Picture this: It’s Thanksgiving morning. You’ve prepared your Thanksgiving table, arranged the festive decorations, and opted for a potluck-style celebration. All that’s left is to tackle the main event – cooking the turkey. But when should you start? What temperature should you set? And most importantly, how long does it take to cook a 20 lb turkey? Don’t fret, we’ve got you covered with some helpful tips to ensure your turkey steals the show.
What You Need for a Perfectly Cooked Turkey
Before we dive into the cooking process, let’s gather our ingredients and equipment:
- 1 20-lb turkey (for smaller birds, see cook times below)
- Aromatics: 1 quartered white or yellow onion, 3 carrots, 3 celery stalks, fresh herbs (such as sage and thyme)
- A large, heavy-duty roasting pan with a rack
- Unsalted butter
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Baker’s twine
- Aluminum foil
- An instant-read thermometer
Fully Defrosting the Turkey
To ensure your turkey cooks evenly, it’s essential to defrost it properly. Ideally, start defrosting the frozen turkey in the fridge a week in advance. A 20-pound turkey will take approximately 5 to 6 days to fully thaw. Simply place the turkey on a large rimmed baking sheet and let it defrost in the fridge. Remember to cover it with plastic wrap if it’s not already wrapped. Easy peasy, right?
Preheat the Oven
For the best results, preheat your oven to 325ºF. While the oven warms up, take the turkey out of the refrigerator. Remove any packaging and the neck and giblets. Let the turkey sit at room temperature for an hour while you get ready. This is also an excellent time to season the turkey to enhance its flavors.
What’s the Best Temperature for Cooking a Turkey?
You may come across various cooking temperatures for turkeys, but we recommend sticking to 325°F. While higher temperatures cook the bird faster, they also increase the risk of overcooking and drying out the turkey. So, to achieve a moist and juicy result, 325°F is the way to go.
Don’t Wash That Bird!
In the past, washing the turkey was recommended to remove bacteria. However, research has shown that it’s unnecessary. The cooking process will eliminate any bacteria, and washing the turkey only spreads raw-turkey juices and bacteria around your sink and counter. Let’s avoid that unpleasant scenario, shall we?
Season That Bird!
When it comes to seasoning, start at the beginning of the cooking process to build layers of flavor. Place the aromatics and neck in the roasting pan, top it with the roasting rack, and position the turkey on top, breast side up. Fold the wings under for a nicer presentation. Loosen the skin over the breast meat and rub butter between the skin and meat. Season the cavity generously with salt and pepper, and stuff it with the remaining aromatics. Tie the legs together with baker’s twine. Finally, season the outside of the turkey liberally with salt and pepper. To prevent scorching, pour 1/2 cup of water in the pan.
Do I Need to Brine or Baste My Turkey?
While grandma might have brined or basted the turkey, it’s not always necessary. Most store-bought turkeys are already moist enough, so brining adds little value. However, if you have a heritage or wild turkey, which can be smaller and drier, brining might help. As for basting, buttering the turkey before cooking will keep the meat moist. Plus, it promotes a golden-brown crispy exterior. No more constantly opening the oven and losing heat and cooking time!
How to Cook the Turkey
Ensure the oven rack is in the lowest position for even cooking. Slide the roasting pan into the preheated oven, close the door, and patiently wait. After about 2-3 hours, check if the skin is browning too quickly. If so, gently place a piece of buttered foil over the turkey. If not, continue roasting. To determine if the turkey is cooked, use an instant-read thermometer. Once the thermometer reads 165ºF, your turkey is ready to be served. A 20-pound turkey typically takes between 4 to 4 1/2 hours to cook at 325°F. If your bird weighs differently, here are some other cook times:
- 10-12 pounds: cook for 2 3/4 to 3 hours
- 15-16 pounds: cook for 3 1/2 to 4 hours
To avoid overcooking, start testing the turkey about 1/2 to 1 hour before the recommended cooking time. Remove the roasting pan from the oven, and using the thermometer, check the thickest part of the thigh without touching any bones. If it reads 165ºF, your turkey is done. If not, return it to the oven and check again every 15 minutes until it reaches the desired temperature.
Let That Turkey Rest!
Once your turkey is cooked, transfer it to a large cutting board and cover it with aluminum foil. Let it rest for 45 minutes to 1 hour while you make the gravy. After resting, it’s time to carve the turkey and enjoy the delicious results!
Remember, cooking a 20-pound turkey requires time and patience. Follow these tips, and your turkey will be the star of your Thanksgiving table. Happy cooking!