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How to Cook a Turkey in 5 Easy Steps

I’ve cooked a Thanksgiving turkey twice now, and both times I was terrified.  Everything I’d heard about cooking turkey was about how hard it is to get right. If I didn’t cook it perfectly it would be too dry. Or undercooked. Or too salty, or too bland. In any case, it seemed pretty likely that I’d ruin the whole thing.

To my surprise, though, cooking a great turkey turned out to be pretty easy to do — even for me. If you’re cooking a turkey for the first time, here are some steps you need to follow (and some resources that will help you along the way. Remember, while turkey is easy to cook, it does take a long time — so make sure to read through all these steps and plan in advance.

1. Pick the Bird

If you’ve spent much time in the supermarket lately, you’ve seen a lot of turkeys. Answering these questions can help you figure out which one is right for you.

  • How big? A general rule is 1-2 pounds of turkey for each adult at your table, and 1/2 a pound for each child. I used Butterball’s Plan Perfect Portions Calculator to find out exactly how much turkey to buy.
  • Fresh or FrozenMost chefs agree that the main difference between fresh and frozen turkey is the price. Frozen turkeys cost much less than fresh ones, even though they’re just as nutritious and tasty.
  • Pre-stuffedThe USDA says not to buy pre-stuffed turkeys, as they can develop harmful bacteria while they thaw.

No, the turkey doesn’t have to be larger than your child.

2. Get Your Gear

To cook a turkey, you’ll need a few special tools. They’re all fairly cheap, and you can find most of them at your grocery store.

  • A roasting pan. The disposable aluminum ones sold next to the turkeys work fine.
  • A baster. This lets you keep the turkey moist while it’s cooking.
  • A meat thermometer. This lets you make sure your turkey is fully done. You can use this when you’re cooking other meat, too.

3. Thaw the Turkey

If you bought a frozen turkey, you’ll need to thaw it before cooking it. The easiest way to thaw a turkey is to take it out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator. Depending on how large your turkey is, you’ll probably need to do this over a day in advance. (You can find out exactly how long you’ll need to thaw it with Butterball’s How Long to Thaw? calculator.) Note that you should never, ever try to save time by thawing a turkey on the kitchen counter. If you don’t have time to thaw it in the refrigerator, try cold water thawing instead.

4. Prepare the Turkey

Okay, so your turkey is thawed and ready to go in the oven. Before cooking it, you should do a few things to add a little bit of extra flavor. This can be as simple as rubbing salt and pepper on the skin and adding some water or broth to the pan, or as complicated as brining it in advance. You don’t need a recipe here — just an idea of what you like. Watch this video from the New York Times to see how.

5. Roast the Turkey

This is the easy part. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, then put your turkey in on one of the lower racks. How long will it take to cook? That depends on your turkey. The Butterball How Long to Cook? calculator can give you a pretty good idea. Once the turkey’s in, check on it every so often — every 30 or 45 minutes is good — and use the baster to put some of the liquid from the pan onto the turkey. If you notice that the top of your turkey is starting to get too brown, put a piece of tin foil on top of it.

This turkey doesn’t need tin foil yet.
via Edsel L on Flickr

When the time is up, be sure to check the bird’s temperature before you take it out. The turkey won’t be safe to eat until the meat is heated to 165 degrees. You can do this by sticking the meat thermometer into a thigh. If the thermometer reads 165, you’re done! Take the turkey out and let it rest on the counter for about 30 minutes.

Sides, wine, and fireplace not included.

And that’s it! As you can see, cooking a turkey takes a long time, but each step is pretty simple. Know any good tips we missed? Let us know in the comments.

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