How to Keep a Turkey Warm
Cooking and serving a turkey dinner is a delicate dance that revolves around how long it takes the showstopping bird to cook. In an ideal world, the turkey would be out of the oven exactly 30 minutes before serving, so that you can remove it from the roasting pan and let it rest for about 20 minutes before carving and serving warm. In reality, most of us have to cook the bird well ahead of time (sometimes even a day or so in advance) in order to have the oven space to cook the rest of the feast. We all know how disappointing it can be to serve perfectly executed dishes at the wrong temperature, so here are our best tips on how to keep a turkey warm after cooking. Plus, we'll go over how to calculate the right cook time for your turkey and essential food safety tips.
Proper Cook Times for Roast Turkey
Before we get into the meat of it, let's start with how long you should roast a turkey. Knowing the exact cook time will help you determine which method you should use to keep your turkey warm after cooking.
As a general rule of thumb, an unstuffed, thawed turkey should roast at 325°F for about 15 minutes per pound, according to the USDA. A spatchcocked turkey (one where the backbone has been removed) takes significantly less time. For a turkey prepared this way, we recommend cooking it in a 450°F oven for about 9 to 10 minutes per pound.
Remember that these cook times are general guidelines; there are many ways to roast a turkey. There are also many different factors that affect how long it will actually take to cook your turkey (type of oven, the turkey's temperature before cooking, how often the oven door is opened, etc.). The only way to truly know if your turkey is fully cooked is to check with a meat thermometer. Your turkey is done when the thermometer, inserted into the thickest part of either thigh without touching bone, registers a temperature of 165°F.
Although it might be tempting to roast your turkey early and display it on the table for a few hours until it's time to eat, the USDA advises otherwise. In fact, you shouldn't leave any perishable food out at room temperature for more than two hours. This time frame reduces to one hour in hot climates with temperatures over 90°F. This is because bacteria are prone to grow in temperatures between 40°F and 140°F, aka the "danger zone."
However, your thawed turkey will cook more evenly if you leave it out to come to room temperature for about an hour before roasting. It will also cook faster than if the turkey went straight from the fridge to the oven.
To Carve or Not to Carve
If your bird is ready within two hours before serving, wait to carve it. Keeping it whole will prevent the meat from drying out. However, if you've cooked your turkey well in advance (like the day before), it's best to carve it and store it in the refrigerator until the day of the feast. More on that below.
Cover the Turkey
The simplest way to keep a turkey warm is to cover it. To do so, remove the turkey from the oven when it's done cooking and let it cool down for about 20 minutes. If you cover it right away, the trapped heat will continue to cook your bird and will result in overcooked (aka dry) meat. After 20 minutes, cover the turkey with foil and then place a kitchen towel on top. The towel will further help keep things warm. Your turkey should stay warm for about 1½ to 2 hours using this method.
Hold the Turkey in the Oven
If you have an extra oven that's not in use, you can hold your cooked turkey in there at a low temperature. When your turkey has finished cooking, remove it from the oven and let it rest for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, set the extra oven's temperature as low as it will go. After your turkey is done resting, cover it with foil and place it back in the oven. To ensure that the turkey stays moist, pour some warm water into a pan and place the pan under the turkey in the oven.
What If I Cooked the Turkey the Day Before?
As we mentioned above, if you've cooked your turkey a day (or days) before Thanksgiving, it's best to carve it and keep it in the refrigerator.
To carve the cooked turkey, let it rest at room temperature for a minimum of 20 minutes and then carve it. Make sure the pieces are about ¾-inch thick; this will help the meat retain moisture. Get a tray that fits in your fridge and lay the cut pieces close together while overlapping—this will help prevent your turkey from drying out. Tightly cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
On turkey day, remove the carved bird from the fridge and let it come to room temperature (it should take about an hour). Preheat the oven to 350°F. Once the turkey has come to room temperature, drizzle some warm turkey stock or broth (chicken or vegetable stock/broth will do too) over the cut pieces. Reheat to desired warmth, around 15 minutes.
After all the work that went into cooking the perfect roast turkey, the last thing you want is to serve it cold to your guests (unless that's how you like your turkey, then you do!). If you're within the safe two-hour time frame, covering the turkey with foil and a kitchen towel will keep things insulated until it's time to eat. If you're lucky enough to have an available oven, holding the turkey in there at a low temperature (or even with the oven off, because the oven itself will provide some insulation) will do the job. If the bird was cooked well in advance, it will need to be carved, refrigerated and then reheated with some chicken or turkey stock. Following any of these methods will ensure that your turkey is served warm on the big day.