The Best Way to Roast a Turkey (the simple way)

Whether you’re planning on roasting a turkey for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s Day, you can always use a few helpful tips to make it the best it can be. Since roasting a gargantuan bird is not on the usual M-F menu plan, it can cause even the most experienced cook to hesitate before proceeding. Fortunately, I think I can help you relax and boost your confidence in preparing your event’s main attraction.

My Crash-Course on Turkey

You may be wondering what a relatively young lady such as myself could have to add to everything that has already been said about turkey, and you would be right to wonder. After all, how many Thanksgivings have I been cooking? Not nearly as many as some experts out there…right?

But here’s the thing: I’ve been to Turkey Boot Camp.

When I was nineteen, I had the privilege (?) misfortune (?)  – honestly, it was a mix of both –  of working a summer at a remote fly-in fishing resort on the Pacific Ocean. Another fellow and I were the chefs for the camp, cranking out three square meals for over forty people, seven days a week, eleven weeks straight. Every three days, a couple of float planes would fly in carrying a new group of clients – and a frozen turkey. Along with the requisite pancake breakfast, shrimp bisque lunch, and other culinary highlights, we were obliged to prepare a well-rounded turkey dinner for each group of guests.

Two groups per week, eleven weeks of work. Yes, that’s right, in the span of one summer, we cooked twenty-two turkeys!

If that doesn’t make me qualified to talk turkey, then I don’t know what does!

How to Roast a Turkey

My roast turkey is one thing: simple.

It is un-stuffed and un-trussed; I don’t brine or baste. I keep my cooking time shorter than most, but lengthen the resting period. The result is a perfectly golden, moist turkey that is relatively hassle-free.

Directions are for a fresh, grain fed turkey.

One Day Ahead: Prep the Turkey

  1. Remove fresh turkey from any packaging and snip free of any string or trussing.
  2. Remove neck and giblets from the body cavity, reserving for stock, if desired.
  3. Rinse turkey well under cold water and pat dry with paper towel.
  4. With a sharp knife, remove the wing tips (up to the first joint) and add those to the stock pot, too.
  5. Place turkey on a tray or pan and lightly salt all over. Leave uncovered in the fridge overnight. This will allow the bird’s skin to dry out, making it crispier, plus the salt will add flavor to the meat without the hassle of a wet brine.

Optional: Turkey Stock for Turkey Gravy

Combine in a saucepan:

  • turkey neck, wing-tips & giblets
  • 1 quart water
  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorn
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 stick of celery, well washed
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and halved
  • 1 onion, halved and unpeeled
  1. Bring everything to a boil, then cover the pot and simmer on low for two to four hours.
  2. Strain through a sieve and reserve for making your gravy.

This can be done a day or two in advance.

Two hours before roasting

Bring to room temperature

  • Remove turkey from the fridge. Rub a softened stick of butter ALL over the bird. Coating the skin with butter will help to keep the meat moist, add flavor, and ensure the skin turns a perfect golden brown color.
  • Place the turkey on a wire rack in a large, shallow roasting pan. Elevating the turkey allows for the heat to get all around and also for the skin to crisp properly. Try to avoid cramming the bird into an overly small pan; you’ll only end up with over-browning on top and more braising than roasting, as the turkey stews in it’s own juices.
  • Leave the turkey on the counter and allow it to come to room temperature. Bringing the meat up to room temperature (about 70°F) will both cut down on the cooking time and ensure the fowl cooks evenly. Thanksgiving is a particularly busy time for the oven, with stuffing, pies and side dishes all jostling for space, so if you can shave half an hour or more off the turkey’s cooking time – bonus!

A word on stuffing
Next Monday I’ll be sharing my favorite stuffing recipe, plus explain why I choose not to stuff my turkey. Stay tuned.

Roasting the Perfect Turkey

Temperature
I find it is best to start the turkey at a fairly high temperature (400°F), roast for about twenty minutes and then lower the heat to 350°F for the remainder of the cooking time. Sometimes I forget to lower the oven, though, and the turkey still comes out fine, just perhaps a little darker than I would like!
Time
If you cook your turkey from room temperature, untrussed and unstuffed, it will cook significantly faster than a chilly bird stuffed full of bread and trussed tightly.  Air will circulate much better around the bird and roasting times will be shorter.

These are the approximate roasting times using this method:

  • 5 lbs – 1 – 1/2 hrs
  • 8 lbs –  1- 3/4 hrs
  • 10 lbs – 2 hrs
  • 12 lbs – 2 – 1/2 hrs
  • 15 1bs – 2 – 3/4 hours
  • 17 lbs – 3 hours
  • 20 lbs – 3 – 1/2 hours

Tip: Loosely cover the turkey with aluminum foil if it looks like the top is browning too quickly. I also have to rotate the pan 180° every hour or so for even browning in my old oven.

Remember, oven temperatures can vary drastically, so even if the turkey has been in the oven for appropriate time, it is still necessary to double-check for doneness. A meat thermometer should register 170°F  when inserted into the thickest part of the thigh (but not touching the bone). You can also follow the directions from this post on Roasting Chicken 101 on how to tell when your roast poultry is finished.

If you’re worried that the bird is slightly underdone, remember that it will keep cooking a tad during the resting period.

The All-Important Step: Resting

After pulling it from the oven, do not transfer the turkey to its place of honor at the center of the table… just yet. Instead, tent it with foil and let it rest for at least thirty minutes (and up to an hour). Place the turkey directly on a tray (not on a rack), as this will allow the cooking juices to be re-absorbed by the meat instead of losing the moisture as soon as the turkey is sliced into.

A well-rested roast turkey is a moist roast turkey, so this step is crucial.

Now that the turkey has relinquished its space in the oven, this is when I crank the heat back up and tuck the butternut squash gratin and the buttermilk rolls in to warm while I make the gravy and mash the potatoes.

The turkey is now ready to take its place at the festive table and the only thing left to decide is: Who’s carving?

Are you on turkey duty for US Thanksgiving? Is a Christmas turkey in the plans?

About Aimee

Cooking has always been Aimée's preferred recreational activity, creative outlet, and source of relaxation. After nearly ten years in the professional cooking industry, she went from restaurant to RSS by trading her tongs and clogs for cookie cutters and a laptop, serving as editor here at Simple Bites. Her first book, Brown Eggs and Jam Jars - Family Recipes from the Kitchen of Simple Bites, was published in February 2015.

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Comments

  1. I probably won’t cook my first turkey for many years yet (we still travel to see extended family where the aunts & mom are in charge of the cooking), but I appreciate the tips. I’m sure they’ll be helpful for later on. 🙂

  2. Aimee, this is exactly what I do! I’m not one for glazes and herbs. I think it’s best to just appreciate and “honor” the true turkey flavor. Great post.

    • Thanks so much, Jennie! I think if we ate it often, it would need embellishing, but for three times a year, it really is perfect just as it is with no bells & whistles.

  3. Aimee, thank you so much for this! I had no idea about the resting, but that is really practical for me because I need my oven for other things at the end too and it’s always a juggling act to get everything done at the same time in a small oven!
    I love this blog!

  4. Perfect directions. I remember you talking about your chef position at the fly fishing camp at UtHC…but I had no idea there were 22 turkeys involved! I’m usually turkey free every year since we go to family’s homes to celebrate.

  5. yyyyuuuuummmmmm I always brine- but thanks for the extra tips

  6. Thanks for the great post Aimee. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I have never cooked a turkey! Nope…not one! I leave that job to my Mom and Mother-In-Law who are experts at cooking the big bird.

    I’ll tell ‘ya though – if I do muster up the courage to tame a turkey this holiday season, I’ll be sure to follow your instructions here. Who knows maybe it’ll turn out better than Mom’s (is that possible??)

  7. would you recommend a convection oven or a ‘normal’ oven? would i adjust the temp for a convection? i am making my first turkey in Germany with a German oven and i want everything to be perfect!

  8. I’ve been cooking turkeys since I was 12, but I love your tips – and the reasons behind them!

    I like turkey at Christmas time, and I might just get a chance this year, even though my husband and I are on our own for this year.

  9. This is almost exactly how I do mine. The one difference is I use a digital thermometer with a remote probe. Just put it in before it goes in the oven, set the desired temperature, and leave it be until it’s done.

    I still haven’t convinced my mother-in-law you don’t need to baste every 15 minutes. My turkey comes out better than hers (she doesn’t use the computer, so I can say that here) in about an hour less time, but she’s set in her ways. I don’t try to convince her … just keep her out of my kitchen when I’m cooking.

  10. Medifast Coupon Code says:

    Great turkey tips, I am printing and laminating for my fridge and for my daughter, she is doing her first turkey this christmas.

  11. I am vegetarian, so my thanksgiving is bit easier, making things from rice, tofu, beans, bread and salad and my meat eating friends like it too.

  12. I’ve done the turkey every year since I got married (5 years in June), but this year I’ll probably cheat and do a couple of turkey breasts instead – that’s all my family eats anyway! I’ll let my wonderful MIL handle it for that side of the family. 😀

  13. Excellent tutorial. I’m not very experienced at roasting the whole bird, so your tips are very helpful!

  14. My hubby roast the turkey for Christmas every year. I remember hearing him said the resting is very important. This is a great post and the photos are splendid!

  15. Now, the recipe said : “fresh,grain fed turkey.” Excuse my ignorance, but is that a special kind of turkey? Or would it be easy to find at a grocery store? Are they labeled that way?

    Thanks for the recipe! I think I could actually do this!

    • Good question, Alyssa. So when I say ‘fresh’, I mean that it hasn’t been frozen. Of course you can but frozen if that is your only option, and let it thaw completely in the refrigerator.
      Look for the words ‘Grain fed’ or ‘free range’ on the packaging; the ‘grain fed’ is usually at most grocery stores.

      Happy Thanksgiving! You bet you can do this!

  16. harold faught says:

    Aimee do you have some good information and advice on cooking a turkey breast on a charcoal grill, the indirect method. My wife just purchased a 4.5 lb turkey breast roast and the information doesn’t say anything about cooking it on a charcoal grill.

  17. Bless You!
    I am doing just as you say, tomorrow, to practice for the big day.
    thank you

  18. I’m cooking my first turkey this year and am feeling a little stressed all the preparations. I like the simplicity of your method. I have a couple questions though…how far ahead of time can I buy a fresh turkey? How long can it sit in the refrigerator before going bad?

    Also, you talk about the stock for the gravy, but do you have an easy gravy recipe?

    Thanks for the help!

  19. Thank you! Our 20 pound natural turkey was perfect! Right on time, moist and beautiful. This recipe is a keeper.

    See our turkey here http://carfreeinannarbor.blogspot.com/2010/11/thankgiving-real-time.html

  20. I will do my very first turkey resting and roasting tomorrow night. Your tips are absolutely simple and hopefully will turn out perfect. Wish me luck. Merry Merry Christmas to you Aimee =)

  21. Letting the bird come to room temperature, and also the resting period…is this safe? I would be concerned about bacteria growth.

  22. If I can take this one …

    There’s much more danger when a hot food is cooling down than when something cold is warming up.

    As for the resting, it will be over 160 degrees when it starts resting. And my last turkey was still over 150 a half-hour later, so still well into the safe zone.

  23. Lisa Lenart says:

    Thank you for posting this! This year will be my first Thanksgiving and after reading your ideas roasting the turkey doesn’t seem so difficult anymore!

  24. Great tutorial! I’ve got it bookmarked and ready for the big day. This will be the first year I’m hosting the whole family and the turkey was the only thing scaring me. You’ve made it seem so simple and relieved my stresses. Thanks!

  25. Great advice. Would you recommend using conventional versus convection roasting? And if using convection, should the roasting times and temperatures be adjusted? Thanks for the information.

  26. Hi! I have a 22 lb. frozen butterball. It will be completely thawed by Wednesday. Will it take longer to cook since it is not a fresh grain fed one? I know the flavor won’t be the same (much rather have fresh grain fed but hard to get a large one and a bit pricey) just concerned with the cooking time. Thanks

    • Hi Kathleen, I believe it will actually take a bit less longer to cook. Butterball tends to have a little less muscle and cooks faster.

      Good luck and Happy Thanksgiving!

  27. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!! You saved our Thanksgiving! I was starting to really panic before I read this. I feel a lot calmer now 🙂

  28. Jody Blanchard says:

    Well, I did it. I followed the directions to the tee and IT WORKED!!!! I have a gorgeous, crispy, golden turkey! Moist, delicious! The broth is fabulous, too. Thank you so much.

    • *woot* I’m thrilled for you, Jody, and it wasn’t too much work now, was it? Thanks so much for coming back and sharing your success.

      Happy Thanksgiving!

  29. Dan Kankiewicz says:

    Thanks for this recipe! Cooked a 26 lb turkey for Thanksgiving and by far it was the best turkey I have ever tasted!

  30. I want to make gravy from the stock but how do i do it? Anyone have any suggestions?

  31. Have you still got the giblets? Start with those and make giblet gravy, but using the stock in place of water.

    • thanks! I am going to cook my very first turkey without Grandma and she use to make a gravy kind of like this too bad I didnt get to really learn from her. Thanks.

  32. I made our turkey this way for Thanksgiving. I am never going to prepare it any other way. I wrote a post about it on my blog here. Thank you SO much for posting these turkey cooking directions. Best turkey EVER!

  33. Getting ready for the big day in Canada and your recipe looks perfect for me (I’ve never done this before–yikes!). On which rack in the oven do I put the turkey?

    Thanks!

  34. Hi….this makes me sooo excited. I live in mexico now and for the first time EVER im cooking the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner for my family who has never celebrated it down here….NERVOUS MUCH!!! So i have a question….should i make the turkey first and then the biscuits and pies etc. or what should i start with??? Thanks sooo much for the delicous recipes…..!!! Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Oh how exciting! Well, you’re in good hands with this tutorial. Definitely start with pies, for they can sit aside for a day. Biscuits can be made in the morning. Safe the oven for the turkey in the afternoon. Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

  35. I’m starting to plan my menu for this Thanksgiving and I don’t have to give a second thought to the turkey because I used this method last year and it was fantastic–juicy, flavorful, crispy skinned, and easy! I live in NYC, where kitchen/appliance space is at a premium and I ended up letting the turkey rest for almost an hour while I prepared the rest of the sides. It’s how I plan to do it again this year. Thanks Aimee for ensuring this girl doesn’t look like a turkey when she’s serving a turkey.

  36. You’re saving my sanity. I’m SUPER excited to host Thanksgiving this year for my family and my husband’s family, but I’ve been going crazy trying to find the best (aka most complicated) turkey recipe. I needed a reality check, especially since I’ll be cooking Thanksgiving dinner with my 9 month old. 🙂 This is fabulous and I can’t wait to try it!

  37. I know resting the bird after cooking is important, but I have been to several dinners where everything is warm/hot except for the turkey which after the resting period is now on the cool side. How do I keep this from happening with my first turkey that I am going to attempt to make this year?

  38. Mack Russell says:

    Dear Aimee,

    Is there a printable version for the “Simple way to roast a turkey”? I have to have the recipes “right in the middle” if my cooking.
    Thanks,
    Mack

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