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How long to cook a turkey, when to thaw and what to know about saving leftovers

Get out your pen and paper: It's Turkey School 101, and we've got step-by-step instructions on how to cook the perfect bird.

When it comes to cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving, it doesn't matter if you're a first-timer or seasoned pro, 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 told TODAY Food. "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, more than 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 explained. "Maybe they remember their grandmas getting up at 2 or 3 in the morning and it's this all-day process."

To help ensure that your Thanksgiving bird is the stuff of TV commercials, TODAY asked Johnson for the lowdown on how, from start to finish, to get cooking a turkey right.

How to thaw a turkey

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 said.

If calculations aren't your strong suit, Johnson said that the next best thing is "National Thaw Your Turkey Day" which falls on the Thursday before Thanksgiving Thursday.

"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."

Once thawed, the turkey can stay in the fridge for four additional days, which essentially means the turkey has 10 full days before it needs to be cooked.

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 said.

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, if desired, drain any excess juice into the sink, then pat it dry with a paper towel.

Remove the bag of giblets from the cavity of the turkey. It's a step people often overlook and if you forget, don't sweat it. "It happens quite often," Johnson said. "People call, they're in a panic. We tell them not to worry."

Either remove the bag when you realize you've forgotten to take it out or take it out when the turkey has finished cooking.

Despite the popular myth that you should always rinse the turkey, it's not necessary, according to Johnson.

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 up, off the pan and allows for that nice, hot circulating air for a uniform cook," Johnson explained.

Season your turkey as desired or brush the skin with vegetable oil or spray with cooking spray, said Johnson, to help prevent the skin from drying out.

How long to cook a turkey

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 explained. "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.

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 said 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 said.

The ideal way to check for doneness is to use a meat thermometer and Johnson said that the thigh should register at 180 F and the breast 170 F.

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, 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, it can be kept in a Ziploc bag," she said. "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.