What You Need to Know Before Roasting a Turkey

How to buy, thaw, and roast the main attraction.

  • Amanda Armstrong, Candy Sagon, and Renee Schettler

Believe it or not, basic algebra will get you a moist, beautifully burnished bird. All it takes is a simple equation. Start by identifying the most important variable―the number of guests. This will determine the size of the turkey you’ll need. Use this information to estimate the thawing and roasting times (plus or minus 10 minutes). Hate math? Don’t worry―Real Simple has done the calculations for you.

Number of diners: 8.
Turkey size (including leftovers): 10 to 12 pounds.
Thawing time (for a frozen turkey): Refrigerator, 2 to 2½ days; cool water (changed every half hour), 5 to 6 hours.
Roasting time (unstuffed): Roast at 425° F for 45 minutes. Cover with foil, reduce temperature to 350° F, and continue to roast the turkey until a thigh registers 180° F, about 2 hours total. Get started with this simple turkey recipe.

Number of diners: 12.
Turkey size (including leftovers): 16 to 18 pounds.
Thawing time (for a frozen turkey): Refrigerator, 3½ to 4 days; cool water (changed every half hour), 8 to 9 hours.
Roasting time (unstuffed): Roast at 425° F for 45 minutes. Cover with foil, reduce temperature to 350° F, and continue to roast the turkey until a thigh registers 180° F, 2½ to 3 hours total.

Number of diners: 16.
Turkey size (including leftovers): 20 to 22 pounds.
Thawing time (for a frozen turkey): Refrigerator, 4 to 4½ days; cool water (changed every half hour), 9 to 11 hours.
Roasting time (unstuffed): Roast at 425° F for 45 minutes. Cover with foil, reduce temperature to 350° F, and continue to roast the turkey until a thigh registers 180° F, 3 to 3½ hours total.

Number of diners: 20.
Turkey size (including leftovers): 24 to 26 pounds.
Thawing time (for a frozen turkey): Refrigerator, 5 to 5½ days; cool water (changed every half hour), 11 to 13 hours.
Roasting time (unstuffed): Roast at 425° F for 45 minutes. Cover with foil, reduce temperature to 350° F, and continue to roast the turkey until a thigh registers 180° F, 4 to 4½ hours total.


Talking Turkey

Call either of these hotlines to speak with an expert turkey roaster, pie baker, or side-dish maker. Hours listed are for Thanksgiving Day.

  • Butterball Turkey Talk-Line: 800-288-8372, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST; butterball.com.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry Hotline: 888-674-6854, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. EST; fsis.usda.gov.


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