Wondering what size turkey you should buy for your next gathering? The last thing you want is to put in all that work, only to run out of meat. Our guide will make it easy for you to determine how much turkey you’ll need to serve your guests.
How Much Bone-In Poultry Per Person
The first thing you need to decide is how much meat to buy for each person on the guest list.
When you’re dealing with boneless cuts, the standard recommendation is around 1/2 pound per person. That doesn’t work with whole turkeys. There will be a lot of bone and other unusable bits left over, so you’ll need to make a higher estimate.
To ensure that you’ll have enough turkey, plan on buying at least 1-1/4 pound of raw meat per person. Using these calculations, you can assume that a 15-pound turkey should be enough to feed 12 people.
While this formula will work fine in most cases, we like to err on the side of caution. After all, when you cook a whole turkey, it’s a shame not to have any meat left over for sandwiches or soup—or both, if you’re lucky.
Try to buy 1-1/2 pounds of turkey per person. If there are 12 people on your guest list, look for a whole turkey that weighs somewhere in the 18-pound range.
The “1-1/2 pound per person” guideline isn’t a strict rule. As we pointed out, it’s a generous estimate, used because we prefer to plan on leftovers.
There are other factors that can affect your estimate as well. In this section, we’ll discuss some of the more prevalent ones.
Age of Guests
A crowd of hungry adults will consume more than a family with several small children. Kids don’t eat as much, especially at festive gatherings, when there are usually plenty of distractions.
Scale back the portion sizes to about 1 pound for every guest on your list who’s under the age of 10. You can probably get away with doing the same for elderly guests.
Time of Day
Is your party at noon, or are you gathering later in the day? People tend to consume their main meal of the day in the evening. If you serve them at lunchtime, they probably won’t eat as much as they would after dark.
Type of Gathering
Also, consider the tone of the gathering. At holiday meals, people are more inclined to overindulge. If you’re just smoking a couple of turkeys for a backyard barbecue in the summer, you probably won’t need as much meat.
Number of Side Dishes
It’s also a good idea to catalog the number of side dishes you plan to serve. If the table will be laden with stuffing, cranberry sauce, macaroni salad, rolls, and sweet potato casserole, the turkey will only take up so much room on people’s plates.
About How Big is a Turkey?
In the wild, turkeys don’t grow that large—about 8 to 10 pounds for the hens and 18 pounds for the toms. But the domestic ones are bred for consumption, and as such are often much larger.
Since it’s rare to find whole turkeys that weigh less than 10 pounds, you might want to adjust your plans when cooking for a smaller crowd. If you’re only serving 4 to 8 people, it’s a good idea to cook off a turkey breast instead of a whole bird.
What Size Turkey Should I Buy?
Now that we’ve discussed the factors that could affect your serving sizes, it’s time to get specific. How many people are you serving, and how big of a turkey will you need?
For the estimates below, we’ve used a formula that assumes 1 to 1-1/2 pounds of raw meat for each guest. Use the qualifications we’ve discussed as a guideline when making your selection.
By way of example, if you’re hosting a family gathering in the afternoon and there will be a lot of kids there, scale back on your portion sizes. For a group of adults having Christmas dinner at five in the evening, use a number from the higher end of the scale.
How Big of a Turkey for 4 People
4 to 6 pounds
How Big of a Turkey for 5 People
5 to 7-1/2 pounds
How Big of a Turkey for 6 People
6 to 9 pounds
How Big of a Turkey for 7 People
7 to 10-1/2 pounds
How Big of a Turkey for 8 People
8 to 12 pounds
How Big of a Turkey for 9 People
9 to 13-1/2 pounds
How Big of a Turkey for 10 People
10 to 15 pounds
How Big of a Turkey for 12 People
12 to 18 pounds
How Big of a Turkey for 15 People
15 to 22-1/2 pounds
How Big of a Turkey for 20 People
20 to 30 pounds
How Long Does it Take to Cook a Turkey?
There’s no way to tell exactly how long the turkey will take to finish cooking. The total cooking time depends on the size of the bird, its starting temperature, whether it’s stuffed or unstuffed, the temperature of the oven or smoker, and several other factors.
Fortunately, you can make an educated guess based on the turkey’s size and the cooking temperature you choose. An unstuffed turkey that weighs less than 20 pounds should cook at a rate of 15 minutes per pound when you use an oven temperature of 325 degrees.
For larger specimens, you can shave a few minutes off that per-pound estimate. If you were to leave a 30-pound turkey in the oven for a full 7-1/2 hours, there’s a chance that it would be too dry by the time you were ready to serve it.
Turkeys should cook for about 5 minutes longer per pound when the cavity is filled with stuffing. If the turkey weighs more than 20 pounds, though, it’s better to increase your total estimate by about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
To clarify, let’s say you have a 12-pound turkey. If you stuff it, you should plan to let the meat cook for 4 hours. If you’ve opted not to stuff the cavity, the turkey could be ready in as little as 3 hours.
Roasting a 22-pound turkey should take about 4-1/2 hours when the bird is unstuffed. Increase your estimate to 5-1/4 to 5-1/2 hours if you decide to cook the stuffing inside the turkey.
How To Tell When Turkey is Done
As you can tell, there may be a bit of a window between the time when you expect the turkey to be done and the time when it actually finishes cooking. The only way to know for sure is to test the temperature using a meat thermometer.
At the estimated halfway point—around 1-1/2 hours for an unstuffed 12-pound turkey—test the internal temperature of the meat. In the interest of being thorough, you should test it in both the breast and the thigh.
Insert the thermometer probe into the thickest part of the turkey breast. Be very careful not to brush against any bone, as this will cause the thermometer to display an incorrect readout.
The breast meat should achieve an internal temp of 160 degrees before you remove it from the heat. Due to carryover cooking, it will cook to the safe temperature of 165 degrees as the bird is resting.
To test the dark meat, insert the probe into the meatiest portion of the thigh. This meat is done at the 180-degree mark. It’s safe to eat it at 165 degrees, but if you do, the meat won’t have the right texture.
If it appears that the breast is cooking too quickly, try tenting it with foil to shield it from the heat. It’s best if the white and dark meat reach their optimum internal temps at the same time.
Basting is another way to slow the process. When you baste the breast with liquid, the extra moisture will take more time to evaporate. This helps to guarantee juicy breast meat while allowing the legs and thighs to cook through at a similar pace.
Should the breast finish cooking too early, you can always remove it and return the rest of the bird to the oven. This approach might be a bit lacking in the presentation department, but it’s better than allowing the breast meat to overcook.
Should I Stuff The Turkey?
Putting the stuffing directly in the turkey’s cavity has its pros and cons.
On the plus side, doing so will allow the stuffing to absorb the turkey’s natural juices. This will give it a richer flavor. It also makes for an impressive presentation when you take the turkey out of the oven.
However, you need to make sure the stuffing is warm, or at least at room temperature, when you put it inside the turkey. Otherwise, it may not heat to a safe temp by the time the turkey is finished cooking.
Speaking of which, the stuffing needs to achieve an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees—the same as the breast meat. It’s been exposed to the raw poultry, so it’s subject to the same safety concerns.
If the turkey is done and the stuffing is still too cool in the center, you’ll need to remove the stuffing from the cavity and heat it in a separate dish. Since the turkey needs to rest anyway, this shouldn’t be too much of a hassle, but it’s something to be aware of.
In addition to being safer, cooking the stuffing separately should lower the fat and calorie content of the dish. The drippings from a whole turkey contain a great deal of fat, and those are the same juices that will be absorbed by the stuffing.
One final note: If you’re smoking the turkey instead of roasting it in the oven, it’s better to prepare the stuffing separately. Stuffing that’s been exposed to wood smoke will have a bitter aftertaste, and it will prolong the cooking time even more.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to portion sizes, our advice would be to round up. You can always make soup or sandwiches with your leftovers, or put them in the freezer for later. But the last thing you want is to run out of meat at the table.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!