How to Cook a Thanksgiving Turkey


One of the biggest questions around the holidays is always how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. From defrosting and roasting to carving and serving – not to mention pairing the bird with sides like mashed potatoes and cranberry relish – creating a meal that leaves your guests impressed requires planning and attention to detail.

Luckily, Lincoln Culinary Institute is here to help!

A Four-Step Guide:  How to Cook a Thanksgiving Turkey

Get defrosting!

Get ready to roast!

Get roasting!

Get carving!

Step One: Get defrosting!

Many professionals recommend starting to defrost your bird about five days in advance, in the refrigerator. A good rule of thumb says to allow 24 hours of defrosting time for every five pounds of turkey.

By now, with less than three days to go, you can also perform a “cold water thaw”. This method requires about 30 minutes per pound.  Leave the turkey in its original packaging, and place it in a sink or large container full of cold water (change the water often).  An eight to 12-pound bird should take 4-6 hours to thaw.

Step Two: Get ready to roast!

Once the bird is thawed, it’s time to get it ready for the oven. Turn the turkey breast-side down and make an incision in the wrapping that’s not too deep (you don’t want to cut through the skin), but long enough to let the turkey slide out of its packaging.  (It’s going to be very wet and ‘juicy’ by now, so be sure to have plenty of paper towels nearby!)

Remove the neck and giblets. If you want to pre-stuff your turkey, this is the time to do it.  If not, you can also simply sprinkle the cavity with herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage to add to the aroma while it’s roasting.  (A big bird tends to cook more evenly if it’s not pre-stuffed.)

Pat your turkey dry with paper towels and rub it down with melted butter or canola oil. This will give it a nice even color as it cooks.  If you like a crisper skin on your turkey, you can also rub it with kosher salt to help absorb the excess moisture.

Step Three: Get roasting!

When your oven is preheated the 325, it’s time to place the turkey inside. One of the best parts about how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey is the aroma that fills your home as it roasts, but before you get it cooking make sure you’ve got a thermometer handy to make sure it’s fully done by the end.  You can use the pop-up thermometer many turkeys come with, or if you want to be a little more precise try investing in a leave-in kitchen thermometer.  These devices can be pre-programmed to the temperature you want, and will alert you when your meat has cooked to the degree you specified!

For safety, you’ll want to make sure the bird is cooked to at least 165 degrees in the thickest part, near the back end of the breast. Set your thermometer to 160 degrees, because even after you’ve taken it out of the oven it will continue to cook for about 30 more minutes.

Not stuffed, an 8-12 pound turkey will need about three hours to cook. Allow for an extra half-four if you pre-stuffed the turkey.

If you’re planning on using the turkey drippings to make your own gravy, you can find easy-to-follow instructions on how to make gravy here!

Step Four: Get Carving!

Once your turkey is fully cooked and you’ve removed it from the oven, allow it at least 15 minutes to sit. (Up to 30 minutes is recommended.)  This will give the juices a chance to settle while the bird “self-cooks” the last few degrees to 165.

Place the turkey breast-side up on a carving board and remove any skewers or ties. Take out the stuffing (if you stuffed it) and put it aside in a separate serving dish.  Then gently pull the leg away from the body and begin cutting through the leg joint.  Once you’ve cut all the way through the joint, you’ll be able to separate the drumstick and thigh.

Next, make a deep cut in the breast just above the wing, and insert your fork into the top of the breast. Start carving thin slices from the top of the breast to your horizontal cut, working from the outer edge toward the center.

Serve and enjoy!  Happy holidays from Lincoln Culinary Institute and Lincoln Tech!


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