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How to Roast a Turkey

how to roast a turkey, cooking turkey, turkey recipe

Here in the States we eat turkey on Thanksgiving, the third Thursday in November. Roast turkey has fond memories for many of us. A poorly roasted turkey has bad memories for many of us, too.

Dry, over cooked turkey can ruin a great family occasion. Our fear of under cooked poultry, combined with a lack of knowledge, has caused many turkey dinners to be dreadful. Roasting a turkey is actually very easy. It’s just a matter of some basic preparation. Bacon helps too.

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A Bit of History

roasted bird, thanksgiving birdThe turkey, misnamed after a guinea fowl from Turkey, originated in Mesoamerica and was domesticated by Aztecs long ago. The Spanish brought the turkey to Europe where many advances in breeding happened.

Oddly enough, an English navigator brought the turkey to England, after which it was sent to the new colonies. In the 16th and 17th centuries turkey was considered a luxury in Europe, while in America it was a very common meat source.

Now-a-days, the turkey is farmed extensively enough in most places that it is available frozen all year. That means we don’t have to wait for fall harvests to enjoy this large, delicious bird.

Turkey Juice

turkey bird, bird for dinnerOne mistake most people make when roasting a turkey is that they tend to try to speed up the process by roasting at too high of a heat. Turkey, or any large roast, needs to be slow roasted, generally at 325F or below. Another common mistake is to forget to baste. Turkey releases a lot of its own natural juices in the cooking process. If these juices aren’t reclaimed the bird can become quite dry. There are a few tricks to help with this. A timer set at 20 minute intervals, to remind you to baste, works well.

Wrapping the bird in bacon helps too. One trick I use when I have to make a lot of birds is to start with the turkey in an upright position at 400 degrees for the first hour, then flip it upside down and lower the heat to 300. The idea is to get good color on the bird, then slow cook it with the juices from the dark meat self basting.

Another method is to put the turkey in a “turkey bag”. This is a large plastic bag that can take high heat. This helps the bird steam, resulting in a moist turkey. Take care when opening the bag, as it the steam will be very hot. Lidding your roasting pan will also help keep the roast moist through steaming.

Crispy Skin

baked bird, cooking birdTo get that crispy skin there are a few other tricks of the trade. Always pat the skin dry with a paper towel. Wet skin doesn’t crisp well. Starting the oven out at a high temperature, such as 425F, for the first 30 minutes will help as well.

My favorite technique is to cut thin pats of butter and insert them in between the skin and the meat, placing them every few inches. This does double duty by both adding moisture and fat, creating self basting and crispy skin. Let’s get started.
Roast Turkey
1 turkey, thawed
1 stick butter, cut into pats


methods of cooking poultry, cooking poultry temperaturePreheat oven to 425F. Rinse the turkey inside and out, removing all debris from the inside. Save the organs from inside the bird to make stock for gravy, if desired. Pat the entire bird dry.

Twist the wings behind the back of the turkey so that the breast is completely exposed. Gently slide pats of butter between the skin and the breast, spacing the pats about two inches apart.

Place turkey in a shallow roasting pan, and place in oven. Lower heat after 30 minutes and cover with aluminum foil or a lid. Baste every 20-30 minutes.

Here is a general timeline for roasting times, courtesy of

8 to 12 pounds 2 3/4 to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3 3/4 hours
14 to 18 pounds 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
20 to 24 pounds 4 1/2 to 5 hours
24 to 30 pounds 5 to 5 1/4 hours

Turkey is fully cooked when it has an internal temperature of 165 degrees F at the thickest part of the thigh. Thigh meat takes longer to cook than breast meat and is juicier, so avoid temping the breast as more thermometer holes mean less juice. When the turkey is fully cooked, let it sit at room temperature for 20 minutes. This allows the natural juices to settle and the meat to rest.

A note on stuffing; I personally don’t believe the risks of undercooked stuffing outweigh the benefits of cooking inside the bird. I never cook stuffing inside the bird. The same flavor can be achieved by making a stock out of the internal organs and using that to make the stuffing. Feel free to place the stuffing in the bird after the turkey is fully cooked and resting, it will pick up a lot of the juices, safely.

Get your gobble on and enjoy!

Sean Jewett

Sean Jewett

Sean is lucky enough to live, work, and play in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, USA. He has been cooking professionally for 20 years, the last 15 in the best kept secret of American Locavores. With a serious love for cooking, and eating, Sean loves to share knowledge and learn new tricks.

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