How To Roast the Perfect, Moist Turkey

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Everything you need to roast the perfect Thanksgiving turkey that’s tender, juicy, and full of flavor — even if you’ve never cooked one before.

A perfect moist and tender roasted Thanksgiving turkey recipe served on a platter surrounded by apples, red grapes, and sage leaves.

Are you in charge of roasting the Thanksgiving turkey this year? Don’t let it stress you out. The key to roasting a turkey that stays juicy and tender is choosing the right bird, brining it properly, and following the fail-proof turkey recipe below. As you’ll see in the comments, the extra step of brining the turkey is absolutely worth it.

How to Choose the Right Thanksgiving Turkey

When it comes to selecting a turkey for your Thanksgiving dinner, there’s a lot of confusing terminologies involved. To get the best results, you need to understand the product packaging to know what to avoid.

Fresh vs. Frozen

There’s no quality difference between fresh and frozen turkeys; it really comes down to convenience and storage. A fresh turkey has never been chilled below 26°F, meaning it has been refrigerated but not frozen. Fresh, unfrozen raw whole turkeys stay good in the fridge for only 1-2 days. If you’re concerned about the store running out, buy a frozen turkey in advance and defrost it in the refrigerator for 3 days before brining it.

Free-Range Turkeys vs. Pastured vs. Wild

Free-range, pastured, and wild turkeys are allowed to roam and forage outdoors, where they eat insects and grubs to round out their grain-based feed. This varied diet produces a richer flavor and firmer texture. Truly wild turkeys will have a gamey taste and a much leaner texture. If a turkey’s package doesn’t indicate that it was free-range, pastured, or caught wild, you should assume that it was raised in an environmentally-controlled barn and fed corn and soybean meal supplemented with vitamins. (Source.)

Organic Turkeys vs. Natural or What?

It is illegal in the U.S. to give growth hormones to turkeys or other poultry, so non-organic turkeys won’t have received hormones but they may have been given antibiotics or have been processed using preservatives. Organic turkeys have never been treated with antibiotics or processed with preservatives. Natural turkeys have been given anti-biotics and minimal processing. If your turkey’s packaging does not say it’s organic or natural, you should assume the bird was raised on a diet supplemented with antibiotics. It may also have been injected during processing with preservatives or flavor-enhancers.

Self-Basting or Flavor-Enhanced

A self-basting or flavor-enhanced turkey has been injected with a solution to add moisture and possibly flavors like garlic or sage. The weight of the bird includes the weight of this mixture which will largely wind up in your roasting pan as drippings, leaving you less turkey meat to serve.

What Size Turkey to Buy?

The rule of thumb for Thanksgiving turkeys is that you need 1.25 pounds per person, and this measurement includes the weight of the bones. So, if you’re serving 10 people for Thanksgiving, you need a turkey that weighs just over 12 pounds and larger if you want leftovers — and who doesn’t on Thanksgiving? If you’re serving more than one main course, you can get by with 1/2 pound of turkey per person. (Or, you could do something like Crockpot Cornish Hens and make one for each person.)

The Key to a Moist Turkey: Brine

The less processed your turkey is, the leaner and firmer the meat will be. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to put up with a dry, stringy turkey, though. As I learned over three decades of roasting Thanksgiving turkeys, soaking it in a homemade brine will take your bird from basic to brilliant by adding a juicy flavor that seasons every bite. It’s almost magical.

What Container to Use for Brining a Turkey?

The only difficult part of brining a turkey is finding a food-safe container large enough to hold it, and making refrigerator space. For containers, try a cooler, a large covered stockpot, or a sturdy plastic storage container with a lid. If you live in an area where the outdoor temperatures will remain between 30-37°F the entire time, you can brine it in a cooler placed outside in a location that does not get any direct sunlight.

A perfect moist and tender roasted Thanksgiving turkey recipe served on a platter surrounded by apples, red grapes, and sage leaves.
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5 from 6 votes

Turkey Brine Recipe with Four Flavor Variations

This basic turkey brine produce the most tender, moist chicken or turkey you've ever eaten. Elevate your meal further using one of the flavoring options below.
Course Main Course
Cuisine American
Keyword dinner, easy, holidays, make-ahead
Prep Time 5 mins
Cook Time 5 mins
Brining time 1 d
Total Time 10 mins
Makes 1 16-20 lb turkey
Created by Katie Berry

Equipment

  • Cooler (optional)

Ingredients

  • 2 gallons water
  • 1 cup Kosher salt - Not table or sea salt.
  • 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 thickly

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

Instructions

  • Combine all ingredients, including your chosen flavor variations, in a stockpot over low heat. Stir until the salt and sugar dissolve and then remove from heat. Let the pot and the brine cool to room temperature.
  • Put the stockpot into the sink to catch drips. Carefully add the turkey to the stockpot. Add more water if needed to submerge the entire turkey. Cover the stockpot with a lid and refrigerate it for 12 to 24 hours.
  • Remove the turkey and pat it dry before cooking. (Do not rinse.) Discard brine.

Notes

Drippings from a brined turkey are extremely salty and should not be used to make gravy or used as stock. 

How to Get Crispy, Browned Turkey Skin

Butter locks in the moisture you added by brining your turkey. Butter is also the secret to getting crispy, perfectly browned turkey skin without having to baste. To butter your turkey, let a stick (1/4 pound) soften at room temperature. Remove your turkey from the brine and pat it dry inside and out. Then smash the butter between your hands and slather it all over the turkey. Make sure to get behind the wings and legs and the underside, too. Yes, it’s messy but it’s worth the effort.

Goof-Proof Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe

Look no further for a fail-proof, perfect Thanksgiving turkey with juicy meat that’s full of flavor and a browned, crispy skin that will make your family swoon.

How Long to Cook a Brined Turkey?

Brined poultry cooks faster than unbrined. An unstuffed, brined turkey needs 10 minutes per pound to cook, while a stuffed, brined turkey needs 15 minutes per pound. Multiply the weight of your turkey in pounds by 10 if you didn’t stuff it, or 15 if you did. That tells you how many minutes to cook it. Convert that to hours if you’d rather.

Should You Rinse a Turkey?

Many home cooks rinse poultry to reduce contamination. The FDA discourages this now since you can’t remove all of the bacteria, and some of the worst kinds can cross-contaminate other kitchen surfaces. Besides, cooking meat to the proper temperature will kill the bacteria, so washing turkey isn’t necessary.

Why You Must Let Meat Rest After Cooking

A couple of things happen when you let meat rest after cooking. First, it continues to cook a bit longer. With turkey, that can be another 5-10 degrees, depending on the size of the bird. Second, and most importantly, letting the meat rest after cooking gives it a chance to draw juices and flavor back inside that you’d lose to the cutting board if you slice it too soon.

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.

Perfectly Moist Turkey roasted with Turkey Brine recipe
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5 from 6 votes

The Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

Super easy method to roast a juicy, brined turkey while getting that gorgeous, crispy browned skin.
Course Main Course
Cuisine American
Keyword dinner, holidays
Prep Time 5 mins
Cook Time 2 hrs 30 mins
Prep and Resting Time 40 mins
Total Time 3 hrs 15 mins
Makes 10 people
Calories 81kcal
Created by Katie Berry

Equipment

  • Roasting pan with rack
  • Kitchen twine
  • Aluminum foil

Ingredients

  • 1 stick butter - softened
  • 1 15 pound brined turkey - see my brine recipe above

Instructions

  • 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 and let it reach room temperature for about 20 minutes.
    1 15 pound brined turkey
  • Preheat the oven to 325°F / 176°C / gas mark #4 while the turkey comes to room temperature.
  • Rub the turkey all over with the softened butter, making a thick layer to seal in the moisture. Cover the wing tips with foil. Cross the legs over each other use kitchen twine to secure them in place. (Tying a figure-8 around the end of the legs helps.)
    1 stick butter
  • Now, put the turkey in the oven and close the door. Set a timer for 1 hour and 15 minutes. (See NOTE below to calculate the perfect time for your turkey.)
  • When the timer goes off, cover the turkey in the oven loosely with a tent of aluminum foil. Don't crimp the foil to the pan or tuck it down tightly, or you'll trap steam and the skin won't stay crisp.
  • 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 also 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.
  • When the turkey has reached the proper temperature, remove it 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.

Notes

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.
No Gravy. This recipe specifically calls for using a brined turkey. Brined turkey drippings are not suitable for use in gravy since they’ll be very salty. If you want to make gravy to serve with your turkey, use a rich turkey or chicken stock instead.

Nutrition

Serving: 1serving | Calories: 81kcal | Carbohydrates: 1g | Protein: 1g | Fat: 9g | Saturated Fat: 6g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 1g | Monounsaturated Fat: 2g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 24mg | Sodium: 81mg | Potassium: 3mg | Sugar: 1g | Vitamin A: 282IU | Calcium: 3mg | Iron: 1mg

Final Turkey-Roasting Tips

Need help carving? Here’s a great pictorial on how to carve a turkey.

Want to make some gravy? 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!

Do you have the right pan? Foil roasting pans won’t produce a perfectly cooked turkey. To do that, you need a pan with a roasting rack, so the bottom of the bird doesn’t sit there stewing in its juices. I use this stainless steel roasting pan because it’s sturdy enough to hold even a huge bird, and I can throw it right into the dishwasher after dinner.

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. Insert it in the thickest part of the meat without touching the bone. For a turkey, that means near the thigh.

Storing leftover turkey. Always remove poultry from the bone before storing leftovers. Poultry meat is dense, and areas near the bone often have air pockets. This leads to trapped heat and uneven cooling which helps bacteria thrive. Once removed from the bone, turkey keeps well in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days or in the freezer for 3 to 4 months.

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18 Comments

  1. You instructions are the most concise I have seen and thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge. My problem is my hubby hates garlic. He used to eat it and I have told him we need to bring it back into our meals. Having never used brine or made turkey this way, which sounds delicious, can I cut the garlic to maybe 2 cloves and/or substitute another spice do you think? Do you have any recommendations? I just don’t relish eating all the left overs myself. Thank you.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Ginny! You could certainly skip the garlic in this recipe without a problem. The rosemary and lemon combination listed as an alternative brine flavor is wonderful, too, or just use 4 tablespoons of poultry seasoning. Enjoy!

  2. 5 stars
    Just made a small turkey as per this recipe. Since I cannot have dairy, I substituted butter for coconut oil. And I used rock sea salt. Also, I always toast my poultry breast-down to make sure all juices run into the breast.
    This turned out to be the best one of all the turkeys or chickens I have ever made. I nornally hate the white meat and stick with the dark, for myself; this time, I ate the white with pleasure.

    Note: the gravy turned out to be too sweet to my taste – and also it ended up entirely too salty even for me, possibly because I also rubbed the turkey with salt and spices after brining. (Did not add any salt to the gravy.) I had to throw away the entire vat of gravy I made. I realize the sugar is an essential part of imparting salt into any dish we want to brine, but I wonder if reducing the amount of sugar is possible for this recipe? Or is there some other way to make gravy that I am not aware of?

    Thank you,

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the turkey, but am sorry to hear about the gravy. Since there’s really no way to reduce the amount of sugar in the brine and have the turkey come out the same way, you might want to make a gravy using stock or broth in place of pan drippings.

  3. 5 stars
    Thank you so much for your post. I have always wanted to try brining our Thansgiving turkey and have been too intimidated to try it. The way you explain it makes it so simple. I think I will try this method with a chicken roaster first and see how that goes!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I do it with my chickens every time, now. You won’t need as much brine, though, so maybe reduce the recipe by 1/3. Enjoy!

  4. Hello. This really made me feel better to brine my turkey this year. I’m wondering, after doing so, am I still able to season my turkey the Hispanic way (sour orange mix, garlic, oregano, salt, and other ingredients) or the brine And butter is enough?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Since I haven’t tried that method, I can’t give you an honest answer. I think if I were trying it, though, I’d add the Hispanic seasonings to the brine, so they get pulled into the meat, then just butter it before roasting.

  5. I plan on using a roasting pan but do not know if I should cover it. Also, what are your thoughts on the breast side down comment? What could I expect for a cool time on a brined 20 lb turkey?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      No, don’t cover until the skin on the breast is browned and then just loosely tent it so you don’t trap steam and destroy the crispiness. (That’s explained in Step 6 on the recipe.) Roasting breast-down to start then turning it over halfway through works, but I’m too lazy to bother.

  6. Our turkey was perfect and the crowd went WILD…first time in 30 years that my fabulous dressing was not the star of the show!

  7. Do you cover the turkey at all half way through? And if not, does it come out juicy still? And how crispy is the outside

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Eathan!
      I love crispy turkey skin, and you will love how juicy your turkey comes out this way. Even the leftovers are still sooo, sooo good!

      To get skin that is crispy but not burnt, be sure to butter it all over as I explain in the blog post, then check your turkey about halfway through the cooking time. If it’s looking browned, just drape a square of foil over the top. Don’t seal it or press down — those ways trap moisture which ruins the lovely crispness.

      When I do that, it comes out absolutely perfect: crispy skin on top of a tender, juicy turkey. If you’re concerned at all, take that loosely-laid sheet of foil off in the final 10 minutes.

      Don’t forget to let the turkey rest after cooking! It sounds odd to leave freshly-cooked meat sitting on the counter, but it’s a very important step. Resting time allows the meat’s protein strands to contract and retain moisture.

      You can keep the skin crisp during resting time by leaving that same piece of foil just perched on the top.

      I hope that clarified everything, but if you have more questions I’m happy to answer them. I want you to enjoy your turkey as much as our family enjoys ours!

  8. Dale Lindberg says:

    5 stars
    My Christmas Turkey was a hit! I used the maple citrus recipe. I never brined before, but for now on, that is all I shall do with my turkeys. It was the moistest turkey I can remember eating in literally generations. I cooked a 21 lbs turkey and had to use a medium size travel cooler, which fit in my fridge, after removing a shelf. my son is allergic to dairy products, so I used dairy-free butter. It still worked like a charm. Thank you for such an awesome recipe. I have saved the web page in my favorites, and shall return, again, and again for years to come. Next time I will try the other flavor options.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m so glad, Dale! Having a 21-pound turkey come out juicy is no small accomplishment — you must’ve been the hero of the day!

  9. Stephen Napier says:

    5 stars
    Wow. I have never done a turkey by myself. It was always my mom, or family members doing it. Now, I am a superstar. If there’s one thing that I hate is dry over-cooked turkey breast. Following your instructions, I have never had a turkey this good… ever. The white meat was so succulent, tender, and juicy. The best part is that my turkey, prepared by my hands, is the best turkey I have ever eaten. It sounds cocky, but, I thank you for such a masterful, well described, recipe. It was perfectly browned and seasoned right through thanks to your brine recipe. Oh my word. The turkey almost didn’t make it to the supper table. The skin was crispy and the breast was ever so juicy. I loosely covered the turkey with foil near the end of the cooking so it didn’t get to brown. Had the turkey elevated on a rack in my roasting pan. I mean, followed your instructions to the letter. Thank you for an amazing recipe. This is going into the database to be passed on to my kids.

  10. Angelica Dorsett says:

    What would you stuff a turkey with using the Cajun seasoning? Vegetable and/or fruit wise ?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Equal parts onion, celery, and bell peppers are considered the “Holy Trinity” of Cajun and Creole cooking, so I’d use those. And if I felt like being “extra” I’d add them and maybe some Andouille or Boudin sausage to cornbread stuffing. Yum!

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