While it's the traditional Christmas bird, turkey is good to eat all year round, though is only readily available as portions much of the year. Use our guide and learn how to cook a turkey to feed a crowd, including brining and carving.
Turkey has all the nutritional plus points of chicken, but with a slightly lower fat content, which is good for health, but does mean that the flesh can be on the dry side. Older turkey recipes advise basting a turkey regularly to keep the meat moist, but newer recipes cook turkey quicker and often use dry brines; leaving the turkey in salt and flavouring overnight. This draws moisture out, then it is reabsorbed, seasoning the meat and drying out the skin so it crisps up in the oven.
Recipes, tools and guides to help you cook the perfect turkey:
- We've got the perfect turkey recipe for you, whether you're looking for a traditional turkey recipe or a more modern version.
- For how long to cook your turkey for, check our roast calculator.
- Perfect your carving skills with our how to carve a turkey video.
- Check out our foolproof guide for what turkey size to buy and thawing times.
- Learn how to cook a turkey crown.
- Find inspiration for what to do with turkey leftovers.
How to defrost a turkey
If you buy a frozen turkey, make sure you allow enough time for it to defrost – it won't cook properly unless it is thoroughly defrosted at the start of cooking. If you're defrosting in your fridge, which should be set at 4C or below, allow 8 to 12 hrs per kg. In a cool room, which absolutely must stay below 17.5C, allow 3-4 hrs per kg.
How to prepare a turkey
- Take off all the wrappings, put on a tray or plate wide and deep enough to contain any blood or juice that might seep out, cover loosely with foil and leave in the fridge or in a cool room.
- After the turkey is defrosted, remove any giblets, check that there are no ice crystals inside the cavity and pat dry with kitchen paper both outside and in.
- Before it goes in the oven, turkey should be at room temperature, so take it out of the fridge (1 hr for a whole turkey, or 30 mins for a cut) before cooking. Keep it covered in a cool place.
If desired, certain cuts of fresh or defrosted turkey can be marinated (for a minimum of 4 hrs) before cooking, to add flavour and moisture and to tenderise a little further. Slash the skin a couple of times to help the marinade penetrate further and keep covered in a glass or ceramic dish in the fridge.
What to do with giblets
Cover with water and add a peeled onion, carrot, celery stick, bay leaf and a glass of red wine. Simmer for 40 mins, then strain and you'll have the perfect stock to deglaze your turkey roasting tin.
How to remove the wishbone
Removing the wishbone from a raw turkey makes it easier to carve later, giving you neater slices. Pull back the neck skin until the wishbone is located. Using a small sharp knife, cut through the flesh under the contour of the bone on both sides just deep enough to free it. Then ease out, cutting it free at the tips.
How to cook a turkey
- 1 free range turkey (5kg will feed 8)
- 50g butter
- Heat oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4.
- Smear butter all over the turkey and season all over with salt and pepper.
- Put in a roasting tin, breast side up, and roast for 40 mins per kilo for the first 4 kilos then 45 mins for every kilo over that weight, or until the internal temperature reaches 65-70C. For a turkey of this weight, the cooking time should be 3½-4hrs. The turkey will continue to cook and the temperature will rise more while it rests.
- Remove the turkey from the oven and rest in a warm place for 30-45 mins, don’t skip this step as the juices won’t be reabsorbed back into the turkey and will run out if you carve it straightaway. Don’t cover the turkey too tightly if you want the skin to stay crisp but keep it warm.
- Before serving your turkey, check that the meat is steaming hot throughout, there is no pink meat visible and when you cut into the thickest part of the meat, the juices run clear.
For accurate timing, always weigh your turkey after it has been stuffed. If it's very large, you may need to use bathroom scales.
How long to cook a turkey
The latest advice from the British Turkey information service is that, if the turkey is over 4kg, calculate 20 mins per kg, plus 90 mins. If the bird is under 4kg, calculate 20 mins per kg, plus 70 mins.
To test if it's done, make sure the juices run clear when you pierce the thigh where it meets the body. If not, put it back in the oven for another 20 mins, then test again.
Turkeys are at their best in December.
Choose the best
As is the case with all meat, turkey should be bought from a source that you trust – a good supermarket, local butcher, farmers' market or shop, or a website mail order company. Of those five sources, the last four are perhaps more likely to be able to tell you the most about the turkey – where it came from and how it was reared. Traceability like that will give you assurance that the turkey has been humanely treated while alive; the higher the standard of welfare by which a turkey was reared, the better the quality of the meat.
Read more about turkey farming at Red Tractor.
Organic turkey is the most expensive, as the most stringent farming standards will have been adhered to at all stages of the animal's life, including being allowed to roam outside during the day and being fed a mainly organic diet. As they are allowed to mature slowly their flesh is firm and flavourful, though, because they have had lots of exercise during their lives, they may be less plump than indoor-reared birds. Look for the Soil Association sticker if you'd like to buy organic.
Free-range turkeys should have had some access to the open air and are usually cheaper than organic. The Freedom Food label can also be used by producers that meet the RSPCA's welfare standards.
Battery (or 'factory') reared turkey are the most commonly available kind. They are rarely labelled as such, but the low price is a giveaway. Although such turkeys are more affordable, the conditions they endure are extremely grim, packed at high densities, with little room to move around and no access to sunlight – all of which produces a noticeably inferior meat.
Good breeds to look out for include Norfolk Black, Kelly Bronze and Cambridge Bronze. Reared slowly, in free-range conditions, they all have densely textured meat that is more flavourful and succulent than indoor-reared types. The phrase 'farm fresh' means that birds have been handled traditionally once slaughtered, i.e. dry hand-plucked (as opposed to wet-plucked, by which the turkey is immersed in very hot water to loosen the feathers, which are then mechanically removed) and hung for two weeks, which gives the flesh an enjoyably gamey flavour.
Whole birds should be roasted. Other portions are also available (either skin on or off, on the bone or boneless), including breast joints (roast), crown joints (the bird without its legs and wings, also good for roasting), breast steaks, escalopes (very thin steaks of turkey breast, good for pan-frying) and drumsticks (roast or braise).
Turkey mince is also available – it's very low fat and you can use it as you would minced beef, pork, lamb or veal. Whichever breed or cut you go for, choose turkey that is plump and well-rounded, with clear, soft and evenly coloured skin. Avoid those that have been unevenly plucked.
Put fresh turkey in the fridge as soon as you get it home. Take off all the wrappings, then wipe it all over (and inside the cavities) with kitchen paper. If it has come with giblets (the neck, gizzard, heart and liver) these should be removed and kept in a covered bowl in the fridge.
Put the turkey on a tray or a plate wide and deep enough to contain any blood or juice that might seep out. Cover loosely with foil. Make sure the turkey doesn't touch any other food in the fridge that's to be eaten raw, or meat that is already cooked.
Once a frozen turkey has defrosted (see 'prepare'), store it in the fridge straight away, as above, unless you are going to cook it immediately.
Whole birds and pieces of turkey will keep in the fridge for up to two days. Minced turkey should be cooked within 24 hours of purchase. Giblets can be used to make gravy and stock (but leave the liver out, as it can create quite a bitter taste) or stuffing, and should be cooked within two days of purchase.
Try chicken, goose or duck.