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How to Cook a Whole Turkey: Baking Instructions

February 18, 2016

Many people are intimidated by the size of a turkey…But it’s really not much harder than cooking a chicken, and you’ll be set for meals for many days. This alone makes it worth it.

recipe instructions for baking a whole turkey from scratch, cooking 101 lesson, how to cook




First, move the turkey from the freezer to the fridge about 3-4 days before you want to cook it. I highly recommend placing it in a bucket or large bowl, in case it leaks while thawing. This will save you a lot of clean-up later. I hate cleaning up raw meat juice from all over the fridge, especially as its often just above raw vegetables (stupid layout!) It’s helpful to have a baster and large roasting pan on hand.

Plan Starting Time for Meal Time
Plan your starting cooking time beforehand, so the turkey will be ready when you want it to be done. The bird will take 20 minutes per pound. Add an additional 30-40 minutes to prep the bird for baking.

There is another way to figure out the time just below in Timing the Bird. The Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book (circa 1992! great book!) gives these recommendations for an unstuffed turkey (stuffed takes longer):

6 to 8 lbs          Bake for 3 hours to 3.5 hours
8 to 12 lbs        Bake for 3 to 4 hours
12 to 16 lbs      Bake for 4 to 5 hours

Timing the Bird
Here is how to figure out your cooking time based on the weight of the bird (check package label):

20 min x bird weight in pounds (see the label) = time in minutes
time in minutes  divided by 
60 min = time in hours
(a fraction is a fraction of an hour:  .10 is about 6 minutes,  .25 = 15 minutes,
.5 is half of 60 minutes or 30 minutes, etc.)

You can adjust the temp to fit your eating time, but the bird will be juicier cooked lower and slower (325F). (I just cooked one at 375 (started) then down to 360F, and it was a bit dry on the breast. I also didn’t baste it enough.)

Remember that the cooked bird will need about 20 minutes after it comes out to “rest”, and let the juices go back into the meat. All that cooking was tiring for the bird!

Roasting Pre-Prep
When you think it’s soft enough to cook, press in on the skin. It should not feel hard and frozen anymore. Move to the clean sink. Prepare your kit: place a large roasting pan or baking dish next to the sink. You want it to have edges at least 2″ high to catch hot fat and pan juices, but low enough to let the bird brown nicely. If it’s too deep, your bird will stay pale and anemic looking (ask me how I know…white chicken!) A cookie sheet with 1/2″ sides will NOT work. The hot fat may spill out. The pan in the photo above is a bit too small– If the fat spits, it will get on the inside of the oven. But it seems to brown nicely.

Get Oven Ready
Place the oven racks low enough that the large bird will end up in the vertical center when its put it. (For mine, both racks are near the bottom.) Heat the oven to 325 F.

Give yourself some paper towels, and spices laid out in one or several bowls: salt, black pepper, sage, oregano, thyme. Sage is pretty strong, so use less than the oregano and thyme. Another nice spice for turkey is 1 tsp each of cumin, coriander and sea salt. You could add something like onions or stuffing to the cavity, too. You will also need a small dish of melted fat that won’t react in heat. This means butter, animal fat like chicken or pork, or coconut oil or MCT oil (liquid coconut oil). Vegetable oil will smoke (and is unhealthy to eat). You also want to layout a small pot with about 2 cups water, into which you will place the giblets, liver and neck.

Pull the trash out for easy access nearby. Use kitchen shears to open the turkey wrapper and peel off. Toss in the trash. Rinse the turkey gently with water, inside and out. Let drain, then put on the baking dish. Pull out the neck, which is usually in the main cavity, and put it in the stove pot. The giblets are usually in a bag tucked in either the main cavity, or hidden (forever) in the tiny hole where the head would go. If the breast is up, it’s a hole near the “front”, on the opposite end than of the legs. Open them over the sink, drain any blood, and place into the stove pot.

Dry your turkey thoroughly. This alone will help your turkey to brown in a nice way. Leave the paper towels in the pan to pick up water draining from the cavity, when you season the inside.

Rub all over with the spices and salt, adding quite a lot to the inside cavity, too. It’s easiest to lift the bird up on its end by holding the leg, and sprinkle it in all over while tipping. You might need to dry the bird again after this. Remember to put spices on the underside, too. If you don’t think you want to eat the breast meat skin, you can loosen it, rub spices under the skin, so the bare meat will be seasoned.

Brush melted fat all over the turkey, especially on the breast meat. This also helps browning.

You can place it over a roasting rack or over cut vegetables, potatoes and/or onions. These lift the bird out of the pan juices a bit, which means crispier skin on the bottom. If you have none of these, don’t worry about it. They aren’t necessary.

Check your oven temperature to see if it’s reached its target. Place the bird in the center of the oven vertically and side-to-side. This also helps browning. You don’t want the breast to be 3″ from the heating elements.


Now set a timer for the full time, or plan on using a digital thermometer with an alarm on it. The magic temperature is 165 F for cooked birds. I like to set it a few degrees lower, so I have time to go to the oven without the bird getting overdone. But I still let it come up to the right temp for food safety reasons. (For birds stuffed with breading the finished temperature is 165 F for the stuffing, too. (See this chart of safe food temps.)

Cooking the Neck, Liver and Giblets
Put your stove pot onto low heat for 10-40 minutes. Add spices like oregano, bay, thyme,  onion, salt and pepper. You can eat the liver and giblets or save them for another time. (Organ meats have concentrated vitamins.) This broth makes a great addition for gravy when mixed with some of the pan juices. I’ll explain below.

Plan on basting the bird a few times during the cooking. Use a baster or a large spoon. You can tilt the pan a little to gather the juices, but tilt it away from your holding hand, so you don’t get burned by hot fat! Then you can get some juices out with a spoon. Place the juices over the top side of the bird.

If the breast is getting too dark, you can cover it with baking paper and then foil, bending both down to fit the breast (I don’t like touching food with aluminum foil.)

Some people cook it upside down first and flip the hot bird over. (Quite a trick with a hot bird!)  I don’t have any experience with this. All supermarket birds are soaked in brine (salt water) these days, which helps them hold their juices.

Pastured Turkey?
I am sorry, I haven’t learned how to cook one yet. I have cooked two pastured ducks into shoe leather, much to my disappointment. I do know that the ducks called for marinating overnight in an acid like wine, and I (foolishly) skipped this step. I am still learning, though. I’ll have to ask the farmers who raise them, and get back to you. Here’s a pastured (grass-fed) Crispy Roast Duck recipe from

Pastured meats tend to be lower in overall fat, and higher in beneficial Omega 3 fatty acids. You would definitely want to keep and eat all the fat in that case. Having a jar of duck fat in the freezer is handy for delicious cookies and pies! Yum! Pastured meats are also usually cooked at a lower temperature with more fats added, or simmered. I am not talking about turkey here, just in general.

When the turkey has reached 165 F, take it out of the oven. Move to a large platter if you have one. The bird will give off some juices now. Cover it with baking paper and then foil, bending both down to fit the breast. Let it rest 20 minutes minimum so the juices can go back into the meat. If you cut it too soon, all the juices will run away, and you’ll have a tough meat. You can let it sit longer “under cover” to suit your dinner schedule.

How to Make Homemade Gravy
Put the hot pan juices into another dish. Place in the fridge to cool for a bit. Take off the fat on top that solidifies if you want to (it’s high in Omega 6 EFA’s (read about). I usually use it anyway). Strain the liquid from in the stove pot that contained the neck and liver, saving the liquid. Mix this liquid with either all the pan juices (fat too) or just the dark jelled stuff below the fat layer. You can taste it and add seasonings. You can let it cook over simmering heat until it condenses down. This will concentrate the flavor. If you added too much salt, adding a little cut potato to your gravy will absorb the extra salt. Remove the potato before serving.

If you are not on a special diet that avoids grains, you can thicken it like this: Put 1-2 TB cornstarch or agar agar (seaweed) into a bowl. Add COLD water and mix with a fork to get all the lumps out. Pour into the gravy, stir 2-4 minutes over simmering heat until it thickens. Then take off the heat and cover, or keep on a stove warmer setting until use. (Agar agar loses it’s gel if you overheat it after it gels. Just an FYI.)

When it’s cooled off, I like to take the meat off the bones, and wrap them into packages. This can be done the next day, however!! Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge overnight.

You can cut off a breast and make it into another dish like sandwich meat, turkey salad, spaghetti, or turkey with gravy. The meat will last about 3 days in the fridge, so try to just leave out enough to eat in those days. If you like variety, plan on eating something else for some of the meals. The cut meat could be added to broth with vegetables for an easy soup.

I like the wings (cut into 2 pieces at the joint) and thighs, myself. The thighs can be cut into three pieces parallel with the bone. If you wrap them separately, it’s like having handy meat snack packs on hand. These freeze really well, too. The dark meat tastes great! I like to use wax paper for this, as I am concerned about the plastic touching the food. If you have a large group of wrapped packets, I do place those in a plastic container or bag.

When you are all done cutting off the meat, save the bones for making soup stock right away or later. Just wrap them in wax paper and plastic wrap. Then place in the freezer until you have the time and energy. I will post later how to do that.

I hope this helps you learn how to cook a great meal for yourself. That’s one way to get ourselves fed better food for less money.

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