How To Roast a Moist Turkey

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Brine is the key to this goof-proof recipe for a tender, juicy turkey that’s full of flavor and features crispy, golden-brown skin every time.

A moist roasted turkey served on a Thanksgiving platter surrounded by fruit and sage leaves

To roast a turkey that stays juicy and tender, you need to choose the right bird, then brine and cook it with the fail-proof recipe below. I’ve roasted our Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys using this method for a few decades now — over 60 turkeys! — and they always come out juicy, full of flavor, and with a crispy golden skin that everyone swoons over.

How to Choose the Right Turkey

When it comes to selecting a turkey for your Thanksgiving dinner, there are a lot of confusing terminologies involved. To get the best results, fresh or frozen is not as important as avoiding turkeys injected with salt water or which claim to be self-basting.

Fresh and Frozen are Both Fine

There’s no quality difference between fresh and frozen turkeys — it comes down to convenience and storage. A fresh turkey has never been chilled below 26°F and will stay good in the fridge for only 1-2 days. If you choose a frozen turkey, you’ll need to defrost it in the refrigerator for 3 days before brining.

Not Self-Basting or Flavor-Enhanced

A self-basting or flavor-enhanced turkey has been injected with a salt-water 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. If you plan to brine your turkey, do not use a self-basting turkey or one that has been injected with flavor enhancers.

What Size 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 — 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.)

Turkey Brining Basics

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 for 12-24 hours before cooking 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

The only difficult part of brining a turkey is finding a food-safe container large enough to hold it. If you have a small turkey, a large stockpot may work. You could also use a cooler or sturdy plastic storage container with a lid. Whatever you choose, make sure it is very clean inside and out and that there is room in your refrigerator for it. 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.

Brining Changes the Cooking Time

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.

  • 10 lb. Brined turkey: Unstuffed 1 hour, 40 minutes. Stuffed 2 hours, 30 minutes
  • 12 lb. Brined turkey: Unstuffed 2 hours. Stuffed 3 hours.
  • 16 lb. Brined turkey: Unstuffed 2 hours, 45 minutes. Stuffed 4 hours.

Don’t Rinse Poultry Before Cooking

Rinsing brined poultry is unnecessary. 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.

How to Get Crispy, Browned Turkey Skin

Butter is 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 or melt butter just until it’s soft enough to handle. 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, including inside the cavity. Make sure to get behind the wings and legs and the underside, too. This is a messy process, but butter locks in the moisture you added through brining and will deliver that perfect, juicy turkey you’re looking for.

Why You Must Let It 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.

Goof-Proof Moist and Tender Turkey with Brine Recipes

Start with a simple brine, or add a flavor variation, and then roast the perfect tender, moist Thanksgiving turkey with crisp, golden brown skin.
Print Recipe
Perfectly Moist Turkey roasted with Turkey Brine recipe
Prep Time:15 mins
Cook Time:2 hrs
Brining:1 d
Total Time:1 d 2 hrs 15 mins

Equipment

  • A large stockpot, cooler or lidded container for brining
  • Paper towels
  • Roasting pan with rack
  • Kitchen twine
  • Aluminum foil
  • Oven mitts
  • Meat thermometer

Ingredients

The Turkey

  • 1/4 lb butter 1 stick, softened
  • whole turkey not self-basting or injected with flavor enhancers

Basic Brine Recipe

  • 2 gallons water
  • 1 cup Kosher salt not table or sea salt
  • 1 1/2 cups brown sugar packed
  • 1 tbsp whole black peppercorns
  • 2 bay leaves whole
  • 6 cloves garlic smashed
  • Optional Flavorings below

Traditional Brine Flavoring

  • Basic brine above
  • 4 tbsp poultry seasoning herbs and omit garlic from basic brine recipe above

Mediterranean Turkey Brine

  • Basic brine
  • 6 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 1 lemon sliced thickly

Cajun Turkey Brine

  • Basic brine
  • 1 tbsp dried thyme
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp cayenne powder omit if desired

Maple Citrus Turkey Flavor

  • Basic brine
  • 1 cup real maple syrup omit brown sugar, garlic, and bay leaf from basic brine recipe
  • 1 orange zested and sliced

Instructions

Brining Turkey

  • Combine all brine ingredients in a stockpot over low heat, including your chosen flavor variations. Stir until the salt and sugar dissolve and then remove from heat. Let the pot and the brine cool to room temperature.
  • Put the turkey into the lined cooler or basin. Carefully pour the brine over the turkey, adding more room temperature water if needed to submerge it completely. Close the cooler and place it in the refrigerator so it remains between 35 and 45°F throughout brining.
  • Brine your turkey for 8 to 24 hours. Do not exceed 24 hours. Over-brining causes the protein strands in meat to collapse and results in a mushy texture.

Roasting Turkey

  • Preheat the oven to 325°F / 176°C / gas mark 4.
  • Remove the turkey from the brine and pat it dry, but do not rinse. (Discard brine.) Place a rack in the bottom of your roasting pan. Put the turkey on the rack and let it reach room temperature on your counter for about 20 minutes.
    whole turkey
  • Rub the turkey all over with the softened butter, including the cavity. Cover the wing tips with foil. Cross the legs over each other and use kitchen twine to secure them. (Tying a figure-8 around the end of the legs helps.)
    1/4 lb butter
  • Put the turkey in the roasting pan breast-side down and put it in the oven. Make a note of the total amount of roasting time your turkey requires. (See note below.) Roast the turkey breast-down for the first 30 minutes.
  • After the first 30 minutes, remove the turkey in its roasting pan from the oven and use two forks or hands in oven mitts to turn it breast up. Return it to the oven. Any marks from the roasting pan rack will disappear as it continues to cook.
  • Continue roasting breast-up until done. If the skin on top begins to look dark, tent the turkey loosely with a single layer of aluminum foil. Do not crimp or seal the foil to the pan–you want the air to continue circulating so the skin stays crisp.
  • A turkey is ready when the temperature is 180°F/82°C in the thigh and 165°F/74°C in the breast meat.
    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. Let the turkey rest while the stuffing reaches the proper temperature.
  • Let the turkey rest for at least 20 minutes loosely tented with a single layer of foil. Do not crim or seal the foil around the bird–moisture trapped at this point ruins the skin's crispiness. Very large or stuffed birds can rest up to 40 minutes before carving.

Notes

Nutritional data does not include contents of brine variations.
Roasting time: An unstuffed, brined turkey needs 10 minutes per pound to cook, while a stuffed, brined turkey needs 15 minutes per pound. 
  • 10 lb. brined turkey: Unstuffed 1 hour, 40 minutes. Stuffed 2 hours, 30 minutes
  • 12 lb. Brined turkey: Unstuffed 2 hours. Stuffed 3 hours.
  • 16 lb. Brined turkey: Unstuffed 2 hours, 45 minutes. Stuffed 4 hours.
Do not make gravy with brined turkey. 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: 212kcal | Carbohydrates: 34g | Protein: 0.4g | Fat: 9g | Saturated Fat: 6g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.4g | Monounsaturated Fat: 2g | Trans Fat: 0.4g | Cholesterol: 24mg | Sodium: 330mg | Potassium: 70mg | Fiber: 0.3g | Sugar: 32g | Vitamin A: 290IU | Vitamin C: 1mg | Calcium: 68mg | Iron: 0.5mg
Servings: 10 people
Calories: 212kcal
Author: Katie Berry

Storage

Always remove turkey 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, the turkey keeps well in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days or in the freezer for 3 to 4 months. If you want to use the bones for stock, make it within 3 days or wrap them well and freeze them for up to 4 months.

Final Turkey-Roasting Tips

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

Want to make turkey gravy? Do not make turkey gravy with the drippings from a brined turkey — they will be too salty. Instead, use chicken broth or stock in this wonderful gravy recipe I’ve been serving for years — you can even make it ahead of time!

Do not trust the plastic button! Some turkeys have a plastic thing inserted that supposedly pops out when the meat reaches the proper temperature. These are unreliable and will often lead to a poorly cooked, dried-out turkey.

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Recipe Rating




15 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. Oma Pawluk says:

    4 stars
    Your brined turkey sounds awesome and I would like to try it but how long should it be brined? In your instructions (#2 …remains between 35 ° and 40°F the ‘entire’ time.) but what time? As I’ve never brined anything before I don’t want to try guessing. Please add an approx. for different sized birds to complete your article.

    Love your site and articles are more than helpful.
    Thanks
    OP
    Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi OP and thanks for catching that! I’ve updated the instructions to indicate 8-24 hours for brining. Hope you enjoy it!