Learn how to roast a frozen turkey (and save Thanksgiving)

If it’s Thanksgiving morning and you’re reading this with a frozen turkey on the counter, let me put your fears to rest. Cooking a frozen turkey isn’t as hard as it sounds. Trust me, I’ve done it and it actually turned out great. Still skeptical? The USDA approves of this method, too. Now let’s get started.

The first thing you need to accept is cooking a turkey the traditional way isn’t going to be an option. That means no brining, no marinating or injecting it with a secret sauce. You can also forget about stuffing it with MeeMaw’s famous dressing, but at this point, don’t you just really want a fully cooked and delicious turkey on the table?

10 tips for the juiciest turkey ever
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10 tips for the juiciest turkey ever

1. Buy a fresh turkey.

Rodgers has strong feelings about what kind of turkey to buy: “One word: fresh,” he told TODAY Food. “Defrosting a frozen turkey is a pain in the neck. It takes a full 24 hours to defrost every 5 pounds. I don’t have enough room in my refrigerator to defrost a turkey for five days.”

2. Don't overspend on the turkey.

Beyond buying fresh, Rodgers said that there’s no need to splurge on anything fancy — unless there's a specific reason for doing so, like religious dietary laws.

“Keep in mind who you’re cooking for,” he said. “Will they appreciate the heritage bird you spent twice as much to buy?”

3. Don't be scared of stuffing a turkey.

Rodgers takes a somewhat controversial view of stuffing, which has been deemed a food safety no-no for years.

“I have never not stuffed a turkey in my life,” he said. “It’s perfectly safe to stuff a turkey — the [Department for Agriculture] has changed their stance.”

Sure enough, the government agency no longer advises against stuffing the bird.

4. Mix the stuffing at the right time.

To stuff the turkey safely, don’t combine wet and dry ingredients until it's time to spoon them in. Be sure to stuff loosely — around 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. Keep a meat thermometer handy, since it's very important to make sure the stuffing reaches 165 degrees during cooking.

5. Choose the right roasting pan.

Just as the choice of turkey matters, so does the choice of roasting pan. Rodgers said to go for a heavy pan, which won’t buckle under the weight of the bird. He also said to go for a dark pan, which will absorb the heat of the oven and make richer drippings for gravy.

6.  Consider adding aromatics.

If the turkey is not going to be stuffed, Rodgers suggested filling the cavity to flavor the meat. Before roasting, roughly chop and insert an onion, a carrot, a rib or two of celery and a Granny Smith apple, plus sprigs of fresh parsley. Toss them before serving.

On the outside of the bird, rub softened butter mixed with dried thyme, sage, marjoram, rosemary and celery seed. The turkey can also be wrapped in bacon.

7. Cover with foil very tightly.

To ensure moist white meat and completely cooked dark meat, Rodgers offered his favorite piece of advice: Cover the breast tightly with foil — don’t just tent it — to slow the cooking in that area.

“I call it a foil brassiere,” he said. Remove the "brassiere" for the last hour of cooking, to let the skin brown nicely. “Baste it a couple times to bring the dark pan juices over the breast, like you’re painting the breast,” Rodgers said.

8. Know where to place a thermometer. 

In keeping with his colorful, anatomical descriptions, Rodgers said, “I tell people to put the thermometer at the panty line of the turkey — where his little butt is meeting the top of the hip joint, that’s the meatiest part.” When the thermometer reads 165 degrees, the turkey is cooked.

9. Let the turkey rest.

Just because the thermometer says the turkey’s cooked, that doesn’t mean it’s ready. Let the turkey stand for 30 to 45 minutes before carving. “The longer the turkey stands out, the juicier it’s going to be, and the more time you have to heat up your side dishes,” Rodgers said. A large bird should stay hot for an hour or more.

10. Add some liquid.

Once the turkey’s carved, spoon a little bit of turkey stock over the meat just before serving. “It makes the juiciest turkey you’ll ever eat,” said Rodgers.


Step 1: Prep and Begin the Thaw

I based all my cooking times using a 12-pound turkey. Don’t worry if yours is larger; simply plan for the roasting time to take about 50% longer than a thawed one. For example, a normal 4-hour roasting time will now take about 6 hours.

Cooking a frozen turkey-sicle is easy, just unwrap it and place it on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. (Don’t worry about pulling out the bag of giblets; we’ll talk about it later.) If you don’t have a rack, use something, like a cookie cooling rack, to lift it up so the hot air can circulate all around the bird. Try to use a pan with shallow sides. This also helps the oven’s hot air to do its thing.

Set the oven to 325 degrees and pop the bird in for 2 hours. Don’t even think about peeking!

Here’s why you shouldn’t cook a turkey in a bag.

Step 2: Season and Continue to Cook

After the turkey has cooked for just about 2 hours, let’s take a look at the bird. The drumsticks and thighs should read around 100 degrees. The breast should be thawed about an inch or so, but it will still be frozen past that.

Psst! It’s best to check the turkey’s temperature using an instant-read thermometer. To do this, insert the pin of the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh (or drumstick, or breast), being careful not to come into contact with the bone as this will throw off the reading.

Top 10 Butterball turkey tips for Thanksgiving
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Top 10 Butterball turkey tips for Thanksgiving
10. Butterball recommends the Open Pan Roasting Method to consistently create a tender, juicy and golden
brown turkey. Use a shallow pan about 2 to 2 1/2 inches deep, and always use a flat rack so the turkey cooks
9. Use the stuffing calculator on Butterball.com to figure out the right amount to make everyone at your table
8. Prepare stuffing just before placing in the turkey, using only cooked ingredients. Loosely stuff neck and body
cavities of completely thawed turkey and do not tightly pack stuffing into turkey.
7. Before roasting, turn the turkey’s wings back to hold the neck skin in place. This levels the turkey in the
roasting pan to encourage even cooking, and with the wings out of the way, makes carving easier.

6. Remember home food safety tips when handling turkey

  • Wash hands often
  • Keep raw turkey and ready-to-eat foods separated
  • Cook to proper temperature (see tip 13)
  • Refrigerate cooked turkey promptly to reduce temperature to below 40 degrees Fahrenheit
5. What size bird to buy? Allow 1 1/2 pounds of turkey per person for generous servings and leftovers.
4. Quick and easy. Butterball offers fully cooked turkeys. Already seasoned and roasted, just throw them in a
shallow pan and warm in the oven according to package instructions for a no-mess, no-fuss way to delight
3. No time to thaw? Try thawing more quickly by submerging the turkey in cold water. Leave the bird in the
wrapper, place it in a tub or sink of cold water and allow 30 minutes of thaw time for every pound of turkey.
2. Butterball recommends refrigerator thawing. For every four pounds of turkey, allow at least one day of
thawing in the refrigerator.
1. Fresh or frozen turkey? Fresh turkeys need no thawing and are ready to cook. Frozen turkeys can be purchased
weeks in advance, but require several days of thawing before roasting. Fresh Butterball turkeys are all natural and
contain no additional ingredients. Frozen Butterball turkeys are deep basted to be extra tender and juicy.
You can find more life-saving tips from Butterball here

At this point, you can take the turkey out to oil-and-season it. Brush the outside with oil and rub on an ample amount of salt, pepper and any dried herbs you care to add. Place the turkey back in the oven and roast at 325 degrees for another 30 minutes.

Got some extra time on your hands? Here’s how to defrost a turkey the right way.

Step 3: Remove the Giblets

Check to see if you can get the bag of giblets out of the neck or cavity of the turkey. The cavity will still be partially frozen, so if the bag is in there, don’t try to force it out. Also, if there is liquid or ice in the cavity, remove it but don’t pour it over the turkey; reserve it for making gravy. (Check out our from-scratch recipe!) Return the turkey to the oven.

Step 4: Check-In

Let the turkey continue to cook for 1 more hour. At this time, the thighs and legs should be around 130 to 150 degrees and the breast will be around 50 to 60 degrees. Brush with additional oil before returning to the oven for another 60 to 90 minutes.

How to buy a Thanksgiving turkey
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How to buy a Thanksgiving turkey

Don’t be afraid to buy frozen

There’s no real quality difference between fresh and frozen, says Norma Farrell, a consumer-education specialist at the National Turkey Federation, since the latter are flash-frozen after processing to preserve them. “Fresh” turkeys can be many days old by the time you buy them—and can cost up to 50 percent more.

Go generic

Store brands are cheaper than well-known ones, and both birds may even have come from the same place. One of the main differences: Some brands use a unique seasoning on theirs. Check the ingredients to see if it’s something you might like. Check out this step-by-step guide for how to cook a turkey.

Check the shape

Look for a turkey with a well-rounded breast—it’s juicier. Beware of flat spots, which can indicate thawing and refreezing. This raises the risk of food-borne illness.

Size matters 

Smaller turkeys tend to be more tender. Consider cooking two small birds instead of one larger one. Turkey come out dry? Here’s how to fix that, plus 9 other common Thanksgiving cooking goofs.

Stay away from mega-birds

If you’re having lots of people over, it might seem counter-productive to get two smaller turkeys instead of just one huge one. But Food & Wine advises that birds over 18-20 pounds are much more likely to have been treated with chemicals. Plus, massive birds also take quite a bit longer to thaw and cook, and tend to cook less evenly.

Buy it early

Purchase your turkey far enough in advance to allow it to thaw properly: One day for every five pounds, according to the Food Network. But try to avoid shopping on the worst day of the year to buy your Thanksgiving groceries.

Use this weight formula

For a larger party (and therefore a larger bird), aim for one pound per person. For a small party and smaller turkey, figure one and a half pounds for each person. Keep in mind that smaller birds will have smaller meat-to-bone ratios. Check out some more simple tips for maintaining your sanity while hosting Thanksgiving.

Basted or self-basting? 

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a bird labeled “basted” or “self-basted” has been “injected or marinated with a solution containing butter or other edible fat, broth, stock or water plus spices, flavor enhancers and other approved substances.” This can add flavor and moisture to your turkey. If you prefer to do things yourself, avoid those basted labels.

Tailor to your guests’ tastes 

Do you have guests coming that are particular about their turkey? If most or all of the people you’re feeding prefer white meat, consider buying an extra bone-in turkey breast in addition to (or even instead of, if your guests really can’t abide dark meat) a regular turkey. The same goes for lovers of dark meat: Get a smaller turkey and an extra drumstick or two. If you do end up with more than your guests can finish, try one of these delicious recipes for turkey leftovers.

Consider free-range 

If you see “free-range,” “free-roaming,” or “cage-free,” this means that the turkeys had access to the outdoors and could move around in a yard. These turkeys tend to be more muscular, and therefore have more flavorful, and often leaner, meat. This shows in the price, but the better flavor is worth it for some consumers. But keep in mind that, despite what many people think, “free range” is not the same as organic and doesn’t necessarily mean that the bird was raised without growth hormones. Watch out for these common turkey myths that could ruin your Thanksgiving.


Step 5: Finish Roasting

The turkey should be close to being done about 4-1/2 to 5 hours after you start. For safety’s sake, grab out your thermometer and check the bird’s internal temp again. The breast should reach 165 degrees and the legs and thighs should be 170 to 175. The other important temperature to take is inside the cavity. It also needs to reach 165 or you risk contaminating the rest of the bird when you carve it.

Temps all good? Remove the bird from the oven.

Here’s why you shouldn’t cook stuffing into your turkey.

Step 6: Let Rest

Like any large cut of meat, the turkey should rest once it’s done roasting. This will allow the juices to redistribute through the turkey. The resting time depends on how large it is—the heavier the turkey, the longer you should let it sit.

I like to let my turkeys rest 30 minutes before carving. (Don’t worry, it will still be hot by the time it gets to the table!) You’ll find that the slices will be much juicier and easier to cut after the bird has rested. And please don’t cover it with foil while it rests—all you’re doing is trapping steam and making the turkey skin soggy.

Stuffing recipes for Thanksgiving
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Stuffing recipes for Thanksgiving

Apple-Raisin Stuffing

Get the recipe here

Herb & Sausage Stuffing with Tangy Granny Smith Apples

Get the recipe here

Sausage & Stuffing Criss-Cross Pastry

Get the recipe here

Whole-Grain Stuffing with Apples, Sausage and Pecans

Get the recipe here.

Smoky Chorizo Stuffing

Get the recipe here

Turkey and Cornbread Stuffing with Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Get the recipe here

Sausage-and-Bread Stuffing

Get the recipe here

Holiday Turkey with Cranberry Pecan Stuffing

Get the recipe here

Sausage Apple Stuffing

Get the recipe here

Chestnut Oyster Stuffing

Get the recipe here


Step 7: Carve and Enjoy!

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