There are three secrets to roast a moist turkey. I knew none of them when, as a new bride, sixteen of my husband’s family came to our house for our first Thanksgiving together. It’s been fifteen years, and we still crack jokes about how that turkey was so tough and dry we’d have been chewing it until Christmas Day if I hadn’t made a ham, too.
We’re firm believers that turkey is MANDATORY on Thanksgiving (not grilled salmon, as one of my sisters-in-law served a few years back), so I’ve had a few years to refine my technique. Nowadays, my husband swears I make the moistest turkey he’s ever eaten, and it’s all because I learned these three things.
Turkey Brine Makes Moist Turkey
Like my mother before me, I used to think all there was to roasting a turkey was unwrapping the defrosted thing, plopping it in a pan and smearing it with butter before chucking it into a medium oven to cook, then 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.
Brining a bird, she explained, increases the moisture content since the brine’s 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.
By the time Thanksgiving rolled around that year, I’d made so many roast chickens that I’d come up with a few different recipes of my own. One is a Cajun-inspired brine that relies heavily on garlic, cayenne and onion. Another goes heavy on the lemon and rosemary, made even more potent by stuffing the bird’s cavity with lemon halves and rosemary sprigs. A third combines apple and sage, which is a lovely combination around Christmas time.
But this recipe is for a basic turkey brine produces an outstandingly moist, tender bird. Add additional herbs and spices to it if you want — you won’t taste the ones I’ve included — or use the recipe as-is and season your bird before roasting. Either way, prepare to be delighted with the tender, juicy results.
- 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!
Butter Means Never Having To Baste The Turkey
One of my lifelong memories of Thanksgiving 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. 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”.
TANGENT: 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 one of the things to be thankful for?!
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. Buttering your bird before it goes into the oven means you don’t need to baste. See, the whole purpose of basting is to make that beautiful crispy, brown skin. Rubbing half a stick of butter all over the clean, dry bird’s skin does the same thing, which means you don’t have to hover in the kitchen! It also means your bird will cook faster, since you won’t be opening the oven and losing heat every 20-30 minutes. As if that’s not enough to be thankful for, a more even cooking temperature will also preserve the meat’s moisture.
After Cooking, Give The Bird A Break!
Just as the cook is often tired and in dire need of a chance to sit and sip a cocktail with her company before dinner, the turkey needs a break, too. Once it’s reached the proper temperature (180° F in the thigh and 165° F in the breast), pull it out and set the pan on 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.
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. As for how long to let it rest, the minimum is 20 minutes, but larger birds packed full of stuffing can handle up to twice that long.
How To Roast The Perfect Turkey
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!
- 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.
- Turn the wings back to hold the neck skin in place. This will also keep the turkey from wobbling in the pan.
- Stick a meat thermometer into the lower half of the thigh, but not so deeply that it touches bone. This is the temperature you'll be watching to determine if your turkey is fully cooked; the breast will be done by the time the thigh is ready.
- 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. 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 and the legs loosely with a tent of aluminum foil. Don't do anything else with it -- the skin is already crispy, and now you just need the rest of the bird to cook.
- 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 move the thermometer to check that the stuffing has also reached 165° F, the temperature at which it's safe to eat.
- Remove the turkey from the oven and transfer it to a platter. Tent the whole thing loosely with foil. Do NOT seal the foil; moisture trapped now will ruin the skin's crispiness.
- Let the turkey rest 20 minutes (unstuffed, smaller birds) up to 40 minutes (larger or stuffed birds) before carving.
So, now that you know how to make the perfect, moist roast turkey, what sides does your family look forward to each year?
Equipment I Use For This: