How Long to Cook a Turkey on Thanksgiving: Temperature, Duration and Basting Explained

A classic Thanksgiving meal is usually all about the turkey, which forms the centerpiece of the big family feast in many homes.

While preparing the main dish of the day might seem daunting, the turkey cooking process can be made less overwhelming with a few basic tips in mind.

Here are some key aspects that will determine how long you'll need to cook your turkey for Thanksgiving.

Thawing Turkey Before Cooking

If you purchased your turkey sometime before the day you planned to cook, it is important to safely defrost your frozen turkey. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) warns: "While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. As soon as it begins to thaw, bacteria that may have been present before freezing will begin to grow again."

Ideally, your frozen turkey should be thawed in a bowl or other dish on the lowest shelf of the refrigerator, the National Turkey Federation (NTF) advises.

This is the top recommended method by the USDA and it allows you to safely store the turkey for another day or two in the refrigerator before cooking.

Turkey can also be defrosted in cold water or using a microwave oven. See the USDA website for full details.

A turkey cooking inside an oven.
A turkey cooking inside an oven. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Temperature

You'll need to set the oven temperature to no lower than 325 degrees (Fahrenheit) and preheating is not necessary, advises the USDA.

The NTF says turkey must be cooked until it's internal temperature reaches a safe 165 degrees (Fahrenheit). The internal temperature can be monitored with a meat thermometer.

If you're cooking a whole turkey, the temperature should be checked in at least three spots, including the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast.

For those who stuffed their turkey, the innermost part of the stuffing will also need to reach 165 degrees (Fahrenheit).

The USDA does not recommend stuffing your turkey as it can be "a breeding ground for bacteria if not prepared carefully" and for "optimum safety," stuffing should be cooked separately in a casserole dish, the federal body advises.

However, those who do plan to stuff their turkey should bear the following guidelines in mind, as outlined by the USDA:

  • The wet and dry ingredients for the stuffing should be prepared separately and refrigerated until they're ready to be used.
  • Stuff the turkey loosely (about a 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound of turkey).
  • Immediately place the stuffed, raw turkey in an oven set no lower than 325 degrees (Fahrenheit).
  • Place a food thermometer in the center of the stuffing to ensure it has reached a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees (Fahrenheit).
  • Let the cooked turkey stand for 20 minutes before removing the stuffing.
Homemade stuffing in a casserole dish.
Homemade stuffing seen in a casserole dish. Stuffed turkeys will take longer to cook than unstuffed ones. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Duration

Stuffed turkey will take longer to cook than unstuffed turkey. Below are the approximate cooking times for turkey, according to their weight, as outlined by the USDA.

Cooking times for unstuffed turkey

  • 4 to 6 lb. breast - 1.5 to 2.25 hours
  • 6 to 8 lb. breast - 2.25 to 3.25 hours
  • 8 to 12 lbs. - 2.75 to 3 hours
  • 12 to 14 lbs. - 3 to 3.75 hours
  • 14 to 18 lbs. -3.75 to 4.25 hours
  • 18 to 20 lbs. - 4.25 to 4.5 hours
  • 20 to 24 lbs. - 4.5 to 5 hours

Cooking times for stuffed turkey

  • 8 to 12 lbs. - 3 to 3.5 hours
  • 12 to 14 lbs. - 3.5 to 4 hours
  • 14 to 18 lbs. - 4 to 4.25 hours
  • 18 to 20 lbs. - 4.25 to 4.75 hours
  • 20 to 24 lbs. - 4.75 to 5.25 hours

Basting

Basting involves brushing and squirting the juices from the turkey that spill onto the roasting pan back onto the bird to help keep it moist while cooking.

Depending on what ingredients you spread over your turkey, according to BBC Good Food the baste can be a mixture of juices from bacon, pancetta and butter combined with lemon, herbs and spices.

Basting can be done around every hour during the cooking process.

Some turkeys are sold as "basted" or "self-basted" at supermarkets. The USDA explains: "Bone-in poultry products that are injected or marinated with a solution containing butter or other edible fat, broth, stock or water plus spices, flavor enhancers and other approved substances must be labeled as basted or self-basted."

A man basting a turkey.
A man basting a turkey being cooked in an oven. Baste your turkey around every hour to help keep it moist. iStock/Getty Images Plus