Making a turkey for the first time can be intimating. Turkeys, especially when you’re buying one big enough to feed an entire family, need a lot of time and attention to make them just right, but luckily for those in charge of roasting their Thanksgiving feast this year, it isn’t an entirely impossible task, even for beginners.

The following Thanksgiving Day turkey recipe is a combination of my own tips and tricks, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service’s guidelines and Butterball’s suggested roasting recipe.

Ingredients and Tools

There’s not many ingredients that are needed to make the perfectly cooked turkey, however, the following items and kitchen tools are essential to cooking a holiday bird.

You’ll need:

  • 1 fresh, frozen whole turkey (Rule of thumb is 1 person per pound)
  • 1 half cup of water
  • Large roasting pan
  • Tin foil
  • Meat thermometer
  • Carving knife

Optional items:

  • Baster
  • Basting brush
  • Cooking oil (I recommend vegetable oil)

Pre-Cook Steps

Before you even think about popping your Thanksgiving turkey into the oven, you’re going to have to make sure it is ready to be cooked. One of the most important, and probably overlooked, steps to cooking a Thanksgiving turkey for beginners is properly thawing out the bird. While a frozen turkey can be cooked, it will take much longer to finish.

USDA’s turkey-cooking regulations state the safest way to thaw a bird is in the refrigerator, which could take up to 6 days depending on the turkey’s size, in cold water, which can take anywhere from 2 to 12 hours, or in a microwave oven. You can view their entire thawing guideline here.

Another important thing to keep in mind is how long you’ll need to cook your turkey based on its weight. Consider what time you want to serve your Thanksgiving dinner when making your cooking plans and always give yourself a little wiggle room. Some birds take longer to cook than you think. (Check out the full cook times below for details.)

Once your turkey is properly thawed and you’ve got your plan ready, you’re all set to start cooking.

Full Recipe

1. Take your turkey and removed any wrapping or innards that may be left behind. (Sometimes giblets are packaged to use for gravy and other times they’re not. Either way, they’ve got to go.) After, take a dry towel and gently pat down the bird, removing any juices.

2. Next, pour about a half cup of water into the bottom of the roasting pan and place the turkey breast side up into the pan.

Tip: I like to brush a little cooking oil onto the bird before its first trip into the oven. This is also the time when to stuff your bird if you’re planning on doing it. 

3. Once your oven pre-heats to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (the minimum temperature is 325 degrees Fahrenheit), you can put it into the oven. Halfway through cooking, take your turkey out of the oven and cover the most exposed areas, such as the legs, in tin foil to keep them from drying out.

Tip: You can also use this time to baste the bird using the water and juices at the bottom of the pan. This will help keep the turkey moist. You can do this step multiple times throughout the roasting process.

4. Follow the cook time instructions below. Once the thickest part of the bird (usually the breast) has reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s done cooking.

5. If you’re in a rush to eat Thanksgiving dinner, feel free to gobble away. However, if you have some time to spare, it doesn’t hurt to let the turkey sit for 15-20 minutes to let it retain its juices. You’ll thank me later!

Cook Times

Unstuffed

  • 4 to 8 pounds (breast)-1½ to 3¼ hours
  • 8 to 12 pounds-2¾ to 3 hours
  • 12 to 14 pounds-3 to 3¾ hours
  • 14 to 18 pounds-3¾ to 4¼ hours
  • 18 to 20 pounds-4¼ to 4½ hours
  • 20 to 24 pounds-4½ to 5 hours

Stuffed

  • 4 to 6 pounds (breast)- Not usually applicable
  • 6 to 8 pounds (breast)- 2½ to 3½ hours
  • 8 to 12 pounds-3 to 3½ hours
  • 12 to 14 pounds-3½ to 4 hours
  • 14 to 18 pounds-4 to 4¼ hours
  • 18 to 20 pounds-4¼ to 4¾ hours
  • 20 to 24 pounds-4¾ to 5¼ hours

Happy Thanksgiving!