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How to Cook a Juicy Turkey for Thanksgiving Day

With Thanksgiving Day righty around the corner, families all over the US are arming themselves with their best turkey recipes and turkey stuffing ideas to show off at their Thanksgiving dinner. For some however, the thought of preparing a huge Thanksgiving dinner for their family creates anxiety and nervousness. These negative feelings are not unwarranted, however, as there is the possibility of dangerous bacteria growth in an undercooked turkey or stuffing.

If you are worried about preparing a feast for your family, then you are in the right place, as this article can serve as your reference for preparing a delicious and juicy turkey for your Thanksgiving dinner. In this guide, we will walk you through how to cook a turkey, properly, from preparation and thawing to taking the bird out of the oven. We will help you make the Thanksgiving dinner your family deserves.

Turkey Preparation

Some of the hardest things about Thanksgiving Day, or the days leading up to Thanksgiving, is making sure that the main course is prepared properly to cook into a juicy turkey. There are two main aspects to think about when you are prepping the bird: the size you need and how to thaw it correctly.

Turkey Sizes

Choosing the correct size for your turkey can be overwhelming and you never want to run out of turkey during your feast. A good rule of thumb for selecting the right size is to get 1 lb. of turkey per person in your Thanksgiving Day feast. For example, if you are cooking for 8 people, you will need an 8 lb. turkey to ensure there is enough turkey for everyone. If you want to have ample leftovers, then you should account for 1.5 lb. of turkey per person.

It should be noted that the rule of 1-1.5 lbs. of turkey per person should be applied for turkeys under 16 lbs. Once you get above 16 lbs. you can factor less than 1 lb. of turkey per person, as the meat to bone ratio is much better in turkeys larger than 16 lbs. The chart below can help you decide what size of turkey will be best for your Thanksgiving Day feast:

How to Cook a Juicy Turkey for Thanksgiving Day - Turkey WeightThawing the Turkey

Making sure the turkey is properly thawed is one of the most crucial steps to preparing not only a juicy and delicious turkey, but also an edible turkey. If you do not thaw your bird out correctly you open up the possibility of allowing bacteria to grow inside the turkey and give your guests food poisoning. When thawing a turkey, you have two choices, either thaw the turkey correctly or do not thaw it at all. Contrary to popular belief, you can put your turkey in the oven to begin cooking without thawing it out. If you choose this method, you should add about 50% more time than the recipe calls to ensure it is cooked thoroughly on this inside. You should also remove the giblets as soon as the turkey has thawed out inside the oven, before it gets hot enough to burn you.

If you do decide to thaw out your turkey before cooking it, you need to keep a few things in mind to make sure it thaws out properly. You must remember that if you put a partially thawed out turkey in the oven to cook, it will not cook properly and will be raw inside when the outside looks done. This can lead to dangerous bacterial growth inside the turkey and food poisoning. An experts recommends thawing an unopened turkey inside the refrigerator, breast side up, for 24 hours per 4 lb. For example, if you are thawing out a 3 lb. turkey, it should thaw in the refrigerator for about 24 hours; an 8 lb. turkey, on the other hand, should be left to thaw out for 2 days (48 hours).

Related: 8 Easy-to-Make Thanksgiving Side Dishes Recipes

How to Cook a Turkey


  • 1 onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped
  • 1 carrot, coarsely chopped
  • 1 12 lb. turkey (or whatever size fits your needs)
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 4 sprigs rosemary
  • ½ bunch chopped sage


1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Never cook a turkey overnight on a lower temperature, as this will lead to a cool interior and places the turkey into the danger zone of bacteria growth.

2. In a large, shallow roasting pan, place the chopped onion, celery, and carrot; Lay the turkey breast side up on top of the vegetables in the pan.

How to Cook a Juicy Turkey for Thanksgiving Day 2

3. Dry the outside and inside of the turkey by patting with paper towels.

4. In a small bowl, combine the salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper and season the turkey with this mixture.

5. Fold wing tips under the bird.

6. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until the edges turn golden (should be about 2 minutes). Stir in the rosemary and sage into the melted butter and cook for 1 minute.

7. Strain the rosemary and sage out of the butter, put the butter aside for now, and tie the turkey’s legs together with twine.

8. Brush the outside of the turkey with the melted butter and season the outside of the turkey with the rest of the salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper mixture.

How to Cook a Juicy Turkey for Thanksgiving Day 8

9. Bake the turkey, uncovered, in the preheated oven until there is no pink at the bone and all juices run clear. This should be approx. 3 hours cooking time. You should use a meat thermometer, placed in the thickest part of the thigh, to ensure the meat is cooked properly (should read about 180 degrees F). The cooking times for various sizes of turkey are as follows:

How to Cook a Juicy Turkey for Thanksgiving Day - Turkey Cooking Time

Tips: Add 20 – 40 minutes for a stuffed turkey

10. Remove the turkey from the oven and allow it to rest in a warm area for 10 -15 minutes before slicing.

How to Cook a Juicy Turkey for Thanksgiving Day 10

11. Once the turkey is done resting, slice the meat and serve.

Related: How to Create a Stylish Thanksgiving Table to Wow Your Guests

Tips & Tricks for a Juicy Turkey

When cooking a juicy turkey, you should try to keep these tips in mind to make sure your turkey feast is delicious and properly cooked.

  • Make sure to buy a meat thermometer before Thanksgiving Day – A meat thermometer is one of the more crucial instruments that you should utilize while cooking your feast. Most other people will realize this fact as well, and there is a chance that you will be unable to find a meat thermometer in stock on Thanksgiving Day.
  • You can decide to cook the turkey stuffing inside the turkey or separate from the bird. If you do choose to bake the stuffing inside the turkey, you should ensure that the temperature of the dressing is 165 degrees F before serving. To help the stuffing reach its optimal temperature, some experts recommend cooking the stuffing outside the turkey until its temperature reaches 135 degrees F. If you place the stuffing inside the turkey before it reaches 135 degrees, even if it will be cooking with the turkey, you create the perfect environment for harmful bacteria to grow.
  • Basting – some people choose to baste the turkey multiple times during the preparation and cooking process. There are a lot of chefs who like to baste the turkey before it goes into the oven, and then baste it again while it is cooking, and again before it is taken out of the oven, in the guise of creating a juicier, more delicious turkey. Turkey experts, on the other hand, do not recommend basting the turkey after it has been put in the oven, for a couple of reasons:  (1)  Each time you open the oven to baste the turkey, heat will be released, and the temperature of the oven will decrease. While this may not seem like a problem at first, it does become dangerous when you are opening the oven 2, 3, or 4 or more times to baste the turkey. (2) Experts don’t recommend basting the turkey more than once because the skin of the turkey liquifies while it cooks anyway, so any extra seasoning you add after the bird is cooking will have no effect on the bird’s flavor.
  • If you find that the outside of your turkey is browning much quicker than expected, but the inside of the turkey has not reached that 170-degree F or higher, you can tent the turkey loosely with tin foil to help the inside of the turkey cook without burning the skin.
  • Also, on the topic of burning turkey, if you find that the turkey’s drippings are starting to burn, you can add tablespoonfuls of water to prevent them from burning more.
  • For an extremely juicy turkey, you should let the bird rest for about 20 minutes after it is finished cooking. Letting the turkey rest will allow for maximum dripping absorption and more moist pieces.
  • For a roast turkey, you should use a 4-point stick test to make sure that all parts of the turkey are roasted properly. For this test, you stick a meat thermometer into both thighs of the bird (1 & 2) and the thickest part of the breast on each side (3 & 4), to check the temperature of each. The USDA recommends each tested section should be at 165 degrees F to be cooked properly. On the other hand, an expert advises that the turkey is finished cooking when the thighs are at 180 degrees F and the breasts at 170 degrees F.
  • If you are cooking Thanksgiving dinner for a large crowd, you should cook two, smaller than 12 lbs. roast turkeys. Using two smaller turkeys instead of one larger turkey cuts the thawing and cooking time of the turkey significantly and reduces the chance of bacteria growth. Additionally, cooking two separate turkeys allows you to experiment with different seasoning, basting, and even cooking techniques.

Related: Top 8 Thanksgiving Day Parades in the USA 


And that is it! Since you have read through this article at least once, if not more, than you are on your way to preparing an amazing Thanksgiving dinner for your family. Additionally, you can take the knowledge you have gained from this guide to make your own delicious juicy turkey recipes for your next Thanksgiving Day celebration. We hope this article has relieved some of your anxiety about cooking a turkey and we wish you all a happy Thanksgiving!

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