The first step to baking a turkey is figuring out exactly how big of one you will need. The rule of thumb is to have 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of turkey per person. When it comes time to purchase the turkey, the decision has to be made on whether to buy it fresh or frozen. Both types of purchases require a little planning and forethought. A fresh turkey will save time because it does not have to be thawed yet they tend to be more expensive. A fresh turkey should be bought only a day before it is to be cooked. A frozen turkey is less expensive and can be bought days ahead of time but requires space in a refrigerator for thawing, which may take up a few days.
When one buys a frozen turkey, they need to decide on how they will defrost it. There are two ways to safely thaw a turkey. The first way is to defrost it in the refrigerator. This can take up to a few days to accomplish. Defrosting in the refrigerator averages a thaw time of 5 pounds per day. The second way to defrost a turkey is to place it in a cold water bath. It is important to keep the turkey totally submerged in the water. The water should be changed every 30 minutes. One should allow 30 minutes per pound of turkey for thawing this way. It is also acceptable to combine the two methods of thawing.
Preparing the turkey to be cooked in the oven is relatively easy. The first step is to remove the giblets. The giblets are usually wrapped in a packet inside the bird and easily removed. Once the giblets are removed, rinse the turkey inside and out, and pat dry with a paper towel.
The turkey can now be seasoned by either marinating it in a brine or rubbing it inside and out with herbs, butter or olive oil.
At this point, if the turkey is to be stuffed, now is the time to do that. Place ½ to ¾ cup of stuffing per pound inside the bird and stuff it lightly. The drumsticks should be tied together with string in order to keep the stuffing inside. Before it goes into the oven, brush the skin with melted butter and place a meat thermometer in the deepest part of the breast area. A meat thermometer is important to insure that the turkey is cooked completely.
With the turkey place on a rack in a roasting pan, place it into a preheated 350 degree F oven. Once the skin of the turkey turns a light golden color, it can be loosely covered with foil. Towards the end of the baking time, the foil can be removed for even browning.
The baking times for stuffed birds and unstuffed birds are different. Turkeys of 10-18 pounds should be roasted unstuffed 3-3.5 hours and stuffed 3.75-4.5 hours. Turkeys weighing 15-22 pounds should roast unstuffed 3.5-4 hours and stuffed 4.5-5 hours. Weights of 22-24 pounds should roast unstuffed 4-4.5 hours and stuffed 5-5.5 hours. Turkey weighing 24-29 pounds should be cooked 4.5-5 hours unstuffed and stuffed 5.5-6.25 hours. A meat thermometer reading of 165 degrees plus clear running juices indicates that the turkey is done.
Once the turkey is done, it should sit up to 30 minutes before carving. By sitting at room temperature, the juices are distributed throughout the turkey. This allows for more of the juice to be in the slices of turkey. The turkey can then be transferred to a cutting board for carving. The drippings from the roasting pan can be used to make gravy.