Turkey is difficult to get just right. After hours of effort, you can easily end up with dried out turkey that doesn’t earn its spot as the centerpiece of the meal. And it certainly doesn’t look like it belongs in a Norman Rockwell painting.
So, what’s the trick? What’s the turkey hack? What’s the best way to cook a turkey so you can proudly present it to your family and friends?
While some may say you have to smoke it or deep fry it or hover over it in the oven, it always comes down to one thing. Temperature! It comes down to cooking temperature and internal temperature.
In this article, I’m going to answer the most frequently asked questions about turkey, especially regarding temperature. You can read them all or jump to any of the following:
- How Long Does It Take to Cook a Turkey at 250 Degrees?
- What’s the Lowest Temp You Can Cook a Turkey At?
- What Is the Best Temperature to Cook a Turkey?
- How Long Will It Take to Cook a Turkey at 325?
- How Long Will It Take to Cook a Turkey at 350?
- What’s the Safe Internal Temp for Turkey?
- Where Do You Place the Thermometer in a Turkey?
- How Long Does Turkey Have to Be at 165?
- What’s the Best Internal Temp for Turkey?
- Should You Cook Stuffing in the Turkey?
- How Long Should Turkey Rest Before Carving?
- How Do I Keep My Turkey Warm While Resting?
- How to Carve a Turkey Like a Pro
- How Long Does It Take to Thaw a Frozen Turkey?
- How Can You Thaw a Turkey Fast?
- Can You Cook a Turkey Frozen?
- How Long Can Turkey Sit Out After Cooking?
- How Do You Refrigerate Turkey After Cooking?
- Do You Have to Let Turkey Cool Before Refrigerating?
- How Long to Keep Turkey After Thanksgiving?
- How to Reheat Turkey Without Making It Dry
How Long Does It Take to Cook a Turkey at 250 Degrees?
At 250 degrees F, it takes a thawed turkey about 30 minutes per pound to reach a safe internal temperature. However, the USDA does NOT recommend you cook turkey at this low of a temperature. The low and slow method isn’t the safest option for turkey. However…
I recommend you continue to read the following so you understand the full picture of “USDA safe” vs. “common practice” when it comes to different types of meat.
What’s the Lowest Temp You Can Cook a Turkey At?
According to the USDA, it is not safe to cook any meat or poultry in an oven set lower than 325 °F. At lower temperatures, meat stays in the Danger Zone (between 40 °F and 140°F) for too long.
Now, I have to be honest, I often cook a lot of meat (pork, ribs, and brisket) below that 325 °F threshold. In fact, we have a lot of articles on POPtions teaching you how to do just that.
Even though the USDA doesn’t recommend it, most agree that 325 °F bar is set too high when it comes to achieving the tastiest results for certain meats. You’ll rarely find a BBQ enthusiast that cooks beef or pork above 300°F.
However, I do respect the bar the USDA sets when it comes to poultry. And, thankfully, the ideal cooking temperature for turkey according to chefs aligns with the recommended temp according to the USDA.
(*The inner lawyer in me says I should reiterate that the safest option is to follow USDA guidelines. So, it’s up to you to decide what to do with this information.)
What Is the Best Temperature to Cook a Turkey?
The consensus is that the best temperature to cook a turkey is 325 or 350 °F. Any lower and you risk the center of the turkey not getting cooked through. Any higher and you risk drying the turkey out.
If you’re not pressed for time, I recommend going with the lower temperature of 325 °F. It only takes a little longer to cook, but gives you a bigger window to catch when your turkey hits the ideal internal temp. If you cook it too fast, your turkey might jump past the ideal internal temp before you get a chance to check the meat thermometer.
The higher temperature of 350 °F will yield similar results if you hover over the oven. However, opening and closing the oven to keep checking the meat thermometer isn’t ideal. The oven temp will fluctuate too much and your turkey won’t cook evenly. So, try not to open the oven too much but also try not to miss when it hits the ideal internal temp.
Ok, so we’ve learned the lowest safe temperature is actually the best temperature. But how long will it take?
How Long Will It Take to Cook a Turkey at 325?
At 325 °F, it takes about 15 minutes per pound of thawed, unstuffed turkey. For a stuffed turkey, you’re looking at about 20-25 minutes per pound. But, actual cook time comes down to when the turkey reaches a safe internal temperature of 150-165 °F.
Of course, larger turkeys will take longer than smaller turkeys. So, you need to do some math based on the size of your turkey to determine the cooking time.
The average turkey that you buy for Thanksgiving is 15 pounds. A 15-pound turkey that is not stuffed takes about 3 hours and 45 minutes to cook. If stuffed, it takes about 5 to 6 hours and 15 minutes to reach the safe internal temp.
I’m going to talk more at the safe internal temperature of the turkey in just a second. (Like how to check it and how long it needs to be there.) But let’s quickly compare how long it takes to cook a turkey at 350.
How Long Will It Take to Cook a Turkey at 350?
At 350 °F, it takes about 13 minutes per pound of thawed, unstuffed turkey. If stuffed, it takes about 18 minutes per pound. That’s only 2 minutes faster per pound than if you cook it at 325 degrees. For a 15-pound turkey, that only saves you about 30 minutes.
That’s why it’s a good idea to stick with the low temperature and cook it at 325. It gives you a little more wiggle room in the cooking process to make sure you don’t skip past the ideal internal temp. Which brings us to our next point…
What’s the Safe Internal Temp for Turkey?
According to the USDA’s Consumer Safety Guide for Turkey, the minimum internal temperature should reach 165 °F for safety*. Use a probe thermometer to check the internal temp of the center, the innermost part of the thigh and wing, and the thickest part of the breast. If stuffed, the stuffing must also reach 165 °F.
*Note! The safest internal temp isn’t necessarily the best internal temp. We’ll discuss the best internal temp below.*
Where Do You Place the Thermometer in a Turkey?
To correctly gauge the safe internal temperature, you need to place the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh. The USDA recommends you check multiple parts (as described above). But since the dark meat of the thigh takes the longest, it’ll give you the most accurate reading. If stuffed, insert the thermometer into the stuffing as well.
For the most accurate results, use an instant-read thermometer. This type of digital thermometer will enable you to quickly check the internal temp without leaving the oven door open too long. Otherwise, the oven temperature will rise and fall too often, resulting in an uneven cook and longer cook time.
How Long Does Turkey Have to Be at 165?
As soon as turkey reaches 165 degrees, it is safe to eat. Well, technically, it’s safe 10 seconds after it reaches 165 degrees. At that temperature, salmonella is killed in less than 10 seconds.
Salmonella’s survival rate takes us to an important debate of safe vs. best internal temp for turkey. The USDA recommends an internal temp of 165 degrees because it’s a fool-proof way to ensure all salmonella is killed. Even the most inexperienced cooks can’t get it wrong.
However, salmonella does die at lower temperatures! It just takes a little longer, meaning you can remove your turkey at a lower temp if done properly. Let me explain further by comparing 165 degrees to the “best internal temp” of 150 degrees…
What’s the Best Internal Temp for Turkey?
Most experienced cooks agree that the best internal temp for turkey is 150 degrees. At this temperature, you’ll get a “perfect turkey” with moist white meat. But is it safe?! The answer is Yes! If you understand the following…
Salmonella can survive at 150 degrees for up to 3.7 minutes. So, as long as your turkey spends 3.8 minutes or more at 150 degrees F, it is safe to eat. This time span is easily met during the resting period for turkey!
So, as long as you rest your turkey for the recommended time, it is safe to eat if its internal temp reaches 150 degrees.
It is worth noting that your turkey will continue to cook and the internal temp will continue to rise after you remove it from the oven. So, even if you remove it right at 150 degrees, the internal temp can climb 5-10 more degrees.
Should You Cook Stuffing in the Turkey?
The USDA recommends that you DO NOT cook stuffing in the turkey. Instead, they recommend you cook your stuffing outside the bird in a casserole dish. This will help ensure your stuffing is cooked safely, without being cross-contaminated with raw turkey.
How Long Should Turkey Rest Before Carving?
Resting is a crucial part of the cooking process. It allows the juices to be reabsorbed and redistributed. If you carve too early, these juices will spill out. So, even though it’s a long time, you should rest turkey for 20-45 minutes depending on the size of the turkey.
If cooking a 15 lb turkey, you should rest it for at least a half hour to 45 minutes. For a 20-pound turkey, you should rest it for 45 minutes, if not an hour.
By the way, if you smoke your turkey, the resting period is significantly shorter. An average sized smoked turkey only needs to rest 20-30 minutes.
How Do I Keep My Turkey Warm While Resting?
With such a long rest period, the turkey meat is bound to get cold if left unattended. To keep your turkey warm while resting, cover it with aluminum foil and a towel. But not right away! First let the turkey cool for about 20 minutes to stop it from cooking further.
After 20 minutes, cover the turkey with foil and then place a kitchen towel on top. The kitchen towel will further insulate it to keep it warm. With this method, your turkey should stay warm for about 1-1/2 hours when resting at room temperature.
If you have room in your oven, you can keep it warm even longer. Let the turkey rest uncovered for 20 minutes while you cool your oven down to 200 degrees. After 20 minutes, cover the turkey with foil and return it to the oven. It’s a good idea to put a pan of water on the bottom shelf of the oven to help keep it moist.
How to Carve a Turkey Like a Pro
To carve a turkey like a pro, use a sharpened, straight-edged knife. You can use a carving fork for some parts, but you’ll also need clean hands to separate the different parts. Let the turkey rest for 20-45 minutes, and then you can start carving as follows…
- Slice off the legs and thighs by pulling back on the leg and cutting around the joint. Separate the drumstick and thigh by cutting at the natural separation. Remove the thigh bone by slicing around it as close as possible.
- Remove the turkey breast pieces by slicing down either side of the breast bone using long strokes. Slice the breast meat into smaller portions going against the grain.
- Pull the wings away from the body and cut through the joint to remove them
For more detail, please watch the above video.
How Long Does It Take to Thaw a Frozen Turkey?
The USDA recommends you thaw your turkey in a refrigerator because it thaws at a consistent, safe temperature. However, it does take a long time! Expect 1 day thawing time for every 4-5 pounds of frozen turkey. An average 15-pound turkey takes 3 days to thaw. Once thawed, it’s safe for another 2 days before cooking.
How Can You Thaw a Turkey Fast?
If you don’t have time to thaw turkey in the fridge, use a faster option called “cold water thawing.” The cold water method submerges the turkey in its original wrapper into a sink full of cold water. It takes about 30 minutes per pound. Once thawed, the turkey must be cooked immediately.
The water must be cold so that the turkey stays at a safe temp. Every 30 minutes, empty the sink or container and refill it with cold water. For an average 15-pound turkey, it’ll take about 7-1/2 hours to thaw.
Can You Cook a Turkey Frozen?
It is perfectly safe to cook a frozen turkey. It’ll just take longer. If it’s completely frozen, it will take at least 50 percent longer to cook than a thawed turkey. If it’s partially frozen, you’ll just have to keep a close eye on the internal temp to know when it’s done.
How Long Can Turkey Sit Out After Cooking?
According to the USDA, cooked turkey should not sit out at room temperature longer than 2 hours. If sitting out at temperatures above 90 degrees F, it should sit out no longer than 1 hour. At such point, cooked turkey meat should be refrigerated or frozen.
How Do You Refrigerate Turkey After Cooking?
To refrigerate turkey after cooking, divide it into smaller portions and store it in tightly covered containers. You need to store it in smaller portions because a whole turkey will take too long to cool down to a safe temperature. Be sure to refrigerate turkey within two hours of cooking.
To keep the turkey as moist as possible in the fridge, wrap the turkey portions in plastic wrap, pressing out any air pockets. Then place in an airtight container or wrap in aluminum foil.
Do You Have to Let Turkey Cool Before Refrigerating?
It is not necessary to let turkey cool before refrigerating, and can be unsafe if it sits out too long. However, if you tightly cover turkey to store immediately after cooking, the residual heat may cook the turkey further and dry it out. So, you may prefer to let it cool for a short period of time before covering it. Just be sure it is safely refrigerated within 2 hours of cooking.
How Long to Keep Turkey After Thanksgiving?
Your turkey leftovers will keep for 3 to 4 days in the fridge or 2 to 3 months in the freezer. So, you can continue to enjoy it over the long holiday weekend if refrigerated or even through Christmas if frozen. Just be sure to store it properly in an airtight container and refrigerate or freeze it within 2 hours of cooking.
How to Reheat Turkey Without Making It Dry
It is possible to reheat turkey without making it dry in the oven, microwave, or stovetop. To reheat turkey in the oven, preheat the oven to 200 degrees F and place the turkey in a baking dish. Add some stock or gravy to help create moisture, cover with a lid or foil, and place in the oven. Slowly warm it until it reaches 145 degrees F.
For the microwave, put the turkey in a microwave safe container, add some stock or gravy, and cover it with a lid or plate cover. Microwave it on medium power for 30 second intervals until it’s warmed through.
For the stovetop, place the turkey portion in a skillet and add about a 1/2 inch of stock. Simmer it over medium heat until it’s warmed through.
I hope this information helps you make a holiday turkey worth gobbling up! With enough time and patience, I’m sure you can make a turkey that you’re proud to serve and your guests are happy to eat. But, even if it turns into an epic fail, I hope you still make the most of the day, counting your blessings, big and small.
A perfectly cooked turkey makes the stomach happy but nothing makes the heart happier than taking a moment (or a day!) to appreciate the small things. You’ll get another chance to make the perfect turkey, but you won’t get another chance to enjoy today.
Besides, you can always smother dried-out turkey with gravy or lather on the mayo for a turkey sandwich!