We’re gonna let you in on a little secret: It’s not that hard to make a tasty turkey. Our step-by-step guide will take you from the grocery store to the moment everyone’s waiting for…dinnertime!

brown sugar brined roast turkey and gravy
Photography by Johnny Miller
| Credit: Photography by Johnny Miller

How to Buy a Thanksgiving Turkey

Should I buy fresh or frozen?

In our years of roasting turkeys, we've learned a thing or two about birds. Frozen turkeys are cheap, around $1 to $2 a pound. But since they've been frozen, they can lose more moisture than fresh birds as they cook, which can lead to dry meat. 

On the other end of the price spectrum are fresh heritage birds, a.k.a. the Rolls-Royce of turkeys. Old-school breeds with names like White Holland and Bourbon Red have a higher dark-meat-to-white-meat ratio than conventionally raised birds and denser, more flavorful meat. But they also have to be preordered months in advance and cost about $7 to $12 per pound. 

Somewhere between those extremes is a fresh organic turkey that will give you flavorful, juicy meat and, at $4 to $7 a pound, won't break the bank.

How big should the bird be?

When guesstimating what size bird to buy, 1 pound of turkey for each person should fill them up and leave plenty of extra meat for Round 2.

When should I buy the turkey?

Order a fresh turkey a few weeks in advance, and pick up the bird a day or two before Thanksgiving. 

How long will a frozen turkey take to defrost?

Going the frozen route? For every 4 to 5 pounds, you need 24 hours to defrost, so buy a 15-pounder three days ahead and stick it in the fridge.

How to Prep a Thanksgiving Turkey

Should I brine it? 

Yes! If there's one extra step you should take to make your bird all that it can be, it's brining. But we're not talking about the typical salt-water plunge. A dry brine (rubbing on a mix of salt, spices, etc.) is an easy way to lock in moisture and bump up the flavor without having to wrestle with buckets of salt water. 

The key to doing it right is letting the dry-brined turkey chill in the fridge, uncovered, for at least 12 hours. Think of it as a one-two punch: The brine works its way into the meat, keeping it juicy and flavorful. Leaving the bird uncovered lets the skin dry out, which is the key to crispy skin.

What about the stuffing?

We say leave the stuffing outside the turkey and do a dressing—which is just unstuffed stuffing—instead. This not only saves you from being up to your elbows in raw poultry but also helps the bird cook faster and more evenly.

Recipe: Try our Slow-Cooker Stuffing

How do I tie it up?

Trussing is just a fancy term for making the turkey nice and compact so it roasts more evenly and has a picture-perfect, Norman Rockwell–esque silhouette. To truss, tuck the wing tips underneath the turkey and tie the legs together with kitchen twine ($5).

How to Cook a Thanksgiving Turkey

What should the temperature be?

Some people swear by cranking up the oven when they first put the bird in to blast the skin with heat and then turning down the oven to cook the meat. We've tried that and it works. But we prefer one temperature because the kitchen is a madhouse on Thanksgiving, and who wants to have to remember one more thing? For us, 375° is the Goldilocks turkey-roasting temp. It's high enough to give you a golden skin but low enough to cook the meat at a steady rate so both the white and dark meat are just right.

What if I don't have a roasting pan?

No roasting pan? No problem! In a pinch, a metal cooling rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet makes a good turkey-roasting setup. Just keep an eye on the liquid and add stock or water if the bottom of the pan gets dry. When you take the turkey out of the oven, go slowly so you don't spill those precious (scalding, staining) juices.

Why do I need to baste the turkey?

OK, you bought a fresh organic turkey and dry-brined it. The last step to preventing dry meat is basting. Wait until the turkey has spent some time in the oven and its natural juices and fats have begun to render out—or, better yet, give the drippings a boost by dropping a few tablespoons of butter into the roasting pan. For maximum flavor and some seriously sexy skin, dip a basting or pastry brush (which works better than those squeezy thingies) into the pan drippings every 30 minutes and liberally paint the surface of the bird.

How do I know when it's done?

The most reliable way to gauge a bird's doneness is with an instant-read thermometer. When you think your turkey might be ready, test it in two spots: the thickest part of the breast and the thickest part of the thigh. Take care to avoid hitting a bone, which could throw off the reading. You're looking for a temperature of 165°, which is a safe internal temperature for poultry.

How long should the turkey rest?

Once you pull the bird out of the oven, cover it loosely with foil and let it rest in the pan for 30 minutes. Even though the bird is out of the oven, it will continue to cook, which will raise the internal temperature 5 to 10 degrees and will also ensure that the meat has time to reabsorb some of the juices.

It's done! Now how do I carve it?

Not sure where to start slicing? Find our step-by-step guide to getting your bird platter-ready here.

Recipes to Try:

Brown Sugar-Brined Roast Turkey

brown sugar brined roast turkey
Credit: Photography by Johnny Miller

Best-Ever Gravy

best ever gravy
Credit: Photography by Johnny Miller

For a sauce worthy of your bird, you need pan drippings. The turkey fat and those delicious browned bits are the building blocks of flavor.

Recipe: Try our Best-Ever Gravy