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How long to cook a turkey so you don’t ruin Thanksgiving

It’s turkey time! We’ve got step-by-step instructions on how to cook the perfect bird.
/ Source: TODAY

When it comes to cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving, roasting a full-sized bird can sometimes be a challenge regardless of your skill level.

That’s because there are a lot steps involved, and while they aren't complicated, well, they aren't necessarily easy either — especially if you're hoping to serve up a moist, juicy turkey to your guests.

So, along with setting the table, choosing the right side dishes and picking out wine to serve at Thanksgiving dinner, knowing how long to cook a turkey and what you need to do to prepare it correctly is essential.

With so much pressure to get it right on the big day, it’s not surprising that cooking a turkey can throw some people into a full-on panic.

“We sometimes talk folks down a bit,” Nicole Johnson, director of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line tells TODAY.com. “We keep a real calm demeanor about ourselves and we'll troubleshoot.”

Fielding calls from more than 100,000 consumers from October through December each year, over 50 Butterball Turkey Talk-Line experts answer questions on everything from how to cook a turkey in a microwave to what to do if the power goes out.

One of the biggest questions, however is how long to cook the turkey and, according to Johnson, it’s not as long as you may think.

“There’s a misconception that a turkey takes all day to cook,” she explains. “Maybe they remember their grandmas getting up at 2 or 3 in the morning and it's this all-day process.” The reality is that a 12-pound turkey shouldn't take more than a few hours to cook, meaning that you can put it in the oven in the early afternoon so that it’s ready by dinnertime.

To help ensure that your Thanksgiving bird is the stuff of TV commercials, TODAY asked Johnson for the lowdown on how to cook a juicy turkey.

How to thaw a turkey

Before you decide on a wet or dry rub or start sharpening your carving knives, you need to know how to thaw a turkey. Most turkeys sold in the grocery store are frozen and if you're getting a head start on your grocery shopping, it should stay that way until week of. According to Johnson, the No. 1 thing callers want to know is how long to thaw a turkey and the answer is: simple math.

“The ratio is 24 hours for every four pounds of turkey meat to thaw in your refrigerator,” she says.

If calculations aren’t your strong suit, Johnson says that the next best thing is “National Thaw Your Turkey Day,” which falls on the Thursday before Thanksgiving Thursday. This year, you can begin thawing your bird on Nov. 16.

“It’s a really good way for folks to remember, regardless of the size of the turkey they have purchased, to take it out of their freezer wrapper, intact and put it in the refrigerator.”

To prepare a turkey for thawing, rest it in a deep baking dish or in a roasting pan lined with a wire rack. As it thaws, it will release a lot of liquid, so it’s important to ensure that you use the proper bakeware to collect the liquid. Place the pan on the lowest shelf in your refrigerator to prevent cross-contamination.

Once thawed, the turkey can stay in the fridge for four additional days. Even if your turkey is fully thawed by the Sunday or Monday before Thanksgiving, it will be completely safe to cook and carve on Thursday.

As the saying goes, even the best laid plans sometimes go awry and if you find yourself in a jam having forgotten to thaw the turkey, Johnson says not to worry.

“The Tuesday or Wednesday before Thanksgiving, even Thanksgiving morning, you can go ahead and opt for the cold-water bath method,” she says. Thawing a turkey in a bath of very cold water is a quick and effective method when you’re in a pinch.

The ratio for the cold-water bath method is 30 minutes per pound, which means a 24-pound turkey takes around 12 hours to thaw in a cold water bath.

How to prepare a turkey for cooking

Getting your turkey oven-ready doesn’t require much work. Remove the bag and drain any excess juice into the sink, then pat it dry again with a paper towel.

Remove the bag of giblets from the cavity of the turkey and, if desired, reserve them for homemade gravy. It’s a step people often overlook and if you forget, don’t sweat it. “It happens quite often,” Johnson says. “People call, they're in a panic. We tell them not to worry.” If you accidentally cook the turkey with the giblet bag still intact, just remove it with a pair of tongs before carving.

Despite the popular myth that you should always rinse the turkey, it’s not necessary, according to Johnson, and in fact can be dangerous. Rinsing a turkey under water in your kitchen sink can lead to cross contamination of foodborne pathogens.

Instead, place the turkey breast-side-up into an open, 2.5-inch-high roasting pan that ideally has a flat rack in the bottom.

“That helps us elevate the turkey off the pan and allows for that nice, hot circulating air for a uniform cook,” Johnson explains.

Season your turkey as desired (at a minimum, we recommend kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper) and rub the skin with oil or softened butter to build flavor. If you want to use a wet brine, prepare one about three days in advance of Thanksgiving and let the bird soak until it’s time to roast. Dry brines, which are less messy and build just as much flavor, only need about 24 hours to be effective.

How long to cook a turkey

There are so many ways to cook a turkey. From Martha Stewart’s tried-and-true cheesecloth method to this Latin-inspired recipe that features a guava jam glaze, finding the perfect turkey recipe is no easy task. Regardless of how you season the bird, there’s a simple method: Johnson recommends cooking a turkey at 325 F, from start to finish.

“There are recipes where they may start with a really high temperature, then you turn it down,” she explains. “We’ve tested that method and we find that it tends to burn the skin.”

Because of that, she suggests keeping the temperature at 325 F throughout the cooking.

If you want to cook the bird at a high heat to ensure crispy skin, turn the oven to 450 F and set a rack in the middle of the oven. Roast the bird for 30 minutes exactly, then reduce the oven temperature to 350 F to continue cooking. Use a meat thermometer to determine the internal temperature of the bird, which will prevent it from overcooking. Once a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the bird reaches 160 F, remove it from the oven to rest (the internal temperature will continue to rise by about five degrees).

How long you cook your turkey depends on the size of the turkey and whether or not it’s stuffed.

To help determine the estimated time, use this handy cooking chart from the National Turkey Federation:

A table of turkey cooking times by weight in pounds and whether the turkey is stuffed or unstuffed.
TODAY’s guide to perfectly cooking your Thanksgiving turkey.Liza Evseeva / NBC News

If you notice your turkey breast is browning faster than the rest of the bird, Johnson says to take a sheet of aluminum foil (roughly the size of a notebook) and tent the breast area.

“That’s going to help over-browning of the breast and allow the thigh to come up to temperature,” she says.

Next steps after the turkey is cooked

Once the turkey is done, remove it from oven and let it rest for at least 15 to 20 minutes before carving.

Using a sharp knife and meat fork, carve the turkey and serve on a plate or platter. To make the carving process easier, Johnson suggests cutting the entire breast off, putting it on a cutting board, then carving into slices from there.

Once dinner’s been served and everyone has eaten, don’t wait too long to get any remaining turkey in the fridge.

According to Johnson, any leftovers should be refrigerated within two hours of leaving the oven.

“That leftover meat can be kept in a plasticware container or a Ziploc bag,” she says. “If you have a little bit of gravy or some broth to spoon in between the meat slices, that helps to maintain the moisture.”

Refrigerated turkey leftovers should be eaten within three days or can be frozen for up to two months, along with any leftover stuffing or dressing.