roast the perfect turkey.Food styling by Sheryl Julian; photo by Sally Pasley Vargas for The Boston Globe

Serves 8 to 20

A whole turkey is a stunning centerpiece on the holiday table. But from the moment you buy the big bird, wrangle it into a shopping bag, make room for it in the fridge, roast it, and get it to the table, there are a mountain of problems to overcome. It’s big and hard to maneuver. No wonder my friend decided that her small gathering this year would feature Coq au Vin with a cut-up chicken that will be manageable and nearly worry-free.

Still, if a turkey is on your menu, when the feast is about to begin and you’re finally sitting down, there is a sense of accomplishment. The golden bird looks regal, even before it goes to the table, sitting in a roasting pan splattered with turkey juices. Everyone is delighted.


Now to the actual roasting. Remember this number: 165 degrees. That’s what you’re looking for when you insert a meat thermometer into the turkey in several places. Don’t consider cooking a bird without one. If you depend on the plastic pop-up timer inserted into the bird, the meat might well be overcooked. Supposedly the timer pops up at 165 degrees, but in reality, the temperature of the flesh is much higher when the plastic pops and that’s when the meat starts to dry out.

I’ve given all kinds of advice over the years that I would not give today. I’ve told people to turn the bird halfway through roasting — as in turn it upside down. It’s big! Much too dangerous. I’ve also advised removing the breasts when they reach the magic 165 degrees, covering the bare spots with foil, and letting the bird keep roasting until the legs reach temperature. Not dangerous but not necessary.

The best way to brown the bird all over is to set it on a rack inside the roasting pan. The bird is elevated and the thighs will brown all over. All the juices will fall into the bottom of the roasting pan for making gravy later. If you let the bird sit out for an hour, you’re not putting a big lump of cold food into a hot oven; that helps the roasting time.


If the turkey is browning too much, cover it all over with foil. Timing is not tricky. Just follow the chart (down below), which gives timing for the whole bird, unstuffed and stuffed. Check the turkey temperature at least 30 minutes before the suggested time because some turkeys cook faster than others. If you have a convection setting on, check the bird 1½ hours before the chart says because that oven will roast much faster.

To check for doneness, insert the meat thermometer into the turkey in three places. It should register 165 degrees in all three spots; the stuffing should register 165 degrees in the center.

If you’re stuffing the turkey, make sure the stuffing is not hot, or even warm when it goes into the cavity. Stuff the turkey right before you roast it; never in advance or the night before (it breeds bacteria). Unstuffed turkey, of course, cooks more quickly.

Don’t bother to wet brine the bird. Few home cooks have a fridge large enough to hold a turkey in a bucket of liquid. lf it’s going to be as cold or slightly colder than your fridge (40 degrees) in your garage, you can use that to store the bucket overnight, but you cannot count on a low temp these days. It’s a dangerous technique that should be stopped.


Instead, dry brine the bird with a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper inside and out. Do this the day before and set the bird in the fridge uncovered (that means no plastic wrap or foil on the skin). If the skin dries out, it will be crispier after roasting.

Let the turkey sit on the kitchen counter for one hour before roasting. In this recipe, the oven heats at a high temperature, but when you put the turkey in, you immediately lower it to 325 degrees.

When the turkey is done, let it sit in a warm place in the kitchen for up to 1 hour while you use the oven to cook side dishes and make Giblet Gravy (see recipe) or regular Turkey Gravy (see recipe). If the bird is stuffed, take all the stuffing out of the bird after 15 minutes.

Many years ago, the first year I moved back to Boston, I had Thanksgiving dinner with Julia and Paul Child and a very small group. Her phone kept ringing during dinner and she kept answering it. She was listed in the phone book and when cooks had a question, apparently they just dialed her number. I kept hearing this advice over and over: “Just let the bird sit on the counter. It’s fine for an hour. It’s fine for two.” With her characteristic mellifluous voice, she calmed one caller after another.


So if your bird is done and nothing else is ready, and perhaps your doorbell hasn’t rung yet so no guests are there, set the turkey in a warm draft-free place, cover it with a foil blanket, and stop worrying. Pretend you just called Julia.

A roast turkey with all the trimmings, styled by Sheryl Julian.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

The perfect roast turkey

  • 1 turkey, thawed if purchased frozen, 8 to 24 pounds
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 onions, cut into wedges
  • 2 carrots, cut into 1-inch lengths
  • 2 lemons, quartered
  • Large handful fresh herb sprigs for the cavity (rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano)
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1½ cups water, or more if needed
  • 3 tablespoons each chopped fresh rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano
  • Extra fresh herbs on their sprigs, small apples and pears, lemons (for garnish)


1. The day before roasting, set the turkey on a rimmed baking sheet to catch all the drips. Snip open the packaging and remove the giblets from the vent and neck ends (don’t forget that some of the giblets are often tucked between the breasts). Wipe the turkey inside and out with paper towels. Season the turkey generously inside and out with salt and pepper. Refrigerate overnight. Do not cover.

2. Let the turkey sit at room temperature for 1 hour. Set a rack inside a roasting pan. Transfer the turkey to the pan. If not stuffing, add 1 onion, 1 carrot, and 1 lemon, and the sprigs of herbs to the cavity. Use kitchen twine to tie the legs together. Rub the skin of the turkey with the oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. If stuffing, stuff the bird now. Tie the legs together and season as directed above.

3. Slide an oven shelf in the lowest position so there’s space for the turkey. Set the oven at 425 degrees (note: you’ll turn the oven down as soon as the turkey goes in).


4. Set the remaining onion, carrot, and lemon in the pan below the rack. Pour enough water into the pan to make a very thin layer. Transfer the turkey to the oven. Immediately turn the oven temperature down to 325 degrees.

5. Roast the turkey (see chart for times, also down below), basting with the juices in the pan several times. Check the temperature 30 minutes before the time on the chart because some birds cook faster than others. If it’s browning too much during roasting, cover loosely with foil. If it isn’t brown enough, turn the oven temperature up to 400 degrees for the last 30 minutes. The turkey is done when a meat thermometer inserted into the bird in three places (inside the thigh, in the thickest part of the breast but not on the bone, under the wing) registers 165 degrees. If the bird is stuffed, the thermometer should also register 165 degrees in the center of the stuffing. Remove the turkey from the oven when it reaches the correct temperature.

6. Transfer the turkey to a platter. The easiest way to do this is with your hands. Cover them with paper towels and take care that the juices inside the cavity don’t spill onto the counter. Tip them back into the roasting pan. Cover the bird loosely with foil and let it sit in a draft-free place for at least 30 minutes. If the bird is stuffed, remove all the stuffing after 15 minutes and transfer to a bowl; keep warm.

7. Sprinkle the turkey with chopped herbs. Garnish with the fresh herbs on their sprigs, apples and pears, and lemons cut into big wedges. Carve the turkey.


Turkey roasting times:

Unstuffed turkey:

8 to 12 pounds, 2¾ to 3 hours

12 to 14 pounds, 3 to 3¾ hours

14 to 18 pounds, 3¾ to 4½ hours

18 to 24 pounds, 4½ to 5 hours

Stuffed turkey:

8 to 12 pounds, 3 to 3½ hours

12 to 14 pounds, 3½ to 4 hours

14 to 18 pounds, 4 to 4¼ hours

18 to 24 pounds, 4¼ to 5¼ hours

Source: USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service

Sheryl Julian can be reached at