How big of a turkey do I need for 20 guests?

When hosting Thanksgiving dinner for a large group, one of the most important decisions is figuring out how big of a turkey you need to buy. You want to make sure you have enough turkey to feed everyone, with some leftovers, but you don’t want to end up with an excessive amount of extra turkey. So how do you determine what size turkey to get for 20 guests? Here are some tips and guidelines to help you figure it out.

Consider How Many People Are Attending

The most important factor in determining what size turkey to buy is how many guests you will be hosting. For 20 guests, you’ll need a good sized turkey, but not an enormous one. As a general rule of thumb, plan for 1 pound of uncooked turkey per person. For 20 guests, this means you should plan for a 20 pound turkey.

However, this 1 pound per person rule may not be perfect, as appetites vary quite a bit, especially during the holidays. You may want to adjust up or down depending on the demographics of your guests. For example, if you’re hosting a crowd with a lot of hearty adult eaters, you may want to plan for 1 1/4 pounds per person. For a group with more kids or seniors, you could probably get away with 3/4 of a pound per person.

It’s better to err on the side of having too much turkey than not enough. Leftovers are great for turkey sandwiches and turkey soup after the big meal. With 20 guests, a 20-22 pound turkey should be sufficient in most cases.

Choose Between a Whole Turkey or Just Breast

Once you’ve settled on about how many pounds of turkey you need, the next decision is whether to get a whole turkey or just a turkey breast. A whole turkey will include both white and dark meat, while a breast is white meat only. Here are some pros and cons of each option for a group of 20:

  • Whole turkey: More traditional, provides both light and dark meat, yields more leftovers. But is trickier to cook evenly.
  • Turkey breast: Easier to cook evenly since it’s one thick piece of white meat. But no dark meat, smaller bones for those who enjoy gnawing.

For a group of 20, you may want to go with a bone-in whole turkey breast in the 15-20 pound range. This will give you an elegant presentation and lots of tasty white meat without the hassle of trying to cook a 20 pound whole turkey perfectly.

Buy According to Cooked Weight

One mistake people often make when purchasing a turkey is buying according to the raw weight. Turkeys shrink a lot in cooking – as much as 25-30%. So a 22 pound raw turkey may yield only about 15 pounds of cooked meat. Therefore, it’s important to pay attention to the cooked weight on the label rather than just the raw weight.

For a group of 20, you’ll want a turkey that has a cooked weight of at least 15 pounds. This should provide enough hearty portions for all your guests, with some leftovers too. Don’t just buy the biggest raw turkey you can find – look for one that will deliver the cooked weight you need.

Allow Extra for Leftovers

In addition to having enough turkey for 20 generous servings on Thanksgiving day, you’ll also want to have some leftovers. Turkey leftovers are wonderful for sandwiches, soups, casseroles, and more in the days following Thanksgiving. With 20 guests, plan for having 8-10 pounds of cooked turkey left over.

This is another reason it’s important to pay attention to the cooked weight on the label rather than just the raw weight. Give yourself an extra buffer so you’ll have plenty of turkey on hand after the main meal is over.

Get a Frozen Turkey If Possible

Fresh turkeys aregreat, but for feeding a crowd, a frozen turkey is often a better choice. Frozen turkeys are typically more affordable per pound. They keep for longer in the freezer before thawing and roasting. And freezing helps kill potentially harmful bacteria, yielding a safer final product.

For optimal flavor and texture, give yourself several days to thaw a frozen turkey gradually in the fridge before cooking. This will allow the ice crystals to reabsorb into the meat. Be sure to plan ahead and give yourself ample time for a 20+ pound turkey to thaw completely.

Estimate Your Turkey Cooking Time

A turkey this size will require significant cooking time, so plan accordingly. Figure about 13-15 minutes per pound for an unstuffed turkey. So for a 22 pound turkey, expect around 4.5-5.5 hours of cooking time once it’s at room temperature and ready to go in the oven. Adding stuffing will increase the overall cooking time.

You’ll also need to factor in the thawing time if you buy a frozen turkey. And remember to account for the rest time after cooking, before you carved and serve the turkey. Allow at least 30 minutes of rest for juices to redistribute through the turkey.

Make Sure You Have Oven Space

That 20+ pound turkey is going to take up some serious real estate in your oven. Make sure you have room for a turkey of this size before you buy it. Measure your oven cavity and make sure there is enough space for the turkey to lie flat. You likely don’t want the turkey touching the sides of the oven as it runs the risk of uneven cooking.

You also need vertical clearance for a turkey this big. Measure to make sure you have at least 2-3 inches of headroom above the turkey. If space is tight, you can always cook without the pop-up timer inserted.

Have a Backup Oven Plan

With the large size turkey and long cook time, there is more opportunity for potential oven issues or malfunctions to arise. To avoid a holiday cooking crisis, have a backup oven plan in place just in case. This could involve borrowing a neighbor’s oven, keeping a portable convection oven on hand, or having your grill ready as a backup. Better safe than turkey-less!

Get a Strong Roasting Pan

Don’t overlook having the right roasting tools for a 20+ pound turkey! You’ll need a heavy duty roasting pan that can hold the turkey securely and withstand prolonged oven time. Disposable aluminum pans are prone to buckling or collapsing under a large turkey. Opt for a sturdy stainless steel or enamel roasting pan instead.

You’ll also want a heavy duty roasting rack that fits inside the pan, allowing air flow under the turkey for even cooking. Test out your roasting setup well in advance to make sure it’s turkey-ready.

Allow Time for Defrosting

One thing that catches many Thanksgiving cooks off guard is failing to allow enough time for a frozen turkey to defrost. While you can defrost a turkey in cold water in a matter of hours, this isn’t recommended as it increases the risk of bacterial growth on the surface of the turkey.

For best results, defrost a frozen turkey slowly in the fridge. Allocate 24 hours of defrost time per 4-5 pounds of turkey weight. So for a 22 pound frozen turkey, allow about 5 days in the fridge for thorough defrosting. Be sure to plan ahead so your turkey is fully thawed by Thanksgiving morning.

Prepare the Fridge for the Turkey

Once your turkey is defrosted, you’ll need ample fridge space to store it until roasting time. Make room by clearing out other items and shelving as needed. Place the turkey on a large platter or pan and tent it loosely with foil. Arrange it so the thicker breast end is higher – this keeps the cavity elevated to prevent raw juices from collecting there.

Keep the turkey refrigerated until you are ready to place it in the preheated oven. Cook within 1-2 days of defrosting for safety and optimal freshness.

Let It Rest Before Carving

Don’t start carving your turkey the minute it comes out of the oven! Resting is a crucial step to ensure juicy, flavorful meat. The internal temperature of the turkey will continue rising 5-10 degrees during the rest period. And the juices need time to reabsorb back into the cooked meat.

After removing your turkey from the oven, tent it loosely with foil and let it rest at least 30 minutes before carving. This helps ensure even cooking and makes for better presentation with juices retained.

Consider Getting a Turkey Breast

While a whole roasted turkey makes a beautiful presentation, carving a 20+ pound whole turkey can be tricky and time-consuming. An easier option for feeding a crowd is to roast two bone-in turkey breast halves instead. At about 10 pounds each, they cook quickly and evenly.

Turkey breasts also provide all white meat. You’ll miss out on the dark meat, but for guests who prefer white meat this may be a better route. You can always augment with purchased turkey drumsticks.

Make a Carving Strategy

Carving a 20 pound turkey into perfect, neat slices is an art form. Have a plan in place before tackling it. First remove the legs and thighs, then slice the breast meat. Aim for thin, even slices by cutting against the grain of the meat.

Going into your carving with a strategy will yield better presentation with less waste. Assigning carving duty to an experienced cook can also help take the guesswork out of serving up the turkey.

Consider Getting Turkey Parts

If the idea of roasting and carving an enormous whole turkey is too daunting, another option is cooking just parts. You can purchase a whole bone-in turkey breast along with legs and thighs separately. Cook them individually and bring together on a platter for that turkey feast feel.

Going the parts route takes some of the pressure off pulling together a perfect whole roasted bird. And it can provide more even doneness across white and dark meat. Just be sure to get each element to the table piping hot.

Make Use of Leftovers

A 20+ pound turkey will provide piles of coveted leftovers. Be ready to make the most of them! Have freezer bags, storage containers and sandwich bread ready for leftovers. Slice or shred remaining meat off the bones for easy freezing.

Leftover turkey is endlessly versatile. It’s delicious in sandwiches, soups, casseroles, pot pies, salad, pasta, pizza, wraps, enchiladas and more! Get creative with your leftovers to avoid waste and turkey burnout.

Order Early from Your Butcher

With the busy holiday rush at grocery stores, fresh turkeys can sell out faster than you expect. Get ahead of the game by preordering your turkey from your local butcher or meat market. Give them as much advance notice as possible.

A butcher can also provide more guidance in selecting just the right size turkey for your group. And they may be able to provide harder-to-find heritage breed turkeys if that interests you.

Consider Multiple Smaller Turkeys

Rather than one huge turkey, another option is roasting two smaller turkeys for your group of 20. Two 10-12 pound turkeys may fit better in your oven and cook more quickly than one massive bird.

Going smaller also gives you more flexibility. Cook one turkey traditionally with stuffing, and perhaps try a new herb rub or preparation method on the second. And if one turkey finishes earlier, no problem – you have a backup ready!

Make Extra Gravy

With 20 guests devouring turkey and sides, don’t skimp on the gravy! Gravy is easy to scale up and freezes beautifully. Plan for about 1 cup gravy per person, and make at least a couple cups extra. You may want to make a double batch so you have ample gravy to pour over turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and everything on the table.

Get an Oven Thermometer

A 20+ pound turkey represents a big investment of time and money, so you want to make sure it cooks as evenly as possible. One way to help ensure optimal results is using an oven thermometer. This allows you to gauge whether your oven is running accurately at the desired roasting temp.

Check that your oven comes up to temperature and maintains it consistently throughout roasting. Adjust the oven temp gradually if needed to calibrate your oven and eliminate hot spots. This step helps prevent turkey disasters!

Make Broth from the Carcass

Don’t toss that turkey carcass after the feast! Put it to use making nourishing bone broth. Turkey carcasses are loaded with collagen that transforms into gelatin when slowly simmered in water. This makes for an insanely nutritious broth.

Simmer the stripped turkey carcass with some basic aromatics for 8-10 hours until falling apart. Strain and you have quarts of rich turkey broth ready for soups, stews and sauces all winter long. It freezes beautifully too.

Cook Stuffing Separately

For optimal food safety, it’s best not to stuff the main 20 pound turkey. Instead, cook your favorite stuffing separately in a baking dish to allow even heat penetration without overcooking the breast meat. You can still place some aromatics in the main turkey cavity while roasting.

Cooking stuffing outside the turkey also allows you to make as much stuffing as you want. Stuffing baked in a dish can also develop delicious crispy edges that many people relish.

Make Turkey Sandwiches

Leftover turkey sandwiches are a cherished tradition after Thanksgiving. With ample leftovers from a sizable turkey, you can get creative with lots of sandwich options. Sliced turkey with mayo and cranberry sauce on sourdough is a classic. Or mix it up with turkey bacon avocado sandwiches, turkey club sandwiches, or French dip turkey sandwiches au jus.

Set out sandwich fixings buffet-style so guests can construct their own turkey sandwiches from leftovers before heading home with their take-home boxes.

Use a Meat Thermometer

Cooking a huge 20+ pound turkey thoroughly without drying out the breast meat is tricky business. Using a meat thermometer takes the guesswork out of determining doneness. It provides a precise reading of the deepest breast meat to aim for 165°F-170°F to ensure it’s fully cooked without overdoing it.

Insert your thermometer into the thickest part of the breast, taking care not to hit bone. Monitor the temp periodically without letting the thermometer actually touch the bone, which can yield a falsely high reading. Let the turkey rest to allow the temp to coast up to the food safe 165°F mark after removing from the oven.


When cooking turkey for 20 guests:

  • Plan for around 1 pound turkey per person, which means buying a 20-22 pound turkey
  • Choose between a whole turkey or just turkey breast
  • Pay attention to the cooked weight, not just the raw weight
  • Allow extra for generous leftovers – about 8-10 pounds
  • Get a frozen turkey if possible for affordability and food safety
  • Make sure your oven can accommodate a turkey this size
  • Have a backup oven plan just in case
  • Use a heavy duty roasting pan and rack
  • Allow ample time for thawing if frozen – about 5 days in the fridge
  • Let the cooked turkey rest 30+ minutes before carving
  • Make strategic use of leftovers
  • Preorder from a butcher for the best selection
  • Consider roasting two smaller turkeys
  • Make lots of gravy – plan for 1 cup per person
  • Use an oven thermometer for optimal roasting
  • Make broth from the carcass
  • Cook stuffing separately
  • Use a meat thermometer to ensure doneness without overcooking

Following these tips will help ensure Thanksgiving success when cooking turkey for a crowd! With smart planning and some strategic maneuvers in the kitchen, you’ll be rewarded with a centerpiece turkey feed and plenty of coveted leftovers.

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