The Best Way to Cook a Turkey

    CR's experts show you how to make your holiday bird delicious, and share smart food-safety tips

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    cooked turkey in oven Photo: Sergiy Serdyuk/iStock

    Even if you’ve made a few Thanksgiving dinners before, cooking a turkey can be a bit stress-inducing. After all, the holiday is known as Turkey Day, and many of us only roast one big bird a year. But relax—CR’s food and nutrition experts are here to guide you through the steps from buying the turkey to handling the leftovers.

    Choose the Right Size

    Whether you opt for a fresh or frozen turkey, allow 1 pound per person. That will allot each guest ¾ pound of meat, according to the Department of Agriculture­, which leaves some room for leftovers. If you’re hosting a crowd, rather than serving one large turkey, consider cooking two smaller ones, or a whole turkey and a turkey breast. A very large bird can be harder to handle, and takes longer to cook.

    Leave Time to Thaw

    If you buy a frozen bird, plan to thaw it in a refrigerator set to 37° F for 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds of meat. “A 16-pound turkey will take about four days to thaw,” says Amy Keating, RD, a CR nutritionist. “Put the wrapped turkey on a tray on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator,” she advises. “As it thaws, some water and juice could leak out of the plastic wrapping, and you don’t want that to get all over the fridge, spreading bacteria onto surfaces and other foods.”

    More on Healthy Holiday Eating

    If you forget to pull the turkey out of the freezer, you can thaw it in cold water, according to the USDA. Leave it in its wrapping and then submerge it in a large container or sink filled with cold water. Allow about 30 minutes per pound—so about 8 hours for a 16-pound bird—and change the water every 30 minutes. You should be ready to cook the turkey immediately after it has thawed. No time for that process? You can safely roast a frozen turkey—it will just take about 50 percent longer to cook. Don’t forget to carefully remove the giblets bag from the inside of the turkey about 2 hours into cooking.

    Don't Give the Bird a Bath

    “You can’t wash off bacteria with water, and rinsing out the turkey risks splashing its juices all over the sink,” Keating says. Instead, open the plastic wrap carefully and drain any liquid into the sink before discarding the wrapper. Pat the turkey dry, inside and out, with paper towels. Wash your hands and any utensils, using hot water and soap.

    Don't Stuff It

    The safest way to cook stuffing is outside of the turkey. Stuffing can absorb the juices from the raw turkey, and if it doesn’t get hot enough (165° F), you and your guests could be susceptible to food poisoning. Cooking the bird until the stuffing is safe will likely lead to overcooked meat.

    Rack It Up

    Using a roasting rack allows hot air to circulate around the turkey, which results in a more even roast. If you don't have one, you don't need to rush out to buy one. All you want to do is lift the bottom of the turkey off the roasting pan. You can use a baking cooling rack. Or make your own rack by laying carrots across the bottom of the pan or scrunching aluminum foil into a log shape and then into a circle or spiral and placing the turkey on top of that.

    Watch the Temperature

    A crispy, golden-brown exterior may be your goal, but it’s the interior temperature that really matters. Too low and you risk food poisoning; too high and your bird may look a lot better than it tastes. Wiggling a drumstick or checking to see if the juices run clear aren’t reliable ways of telling whether a turkey is done: Use a meat thermometer. Note: CR’s tests have found that pop-up thermometers that come with many turkeys aren’t 100 percent accurate.

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    Learn Correct Placement

    When you take your turkey’s temperature, remove it from the oven, closing the oven door to keep the heat inside in case you need to roast it longer. Insert an instant-read meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh (not the drumstick), pushing it in about 2 inches and making sure you don’t hit a bone. Then, check the thickest part of the breast and the innermost part of the wing, keeping the thermometer horizontal as you insert the probe. Both should be 165° F.

    Let the Turkey Rest

    When the turkey has reached 165° F, remove it from the oven and let it rest, loosely covered, for at least 20 minutes to let the juices redistribute into the meat, says Keating. “That’s when you can make the gravy and finish up last-minute dishes.” Don’t let the cooked bird sit unrefrigerated for more than 2 hours, however. Any bacteria that may be present could multiply to harmful levels if the turkey is left at room temperature longer than that.

    Ensure Tasty Leftovers

    You can eat cooked leftover turkey cold, but if you’re reheating it, skip the microwave. Heating turkey in the microwave may dry it out. Warm the meat on the stove top, adding a little broth or gravy to keep it moist.

    Slow Cookers That Make Holiday Cooking Easier

    Turkey takes up a lot of room in your oven. You can use countertop appliances to make your holiday sides. Slow cookers especially come in handy for collard greens, scalloped potatoes, and stuffing, as well as for making turkey stock later on. These are top performers from Consumer Reports’ tests.