Welcome to Turkey Roasting 101! In this course we plan to cover the basics of purchasing your turkey, preparing your turkey for its entrance into your oven, roasting times and temperatures, and getting it ready for carving. After completing this course, students should feel comfortable inviting friends and family over for an annual Thanksgiving feast!

This course is a prerequisite to Advanced Gravy Making 301, Stuffing 203, and our graduate level course of Creative Uses for Turkey Leftovers.

Required Course Supplies

  • Roasting pan (either a re-usable metal pan or even a large sized foil roasting pan)
  • Turkey (see Step 1 below)
  • ½ stick of softened butter
  • Dried spices such as rosemary, sage, and thyme (optional)
  • Whole orange cut into quarters, with skin on (optional)
  • Chicken broth (one 14 oz can)
  • Aluminum foil
  • Meat thermometer

Step 1: Purchasing and Defrosting Your Turkey

Yes, you can spend $10 per pound or more to buy a fresh turkey from some fancy-shmancy place, and even have the bird overnighted to your doorstep. But let's get real. In this economy, my vote is to take advantage of supermarket deals and buy a frozen turkey at least one week prior to the holiday. (And for those of you lucky enough to be rewarded with a free turkey based on accumulated grocery purchases at your favorite store — even better!) Plan on buying a turkey large enough to allow 1½- 2 lbs per person. (This will give you room for leftovers!)

But here's the key. You need to make sure the bird is properly defrosted before the day you intend to cook it. The best way to defrost your turkey is to move it from the freezer to the refrigerator several days before the holiday. Allow for 6 hours in the fridge for each pound of bird, so a 12-lb turkey would take 3 days in the fridge to defrost. And be sure to put a rimmed pan underneath the defrosting bird, just in case the packaging leaks!

Step 2: Preparing Your Turkey to Meet the Oven

1. Preheat the Oven

Let's start by preheating the oven. Turn it on to 400 degrees and allow it to heat while you prepare the bird.

2. Clean the Bird

In your clean sink, use kitchen scissors to cut into the packaging, remove, and discard — but first note (write it down!) the size of your bird (in pounds). Using cool water, rinse the bird all over — the outside, and all of the inside cavities. Be sure to reach in and pull out the bag of innards (typically the neck, liver, and various other edibles). Check both the main cavity as well as the neck cavity of the bird.

If you are feeling adventurous, you can make turkey stock using these innards pieces, and the turkey stock can be used as a base for homemade gravy. (Added bonus: your home will smell like roasting turkey the moment you begin!) But because this is Turkey Roasting 101, I am keeping it basic, and will tell you to just throw those innards away. Also be sure to scrub your sink with a good anti-bacterial cleanser when you are done rinsing your bird!

3. Place the Turkey into the Roasting Pan

After your turkey is rinsed, pat it dry with paper towels, then place the bird into your roasting pan. Make sure that the pan you are using is deep enough to hold the turkey as well as the liquid and drippings without spilling over onto the bottom of your oven (such a mess!). An aluminum foil pan will work fine; just be cautious as you are lifting it in and out of the oven as it can be somewhat flimsy and you do not want to pour hot liquid onto yourself! (Emergency room trips on holidays are just NO fun!) You can put the foil roasting pan on a rimmed baking sheet to give it more stability.

4. Butter Up the Bird

Take your ½ stick of butter and just smash it down onto the top of the turkey. You can also put it into a bowl and add in ½ teaspoon each of dried sage, rosemary, and thyme, then smash the herbed butter down onto the top of the turkey. If you want to get a little fancy, take your quartered orange, squeeze the juice over the top of the bird, and then put the orange pieces into the main cavity of the turkey (this will continue to add moisture and flavor while the turkey roasts in the oven). Finally, add the can of chicken broth into the bottom of your roasting pan, which will become the start of your turkey drippings.

5. Insert the Meat Thermometer

Insert the metal probe of the meat thermometer into the leg of the turkey, but do not touch the bone. Now, you might be thinking — why use a meat thermometer when my turkey came with that pop-up thingy? Because, my friends, the pop-up thingy is just not a sophisticated piece of turkey-cooking equipment! And relying on it means that you could easily over-cook your bird, resulting in dried-out meat — or worse, undercook your turkey, resulting in giving your guest food poisoning. (Again, emergency room trips on holidays are NO fun.)

6. Tent Your Turkey

Finally, you need to "tent" your turkey. What's that, you ask? It's simple: take a piece of foil, fold it in half, and then create a small folded crease at the top (which helps it to hold the tenting shape). You might need two of these to cover the pan, but the idea is to loosely cover the turkey with the foil to prevent it from browning too quickly, but not to cover it so tightly that you end up steaming it instead of roasting it!

Step 3: The Turkey Goes Into the Oven

Place your turkey into the oven that has been preheated to 400 degrees, and immediately turn the temperature down to 325 degrees. Roasting a turkey requires a lower and even oven temperature.

How Long to Roast?

It's all based on the size of your bird. It typically takes about 15-18 minutes per pound for an un-stuffed turkey. So a 12-lb turkey would take 3 to 3½ hours.

How Do I Get My Turkey to Have That Golden Color?

In the last quarter of the roasting time, remove the foil tent completely and set it aside. This should allow your turkey to start to turn golden brown. If you find that it is browning too quickly, simply put the foil tent back on.

When Is It Done?

A turkey needs to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees (which is why we rely on a meat thermometer!). Feel free to insert the probe into the breast, and the other leg to double check the internal temperature before taking it out of the oven.

Step 4: Preparing the Turkey for Carving

When your turkey reaches the magic temperature, take it out of the oven, and then cover it (a bit more tightly this time) with the foil from the tent. Allow the turkey to sit for at least 20 minutes before beginning to carve. This will allow the turkey to absorb all of the juices, making it much more moist.

Carving your turkey is a little out of the scope of Turkey Roasting 101, but I can refer you to this fantastic video to get you started!

Happy Holidays!