Cooking a turkey is something that is not hard, but preparation is a bit time-consuming. Not everyone does it exactly the same, but the general steps are the same.
Here are the steps:
Check the USDA Roasting Table for Fresh or Thawed Turkey to find out how long you need to cook a turkey of your size in order to have it ready on time for the dinner. (See Timetable at the end of the answer.)
Preparing the Turkey
The first step when cooking a turkey is to thaw it if it is frozen. Always thaw in the refrigerator and allow 1-2 days, depending on the size of the turkey.
When thawed, remove the giblet pack and neck from the body cavity. Wash thoroughly under cool water inside and out. Place in cleaned roasting pan or on a large sturdy baking pan lined with a strip of heavy-duty aluminum foil. The aluminum foil needs to be large enough to wrap the entire turkey.
If you are going to stuff your turkey with dressing, prepare the dressing and spoon loosely into the body cavity. As an alternate to dressing, you can season the inside of the turkey with seasoning salt, garlic powder, and pepper (or any seasoning of your choice). You can also cut 1-2 onions into quarters and 1-2 celery stalks into 1-2 inch pieces and place them inside the neck and body cavities.
Place the turkey breast-side up, being careful to keep the neck cavity closed, into the roasting pan or onto the foil. If you would like, spread butter on the outside and season the outside to your taste. There is a bar that holds the end together. Place the legs inside the bar to hold them together.
Place the lid on the roasting pan. If it does not fit, place aluminum foil over the turkey. If using aluminum foil without a roasting pan, loosely wrap the turkey and secure the edges by overlapping them and pinching them together.
Cooking the Turkey
Place the turkey in an oven that has been preheated to 325 degrees F.
Baste with the turkey's own juices every hour.
To brown the outside, remove the foil for the last 1/2 hour or so of cooking.
See the USDA Roasting Timetable for Fresh or Thawed Turkey at 325° F for approximate cooking time according to the size of the turkey (at bottom of answer).
Some turkeys have small red pop-ups. The turkey is done when it pops up. If your turkey has no pop-up, insert a cooking thermometer into the thick part of the breast. If it reads 165 degrees F, the turkey is done.
More advice from other WikiAnswers cooking contributors:
Save the giblets - Save your washed giblets in a pot of water to be cut up for giblet gravy.
Should not stuff the turkey - Unlike mom and grandma did it, it is considered unsafe to cook your stuffing inside the bird. Because it takes so long to heat to the center, the stuffing can become bacteria farms while the outside of the bird is cooking. My solution: I usually put a whole fresh apple and a small, yellow onion into the cavity of the bird. This allows moisture to "steam" out as the bird cooks. When it is finished, I generally take the apple and onion out and chop them up to add to my stuffing that I make and bake after the bird is finished. (I can also add juices from the bird to the stuffing.)
Covered or uncovered? - Covering a bird traps moisture and, again, steams it which is faster than simply cooking in dry heat. However, the steaming also prevents browning, which most people prefer. Cooking uncovered browns is nice, but tends to end up with the drier bird we think of at holidays. I usually start with a cover, in a large roasting pan for a small bird or foil for a large one, and remove it halfway through (somewhere between 120 and 140 degrees F on a cooking thermometer pushed into the thick part of the breast). I also put bacon slices over the larger, meatier areas. It seems to add a little flavor and the bacon takes most of the drying while protecting the turkey. (I don't worry if the bacon looks a little burnt, as long as the turkey is still brown underneath.)
Carving ahead - I cook my bird at 350 degrees F. If it seems to be cooking too quickly for my pre-arranged dinner time, I might turn it down to 300 F to add some time. Finally, when it is cooked, I like to carve it ahead. I know people like sitting around the table watching dad or granddad hack at it, but I like having the pieces cut and arranged by white and dark, to make selection easier.
Also, if I need time to finish the meal, I'll put the cut meat into a casserole dish, add some turkey broth, and hold it. Since my oven is probably full of stuffing and rolls baking, or pies finishing off, I set the casserole dish on a VERY low burner on the stove and keep an eye on it.
Cooking advice - Many formulas for roasting a perfect bird - My favorite is a combination of high temperature to give a nice golden brown crust and lower temperature to finish cooking the meat. Regardless of the technique you use, base you time on your thermometer. Let the bird tell you when it's done. A thermometer stuck in the thick part of the breast that reads 165 degrees F means it's time to get out your carving knife.
For juicy legs - Truss and put foil over wings and legs to avoid them drying out. Remove foil coverings for last 30 minutes.
Another way to check doneness - Check for doneness by sticking a skewer in the thickest part of the bird. Stick the thigh and deep part of the breast. If the juices run clear (not pink), the bird is cooked.
USDA Roasting Timetable for Fresh or Thawed Turkey at 325° F.
These times are approximate and should always be used in conjunction with a properly placed thermometer. The USDA does not recommend cooking turkey in an oven set lower than 325° F.
8 to 12 pounds 2 3/4 to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3 3/4 hours
14 to 18 pounds 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
20 to 24 pounds 4 1/2 to 5 hours
8 to 12 pounds 3 to 3 1/2 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 1/2 to 4 hours
14 to 18 pounds 4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours
20 to 24 pounds 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours
(Also see all the Related links below.)
I cook my turkey upside down, and keep it covered until the last hour. If you use a roasting rack, the breast will brown and you will still get the benefit of the upside down roasting. The most usual setting to bake a turkey is 325F.
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