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How to Cook a Thanksgiving Turkey

As Thanksgiving approaches, the majestic turkey once again takes center stage on our dining tables. But beyond the traditional oven-roasted bird, there lies a world of possibilities for cooking this festive centerpiece. Whether you’re hosting a large gathering or planning a small, intimate dinner, the way you cook your turkey can add a unique twist to your holiday feast. From the smoky flavors of BBQ to the crispiness of a deep-fried turkey, this guide will walk you through every method to help you find your perfect Thanksgiving turkey recipe.

Tip: If you’re planning on hosting a Thanksgiving gathering this year, check out our Beginner’s Guide to Thanksgiving which includes everything from a printable checklist to a party planning timeline, table setting ideas, and a complete recipes guide.

 

Turkey Parts Infographic

Curious about where each part of the turkey is and how they connect? Check out the below infographic!

If you are looking to segment your turkey prior to cooking, check out this helpful step-by-step guide. Sectioning the turkey can be a great way to ensure faster cooking, or allow you to utilize different cooking methods for various parts of the turkey!

 

All the Ways to Cook a Turkey

Let’s learn how to cook a turkey! The following sections will touch on the basics of each cooking method as well as which part(s) of the turkey it is typically used for, cooking times and temperatures, and additional tips and recipe ideas.  Click the links below to skip to the various sections:

  1. Oven-Roasting
  2. Grilling
  3. Smoking/Barbecuing
  4. Deep-Frying
  5. Air-Frying
  6. Pan-Frying
  7. Slow-Cooking
  8. Pressure-Cooking
  9. Boiling
    1. To par-boil turkey wings
    2. To make stock or gravy
  10. Braising
  11. Griddling
  12. Baking

 

Oven-Roasting

Oven-roasting is the quintessential, traditional method for preparing a Thanksgiving turkey. It involves cooking the turkey in an oven at a consistent temperature, allowing the bird to cook evenly, resulting in a crispy skin and a moist, tender interior. This method is perfect for those who appreciate the classic Thanksgiving flavor and aroma. It allows for a variety of seasonings and stuffings, making it a versatile choice for any feast.

Parts Suitable:

Whole turkey, turkey breast.

Cooking Temperature:

325°F to 350°F (163°C to 177°C).

Cooking Time:

Varies based on size; approximately 15 minutes per pound (unstuffed) at 325°F or 13 minutes per pound (unstuffed) at 350°F.

Overview:

Season the turkey or turkey breast as desired, and roast in a preheated oven. For a whole turkey, basting is recommended for added moisture. For a turkey breast, consider covering with foil to prevent excessive browning.

Tips:

Recipe: Roasted Turkey with Filling and Gravy

Watch the above video or follow the step by step recipe at the link below to learn how to cook a classic oven-roasted turkey paired with homemade gravy and Mrs. Martin’s Famous Potatobred Stuffing.

https://potatorolls.com/recipes/roasted-turkey-with-filling-and-gravy

 

Grilling


Grilled Turkey Thigh

Grilling a turkey offers a delightful twist to the traditional Thanksgiving meal. This method is ideal for adding a subtle, smoky flavor to the meat, especially when using charcoal or wood chips. Grilling is best suited for smaller gatherings, as it typically accommodates smaller birds or turkey parts. It’s a great way to keep the kitchen free for other dishes while enjoying the crisp autumn air.

Parts Suitable:

Whole turkey, turkey breasts, thighs, legs, or wings.

Cooking Temperature:

Medium heat, around 350°F to 375°F (177°C to 190°C) for indirect grilling.

Cooking Time:

Depends on the size and part; a whole turkey may take 2-3 hours.

Overview:

Preheat the grill, prepare the turkey with seasonings, and cook over indirect heat.

Tips:

Recipe: Grilled Thanksgiving Turkey

The below recipe from Taste of Home includes helpful instructions for this cooking method, along with other tips and resources such as a cook time calculator based on the weight of the turkey.

https://www.tasteofhome.com/article/how-to-grill-a-turkey/

 

Smoking/Barbecuing


Smoked Turkey Breast

Smoking or barbecuing a turkey is for those who love a deep, rich smoky flavor. This low-and-slow cooking method imparts a unique taste that can’t be replicated in an oven. It requires patience and a bit of skill, as maintaining a consistent temperature is key. The result is a succulent, flavorful bird with a mouthwatering aroma that will make your Thanksgiving meal unforgettable.

Parts Suitable:

Whole turkey, breasts, or legs.

Cooking Temperature:

225°F to 250°F (107°C to 121°C).

Cooking Time:

About 25-30 minutes per pound; a whole turkey may require 6+ hours.

Overview:

Use a smoker or a grill set for indirect cooking, maintaining a steady temperature.

Tips:

Recipe: Smoked Turkey

Follow the below recipe by Hey Grill Hey to learn how to cook a smoked turkey using a low-and-slow method of barbecuing. She also includes additional information like a portion planning guide and a list of recommended supplies.

https://heygrillhey.com/smoked-turkey

 

Deep-Frying


Deep-Fried Turkey

Deep-frying a turkey is a Southern tradition that has gained popularity for its ability to produce a moist interior and a perfectly crispy exterior in a fraction of the time it takes to oven-roast. It’s an intense cooking method that requires special equipment and safety precautions, but the result is a deliciously rich and flavorful turkey. This method is ideal for those looking to add an adventurous twist to their holiday feast.

Parts Suitable:

Whole turkey, preferably smaller in size.

Oil Temperature:

350°F to 375°F (177°C to 190°C).

Cooking Time:

Approximately 3-4 minutes per pound.

Overview:

Heat oil in a large fryer, and carefully lower the seasoned turkey into the hot oil.

Tips:

Recipe: Deep Fried Turkey

Watch this video tutorial from @BigPaulOnTheGrill to get step-by-step instructions for deep-frying your Thanksgiving turkey, plus a bonus recipe for a Deep-Fried Turkey Sandwich on Martin’s Potato Rolls!

https://youtu.be/4YT1-_OjNxY


Deep-Fried Turkey Sandwich on Martin’s Potato Rolls

Additional Recipe: Fried Turkey Breast Sandwich

If you’re interested in trying a deep-frying method but don’t want to use a whole turkey, try the below recipe which uses just the turkey breast, for a crispy and delicious sandwich on a Martin’s Big Marty’s Roll!

https://potatorolls.com/recipes/fried-turkey-sandwich/

 

Air-Frying


Air-Fried Turkey Wing

Air-frying is a modern, healthier alternative to traditional frying methods. It’s perfect for cooking smaller turkey cuts like breasts or thighs. This method uses hot air circulation to cook the turkey, resulting in a crispy outer layer while keeping the inside juicy and tender. It’s a quick, convenient option, especially for smaller gatherings or for those who want to avoid the fuss of large-scale cooking.

Parts Suitable:

Turkey breasts, thighs, cutlets, or wings.

Cooking Temperature:

Around 350°F (177°C).

Cooking Time:

Varies depending on the size of the cut, upwards of 45-60 minutes.

Overview:

Season the turkey parts and place them in the air fryer basket. Cook at the recommended temperature until the turkey is golden brown and cooked through.

Tips:

Recipe: Air Fryer Turkey Breast

Try the below recipe from SkinnyTaste, to practice making a 4-5 lb. bone-in turkey breast using a 5-qt. or larger air fryer.

https://www.skinnytaste.com/air-fryer-turkey-breast

 

Pan-Frying


Pan-Fried Turkey Leg

Pan-frying is ideal for cooking individual turkey cuts, such as breasts, thighs, or cutlets. This method allows for a golden, crispy exterior while maintaining a juicy interior. It’s a quick and easy way to prepare a turkey meal, especially when time or oven space is limited. Pan-frying also offers the opportunity to create delicious pan sauces from the drippings.

Parts Suitable:

Turkey breasts, thighs, cutlets, or other parts as desired.

Cooking Temperature:

Medium to medium-high heat.

Cooking Time:

Generally 10-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the cut.

Overview:

Heat oil or butter in a pan, and cook the seasoned turkey cuts until they are golden brown on both sides and cooked through.

Tips:

Recipe: Turkey Cutlets with Pan Gravy

Check out this recipe from Taste of Home, which uses turkey breast tenderloins, poultry seasoning, canola oil, butter, flour, and broth to make delicious turkey cutlets with a simple pan gravy.

https://www.tasteofhome.com/recipes/turkey-cutlets-with-pan-gravy/

 

Slow-Cooking


Slow-Cooked Turkey Breast

Using a slow-cooker for your turkey is a fuss-free method that guarantees a moist, tender result. It’s perfect for busy cooks or those who prefer to set it and forget it. While you won’t get a crispy skin, the slow-cooker is excellent for pulled turkey dishes or for cooking turkey in a sauce or gravy. It’s also a great space-saver, freeing up your oven for other holiday dishes.

Parts Suitable:

Whole turkey (if it fits), turkey breasts, thighs.

Temperature:

Low setting (typically around 200°F or 93°C) or High setting (around 300°F or 149°C).

Cooking Time:

6-8 hours on low heat; 4-6 hours on high heat.

Overview:

Place the turkey and desired seasonings or sauce in the slow-cooker. Cook on low until the turkey is tender and cooked through.

Tips:

Recipe: Crispy Skin Slow Cooker Turkey with Homemade Gravy

Use the following recipe from CafeDelites to prepare an easy, flavorful slow cooker herbed turkey WITH crispy skin (thanks to the broiler)!

https://cafedelites.com/crispy-skin-slow-cooker-turkey

 

Pressure-Cooking


Roasted Turkey Breast

A multi-cooker or instant pot offers a speedy and efficient way to cook turkey, especially smaller cuts or a breast. This method is great for keeping the meat moist and tender, and it’s ideal for those who need to save time and kitchen space. The pressure-cooking technique also allows for deep flavor infusion, making your turkey dish flavorful and succulent.

Parts Suitable:

Turkey breasts, thighs, or smaller whole turkeys.

Cooking Temperature:

High pressure setting

Cooking Time:

Varies based on the size of the cut, usually around 30-40 minutes.

Overview:

Season the turkey, add it to the multi-cooker with a cup of broth or water, and cook under high pressure.

Tips:

Recipe: Instant Pot Turkey Breast

This recipe from Creme de la Crumb teaches you how to prepare a quick and easy bone-in turkey breast using an instant pot and broiler (for crispy skin).

https://www.lecremedelacrumb.com/best-ever-turkey-breast-recipe-instant-pot

 

Boiling


Boiled and Baked Turkey Wings

Boiling is a less common method for preparing turkey, but may be used in preparations such as soups or stews, or as the first step in preparing turkey wings. It’s a simple technique that ensures the meat stays tender and moist. Boiling is also a great way to make a rich, flavorful broth that can be used in various other Thanksgiving dishes, including homemade gravy.

As a First Step for Turkey Wings:

Boiling, or more specifically parboiling, is an excellent first step in cooking turkey wings. This method partially cooks the wings, ensuring that they are tender and have reduced cooking time when finished with another method like grilling, baking, or frying. It’s a great way to infuse basic flavors and ensure even cooking, especially for thicker cuts like turkey wings.

Parts Suitable:

Turkey wings, ideally for subsequent grilling, baking, or frying.

Cooking Time:

20-30 minutes for parboiling.

Overview:

Submerge the turkey wings in a pot of seasoned water or broth. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20-30 minutes before finishing with another cooking method.

Tips:

Recipe: Grilled Turkey Wings

Try this recipe from The New York Times to learn how to prepare turkey wings using a boiling then grilling method.

https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/3722-grilled-turkey-wings

To Make Broth or Gravy:

Boiling turkey giblets is a classic approach to creating a hearty and flavorful broth, which serves as an excellent base for gravy. This method slowly simmers the giblets (which include the liver, heart, gizzards, and neck), extracting their deep flavors and nutrients. It’s a traditional way to utilize these parts of the turkey, ensuring a full-flavored and robust gravy for your Thanksgiving feast.

Parts Suitable:

Turkey giblets (liver, heart, gizzards, and neck).

Cooking Time:

1-2 hours, or until the broth is richly flavored.

Overview:

Place the giblets (except for the liver, which should be added later to avoid bitterness) in a pot and cover them with water. Add aromatics like onions, carrots, celery, and herbs. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, skimming any foam or impurities that rise to the surface.

Tips:

Recipe: Homemade Gravy

Watch the above video or follow the step by step recipe at the link below to learn how to use your Thanksgiving turkey stock to make homemade gravy.

https://potatorolls.com/recipes/roasted-turkey-with-filling-and-gravy/

 

Braising


Braised Turkey Breast

Braising involves slowly cooking the turkey in a small amount of liquid, typically in a covered pot. This method is excellent for tougher cuts, as the slow cooking process tenderizes the meat while infusing it with the flavors of the liquid and aromatics used. Braised turkey is known for its tenderness and depth of flavor, offering a comforting and hearty addition to the Thanksgiving table.

Parts Suitable:

Turkey thighs, drumsticks, wings, or other parts as desired.

Cooking Temperature:

Typically around 325°F (163°C).

Cooking Time:

2-4 hours, depending on the cut.

Overview:

Brown the turkey parts in a pot, then add a small amount of liquid and aromatics. Cover and simmer until the meat is tender. Alternately, you can transfer the meat to a roasting pan, cover one-third to halfway with liquid and roast until cooked through.

Tips:

Recipe: Basic Braised Turkey

This recipe from the New York Times shows how to prepare simple and flavorful braised turkey thighs and breasts in the oven alongside savory herbs and vegetables.

https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/12950-basic-braised-turkey

 

Griddling


Griddled Turkey Thigh

Cooking turkey on a griddle is an excellent method for achieving a crispy, golden-brown exterior on thinner cuts or ground turkey patties. It’s a quick and interactive way to cook, perfect for a more casual Thanksgiving gathering. The griddle also allows for easy flavor customization with different marinades and seasonings.

Parts Suitable:

Turkey burgers, cutlets, thinly sliced breast meat, or other parts as desired.

Cooking Temperature:

Medium to medium-high heat.

Cooking Time:

Usually 5-10 minutes per side.

Overview:

Preheat the griddle, season the turkey cuts, and cook until they are well-browned and cooked through.

Tips:

Recipe: Turkey Burger with Stuffing and Cranberry Sauce

Utilize your Thanksgiving leftovers to prepare this delicious turkey burger, using a griddle or flat iron skillet to get a nice, crispy sear.

https://potatorolls.com/recipes/turkey-burger-with-stuffing-and-cranberry-sauce/

 

Baking


Baked Turkey Tenderloin

Baking is similar to oven-roasting but typically involves lower temperatures and often includes a covering, such as foil, to retain moisture. This method is ideal for turkey meatloaf, casseroles, or stuffed turkey breasts. Baking allows for a variety of creative preparations, making it a versatile option for your Thanksgiving feast.

Parts Suitable:

Turkey breasts, ground turkey, turkey meatloaf.

Cooking Temperature:

Generally around 350°F (175°C).

Cooking Time:

Varies depending on the dish, usually around 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Overview:

Prepare the turkey dish as per the recipe, place it in a preheated oven, and bake until cooked through.

Tips:

Recipe: Rolled Stuffed Turkey Breast

This recipe uses two boneless turkey breast tenderloins, butterflied and pounded to ½” thick, stuffed with freshly made vegetable and herb stuffing, and rolled into a roulade for an innovative twist on a Thanksgiving classic.

https://potatorolls.com/recipes/rolled-stuffed-turkey-breast

 

*Note: For each method, it’s important to use a meat thermometer to ensure the turkey has reached the safe internal temperature of 165°F (74°C), regardless of the cooking method used.

 

 

Turkey Seasoning Guide

If you are looking for more customization for your Thanksgiving meal, consider experimenting with different seasoning options. Seasoning a Thanksgiving turkey is your opportunity to infuse it with a variety of flavors, ranging from traditional to more unique and modern twists.

Here are some popular seasoning options:

 

Additional Turkey Variations:

While we’ve already covered a range of cooking methods, the world of turkey preparation is vast and full of exciting variations. For those looking to try something different this Thanksgiving, consider these options:

Each method offers a unique twist on the traditional turkey, bringing elements of surprise and delight to your holiday meal.

 

This Thanksgiving, venture beyond the traditional oven-roasted turkey and explore the multitude of flavors and characteristics that these cooking methods offer. Whether you’re a fan of the classic roast or in the mood to experiment with something like air-frying or braising, each method brings its unique twist to your holiday table. Remember, the key to a perfect turkey is not just the cooking technique but the love and care you put into preparing it. Happy Thanksgiving, and happy cooking!

 


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