How Long Does It Take To Cook A 20-Pound Turkey For Thanksgiving?

The burning (or hopefully not burning) question that everyone asks in late November each year is, just how long is it going to take me to cook this darn turkey? Of course, the cooking isn't even the time-consuming part. The bad news for procrastinators is that a 20-pound bird is going to need around five days of thawing time in the fridge if you bought it frozen (as does nearly everyone who doesn't live next door to a turkey farm). You can, of course, take the shortcut method of thawing in cold water, but even that'll need about eight hours, and you'll have to change the water every 30 minutes. Still, assuming you've had the forethought to thaw your turkey in a timely fashion, how early will you have to get up on Thanksgiving day to make sure it's done by dinnertime?

Not terribly early, as long as you're planning to eat sometime in the afternoon. If you opt to roast the turkey at 325 F, which some experts believe to be optimal (higher temps, they feel, may dry out the bird too much), it'll take anywhere between four and five hours, or maybe even 15 minutes longer if you're cooking the bird with stuffing inside. As this is a fairly wide time range, a meat thermometer will be a big help. Butterball recommends that you take the turkey out of the oven when a thermometer stuck in the breast reads 170 F, at which time one poked into the thigh should read 180 F.

It could take all day (and night) if you opt to roast at low heat, though

Even though cooking a turkey at 325 F should result in a fairly juicy bird, many recommend cooking larger turkeys at an even lower heat for extra-tender meat and super-crispy skin. This method is not that great for turkeys under 10 pounds, though, as they may dry out too much. Some experts advocate cooking big birds at 250 F — a 14-pound bird may take 10 hours to reach the proper temperature at this heat, so a 20-pound one, by extrapolation, could take about 14 hours. Don't take our word for it, though; take your meat thermometer's. Maybe start checking at around 10 hours, and keep checking each time you open the oven to baste. (One good thing about a low-temp oven is that you don't have to worry so much about heat loss from opening the door.)

Some cooks, however, will go as low as 170 for an overnight oven roast, which could take 20 hours for a 20-pound turkey. While this may trigger fears of food safety concerns in the risk-averse, starting off the cooking time with an hour at 450 F should kill off any potentially harmful bacteria. This only applies if you've thoroughly thawed the turkey, however, and you should also avoid cooking the stuffing inside the cavity.