The Ultimate Thanksgiving Turkey Timeline: When to Thaw, Brine & Cook Your Bird (2024)

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Christine Gallary

Christine GallaryFood Editor-at-Large

Christine graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, France, and she has worked at Cook's Illustrated and CHOW.com. She lives in San Francisco and loves teaching cooking classes. Follow her latest culinary escapades on Instagram.

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updated Nov 14, 2023

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The Ultimate Thanksgiving Turkey Timeline: When to Thaw, Brine & Cook Your Bird (1)

In This Article

  1. Monday
  2. Tuesday
  3. Wednesday
  4. Thursday (Thanksgiving Day)

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People feel a lot of pressure when it comes to making Thanksgiving turkey. While some make it the same way year after year, others are tackling the big bird for the first time and even doing a practice run. How long does it take to defrost? How do you brine or dry-brine it? When do you put it in the oven?

Here’s a step-by-step guide that’ll help you figure out what to do with the turkey from the minute it gets home from the grocery store to the proud moment when you present it at Thanksgiving dinner.

Monday

  • Inventory your equipment. Do you have a roasting pan and/or roasting rack? A working meat thermometer, and more importantly, a working oven? Don’t forget the little things like a baster or brush and trussing string. Check now so you can make a last-minute equipment run if needed. Dig up the carving set if you’re planning to use that too.
  • Thaw the turkey! This is the other real task you should do today (if it’s not already in progress). If your turkey is frozen or still partially frozen, start thawing it in the refrigerator. A completely frozen turkey needs a day to thaw for every four pounds in weight. Remember that if you plan to brine the turkey, it’ll need to be defrosted even earlier. Don’t cut this one close — there’s no harm in a thawed turkey sitting around for an extra day or two.
  • Dry-brine the turkey. If you plan to dry-brine your turkey, do it today so that the salt has time to penetrate the meat. If your turkey is still frozen, keep it submerged in cold water that you change every 30 minutes until the turkey is defrosted.

Tuesday

  • Wet-brine the turkey. If instead of dry-brining you’re wet-brining the turkey, give it at least a day or two to brine. Make sure you’ve cleared out enough refrigerator space to hold the turkey in brine, or use our favorite method of brining in a refrigerator drawer!

Wednesday

  • Calculate your turkey cooking time. With our method of roasting a turkey, cooking time averages 13 minutes per pound, which comes out to about 3 1/2 hours for a 16-pound turkey. After you do the math, add in some prep time (10 to 15 minutes), at least 3o to 60 minutes resting time, and another 15 minutes for carving if you plan to do that before dinner. Take a look at this total turkey time and work backward from the time you plan to sit down for dinner. This is the time the turkey needs to go in the oven.

Thursday (Thanksgiving Day)

  1. Preheat your oven and take the turkey out of the fridge.Thirty minutes to an hour before the turkey needs to start roasting, turn on your oven and let the turkey sit out at room temperature while it’s heating up. Remember to remove extra oven racks and adjust the rack you are using so that turkey has plenty of space to roast.
  2. Prep your turkey.If you wet-brined your turkey, rinse it and pat it dry. Don’t forget to season the turkey if you haven’t already, and if you’re stuffing it, do so now. Truss your turkey if you’d like, or just simply tie the legs together. Throw it into the roasting pan.
  3. Roast and baste!Remember to baste the turkey occasionally with some of the delicious juices that are gathering at the bottom of the roasting pan. If the turkey starts to look too brown, tent it with aluminum foil.
  4. Take the turkey’s temperature.The best way to check your turkey’s doneness is by using a meat thermometer, so give it a check a little bit before the time you think it should be done, just in case it’s cooking quickly. Temp it in the thickest part of the thigh that’s not touching bone. You’re looking for 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  5. Rest, rest, rest.A fresh-out-of-the oven turkey is way too hot to carve and needs some resting time so the juices can redistribute themselves back into the meat. Don’t worry, this large piece of meat will not get cold. In fact, letting it rest at least 30 minutes (and up to an hour) will let it reach a safer temperature that will make it much easier to carve. No burnt fingers!
  6. Make the gravy.If you plan on using the drippings, transfer the turkey to a platter or carving board to rest instead. Make the gravy and use the now-empty oven to heat up your side dishes.
  7. Carve and serve.Time to carve the bird! Remember that a turkey is really just a large chicken and carve the legs and breasts off that way. Once the breast meat is cut off the bones, cut into slices. Cut the thigh meat off of the bones, but keep the drumsticks intact for presentation and for hearty dark-meat eaters.

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The Ultimate Thanksgiving Turkey Timeline: When to Thaw, Brine & Cook Your Bird (2024)

FAQs

The Ultimate Thanksgiving Turkey Timeline: When to Thaw, Brine & Cook Your Bird? ›

A completely frozen turkey needs a day to thaw for every four pounds in weight. Remember that if you plan to brine the turkey, it'll need to be defrosted even earlier. Don't cut this one close — there's no harm in a thawed turkey sitting around for an extra day or two. Dry-brine the turkey.

When should I start thawing and brining my turkey? ›

So shake that turkey leg and follow these simple steps to defrost the turkey and prep it for its brine bath. The key is to get started a day or two before Thanksgiving Day.

What is the timeline for brining a turkey? ›

As a general rule of thumb, you'll want to let the turkey brine for at least 1 hour per pound of turkey. Here's a breakdown of how long to brine a turkey based on size:
  1. 12–14-lb. turkey: 16–18 hours.
  2. 14–16-lb. turkey: 18–20 hours.
  3. 16–18-lb. turkey: 20–22 hours.
  4. 18–20-lb. turkey: 22–24 hours.
Oct 23, 2023

How many days do you thaw a turkey before Thanksgiving? ›

It takes 24 hours for every four to five pounds of weight for a turkey to thaw in the refrigerator (a 15-pound turkey will take three days to thaw in your refrigerator). A completely thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for one or two days before cooking.

How long to remove turkey from brine before cooking? ›

Remove the turkey from the brine 1 hour before you're ready to roast it. Pat it dry inside and out.

Can you brine turkey too long? ›

It's best to brine turkey for 12 to 24 hours. Brining it for longer than 24 hours can result in mushy meat and an overly salty flavor. If you do accidentally over-brine it, you can soak the turkey in cold water to remove some of the excess salt, but it likely won't have the best flavor or texture.

Do you wash your turkey after brining? ›

12. Do You Rinse a Turkey After Brining? You should always rinse the turkey after wet or dry brining. Once rinsed, you can let the turkey air dry, uncovered, in the refrigerator for several hours, or pat it dry with a paper towel.

Is it better to cook a turkey at 325 or 350? ›

We recommend roasting turkey at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 13 minutes per pound for an unstuffed turkey. We've done the math for you — check out the chart below to determine both turkey cook times and estimated servings (with leftovers!).

How long can a brined turkey stay in the fridge? ›

Brine the turkey in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours.

Do you have to cook immediately after brining? ›

Do you have to cook immediately after brining? No, you don't have to cook meat immediately after removing it from the brine.

Does a turkey have to be thawed before dry brining? ›

Dry brining takes longer than wet brining but requires less refrigerator space and results in browner and crispier skin. Before brining, some prep work needs to be done. If purchasing a frozen turkey, make sure it is thawed before brining.

Can you wet brine a partially thawed turkey? ›

After the brine cools to at least room temperature, pour it over the turkey inside your food-safe container. If the turkey floats, weigh it down with a plate. You can begin the wet brining process while your turkey is still frozen, or begin with a thawed turkey.

Are all frozen turkeys brined? ›

Each turkey is pre-brined before freezing for meat that's always tender and juicy. Frozen turkey can be purchased ahead of time for convenience and thawed prior to cooking.

What if I don't brine my turkey? ›

Brining a turkey is totally optional. If you're short on time or just want the most straight-forward method to roast a turkey, skip the brining step and just use the Simple Roasted Turkey method. Some people swear that brining yields the most tender, juicy meat, but it takes planning ahead.

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