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How Long to Cook a Turkey | 10 First Thanksgiving Tips

Making a Thanksgiving turkey for the first time is daunting. I mean, sticking your hands inside that turkey cavity is enough to make you pass along the day’s responsibilities to someone else. (Did I scare you? Sorry. You do have to touch some yucky turkey parts, but it will be  okay.)

I remember the first time I made a real turkey–you know a whole turkey. It was right after we got married, and we hosted my husband’s sister and her family. I was terrified. However, it turned out perfect and it wasn’t as hard as I thought.

You really don’t have to be Martha Stewart to host your own Thanksgiving. And, if this is your first time, we’ll be gentle. Just follow these simple steps for a fantastic first-time Thanksgiving turkey.

How Long to Cook a Turkey and Other Thanksgiving Tips

10 Thanksgiving Turkey Tips

1. Size does matter.

When buying your turkey, allow for one to two pounds of turkey per person. For example if you are having 10 people at your Thanksgiving dinner, buy a 20 pound turkey. If you want leftovers for soup or sandwiches, tack on a couple of pounds.

2. Chill out, but then warm up.

Remove your turkey from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature for around one hour prior to cooking. This helps it to cook evenly. I take my turkey out, rinse it off, pat it dry and let it sit in the pan while I mix my stuffing. If you have a frozen turkey, defrost it overnight in the refrigerator.

ALSO FOR THANKSGIVING: How to Brine a Turkey

3. Put the neck on the line.

Don’t gross out, but if you have a store-bought turkey, you will need to removed the neck and giblets (heart, gizzard, and liver) from the cavity. On the upper part of the turkey, there will be a flap where the, um, head used to be located. Pick up the flap and the neck and giblets are usually in there (don’t worry, they’re usually in bags). Also, check the cavity. If there isn’t a million dollars in there, then you didn’t win the prize. (Sorry.)

4. Give a loving massage.

Rub your turkey down with a mix of melted butter and herbs. Pick up turkey herbs and rub, or you can easily make your own with an equal mix of sage, thyme, marjoram and rosemary. If I still have rosemary left from the herb garden, I will throw a couple of springs in the cavity. Also, I use unsalted butter. You get plenty of salt from everything else at the meal. You won’t miss it in the butter. Trust me.

5. Don’t forget the hole.

Be sure to salt and pepper the cavity of the bird. Also, pour some of the melted butter mixed with herbs inside.

6. Flip the bird.

get a turkey roasting pan with rack (AFFILIATE)
I start out roasting my turkey at 325-degrees in a roasting pan with a rack, breast side down. It looks awkward and will probably lean in the pan, but it makes the breast super juicy because all the juices run to the breast. After about an hour, flip the bird using oven mitts and finish roasting.

7. Too tan? Don’t worry.

If the breast is browning too fast, just place a “tent” of aluminum foil over it. (Get a long piece of aluminum foil, crease it in the middle and place it over the bird. Pull the crease in the middle up so the foil isn’t touching the bird.)

8. Take the temp!

A digital thermometer is a must-have for cooking turkey. The turkey is done when the breast temperature registers 165- to 170-degrees and the thighs register 175- to 185 degrees. (Don’t hit the bone when measuring the temp!) The total amount of time to cook a turkey will depend on the size. As a reference, a 12-pound turkey will cook for around three hours (add a half-hour if it is stuffed).

ALSO FOR THANKSGIVING:  How to Perfectly Carve a Turkey

9. Cheat on gravy, but don’t skimp.

buy Williams Sonoma gravy base (AFFILIATE)
I can make a perfect soufflé (really, I can), but I can’t make good turkey gravy just from drippings. However, I don’t sweat it because Williams-Sonoma has a fantastic gravy base that is a Thanksgiving staple in our house. Just add your pan drippings and always make extra gravy.

10. Learn to laugh.

There are some things that won’t turn out. Every year, I try a new dessert for Thanksgiving and every year it fails. EVERY.SINGLE.YEAR. It’s become a big joke within our group. However, it’s created a fun finger-pointing tradition. Laugh off your failures. There will be more in the future, but at least your first Thanksgiving will be behind you.



Along with being a contributor to, Jacqueline Wilson is: Appalachia Advocate~Supporter of Women~Writer~Accidental Pit Bull Advocate.


  1. Just Margaret

    November 8, 2010 at 9:41 am

    Great tips! I have always taken the approach that a turkey is nothing more than an oversized Perdue Oven Stuffer Roaster. Seems somehow less intimidating ;)

    • Jacqueline W.

      November 8, 2010 at 1:55 pm

      That’s a really good idea, Margaret. I think we make it more intimidating than it really is on our “first” time. ;)

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