The Foolproof Guide to Cooking Turkey Ahead of Time for the Holidays

Overview: Cooking turkey ahead of time is the best way to reduce stress on Thanksgiving day. You'll never go back with this foolproof method!

I am not exaggerating when I say that this method of cooking turkey ahead of time will CHANGE YOUR LIFE.  I first heard about it many years ago from a wise older lady, and I tried it — and I will NEVER go back!

Yes, it is possible to roast your holiday turkey many days (or weeks) in advance and still have tender, juicy, melt-in-your-mouth meat. In fact, I think the turkey comes out better this way than when it's been roasted the day of the holiday.

“But it's tradition!” you say. “How can we have a holiday without a roast turkey in the oven?  Norman Rockwell would be appalled!” you cry. Let me tell you what, you WILL cry when you realize how much unnecessary hassle you have gone through all these years. Although it is true there are a few things you will need to be prepared to give up. Brace yourselves…

Things you give up when cooking turkey ahead of time:

*The last-minute rushing to get the turkey carved before all the side dishes get cold.
*Burning your fingers while attempting the last-minute rushing to get the turkey carved.
*The waiting around, trying to keep making small talk, stomach growling, until the button pops up.
*The is-it-done? or is-it-not-done? decision-making process.
*The ugly carcass sitting on the kitchen counter for all your guests to admire.
*The ugly carcass sitting on the kitchen counter when you come back to clean up.
*The turkey taking up the entire oven, leaving no room for Aunt Stella's sweet potatoes.
*The fear of botulism from underdone stuffing.
*Meat so dry you could carbon date it.


But cooking turkey ahead of time using the method I'm about to describe means all the cleanup and carcass care is done long before the event. Your freezer will already be full of stock. Your oven will have room for the contributions of others. The side dishes and the turkey will be done at the same time. And the meat will be sliced in those beautiful slices like you see in the magazine pictures–and taste like you always thought it should. I know it sounds to good to be true, but trust me, it really does work. And it's SO EASY. Which is practically my main goal in life.

And so here are the directions (they look long, but the process is really not difficult. I just wanted to be detailed enough to try to anticipate any questions you may have):

The Foolproof Guide for a Stress-Free Thanksgiving:

1) Buy your turkey whenever you want. Plan the day you want to roast it on, and make sure it is thawed out in time.

2) Roasting Day: Prepare the turkey for roasting however you like. Do NOT stuff the turkey. (You can still have stuffing at the holiday dinner, you just need to cook it in the oven rather than the bird.)

3) Roast the turkey for the minimum time listed on the label/cookbook according to its weight. I.e., whatever range of time is listed, use the shortest time. It is not necessary to fully cook the turkey at this time. (See what I mean?  There is one nasty problem already gone by doing this ahead!) Take the turkey out of the oven and leave it on the counter to cool. Do not drain the drippings; you will need them.

4) When the turkey is cool to the touch, carve it. (Isn't this amazing?  Carving it when it's cooled down, what a concept!) You could even wait until the next day to do this, if you want — so convenient. Because the turkey is slightly underdone, it will not fall apart; instead, each individual slice will hold together, thus making them all larger and more appealing. You could stop right here and take a picture and put it in your OWN magazine.

5) As you carve, place the slices/pieces of meat into a pan or pans — the size of the pan doesn't matter as long as it has sides (NOT a cookie sheet). I usually use a 13×9 or larger, but this year I split my turkey into two smaller dishes. They will fit easier into my freezer that way.

But feel free to fill the pan(s) almost up to the top; it is not necessary to leave any room. Here is when you can sort out the meat into light and dark by putting each on different ends of the pan and meeting in the middle.

6) Pour ALL the drippings over the meat in the pan, then add water until the meat is covered. It's okay if some of the pieces are poking out a little bit, but you want most of it submerged in the liquid.

7) Cover with plastic wrap and then foil, making a fairly tight seal. CAREFULLY, without tilting (and this is the hardest part of the whole thing!!), put the pan of meat in the freezer.

8) Now you can deal with the carcass in your own timing and your own way. I personally never want to have to mess with it right away, so I wrap/bag it up (you can see it in the picture at the bottom of this page) and put it in the fridge to be taken care of another day.

I always make big plans to make stock with the bones, but usually after the carcass has been sitting in the fridge for a week, I end up throwing it out.  Sigh.


9a) Another thing you can make ahead of time is some yummy cranberry relish to have with the amazing turkey. Here's the recipe I grew up eating and still make every year: My Mom's Easy Vintage Cranberry Relish Recipe.

10) The night before the holiday, right before going to bed: Take the pan(s) of turkey meat out of the freezer and leave it on the counter overnight. It will still be basically a rock the next morning, just a little less so than if you had not started the thawing process the night before. THIS IS PERFECTLY SAFE — again, it will still be mostly frozen when you get back to it.

11) The day of the holiday: (If your dinner time is set for the evening, put the pan(s) of turkey in the fridge for awhile.) About 5-7 hours before dinner time, take off the plastic wrap but put the tinfoil back on. You want it covered, so it doesn't get crunchy on top.

Put the meat into a 250-degree oven and just let it sit in there. Your house will fill with that lovely smell of roasting turkey, and the turkey itself will be heating up and becoming fully cooked. It will be bathing in those lovely juices, so it will have no opportunity to dry out.  

You will still have room in the oven for other side dishes — it's a lot easier to work around a 13×9 than it is that big roasting pan! — and if the other food needs the oven to be a little hotter, you can either leave the turkey in there or take it out. It will stay hot for awhile because it is in the liquid. If you want to make gravy, you can siphon off some of the juices and use your favorite gravy recipe.

12) You can serve directly from the pan it has been cooking in, or you can place that same pan on the buffet table.  Or you can move the meat onto a serving tray if the liquid is too messy. Totally your call. Just be prepared to listen to a bunch of people telling you how good it is and wanting to know how you did it!!  And enjoy your easy clean-up and the peace and calm you will have all day!!

There are too many ways in which we can be stressed over the holidaysCooking turkey ahead of time is one thing we can do to increase our sanity level.  Give it a try!  Let me know in the comments if you did!  Or tell me about other things you do to prepare ahead for the holidays.

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3 thoughts on “The Foolproof Guide to Cooking Turkey Ahead of Time for the Holidays”

  1. I need to try this!! Thanksgiving is always stressful as I only have one oven! As far as making stock from the carcass, you can do that easily in a slow cooker!! Maybe right away and it would get done? (But then I put the stock in the freezer and never use it. Sigh.)

  2. I’m so glad you “recycled” this post and sent it out recently. I am roasting my first turkey this year (and I’m 51!) and this method seems like it will reduce my stress significantly. I’m actually planning to do it tomorrow, Nov. 16, 2021. Wish me luck!

  3. Yes, Yes, Yes!!

    I’ve done this for years as well. It is a huge blessing to not have to worry about getting the turkey done the day of and carved. Having the carcass taken care is also a wonderful feeling. In the past I have put the meat in different crockpots; light meat in one and dark meat in the other. I make a lot for a large crowd :). This frees up the oven even more for the sides. Try it!!

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