Cooking the Holiday Turkey

On Thanksgiving, sometimes mistakes happen that make your turkey day a turkey don’t. What should you do if the turkey isn’t ready in time? Here are some ways to save the day.

If you don’t have time to cook a whole turkey:

Cook turkey parts, which can be ready in a fraction of the time. Roasting turkey breasts, thighs, or wings instead of the whole bird also allows you to ensure they all remain moist. Set your oven to at least 325°F. Use your food thermometer and insert it in the thickest part of each piece, avoiding the bone; each is done when it reaches a safe internal temperature of 165°F.

Turkey Product Weight Timing
Breast, Half 2 to 3 pounds 50 to 60 minutes
Breast, Whole 4 to 8 pounds 1 ½ to 3 ¼ hours
Thighs, Drumsticks ¾ to 1 pound each 1 ¾ to 2 ¼ hours
Wings, Wing drumettes 6 to 8 ounces each 1 ¾ to 2 ¼ hours

“Spatchcock” your turkey. Cut out the backbone of the turkey using kitchen shears, then flip it over and press firmly on the breast bones so the turkey lays flat. Roast it in the oven at 450°F; for a 12-pound turkey, cook for about 70 minutes. You can also grill a spatchcocked turkey. Use a food thermometer to check that it reaches 165°F in three places: 1) the innermost part of the thigh, 2) the innermost part of the wing, and 3) the thickest part of the breast.

Cook two smaller turkeys. Make sure you have enough space in your oven so that heat can properly circulate around both and cook them evenly. Use the timing for the smaller turkey as your guide, and check that each turkey reaches 165°F in the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing, and the thickest part of the breast.

Product Weight Unstuffed Timing
Whole Turkey 8 to 12 pounds 2 ¾ to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3 ¾ hours
14 to 18 pounds 3 ¾ to 4 ¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds 4 ¼ to 4 ½ hours
20 to 24 pounds 4 ½ to 5 hours

If your turkey is still frozen solid:

Try a safe quick-thawing method. Cold water: Keep the bird in its airtight packaging or a leak-proof bag, submerge it in cold water, and change the water every 30 minutes. Microwave: Use your manufacturer guidelines to thaw for about 6 minutes per pound. Make sure your turkey can fit in the microwave. After using these methods, your turkey must be cooked immediately. Remember to clean and sanitize your microwave, sink, and surfaces, and wash your hands with soap and water after handling raw turkey.

Cook it from the frozen state (NOTE: don’t use an oven bag). A frozen turkey will take at least 50% longer to cook than a thawed turkey. It may be tough to get the giblets out, but you can pull out the packet with tongs once the turkey has been baking for 20 to 30 minutes. When the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing, and the thickest part of the breast reach 165°F, it is ready to eat.

Weight Timing (from Frozen)
4 to 8 pounds (breast) 2 ¼ to 5 hours
8 to 12 pounds 4 ¼ to 4 ½ hours
12 to 14 pounds 4 ½ to 5 ¾ hours
14 to 18 pounds 5 ¾ to 6 ½ hours
18 to 20 pounds 6 ½ to 6 ¾ hours
20 to 24 pounds 6 ¾ to 7 ½ hours

If cooking a turkey is intimidating:

Try a smaller poultry product like chicken, duck, or Cornish game hens. These birds may be easier to handle and take less time to reach a safe internal temperature, even whole. You can cook poultry parts for even more time savings. All poultry products must be cooked to a safe internal temperature of 165°F as measured by a food thermometer.

Type of Poultry Roast Braise/Simmer Grill(direct heat unless noted*)
Whole duck 30 to 35 min per pound at 350°F. Not preferred Not preferred
Duck breast Brown skin-side down in a skillet over medium heat. Then cook 12 min in a 425°F oven. 60 to 75 minutes Grill skin side down 6 minutes; turn and grill 7 to 8 minutes
Duck legs or thighs Roast 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours at 325°F. 1½ hours 30 min, turning every 5 minutes
Whole chicken 1 ¼ to 2 ¼ hrs at 350°F. 1 to 2 hours 18 to 25 minutes/pound*
Whole Cornish hens 50 to 60 min at 350°F. 35 to 40 minutes 45 to 55 minutes*

*Indirect heat recommended to preserve quality.

Buy options at your local grocery store, like a rotisserie chicken, or even a complete Thanksgiving meal including turkey. When you purchase cooked food, do not leave it out for more than 2 hours. Have your oven, chafing dishes, or warming trays ready to keep your food above 140°F. If you pick up your meal early, store it in the refrigerator. Break down the poultry and pack it into smaller containers in the fridge. You can reheat it in the oven or microwave with gravy, broth or water to keep the meat moist. The perfect reheat temperature is 165°F, or enjoy items cold or at room temperature.

Regardless of your turkey day dilemma, we are here to help! Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) to talk to a food safety expert or chat live at from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central Time, Monday through Friday. If you need help on Thanksgiving Day, the Meat and Poultry Hotline is available from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Central Time.