There’s more than one way to prepare turkey, a true favorite of many carnivores and the queen of domestic birds.
This bird, whose flesh has an intense aroma and a rich, gamey flavor, tastes equally delicious when seared and braised in the sauté pan, roasted to golden brown in the oven, and kissed by streams of smoke in the smoker.
And while you will get a unique result with each and every method of preparing turkey, you must always respect a fundamental food safety rule: the safe minimum internal temperature for eating poultry.
Cook your turkey to an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C). This temperature applies to all cooking methods and should be measured with a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the bird.
If you feel like you’re always winging it when it comes to preparing turkey, you no longer need to! We’ve written this guide to help you cook this fine bird to perfection—no matter the recipe or cooking method.
Read on below.
What About the Time in the Recipe?
Cooking times given in recipes are only approximate, and you should treat them as such.
The exact cooking time for turkey, whole or cut up into pieces, comes down to its size, the appliance you cook it on, the cooking vessel you prepare it in, the method of cooking, as well as the amount of heat used.
As you probably already thought to yourself, these factors vary greatly from home kitchen to home kitchen and from cook to cook. The only way to reliably tell if turkey is done, then, is to check it early and check it often.
Now you know how, and what internal temperature to look for!
Insider Tips for Preparing Turkey
By far the best ways to prepare turkey are to braise it in a saucepan, roast it in the oven, or slow-cook it over smoldering wood in the smoker.
Braising turkey: To braise turkey, add a dollop of cooking oil to a large saucepan and preheat over medium-high. Season the turkey with salt generously, then sear it on both sides until golden brown. Add white wine and throw in a few alliums and herbs, then reduce the heat to medium and cook to doneness with the lid on.
Roasting turkey: To roast turkey, preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C) for 15 minutes. Use the time to remove the giblets and neck from the bird. Brush with cooking oil, sprinkle with kosher salt, and roast. Roast for approximately 15 minutes per pound, or until golden brown, then start checking for doneness.
If you roast your turkey whole, score or prick the skin. This will melt the fat out of the bird’s skin and baste it. If you baste the bird with its own juices every now and then as you cook it, it will be extra crispy and golden brown by the time it’s done.
Smoking turkey: Brine the turkey by rubbing it with kosher salt and refrigerating it overnight. Throw fruit wood (apple, cherry, fig) into the pit and stabilize your smoker at 275°F (135°C). Place into the cooking chamber, close the door, and smoke for 2-3 hours. Start checking for doneness.
Can Turkey Be Undercooked?
Yes, turkey can indeed be undercooked. And when it is, it isn’t safe to eat.
Turkey, like the meat of all other poultry and game birds, can harbor disease-causing bacteria that can make you and the members of your family sick.
Raw and insufficiently cooked turkey may be contaminated with Salmonella, a pathogenic bacterium that causes salmonellosis—a foodborne illness that infects the digestive tract.1“Salmonella Homepage | CDC,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/index.html
The young, the pregnant and their babies, the elderly, and those with a weakened immune system are particularly vulnerable. If you’re cooking for someone who falls into one or more of these categories, ensure your turkey is always cooked to the proper level of doneness.
In the case of turkey, that level of doneness is indicated by an internal temperature of 165°F/74°C taken at the thickest part of the whole bird or cut.2“Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart,” Food Safety and Inspection Service, United States Department of Agriculture, https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/safe-temperature-chart
Can Turkey Be Overcooked?
Turkey can also be overcooked. Cook it too long, and it will turn out dry, tough to chew, and even tougher to swallow; no matter how good the recipe, overcooked turkey is usually left uneaten.
(Sure, you can always give the overcooked turkey a makeover by adding it to a soup or stew, but that pretty much defies the purpose of roasting or smoking it in the first place.)
Remove the turkey from the heat as soon as it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C). If you don’t trust yourself to keep the turkey from overcooking, braise or poach it. Both of these cooking methods rely on moist heat, and so they’re more forgiving of mistakes and haste.
Turkey should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F (74°C), regardless of the cooking method. Braise it, roast it, or slow-cook it in the smoker, and be sure that you nary under- nor overcook it.
- 1“Salmonella Homepage | CDC,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/index.html
- 2“Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart,” Food Safety and Inspection Service, United States Department of Agriculture, https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/safe-temperature-chart