How to Roast the Perfect Turkey

Ok, I’m not gonna get into a long shpeal about the importance of the turkey on Thanksgiving (also called “turkey day”). Everyone knows the importance of the turkey, and we also know it takes more than gravy to fix a dry, flavorless turkey. There’s a lot to go over in this post, but we’ll cover lots of tips and explain why we do certain things, so you can take this “recipe” and run with it, adding whatever flavors you want while still producing a tender, juicy turkey.

Quick note – a lot of this comes from the great Alton Brown. I’ve made the recipe and flavors my own, but as for the execution, I give him full credit. He is, in fact, the man. “Alton” is even on our baby name list!

First thing, don’t stuff your turkey with stuffing while it cooks. That’s an awesome way to poison all of your guests with a food borne illness. The problem is, the stuffing will often take longer to heat than the turkey. And once you put the stuffing INTO the turkey, it’s contaminated and needs to be brought up to 165. So by the time your stuffing comes up to 165, the breast will often be 180 or higher, i.e. jerky. Dry dry dry. So just cook the stuffing separately, and only add some loose aromatics to the turkey cavity. More on that in a bit.

Second, try to stick with smaller turkeys, between 12 and 14 pounds. If you have lots of people coming over, do multiple turkeys. I know it’s cool to deliver a giant turkey to the table for your guests, but large turkeys take longer to cook. The longer they’re in the oven, the more difficult it is to keep the meat from drying out. And because turkey is so low in fat, keeping it moist can be difficult. Which brings me to my next tip.

Third tip, I highly suggest brining the turkey. I’ve talked about brines before, but for those of you new to our blog or brining, here’s the skinny. A brine is a liquid with lots of salt and other flavorings added that you submerge your turkey (or any kind of meat, really) into. Essentially, the salt draws all the liquid out of the turkey, which seems like a bad thing. But when left in the brine long enough, this process creates a vacuum in the turkey, where the salted and flavored liquid is then drawn back into the meat. This not only adds extra moisture to the meat, but lots of flavor. So that’s where our tutorial will start – with the brine.

Here’s what you need for your brine:
- a food-grade lidded container large enough to hold your turkey
- a turkey, obviously
• 1 cup salt
• 1 cup brown sugar
• 2 tbsp black pepper corns
• 2 tbsp allspice berries
• 1 gallon of water
* about 5 pounds of ice
* more water

Sometimes I add more stuff to my brine, like cinnamon sticks, cloves, herbs etc.. For the purposes of this tutorial, I kept it really simple, and honestly it still turned out delicious. Basically, you can add whatever you want, but you really won’t need to.

Combine the bulleted ingredients into a large pot, and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let cool. Put the turkey into the container (make sure you take out the gizzards and stuff that are usually contained in a bag that’s been stuffed into the neck part), breast side down. Add the ice, then pour in your brining liquid. Add more water until the turkey is completely covered and shake the turkey around a bit to mix the liquid all together. You may need to put a heavy bowl or something on top of the turkey to weigh it down and keep it submerged in the brine. Cover it and put it in the fridge for 8-16 hours.

You can’t really see it, but there’s a turkey in there. My container is actually too big for our fridge, so I put ours in our shed overnight because I know it stays pretty cold out there, it has a lock, and the ice in the brine kept everything a low enough temp. I check it every so often and make sure there’s still ice in it. As long as you have some ice cubes, you’re fine. But also be sure not to let the brine freeze.

About 5 hours before dinner, remove your turkey from the brine and discard the brine. Put the turkey on a roasting rack in your roasting pan and pat it completely dry with paper towels, inside and out. Cut up half an onion, half a lemon, and stick those into the cavity, being sure they are only loosely set in the cavity. You don’t want to jam the turkey cavity full of stuff because then heat can’t circulate into the cavity, and the breast will take a lot longer to cook which will make it really dry. Fold the wing tips back over themselves so they stay tucked in, and tie the legs together using some butcher’s twine. Coat the entire bird with a little cooking oil or butter. Then sprinkle with a little salt and pepper.

I also brine and roast the neck with my turkey. The neck is my favorite part. :)

Cover the turkey with foil and let it sit at room temp for an hour or so. You don’t want to turkey going into the oven cold, because that can make the meat tough.

About 3.5 hours before dinner, begin preheating your oven to 500 degrees. Yes, I realize that’s hot, don’t worry. While the oven is preheating we need to make our turkey triangle. This little gem comes straight from Alton Brown, and it’s genius. Let’s break it down.

Problem: Turkey breast meat needs to cook to 165, and should not go any higher or it dries out. Thigh meat on the other hand, which contains more fat, needs to get up to about 180-185 to break down and become really tender and juicy.

Solution: The turkey triangle. It’s a triangle made out of tin foil that you place over the breast during a portion of the roasting time, which slows the cooking of the breast and causes both the breast and thighs to reach 165 and 180-185 respectively, at the same time. Brilliant.

Here’s how you make a turkey triangle:

1- Cut out a large square-ish shape of tin foil.
2- Fold one corner over to create a triangle
3- Fold about half an inch from one of the edges over to create a seal
4- Fold over any excess foil sticking out of your triangle
5- Fold another half inch from the edge that had the excess foil to create a seal

We aren’t going to use the turkey triangle during the first part of roasting, so we need to form the triangle to the turkey before it goes in the oven. That way we don’t have to do it when the turkey is piping hot. Do like so:

I broke this down to steps, but there aren’t really steps to follow. Just put top point of the triangle at the bottom of the breast, and press it on the turkey. Make sure the wing sections are not covered by the foil. Then remove the triangle, and it should retain the shape of the turkey, like so:

The reason we’re not using the turkey triangle to begin with, and also the reason we start by roasting in a 500 degree oven, is so we get a lot of color and crisping on the skin. By crisping the skin, we seal juices in the meat and lose less moisture during cooking. So once you’re triangle is removed from the turkey, put the turkey in the oven on the bottom rack and roast at 500 for 30 minutes. Your oven will probably smoke a lot. That’s ok. Keep the fan going, open a window, whatever you need to do.

After the first 30 minutes, open the oven and put the turkey triangle over the breast, pushing it on gently so it forms back to the turkey. Leave the oven open while you do this so it cools off a bit, and reduce the oven temp to 350. Insert a probe thermometer into the thickest part of the breast and but the turkey back in the oven.

If you have a digital meat thermometer with a wire probe and an alarm, set the alarm to go off at 155. If not, just keep an eye on it. At 155, remove the turkey triangle and put the turkey back in the oven, turning the oven up to 400. The triangle also slows browning, so we remove it for the last bit of cooking and turn the heat up a little so the skin can brown evenly. Remove the turkey from the oven when the thermometer reads 163 (it will continue cooking a couple degrees after you remove it, bringing it to 165). Total cooking time will be 2-2.5 hours.

Let the turkey rest, at room temperature, for no fewer than 45 minutes. During cooking, the liquid in the meat is boiling and steaming and just moving around a lot. Resting allows the juices in the turkey to cool slightly, and gives the meat time to reabsorb and hold onto those juices while the meat is being cut.

So there it is. The perfect turkey. I assure you, it’s juicy, flavorful, and will impress your Thanksgiving crowd. More pics of carving:

That last pic is my favorite because you can see just how juicy that turkey is. I hope this post gives you the info and confidence you need to rock the turkey this year. Or maybe you’ve been rocking it on your own already. If so, share the deets and let’s get some ideas going. Just because this is the best turkey I’ve ever had, doesn’t mean it’s the best one out there. :)

Cheers, internet friends. Check ya tomorrow, where I’ll share some crusty rolls that are super easy, but seem like they were made by an artisan. You won’t wanna miss it.

Links to all the posts in this series:
• Savory Cornbread Stuffing
• Scratch-Made Asparagus Casserole (my version of green bean casserole)
• Country-Style Herbed Mashed Potatoes
• Dijon Country Gravy Made with Turkey Drippings
• Homemade Cranberry Sauce Worth Serving
• Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Maple and Bacon Vinaigrette
• How to Roast the Perfect Turkey
• Buttery and Crusty Herb-Topped Dinner Rolls
• Light and Airy Pumpkin-Ricotta Cheesecake
• How to Make an Entire Thanksgiving Meal In One Oven

19 Comments

  • Reply November 13, 2013

    Shannon Griggs

    This is awesome! Thank you so much for sharing all of these recipes with us!

  • Reply November 14, 2013

    Jennifer

    We brine in the cooler we use for camping in the summer. It’s large, keeps itself cool without freezing, and is easy to move around if we need to.

  • Reply November 14, 2013

    Jen

    I’m always worried about using non-food-safe plastic like bins, buckets, and coolers. I use a roasting bag for brining mine — and you need a lot less liquid (and it’s not as heavy!) this way. Since the bags come two in a package, I’ve been using one for brining and the other for actually cooking the bird, but maybe with the foil triangle, I will try something different this year……

    • Reply November 15, 2013

      Chris Marcum

      Yes, a brining bag is also a really great idea. In terms of cooking in the bag, my experience has always ended up with them ending up more dry. Like, the meat just steams, and when you initially take it out it seems great, but after a few minutes on the platter, it practically turns to dust. Have you had the same thing happen? If not, what’s your secret?

  • Reply November 15, 2013

    Kathy

    any tips on carving? I feel like we butcher our poor bird every year and lose a lot of good meat that way.

    • Reply November 15, 2013

      Chris Marcum

      For me, what I can cut off the bird gets served for dinner. What I have to pull off with my hands, goes in a ziplock bag for leftovers. This is a pretty good tutorial from my friends over a Wusthof:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jd5Ah0T91bI

      Hope it helps! I’m confident you’ll rock the turkey. :)

  • Reply November 19, 2013

    craigandstacy

    Do you do a frozen or fresh turkey? I’ve read mixed reviews on brining frozen birds…

    • Reply November 20, 2013

      Chris Marcum

      I’ve always used frozen and it turns out great. You just need to thaw the turkey completely before brining. I mean, fresh meat is always better than frozen, but I honestly wouldn’t even know where to get a fresh turkey around here, haha. If you have access to one, I say why not go for that? But if frozen is easier, it still works perfect, and is perhaps even more important.

      I hope this helps! :)

  • Reply November 21, 2013

    Kt10293

    Every year we get my husband gets a free turkey from work, which is awesome, but its also like 25 pounds. Can you help me out with cook time and temps using your method? This turkey looks awesome!

    • Reply November 21, 2013

      Chris Marcum

      For a 25lb bird, you would definitely want to brine it. That will make a big difference in helping it not dry out while cooking. I would also probably butcher it. Remove the breast meat from the bones, cut off the legs and wings, and roast them in the oven that way. You’ll probably need multiple roasting pans, because you don’t want any of the meat stacked. Also, try to keep the skin on each piece, as the skin helps trap some of the moisture and takes the brunt of the oven heat. If you cut the bird up, you should be able to cook at the same temperature and for roughly the same amount of time, but instead of using a turkey triangle, you would just lay tinfoil over the breast pieces after the first 30 minutes at 500. You could keep the bird in tact and roast, by starting at 500 for 30, then add the triangle and bump the temp down to 325. But since you’re dropping the temp and increasing the weight, the turkey will be in the oven for maybe 4-5 hours, and that could really dry it out.

      I hope this helps! So great of your husband’s company to give out turkeys. I love that.

  • Reply November 21, 2013

    Katie

    AH! So I see your recommendation to by a smaller bird. Well me and my fiance already bit the bullet and got a 18.8lb turkey, AH! We are having a Friends-giving party on Saturday so if you could, what changes should I make to this recipe for the larger bird? Do I need to change the brining at all? And what do you suggest altering the cooking time to be? (how long @500, then how long at 350.)

    Thanks for any and all your help

    • Reply November 21, 2013

      Chris Marcum

      Hi Katie! The larger turkey should turn out fine, though the skin on the legs will just be a bit darker, and the meat perhaps not AS moist, but I doubt it will be dry. I would follow all the steps as they are, just expect a little longer on the main cooking time. So, 500 for 30 minutes, then bump it down to 350 and add the turkey triangle. Roast until it gets to about 157 instead of 155 and remove the triangle, then finish up to the full 163. Total roasting time will probably be around 3 hours.

  • Reply November 26, 2013

    Kat

    Hi Chris,
    We are picking our turkey up tomorrow and we’re excited to try this! Like one of the previous posters, our bird will be close to 18lbs so we will likely need to roast a little longer…
    I was wondering, though – do you rinse the bird after taking it out of the brine?
    Thanks!
    Kathleen

    • Reply November 26, 2013

      Chris Marcum

      Hi Kat! I ran some water through the inner cavity, but that’s about it. I just dried off the outside with paper towels and went from there.

      Hope this helps!

  • Reply November 28, 2013

    Heidi Lucas

    My husband is the chef in the house as well and this is his first time cooking a whole turkey for Thanksgiving. We followed your recipe to a T and it turned out beautifully. Thank you for posting! Happy Thanksgiving from our house to yours!

  • Reply November 29, 2013

    Whitney Distler

    Chris – this was SO helpful! It was my first time making a turkey yesterday, and all at the table agreed this was the BEST turkey any of us has ever eaten. It was super delicious!!! Thank you for sharing your recipe. I had to give away my copy to my Mother in law, so I’ll be printing a new one to keep. :) And, all your tips about how to coordinate cooking the whole meal was so helpful!

    • Reply December 2, 2013

      Chris Marcum

      I’m so glad everyone liked it! Were you surprised at how easy it was? Cooking a turkey can be intimidating, but after you do it once, it’s no big deal.

      Great work and I hope you took ALL the credit. It’ll be our secret. ;)

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