I had no idea how to roast a moist turkey when I was first married. That year, my husband decided to invite his entire family to our brand new home to celebrate Thanksgiving. Now, this was before the internet was a routine part of life so there was no Pinterest to turn to for advice, no recipe sites to pore over. The only place I had to turn was the label on the turkey’s plastic wrapping. Heck, Butterball wasn’t even running their Turkey Hotline yet!
It was a tragically tough turkey. So bad, in fact, that we joked that we’d be chewing the Thanksgiving turkey until Christmas if I hadn’t also made a ham, too.
Fortunately, I’ve learned a lot about how to roast a moist turkey since then. Since we like turkey at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and sometimes even for Easter, I’ve had over forty of them to practice on! Now I’m sharing what I’ve learned with you, because no one should have to endure 15+ years of her mother-in-law wisecracking about that year she turned turkey into wood.
So read on for my tips on how to roast a moist turkey, and don’t miss the perfect turkey recipe at the end!
How To Roast Moist Turkey
Step One: Brine It!
I used to think all there was to roasting a turkey was plopping it in a pan and basting religiously until the plastic thingie popped out. That was pretty much my recipe for roasted chicken, too, until I was at a friend’s home for dinner. She made a roast chicken that was so moist I almost forgot about the lovely wine she’d served with dinner. (Almost, mind you.) Naturally, I had to ask her secret.
Turns out, brining poultry increases the moisture content since the salt pulls water into the meat. She’d added poultry seasoning to the brine, too, and the flavor of it permeated every single bite. It was delicious! But unfortunately she hadn’t used an actual recipe, so I was left to tinker on my own.
This recipe for a basic turkey brine produces an outstandingly moist, tender bird. Add additional herbs and spices to it if you want. Go Cajun-style with garlic, cayenne and onion, or get a Mediterranean flair with lemon and rosemary. Another lovely twist leaves out the pepper and garlic but adds sage and a couple of sliced apples to the brine. Make it however you like, but don’t skip the brine!
- 2 gallons very warm water
- 1 cup Kosher salt (NO substitutions -- do NOT use table or sea salt!)
- 1½ cups packed brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- Optional (choose one combination): 6 sprigs fresh rosemary and 2 lemons, sliced OR 1 tablespoon each dried thyme, onion powder, dried oregano and 1 tsp. cayenne OR 4 tablespoons poultry seasonings OR 1 cup maple syrup, zest of 1 large orange, sliced flesh of 1 orange
- Combine all ingredients in a large pot over low heat and stir well. Continue to stir until salt and sugar are completely dissolved.
- Let brine cool to room temperature.
- Rinse the turkey under cold water, inside and out, and place it in a clean cooler or large trash bag. Carefully add brine and close the cooler or seal the bag. Transfer the whole thing to the refrigerator for at least 12 hours, preferably 24.
- NOTE: If there's not enough brine to completely cover the bird you can either make additional brine or simply turn the bird halfway through the brining process.
- Be sure to rinse the bird after brining and before roasting!
Step Two: Slather It In Butter
Butter means never having to baste. Yes, I know it’s a process we all associate with roasting a moist turkey. One of my childhood memories involves my mother hovering in the kitchen so she could baste the turkey every 20 minutes for the nine hours it took to cook the thing. (Another involves how her turkey was inevitably dryer than the first one I made.) By the time it was ready, she was a hot, grouchy mess and the rest of us had filled up on appetizers… not a good combination, particularly since she’d been up since 5 a.m. making “Thanksgiving Dinner”.
Completely off topic: Why do so many people have their Thanksgiving Dinner at what’s basically a late lunchtime? When I’ve had company join us for Turkey Day, they’ve been surprised to find that we have our Thanksgiving Dinner at dinner time. In our house, that’s around 6:30 pm. Yet growing up my mother served the Thanksgiving meal no later than 2, and I’ve known other people to have it closer to noon. Don’t they know sleeping late is something to be thankful for?!
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. Buttering relieves you of basting duty! The entire point of basting is to keep the bird from drying out while getting that beautifully golden brown, crispy skin. Since you’re brining the bird you don’t need to worry about it drying out. Plus, your turkey will cook faster since you won’t be losing oven heat when you open the door every 20 to 30 minutes to baste — and that even, steady temperature helps keep your turkey moist, too!
So before putting your bird in the oven, pat it dry with paper towels then slather it all over with a stick of softened butter. Be sure to cover the wing tips in foil so they don’t burn!
Step Three: Use The Right Gear
Foil roasting pans are convenient but they aren’t going to give you a perfectly cooked turkey. To do that, you need a roasting rack to raise the turkey so the lower third roasts rather than stews in its juices. I’ve used this stainless steel roasting pan for years because it’s sturdy enough to hold even a huge bird, and because I can throw it in the dishwasher when we’re done!
No matter what type of roasting pan you use it’s going to get hot. Very hot. Do you know what happens to your hands when you wear traditional quilted cloth oven mitts and they get even the least bit damp while you’re cooking? Your hands get burned, that’s what! (I still have a scar on my right hand from ten years ago when that happened to me.) Save your skin: get some heat-resistant oven mitts. I love these silicone mitts and use them while grilling outdoors, too.
A final must-have: a meat thermometer. Yes, most turkeys come with a plastic button that allegedly pops when it reaches the proper temperature. Unfortunately, those things sometimes pop too early (which you don’t realize until you find pink meat when carving the bird) or too late (which leads to dry turkey). A simple, easy-to-read meat thermometer is only $6 but it spares you the frustration of an under- or overcooked turkey.
Step Four: Give The Bird A Break!
The cook is often tired and in dire need of a cocktail few minutes to freshen up before dinner. Guess what? The turkey needs a break, too!
Once it’s reached the proper temperature (180° F in the thigh and 165° F in the breast), transfer the turkey from the oven to the counter. Loosely cover the top of the entire turkey with foil but don’t seal it shut — you don’t want to trap moisture now or the skin will get soggy. Let the turkey rest at least 20 minutes, and up to 40 for large or stuffed birds.
You don’t need to worry about the turkey getting cold. While resting, the turkey will continue to cook another 5-10 degrees depending on the size of the bird. Since the surface is slightly cooling at the same time, the relaxing muscle fibers will begin drawing moisture back into the meat, preserving all that effort you’ve made.
The resting phase is also the perfect time to pop your side dishes into the oven. If your family is anything like mine, you may find yourself with more sides than your oven has room for. I solved that problem with this 3-tier rack that clips onto the one that’s already in your oven. When you’re done just unclip it and fold it flat. Depending on the width of your oven, you may even be able to use two at a time like I do!
The Perfect Turkey Recipe
So, you’ve brined your turkey and now want a handy, printable recipe to ensure you don’t forget the other steps? Here you go!
A note on rinsing: Whether to rinse a brined turkey or not is entirely a matter of personal judgment. Until recently, home cooks were advised to rinse all poultry to reduce bacterial contamination on the meat. Advice on rinsing poultry changed a couple of years ago due to concerns about cross-contamination. Personally, I rinse after brining because it reduces the saltiness of the skin. If you rinse, be sure to disinfect your sink and surrounding areas immediately afterward!
- Brined turkey (see recipe)
- 1 stick softened butter
- Stuffing (optional)
- After brining, rinse the turkey inside and out and pat it dry with paper towels. Discard brine.
- Place the turkey breast-side up on the rack of a roasting pan. If you don't have a roasting pan with a rack, crumple up several balls of aluminum foil and place them in the bottom of your pan. This will keep the turkey from sitting in its juices as it cooks.
- Preheat oven to 325°F while the turkey comes to room temperature.
- Stuff the turkey if you're into that kind of thing.
- Rub the turkey ALL OVER with the softened butter.
- Cover the wing tips with foil and tie the legs together with kitchen twine.
- Put the turkey in the oven and close the door.
- Now do some math: an unstuffed, brined turkey needs around 10 minutes per pound to cook, while a stuffed, brined turkey needs 15 minutes per pound. Figure out approximately how much time your turkey will need, and set a timer for halfway through cooking.
- At the half-way mark, check the bird. If the breast skin looks nice and brown, cover it loosely with a tent of aluminum foil.
- An unstuffed turkey is ready when the temperature is 180° F in thigh and 165° F in breast. If you stuffed the turkey, you must insert the thermometer deeply into the stuffing to make sure it's reached 165° F, the temperature at which it's safe to eat.
- Remove the turkey from the oven and loosely the entire turkey with a single layer of foil. Do NOT seal the foil; moisture trapped now will ruin the skin's crispiness.
- Let the turkey rest at least 20 minutes (unstuffed, smaller birds) up to 40 minutes (larger or stuffed birds) before carving.
NOTE: This post originally appeared on November 11, 2013. It has been completely revised for clarity and to provide additional information.
Equipment I Use For This: