UACES Facebook Take the Stress Out of Preparing Your Thanksgiving Turkey
skip to main content

How do I cook the turkey for Thanksgiving dinner?

Preparing the turkey for the holiday meal can be stressful! 

Nashville, Ark. – As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, you have probably given some thought to what you will prepare, how you will prepare it, who is coming and the list goes on and on. Regardless of whether this is your first Thanksgiving or the fiftieth, preparing the holiday bird can be stressful. It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are few steps to follow to ensure you have a delicious Thanksgiving meal for you, your family and your friends.

How long does it take a frozen turkey to thaw?

            There are some things to consider when purchasing the turkey. Most of the turkeys we have available come to us frozen, so let’s address that option. Now is the time to purchase the turkey. You will need to allow several days for the turkey to thaw in your refrigerator, so make sure you have enough room in the fridge to thaw it properly. Be sure to plan ahead – it takes approximately 3 days for a 20 pound turkey to fully defrost in the refrigerator. Place the turkey on the bottom shelf with a pan under it to catch any liquids that will pool as the turkey thaws. Avoid thawing in the kitchen sink or on the counter. Bacteria which are present in the turkey will grow at an alarming rate.

How long do I cook a turkey?

            Determining how long to cook your bird can also be difficult. Plan on 20 minutes per pound in a 350 degree F oven for a defrosted turkey. That means if your turkey is 20 pounds, you will need to allow about 4 ½ hours to cook.

            Although many people picture the ideal turkey with the stuffing inside, a turkey will cook more evenly if it is not densely stuffed. Consider adding flavor by loosely filling the cavity with aromatic vegetables – carrots, celery, onion or garlic – or by carefully tucking fresh herbs underneath the breast skin. Rosemary or thyme are great herbs to use. For the stuffing lovers, cook the dressing in a casserole dish on the side.

            Before you begin roasting, coat the outside of the turkey with vegetable or olive oil, season with salt and pepper and tightly cover the breast with aluminum foil to prevent over-browning. Once you get the turkey in the oven, resist the temptation to open the oven door. When the oven temperature fluctuates, you’re only increasing the likelihood of a dry bird. About 45 minutes before the turkey is done, remove the foil from the breast to allow it to brown.

            Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the turkey and assure a moist bird. A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F throughout the bird. Check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. All turkey meat, including any that remains pink, is safe to eat as soon as all parts reach at least 165 degrees F. The stuffing should reach 165 degrees F, whether cooked inside the bird or in a separate dish.

            When the turkey has reached the correct temperature and you are ready to remove it from the oven, let it stand sitting out for 20 minutes. Then you can remove the stuffing and carve. This should give you plenty of time to make gravy, and finish up any side dishes.

What do I do with leftover turkey?

            Once you have enjoyed your meal, don’t forget to store your leftovers properly. Cut your turkey into small pieces; refrigerate stuffing and turkey separately in shallow containers within 2 hours of cooking. Use leftover turkey and stuffing with 3-4 days; gravy within 1-2 days; or freeze these foods. Reheat any leftovers thoroughly to a temperature of 165 degrees F or until hot and steaming.

            Preparing your holiday bird can be an enjoyable, stress-free task if you heed some of the tips mentioned above. Talking Turkey is a free handout available that provides information such as what size turkey to purchase, thawing methods, cooking times for both stuffed and unstuffed birds according to the size of your turkey, and more.

            If you would like to receive this information, contact the Howard County Cooperative Extension Service at 870-845-7517 or visit our office located on the second floor of the courthouse. The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. You can also download this handout on turkey preparation. 

            I hope each of you have a safe and happy Thanksgiving holiday!

Easy Pot Pie Recipe

            Being creative with the leftovers can sometimes be a challenge. Remember you can use cooked turkey in place of cooked chicken in recipes. Here is a quick way to use leftover turkey.

  • 3 cups vegetables (use leftover carrots, green beans, corn, etc.)

    2 cups shredded cooked turkey

    1 can cream of chicken soup

    ½ cup water or milk

    1 cup all-purpose baking mix

    ½ cup low-fat milk

    1 egg

  1. Cut vegetables into bite size pieces.
  2. Mix vegetables with turkey, soup, and ½ cup water or milk.
  3. Pour into a 9x9 baking dish that has been sprayed with nonstick cooking spray.
  4. In a separate bowl, mix together baking mix, low-fat milk, and egg.
  5. Pour over filling.
  6. Bake at 400 degrees for 30-40 minutes, until crust is cooked and brown.

Yield: 6 servings

Per serving: 240 calories, 8g fat, 14g protein, 29g carbohydrates, 3g fiber, 860mg sodium. Excellent source of vitamin A, Good source of iron and vitamin C.

By Jean Ince
County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Media Contact: Jean Ince
County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
421 N. Main St, Nashville AR 71852
(870) 845-7517


The Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service is an equal opportunity/equal access/affirmative action institution. If you require a reasonable accommodation to participate or need materials in another format, please contact your County Extension office (or other appropriate office) as soon as possible. Dial 711 for Arkansas Relay.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.