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. Back then, there was no Pinterest to turn to for advice, no websites to consult, and no one had even heard of using a turkey brine recipe.
The only place I had to turn was the label on the turkey’s plastic wrapping. Though I followed the directions to a tee, it was an epically tough turkey. It was so bad that we joked about how we’d still be chewing the Thanksgiving turkey on Christmas if I hadn’t also served my Orange and Ginger Glazed Ham, too.
Fortunately, I’ve learned a lot about how to roast a moist turkey in the past couple of decades. Since we like turkey at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and sometimes even for Easter, I’ve had over fifty of them to practice on!
Now I’m sharing what I’ve learned with you because no one should have to endure over 20 years of her mother-in-law snarking about one bad Thanksgiving turkey.
So, read on for my tips on how to roast a moist turkey, the best turkey brine recipe, and the perfect turkey recipe at the end!
How To Roast A Moist Turkey
Step One: Brine It!
I used to think all there was to roasting a turkey was plopping it in a pan and repeatedly basting until the plastic temperature 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. (Almost, mind you.) Naturally, I had to ask her secret.
Turns out, the key to a roasting a moist turkey is brining, which allows the salt within the turkey brine recipe to pull water into the meat. Any flavors that you add to the brine are pulled into the turkey, too, so they season every bite. It’s almost magical.
As far as a flavoring, choose whatever herbs and spices you prefer. Go Cajun-style with garlic, cayenne, and onion, or get a Mediterranean flair with lemon and rosemary. Use whatever flavors you like, but don’t skip the brine!
Turkey Brine Recipe with Four Flavor Variations
- Cooler (optional)
- 2 gallons water
- 1 cup Kosher salt – Do NOT use table or sea salt!
- 1½ cups packed brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns – whole
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 cloves garlic – smashed
- Optional flavorings – see below
Traditional Turkey Flavor
- 4 tablespoons poultry seasoning – omit garlic from the brine recipe
Mediterranean Turkey Flavor
- 6 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 1 lemons – sliced
Cajun Turkey Flavor
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon cayenne powder
Maple Citrus Turkey Flavor
- 1 cup maple syrup – omit brown sugar, garlic, and bay leaf from brine recipe above
- 1 orange – zested and sliced
- Combine all ingredients, including flavor variations, in a large pot over low heat. Stir well until the salt and sugar completely dissolve and then let the brine cool to room temperature.
- Line a stockpot with a clean trash bag. (Do not use a scented trash bag or one designed to be antimicrobial!)
- Place the turkey in the lined stockpot. Add brine and additional room temperature water if needed to submerge the entire turkey. Close it up. Transfer the stockpot to the refrigerator for at least 12 hours but no longer than 24.
- Remove the turkey and pat it dry before cooking. (Do not rinse.) Discard brine.
OPTIONAL COOLER BRINING
- If you do not have refrigerator space AND the outside temperatures are guaranteed to remain below 40F, you can brine the turkey in a cooler. If using this method, use COLD water in Step 3 when you top off the brine. Close the cooler and place it in a fully shaded spot. Check repeatedly to ensure the brine is at or below 40F for food safety.
Step Two: Butter Up!
Buttering your turkey means you don’t have to baste it at all. The point of basting is to keep the bird from drying out while getting that beautiful golden brown, crispy skin. Since you’re brining the bird, you don’t need to worry about it coming out dry. Buttering it locks in that moisture while also getting a brown, crispy skin.
Plus, your turkey will cook faster because you won’t be losing oven heat when you open the door every 20 to 30 minutes to baste. That even, steady temperature helps keep your turkey moist, too!
So — whether you brine it or not — pat your turkey dry with paper towels and slather it all over with a stick of softened butter. Be sure to also cover the wingtips in foil, so they don’t burn.
Step Three: Use The Right Gear
The right pan: 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 bottom of the bird doesn’t sit there stewing 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 I can throw it in the dishwasher after dinner.
Use the right gloves: No matter what type of roasting pan you use, it’s going to get hot. Very hot. Do you know what happens when quilted cloth oven mitts get the least bit damp while you’re cooking? Your hands get burned, that’s what. (I have a scar on my right hand from ten years ago when that happened to me.) Save your skin: get some heat-resistant, silicone oven mitts.
Yes, you need a meat thermometer. Some turkeys come with a plastic button that supposedly pops when it reaches the proper temperature. Unfortunately, they’re not reliable — but many times you won’t know until you’re ready to serve dinner. A simple, easy-to-read meat thermometer is inexpensive, and it will spare 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/82°C in the thigh and 165°F/74°C in the breast), transfer the turkey from the oven to the counter.
- Loosely cover the top 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.
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 the perfect time to pop your side dishes into the oven. If your family is anything like mine, you may find yourself with more side dishes than oven space. I solved that problem with this 3-tier rack that clips onto the one in the cooker. It folds flat for storage.
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!
Should You Rinse a Turkey?
Until recently, home cooks were advised to clean 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.
However, some of the bacteria are so tightly attached that you could not remove them no matter how many times you washed. But there are other types of bacteria that can be easily washed off and splashed on the surfaces of your kitchen. Failure to clean these contaminated areas can lead to foodborne illness. Cooking (baking, broiling, boiling, and grilling) to the right temperature kills the bacteria, so washing food is not necessary.USDA Food Safety Facts
If you’ve used the turkey brine recipe above, rinsing the bird will also rinse away flavor.
So, do yourself and your family a favor while keeping the flavor, and do not rinse your turkey before roasting!
The Perfect Turkey
- 1 stick butter – softened
- 1 brined turkey – see my brine recipe above
- Remove the turkey from the brine and pat it dry. (Discard brine.) Place a rack in the bottom of your roasting pan. Put the turkey on the rack.
- Rub the turkey ALL OVER with the softened butter, making a thick layer to seal in the moisture. Cover the wing tips with foil and tie the legs together with kitchen twine.
- Put the turkey in the oven and close the door.
- Cooking Time 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/82°C in the thigh and 165°F/74°C in the breast. If you stuffed the turkey, you must insert the thermometer deep into the center stuffing to make sure it's reached 165°F/74°C, the temperature at which it's safe to eat. If the turkey is ready before the stuffing reaches safe internal temperature, remove the stuffing to a baking dish and return it to the oven. Proceed with the next step to finish the turkey while the stuffing continues to cook.
- Remove the turkey from the oven and tent it loosely with a single layer of foil. Do NOT seal the foil — moisture trapped at this point ruins the skin’s crispiness.
- Let the turkey rest for 20 minutes (for unstuffed birds under 16 lbs.) to 40 minutes (for stuffed or larger birds) before carving.
Final Tips to Roast the Perfect, Moist Turkey
Need help carving? Here’s a great pictorial on how to carve a turkey.
Want to make some gravy? Keep in mind that the drippings from brined turkey shouldn’t be used. I skip the drippings and use chicken stock in this wonderful gravy recipe that I’ve been using for years — you can even make it ahead of time!
Overwhelmed just thinking about it? Check out my checklist to get organized for Thanksgiving.
- Everyone’s Favorite Meatloaf Recipe
- Homemade Pimento Cheese Recipe
- Christmas Stocking Stuffers for Home Cooks
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