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This Thanksgiving Turkey recipe is practically foolproof – it’s flavor packed and so tender and juicy with a golden, crispy skin. With my step-by-step tutorial, even first time cooks can pull this turkey recipe off stress free!
This perfect Thanksgiving Turkey will be the star of your family’s holiday dinner. Of course the best turkey recipe needs the best Thanksgiving side dishes, like my Mashed Potatoes, Homemade Stuffing and classic Green Bean Casserole.
This juicy turkey recipe isn’t complicated at all. There’s no brining, no basting, no weird cooking techniques. Just simple instructions to give you great results every time.
In this post you’ll learn tons of tips and tricks, plus step-by-step instructions for the most perfectly tender, incredibly juicy, totally stress free, best Thanksgiving turkey recipe, ever!
Why this Thanksgiving Turkey recipe works
- It’s easy! Even a first time cook can make a delicious turkey for Thanksgiving, or any day, by following this easy turkey recipe.
- Placing butter underneath the skin adds extra flavor and keeps the meat moist and juicy.
- Covering the top with foil during the first few hours of cooking helps to keep them from drying out.
- Turning up the heat during the last hour ensures a golden, crispy skin without drying out the meat.
No brining, No basting, just simple ingredients for an exceptionally flavorful Thanksgiving turkey! Be sure to scroll down to the recipe card for the complete list of ingredients and instructions.
- The bird – For this recipe and the cooking times that go with it, I used a 12 pound turkey. This is a fairly average size that will feed 8-10 people.
- Butter – Pats of butter are placed under the skin of each turkey breast.
- Onion and garlic – peel and stuff inside the cavity of the turkey. You can also add fresh herbs and citrus fruits, like lemon or orange, if you like.
- Dry Rub – Mix together salt, dried thyme, dried sage, rosemary, paprika, black pepper and ground mustard and rub into the skin. This is also a delicious seasoning for Roast Chicken.
- Equipment – A big roasting pan, preferably with a rack to hold the turkey up above the drippings.
How to Cook a Turkey: A Step By Step Tutorial
How to Defrost a Turkey
If your turkey is frozen, you will need to completely defrost it in the refrigerator before you even remove any of the packaging. Place your bird in a deep roasting pan in the fridge to catch any juices that may run out.
Resist the urge to thaw in your kitchen sink as this can encourage harmful bacteria to spread. Be sure to start defrosting the turkey a few days before you need to cook it.
How long do you defrost a turkey? A good rule of thumb is to allow 24 hours for every 4 pounds of turkey. So for our 12 pound bird, at least 3-4 days. To be safe I usually give it an extra 12-24 hours.
Once your turkey is fully defrosted, you can prep it for roasting using the recipe below.
How to Prep a Turkey for Roasting
Remove from packaging and remove extra parts. Remove the fully thawed turkey from it’s packaging. I usually do this in a large container in the kitchen sink. If included, remove the neck and the bag containing the gizzards and giblets. Keep these for making extra stock for the Homemade Turkey Gravy or discard them.
Dry the skin. Pat the skin dry with paper towels. Dry skin equals crispy skin!
Separate the skin from the breast. Using clean hands, gently lift the skin from the turkey breast starting on the side closest to the legs. Slide your hand underneath, separating the skin from the breast meat. Repeat the process with the other side.
Add butter under the skin. Slide 3 pats of butter (1 pat = 1 tablespoon) under the skin on each side and spread it around with your fingers.
Add seasoning and aromatics. Mix together the dry rub, and sprinkle it all over the outside of the turkey and press it into the skin. Sprinkle a little inside the cavity, too. Place the onions and garlic inside the cavity, then transfer the whole bird to a roasting pan with a rack.
Roasting the turkey
These instructions are for how to cook a 12 pound turkey in the oven. If your bird is bigger or smaller, you will need to adjust the cooking time based on the provided instructions. Scroll down to the printable recipe card for the full instructions, or check out the handy chart below.
- Preheat your oven. We start with the oven at 325℉, keeping it low and slow for 2 hours (depending on the size) so the meat gets moist and tender, then crank it up to 400 for the last hour to get that crispy skin.
- Cover. Cut a piece of foil large enough to cover the turkey breasts. Press it down and mold the foil to the shape of the breasts. This will keep the breasts from drying out. You’ll remove it before the turkey is finished cooking to brown the skin.
- Roast the turkey in the oven at 325℉ for 2 hours, adding additional time depending on the size (use the chart below). Then turn the heat up to 400℉, remove the foil and roast until the cooked turkey reaches the optimal temperature. Use our handy guide below to adjust the time. (Be sure to pin this chart to save it for later!).
- Let the turkey rest. Remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest for at least 15-20 minutes, or up to 40 minutes. This will give you plenty of time to cook a Sweet Potato Casserole or warm up some dinner rolls.
Frequently Asked Questions
A pound of turkey per person will feed your guests and leave them satisfied. But if you want leftovers, I recommend 1.5-2 pounds per adult and about half a pound per child. I personally think leftovers are awesome, because you can make Turkey Tetrazzini or Turkey and Stuffing Casserole.
A 12 pound turkey takes about 3 hours to cook. Start at 325℉ for 2 hours, then increase the temperature to 400℉ for another hour. For a larger bird, increase the initial cooking time (at 325℉) by 15 minutes per pound.
One of the best tricks we have for keeping your cooked turkey juicy and moist – butter! Stuffing pats of butter under the skin creates a beautifully crisp skin, but it also melts and keeps the meat super moist and juicy.
Another trick I use is placing aluminum foil over the turkey breasts to help dissipate some of the heat and lock in moisture. Since dark meat takes longer to cook than the light meat, this method lets the thighs and legs get their roast on while the breast gently cooks.
A turkey should be cooked until it reaches an internal temperature of 165℉. Insert an instant-read meat thermometer in the base of the breast meat or the thickest part of the thigh, careful not to touch any bone. Those are absolute basics. The actual length of time it takes to reach the correct temperature will depend on the temperature of the bird before cooking, its size, and your oven temperature.
Every year we get lots of questions for how to cook a turkey so we’ve put them all in one place. Hopefully these helpful hints will take the guesswork out of cooking your turkey!
- Resist the urge to wash your turkey. Washing poultry is a no-no, and will just contaminate your sink. Remove from the packaging and pat dry with paper towels.
- No basting? No brining? These extra steps are really unnecessary for achieving the perfect roast turkey. Basting requires constantly opening your oven which costs you valuable heat and extends the cooking time. Brining isn’t necessary with a high quality turkey.
- Don’t cook inside of your turkey. If you cook stuffing inside your turkey, the meat will be dry before the stuffing reaches a temperature that’s safe to eat. Instead, stuff the turkey with aromatics like onions, garlic, celery, herbs, or lemons that will add a ton of flavor to the bird as well as to the dripping for gravy. Cook the stuffing in a baking dish, like my Classic Sausage Stuffing or Bacon and Onion Stuffing.
- Save the turkey drippings. The dripping are used to make the gravy, and the flavor will compliment beautifully.
Make Ahead, Storage and Freezing
Make Ahead: Once your turkey is fully thawed, you prep it for roasting up to 24 hours in advance. Add the butter, seasoning, and aromatics, then cover loosely with foil and place in the fridge overnight. Take it out about 30 minutes before you put it in the oven so it can shake off the chill.
Storage: If you’re going to eat your leftovers within 3-4 days, store in an airtight container or resealable plastic bag in the fridge. Use for sandwiches, BLT Turkey Wraps, tacos, and Turkey Soup.
Freezing: One of the reasons I love turkey leftovers is because I can keep some in my freezer and easily toss it in Turkey Shepherd’s Pie or in soups.
Reheating: If you’re just looking to reheating a late-night Thanksgiving dinner leftovers plate, you can do that in the microwave. If it’s frozen, thaw it overnight in the fridge before adding to other recipes.
Best Thanksgiving Side Dishes
Your Thanksgiving turkey may be the best ever, but you’re still going to need to fill some supporting roles. Here are some of our favorite Thanksgiving sides that will compliment your cooked turkey in the best way!
- Cheesy Broccoli Casserole
- Oven Roasted Vegetables
- One Hour Dinner Rolls
- Scalloped Corn Casserole
- Twice Baked Potatoes
- Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes
- Orange Cranberry Sauce
- Cranberry Fluff Salad
- Pumpkin Dump Cake
- Classic Apple Pie
- Southern Pecan Pie
Need a smaller turkey this year? Try my other easy turkey recipes for cooking a turkey breast in the air fryer, roasting in the oven, or even an Instant Pot Turkey Breast. Any of these recipes would be a great way to feed a smaller crowd, or to add some extra servings of turkey to your meal.
Best Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe
- 12 pound turkey thawed
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter cut into 1 Tablespoon pats
- 1 1/2 yellow onions peeled and halved
- 4 garlic cloves peeled
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried sage
- 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground mustard
- Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F.
- In a bowl, combine the salt, thyme, sage, paprika, pepper, and ground mustard until evenly incorporated.
- Remove the turkey from its packaging. From the bird’s cavity, remove the neck and the bag containing the gizzards and heart. (You can keep these items to make stock or discard them.)
- Use a few paper towels to dry off the skin of the bird and inside the cavity.
- Lift the skin over the turkey breast (on the side closest to the legs) and slide your hand under the skin separating it from the breast meat. Do this on both sides of the breast.
- Insert three pats of butter under the skin on one side fo the turkey breast spreading them around evenly. Repeat on the other side.
- Sprinkle the dry rub all over the turkey – breast, legs, wings, anything you can see. Using your hands press the rub into the skin a little. If you have any extra rub sprinkle it inside the cavity.
- Place the onion halves and garlic cloves inside the turkey’s cavity.
- Transfer the bird to your roasting pan. (I like to use a pan with a rack to keep the bottom of the turkey from getting soggy.)
- Take a good sized piece of foil and place it over the turkey breast. (You want to make sure to the foil piece is big enough to fit over the whole breast.) Press down and mold the foil to the breast., let the ends stick out if the foil’s a bit big.
- Place the turkey in the oven and roast for 2 hours. Carefully remove the foil from the turkey. Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees and cook the turkey for another hour, or until the internal temperature of the breast reaches 165 degrees F and the skin is golden and crispy.
- Remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest for 30-45 minutes before carving.
- 10 pounds: 1 hour 30 minutes at 325 degrees; 1 hour at 400 degrees.
- 12 pounds: 2 hours at 325 degrees; 1 hour at 400 degrees.
- 14 pounds: 2 hours, 30 minutes at 325 degrees; 1 hour at 400 degrees.
- 16 pounds: 3 hours at 325 degrees; 1 hour at 400 degrees.
- 18 pounds: 3 hours, 30 minutes at 325 degrees; 1 hour at 400 degrees.