Easy Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe
Updated Nov 24, 2023
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Are you ready to make the BEST Thanksgiving turkey recipe? Trust me, it’s easier than you think!
You don’t need to brine and you don’t need to baste. Just a few simple steps and you’ll have a perfectly golden, juicy, and insanely flavorful roasted turkey recipe that’ll impress your family and guests.
There’s something about cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving that intimidates a lot of people. I totally get it. I remember being intimidated the first time I cooked a turkey. It’s because you don’t want to screw up a big, holiday meal with all your friends and family over…am I right?
But here’s the funny thing, cooking a turkey is actually super easy! Think of it as cooking a really large chicken. It might take longer to cook, but other than that, the process is pretty darn similar.
Sure, some people get fancy with expensive equipment, gadgets, smokers, and flavors, but you don’t need any of that to make a classic, ultra-flavorful, and juicy turkey. Just follow my Thanksgiving game plan so you know what to buy and cook when. Then follow the recipe and tips below. Easy!
Roast Turkey Ingredients
Besides the turkey, you just need herbs, aromatics, and a little seasoning. Simple really is best!
- Turkey: Any whole frozen (or fresh) turkey at the market works. For details on what size is best, read below.
- Fresh Herbs: Rosemary, thyme, and sage are classic poultry herbs. And while you can use dried, I do think fresh imparts a more robust flavor.
- Onion and Garlic: The onion will go inside the turkey and the garlic will be rubbed on the outside. But together, these aromatics will infuse the meat and skin with savory goodness.
- Lemon: Adding lemon wedges inside the turkey helps keep the meat moist and adds a zing of freshness.
- Butter: A generous amount of butter makes for a juicy turkey without the need to brine. Now there’s some time savings!
- Salt and Pepper: For that perfectly seasoned bird.
I also put vegetables under my turkey (like celery, carrots, and onion) while it’s roasting. This isn’t required, but I do recommend it. Not only will it amp up your turkey recipe, but it will take your turkey gravy flavor to the next level too!
Find the printable recipe with measurements below.
What Size Turkey to Buy?
The general rule of thumb is 1 pound of turkey per person. Or 1 ½ pounds of turkey per person if you want leftovers (and we always want leftovers, right?). It’s always best to have a little extra turkey than not enough, so I recommend:
- Less than 8 people: While it will be more turkey than you need, I recommend buying a 10 to 12 pound turkey. Anything smaller and you’re paying more for bones rather than meat. Remember, you can freeze turkey leftovers.
- For 8 people: Get a 10 to 12 pound turkey
- For 12 people: Get a 14 to 18 pound turkey
- for 16 people: Get an 18 to 24 pound turkey
- More than 16 people: It’s best to buy two turkeys rather than one monster sized turkey.
Don’t Forget to Thaw The Turkey
The biggest mistake people make is buying a frozen turkey the day before Thanksgiving. Don’t do that! Remember that a big turkey is going to take a while to defrost in the fridge. It takes about 24 hours per 5 pounds of turkey to properly thaw. My recommendation – buy your turkey at least a week before Thanksgiving. Then, let it thaw in the fridge 3 to 4 days before the big day.
No, You Don’t Need to Wash It
All you’ll do is contaminate your sink and kitchen and make a mess. We’ve talked about this before with chicken, and the same applies here. Any bacteria on the turkey will get killed in the oven while baking.
Don’t Cook Stuffing In the Turkey
If you want perfectly cooked stuffing and perfectly cooked turkey, cook them separately. If you overfill the cavity of the turkey it slows down the cooking time. And besides, it’s better to fill the turkey with aromatics and herbs that give it flavor and moisture. So cook your stuffing in a casserole dish instead.
Equipment You’ll Need
There are three basic kitchen items you’ll need to roast your turkey – a roasting tray, thermometer, and a sharp knife.
- Roasting Tray: You can buy an expensive roasting tray, a solid mid-priced roasting tray, or use a cheapie disposable roasting tray. They all work just fine.
- Thermometer: The same goes for thermometers. You can use a probe thermometer (that you leave in the turkey), an instant read thermometer (what I most often use), or a basic meat thermometer.
- Knife: Of course, a sharp knife is essential! I have this carving knife and fork set.
How to Prepare and Cook Turkey
Thaw and remove giblets. Once your turkey is thawed, let it rest at room temperature for an hour. Remove the bag of giblets and the neck, found in the large cavity and sometimes the smaller neck cavity (check both areas just to make sure you got everything out). You can save these items for gravy or discard them.
Pat dry and stuff. Pat the turkey dry with a paper towel. Removing any extra moisture ensures extra crispy skin. Then, season the inside of the turkey generously with salt and pepper, and stuff the cavity with quartered onion, lemon, and fresh sprigs of herbs. If anything, go lighter on the sage than the other herbs, as it’s more potent.
Make herb butter. Make the herb butter by stirring together the softened butter, garlic, salt, pepper, rosemary and thyme in a small bowl.
Spread herb butter all over. Loosen the skin of the turkey on top of the breasts by gently sliding your fingers underneath. Add about 1/3 of the herb compound butter and spread it evenly underneath the skin. Spread the remainder of the herb butter all around the outside of the turkey.
Don’t truss the legs! Resist the urge to tie the turkey legs together. Yes, it makes the turkey picture perfect, BUT trussing prevents the air from circulating properly, leaving the meat to cook unevenly. So even though your mom (and likely grandmother) did it, skip it.
Cook the turkey. Place the turkey on a roasting rack or on a bed of veggies (or both – which is what I do). Then there’s only one thing left to do – cook the turkey!
How Long to Cook a Turkey
Ready for good news? Because we didn’t stuff the turkey, it will cook about 30 minutes faster. On average, plan for about 15 minutes per pound of turkey. But remember the BEST gauge is the temperature. You want to cook the turkey to 158° to 160°F (measure at the thickest part of the thigh or breast). But here’s a guideline:
- For a 10 to 14 pound turkey: 2 ½ hrs to 3 ½ hrs
- For a 14 to 18 pound turkey: 3 ½ hrs to 4 ½ hrs
- For a 18 to 22 pound turkey: 4 ½ hrs to 5 ½ hrs
Keep an eye on your turkey when it’s about 75% done. Then, check the temperature every 10 minutes. Remember that ovens can cook slightly hotter or cooler. If you notice the skin browning too quickly, you can always place aluminum foil on top.
Always Let Your Turkey Rest
Once you remove the turkey from the oven it’s imperative that you let it rest for at least 30 minutes. This allows the juices to redistribute in the meat, making for a juicer turkey. Better to have a juicy turkey than a sopping wet cutting board!
Carve and Serve Your Beautiful Bird
The only thing left at this point is to admire your gorgeous turkey, carve it, make some flavorful turkey gravy and wow your guests. Just follow my tips on how to carve a turkey. For a complete Thanksgiving spread, consider serving the turkey with:
- Cranberry Sauce
- Mashed Potatoes, Mashed Sweet Potatoes or Mashed Cauliflower (for a low-carb option)
- Sweet Potato Casserole
- Honey Glazed Carrots
- Creamed Corn
- Healthy Green Bean Casserole
- Balsamic Bacon Brussels Sprouts
Need help with a timeline on the big day? Check out my Thanksgiving game plan, and peruse the Thanksgiving menu I’ve put together. I’ve also got a prime rib or honey baked ham if turkey isn’t your jam. And If you’ve got turkey leftovers (which are always the best), transform them into a turkey cobb salad or turkey casserole!
Your bird may be condensating or your butter may be too cold and firm. Make sure your turkey has come to room temperature for an hour and pat it with paper towels to remove moisture. You can also soften the butter for 5 to 10 seconds in the microwave, then it should spread easily.
If you’ve checked the temperature in the thickest part of the breast and thigh and it’s at 165F then it’s cooked through. If it’s not golden enough, you can always turn on your top broiler for just a couple of minutes.
Lower the temperature of your oven and cover it with aluminum foil. Also, I recommend buying an oven thermometer to double check if your oven is cooking too hot.
Make sure your turkey isn’t positioned too high in your oven. If you can, lower your rack. Then, cover just that part with aluminum foil.
It’s normal for there to be some pink on cooked turkey, especially if you have a young bird. As the USDA says, you need to go by temperature, not color. As long as your turkey is cooked to 165°F it’s safe to eat.
I’m pretty confident that with this tutorial, you’ll become a Thanksgiving turkey master. So if you make it, let me know how it turned out! I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.
Easy Thanksgiving Turkey (Best No-Fail Recipe)
- 12 to 18 pound turkey (*see notes below about using a larger turkey), fully thawed
- 1 onion, peeled and quartered
- 1 lemon, quartered
- 1 to 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 1 to 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 to 2 sprigs fresh sage
- kosher salt and black pepper
- ¾ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
Vegetables Under Turkey (optional, but recommended)
- 1 onion, peeled and quartered
- 3 ribs celery, roughly chopped
- 2 carrots, roughly chopped
- Allow your turkey to come to room temperature by removing it from the fridge 1 hour before roasting. Then, remove the giblets.
- Preheat your oven to 325°F (160°C) and pat the outside of the turkey dry with paper towels. Season the cavity of the turkey with salt and pepper. Then fill it with the onion, lemon, and fresh herbs. If your turkey is smaller, don't overfill the cavity as you do want some airflow.
- In a small bowl, make the herb butter by stirring the softened butter, garlic, salt, pepper, rosemary and thyme together.
- Loosen the skin of the turkey gently by sliding your fingers underneath. Then rub about 1/3 of the herb butter between the skin and turkey breasts.
- Rub the remaining herb butter all over the entire outside of the turkey.
- Place the turkey on a roasting rack or on top of a bed of vegetables (if you don't have a rack), or both! Tuck the wing tips under the turkey to prevent them from burning.
- Place the turkey in the oven and roast for about 15 minutes per pound, or until the internal temperature reaches 158°-160°F. You don't need to baste the turkey, but do keep an eye on it after it's about 75% done. If you notice the skin browning too quickly, you can place aluminum foil on top. To verify the temperature, place a thermometer into the meatiest part of the thigh or breast. The turkey will continue to cook once it's removed from the oven and will rise in temperature to 165°F, after it's rested.
- Let the turkey to rest for 30 minutes before carving. This allows the juices to redistribute, making for a deliciously juicy turkey. To keep the turkey warm, you can cover the turkey with aluminum foil on the counter.
- Carve and serve the turkey. And make sure to save the juices from the pan to make turkey gravy!
- You can certainly use a turkey larger than 18 pounds, but you may need a little more herb butter and you’ll need to cook it longer. If your turkey is less than 12 pounds, you may have a little extra herb butter, so you might want to reduce the quantity.
- It’s common for ovens to vary by up to 25 degrees, with some cooking hotter and others cooking cooler (my oven cooks cooler). So it’s best to verify how your oven cooks (before the big turkey day), by purchasing an oven thermometer and testing.
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