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.
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.
Turkey Brine Recipe with Four Flavor Variations
- Cooler (optional)
- 2 gallons water
- 1 cup Kosher salt Not 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 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
- 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.
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.
The Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey
- Roasting pan with rack
- Kitchen twine
- Aluminum foil
- 1 stick butter softened
- 1 15 pound 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 and let it reach room temperature for about 20 minutes.1 15 pound brined turkey
- 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.
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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